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Poem of the day

Time’s crooked arrow
describes an erratic arc
heedless of any damage
it might incur
an unrepentant apologist
Holocaust denier
skilled at self-deception
feigning objectivity
dissembling endlessly
(in the Hegelian fashion)
tipped for advancement
all the right clubs
holding a mirror before
a cold, blue corpse
writhing with flies
dubbing it progress
with bland assurance
cue the teleprompter
for the usual disclaimers

© 2014  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)

Journal 1I’ve kept a journal since 1996. Not regularly, not religiously—Samuel Pepys, I am not.

Usually the entries consist of a few hundred words, an abbreviated emotional weather report. The problem is, I don’t often write about being happy, content with my lot in life. No, it seems like the only time I want to be a diarist is when I feel the need to vent, blow off steam, expound about my frustration and fury and self-loathing and disappointment. Anyone having nothing more than my journals to go on would think me a very petty, thin-skinned, peevish bastard with the prickly disposition of a rabid hedgehog. It is, if I may say, a very distorted portrait.

But on my 49th birthday I started keeping a daily journal, a comprehensive record of “My 50th Year”. It was supposed to conclude on my 50th birthday but there were some pages left over in the second notebook so I probably have about another six weeks’ worth before I wrap things up. I think these two volumes, which will eventually clock in at around 450 handwritten pages, give a far more well-rounded depiction of the life and times of yours truly.

However, at this point I must confess I’m second-guessing myself, wondering if I’ve done the right thing. Because I have to say, there are definite drawbacks to keeping a daily record of your…activities.

First, one has to determine what to put in and what to leave out. Usually I write in my journal quite late in the day so I tend not to be too long-winded. I don’t waste time composing my thoughts, just scribble down what I’m feeling at that moment, what events of the day stand out most. It’s all very internalized, world news and current affairs largely superfluous. I might have alluded to Nelson Mandela’s death last month but, to be honest, I’m not sure. Authorial license or a shameful omission?

Second, one has to assess just how candid and uninhibited one can be. Obviously a journal or diary is intended to be personal and private, but I’m also aware of how many authors and artists have had their most intimate thoughts exposed to the world (with or without their consent). If I don’t end up destroying these notebooks before my death, I have to count on them being read by some curious party. How much detail regarding my life do I want to impart to a complete stranger?

Finally, when keeping a regular journal you soon come face-to-face with just how bloody boring and without incident Journal 2your life is. I mean, I’m no Graham Greene, jet-setting about, playing baccarat with Kim Philby one day and having lunch with Fidel the next. I’m not even in the league of John Cheever, who wrestled with his sexuality and emotional highs and lows with admirable clarity and candor. I’m more like, well, Walter Mitty—living in fantasy realms of my own invention, with little relation to reality. My self-made universe, fraught with wonky physics, shifting dreamscapes and enticing might-have-beens. When I’m deeply immersed in a writing project, I spend most of my waking hours there.

The transition back to the real world can be unsettling.

I’m a full-time author, stay-at-home husband and father. I don’t really do much of anything. I write (obsessively). I hang out with my family. I read. I watch the occasional good movie. Listen to music. Socialize (infrequently). That’s it. Try journaling about that for over a year. Sitting down each night, opening the notebook to a new, unmarked page and coming up with yet another pithy way of expressing “Wrote today, not much else”. It’s a daunting task, even for someone blessed with my fertile imagination.

I’ve taken to heart Flaubert’s advice to be “regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work”. Perhaps too much to heart.

This past year of being a daily diarist has opened my eyes. In my view, my life has become too constricted, too orderly and mundane. I can’t begrudge the hours I spend engrossed in a project but I must do something about the time when I’m “off duty”. Now that our sons are no longer at home and I’m no longer their steward and caregiver, I can direct my energies toward other interests.

Certainly the desire to travel has taken on new significance. Currently, we’re saving money for a trip, putting away whatever we can so that, one day, we can take off and see some place we’ve never been. Locales we’ve always dreamed of visiting.

Rome. Athens. Constantinople.

Thermopylae. Epidaurus. Troy.

Time to spread my wings, seek inspiration farther afield.

My first view of the Mediterranean or the Aegean, storied seas celebrated by the likes of Homer and Shelley and Byron. Possessing a blue, they say, like no other.

What dreams, what tales and verse and images, will our travels stimulate?

Will the ancient, historical lands we traverse seem strange, exotic…or will it be more like coming home?

wall (abstract)

Abstract 1“Out with the old, in with the new”, that seems to be the sentiment around Casa Burns these days.

Our youngest kid has now flown the coop and we are, officially, empty nesters. The house seems damn strange without our boys pounding up and down the steps, blasting music or bellowing at their video games in their basement hidey-hole. The silence, as they say, is deafening. But they’re both ready to be out in the world, anxious to be on their own. They’ll have their tough days, intervals when it seems like the whole universe has lined up against them. But they’ll make it. They’re tough and resourceful and bloody smart. Which gives them a leg up in any society.

So we begin 2014, Sherron and I, somewhat sorrowful, missing the lads but eager to get on with the next phase of our lives; back to being a couple again, exploring the world together, seeing where our dreams take us.

I’m fifty years old, as of last October, and that’s also made a difference. I thought any change or transformation would be largely symbolic but turning fifty combined with our sons’ departure has put a whole new slant on things. I feel like another man.

To start with, I realize that more than half my life is gone and if I’m lucky I could have twenty or twenty-five healthy years ahead of me (with my genetics, that might be pushing it).  That’s not a lot of time. As a result, I’m not going to waste any of it on stupid discussions, movies, books, music, feuds or anything that doesn’t further my pursuit of wisdom, joy and matters relating to the spirit.

I did a considerable amount of writing in 2013 (not unexpected) but I also found myself exploring other media, employing a variety of means to express myself. As a result, I created more visual pieces than ever before: acrylic paintings, charcoal drawings, lots of photographs, ambient soundscapes, even a short film. Will this trend continue in 2014 or were all these non-literary ventures merely an aberration? Experiments, nothing more.

We shall see.

I know that for some time I’ve occasionally experienced a certain amount of frustration with the limits of language and wish to communicate via non-narrative, non-Abstract 2linear means. Abstraction invites collaboration, interpretation, input from the audience/viewer. The vast majority of my visual work frustrates literal-mindedness—the equivalent of Rorschach Tests, shapes demanding speculation and discussion.

Not for everyone.

Obviously, one of the high points of 2013 was the release of my short story collection Exceptions and Deceptions. The book features what I think is our best cover thus far and includes a batch of stories drawn from the past fifteen years, a couple of them previously unpublished and available nowhere else. Every time I glance up and see it on my shelf, I get a tingle. Fans of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman take note: this one’ll rock your socks off. Trust me.

Another fun experience was collaborating with my son Sam on an instrumental number which he then incorporated into a short film for Sherron’s “Agassiz” mask/puppet production, debuting later this month. Sam’s film is a gem and as soon as he uploads it to YouTube or Vimeo, I’ll post a link.

Let’s see, what else…in November I was astonished to learn my volume New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) was shortlisted for a ReLit independent press award. My bizarre verse? Really?

Managed to read one hundred books in 2013, though at one point I didn’t think I’d make it to #80. A big surge in November-December put me over the top. The 100th book, completed December 30th? Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun. What a way to finish off the year.

I’ve been noticing how much my reading tastes have changed over the past number of years—hardly any genre stuff these days, except for a bit of SF and the odd mystery/thriller by LeHane or Philip Kerr. Much less fiction, overall. Gimme a fat, juicy history book any day.

We don’t have cable, so we don’t watch television. Have no idea what shows are popular on the boob tube and couldn’t care less. Ditto with movies. By far the best movie I saw last year was Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio”. Haven’t heard of it? Tsk, tsk. Grab it off NetFlix, buy or rent it from Amazon, do not miss this flick.

Music?  The new Queens of the Stone Age, as well as Nine Inch Nails (live), Steven Wilson, Mogwai, Benjamin Britten and Gene Autry’s Greatest Hits. Keepin’ it diverse.

Looking ahead: I’ll be working on my new novel, as well as prepping…ah, well, mustn’t give too much away. Let’s just say that Black Dog Press has a number of releases pending in the next eighteen months and there will be further information announced in the days to come.

All the best in 2014.

Thanks, as always, for dropping by and hanging out awhile.

Voyeur

From the archives

HeadIn previous years, I’ve posted about Christmas in a variety of ways.

A few years back I provided some background into the real story of St. Nicholas

…and let us not forget the Christmas tale I wrote employing the two main characters from my supernatural thriller, So Dark the Night. “Finding Charlotte” is a case from Zinnea and Nightstalk’s early days and it’s available for free download and reading.

To my friends and readers, everyone who follows my work:

MERRY CHRISTMAS.

fireplaceGene Autry crooning from the CD player, the Christmas tree filling the house with its pine scent, wood popping in the fireplace…ah, yes, it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

Those who follow this blog are aware that I love Christmas and still cling to the faint possibility of Santa Claus (hey, the cookies I leave out are always eaten when I get up in the morning, explain that).

This year possesses an extra poignancy, I suspect, because it’s our last Christmas before our youngest lad moves out, leaving us with ye olde empty nest. And a much smaller food bill (but I digress).

Hectic around here, as it is for everybody else this time of year. Trying to finish last minute shopping, get parcels away to relatives and loved ones, keeping the walk shoveled and the house warm during some recent cold snaps.

I’ll probably do a year end review at some point but not on this occasion.

Instead I want to announce a special Christmas treat:

I’ve created, with the help of those over-priced buggers at Cafe Press, some pins/buttons. The button with the smallest print reads “Frustrate algorithms.” Sorry, despite my best efforts, I remain mediocre at taking still photos.

Button

(Click on images to enlarge)

These pins reflect aspects of my personal philosophy, that subversive, non–conformist attitude I’ve had for as far back as I can remember.

I’m giving away three sets of pins along with three personally inscribed copies of my latest book, Exceptions & Deceptions, for the best questions or comments submitted in the next month. Post your remarks, then, if you want to be eligible for a prize, send your particulars (address, etc.) to blackdogpress@yahoo.ca. I’ll make my choices sometime in mid-January and post the names of winners at that time.

Feeling very positive as this year comes to a close. There’s a desire now that I’m fifty to start living a more spiritually and aesthetically fulfilling life, to continue to expand my horizons by exposing myself to smart, daring books and films and music, eschewing the trivial and formulaic. Off with the old skin, on with the new.

“…Identity is the daughter of birth,
but in the end, the invention of its owner,
not an heirloom from the past.”

-Mahmoud Darwish, from Almond Blossoms & Beyond
(Translated by Mohammad Shaheen)

I posted a roster of my favorite reads of 2013 for the benefit of my LibraryThing group, thought I’d reproduce it here. Most of these books aren’t new releases…and as I compiled this year’s list, I quickly realized I read more non-fiction than fiction, hardly any genre stuff, almost no “commercial” fiction.

Fascinating how my reading has changed over the past decade…

Fiction:

WEREWOLVES IN THEIR YOUTH (short stories) by Michael Chabon
I AM A BEAUTIFUL MONSTER by Francis Picabia
THE BLUE OCTAVO NOTEBOOKS by Franz Kafka
HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton
TENTH OF DECEMBER (short stories) by George Saunders

Non-fiction:

LEGACY OF ASHES by Tim Weiner
THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION by Robert Fisk
AN ARMY AT DAWN: THE WAR IN NORTH AFRICA by Rick Atkinson
EVERY STORY IS A GHOST STORY by D.T. Max
NIXONLAND by Rick Perlstein
KAFKA: THE DECISIVE YEARS by Reiner Stach

Have you assembled your “Best of…” list for 2013 yet?

If you have, let’s hear it…

ReLit Nomination

Poems:CoverThis just in:

My volume of New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) has been shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award.

Read about it here.

The ReLits celebrate the best books released from independent Canadian presses and I’m pleased to make the final roster and delighted to be in the company of some really fine writers.

My thanks to the administrators and sponsors and all involved.

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