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DSC00570First Snow

 

Winter invariably defeats
the colorful palette
that precedes it

trees brutally denuded, stripped
of their plumage

hillsides and glens
made barren by the
mass killing of flowers

 
July 1, 2014

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Looks like it’s still going to be 2-3 weeks before the physical copies of my new short story collection arrive.

Once again, it seems the geeks have an advantage over the rest of us.  If you don’t want to wait for the “dead tree edition”, you can buy either the Kindle or e-book version of Exceptions & Deceptions and fire it up on your tablet or gear of choice.  

Available today. Right now.  Just point your cursor and…click.

Amazon has their version up and running and another joint called Lybrary.com has an e-Pub version ready for downloading (which can be viewed on most reading devices). I imagine Powell’s Books and Barnes & Noble will both be selling e-versions of Exceptions & Deceptions very soon as well.

Those of you wanting to lay your hands on an actual book, alas, must wait a little longer.

Patience, my children.  As I type this a proof is winging its way to my mailbox and from there we go straight into production.

I’m as anxious as an expectant father with a pocketful of cigars…

"Blessed..."

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100_0705“Here comes Santa Claus…”

Which always seemed like the perfect title for a porn film. But I digress…

Christmas approacheth and there is much to give thanks for.

First and foremost, my oldest son Liam returns from Brazil on Thursday; nearly four months away from home and hearth and, man, did we miss him. Having him back with us is the best Christmas present we could ask for. The tree is up and awaiting ornamentation, the Christmas CDs and (mainly) cassette tapes have been retrieved from the basement and dusted off. I know I have the reputation as being something of a curmudgeon but I love Christmas and there’s something about the holiday season that brings out the best in me. Even standing in a long lineup at the post office isn’t going to set me off (according to Canada Post, this is the busiest week of the year).

Other blessings of note doled out in 2012:

Three, count ‘em, three new releases.  Three books in one year? From me? That’s nothing less than miraculous. I’m delighted with all of them: The Last Hunt turned out far better than I’d hoped, a great story and a worthy addition to the western genre. I know I raised a lot of eyebrows when I announced I was working on a good ol’ fashioned horse opera, but I approached my task with seriousness and the respect of a true devotee. With the help of my father-in-law Ken Harman (a real, live cowboy) and folks like Lee Whittlesey, a superb historian and raconteur, I think I carried it off. Judging from the responses I’ve received, I’d say readers think so too.

100_0704The other two books are “Best of…” compilations of poetry and short prose. Stromata: Prose Works and New & Selected Poems. Both drawing from over two decades’ worth of material; slim, elegant volumes of surreal verse and prose poems. Beautiful, austere covers, powerful, intense material. I’m looking at them as I type these words and am still struck by what lovely tomes they are.

That’s the wonderful thing about being an indie author and publisher: I can supervise every aspect of my books’ creation, from their conception to their production and distribution. I even choose the margins and fonts, find the cover art. Etc. And I work with some great people, like my wife, Sherron, and my designer, Chris Kent, to ensure my books are as eye-grabbing, artful and evocative as they can possibly be. Check out my Bookstore page, see for yourself.

Shot, edited and scored three short films in 2012—have to admit, I’m most chuffed with “First Contact“, a surreal combo of music and images. Can you tell I’m a huge sci fi fan?

Also put together more of my ambient music, took lots of photographs, traveled more than I have in the past…

And the end of the year finds me plugging away on my next volume, a collection of short stories I hope to release in June or July, 2013. Already over 100 pages in and delighted by the diversity of voices, the unsettling and entrancing tales they tell.

Other then the expected sniffles and aches, we all stayed healthy in 2012—something else to give thanks for.

But I’m most grateful for my life, the freedom it affords me to follow my bliss, write in an atmosphere of peace and security, devote myself full-time to the task of creation. That’s what it’s all about. Birthing something that wouldn’t have existed, drawn breath, if it hadn’t been for your painful, protracted labor.

“Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” (Robert Bresson)

For me, no other existence will suffice. Without the ability to create, immerse myself completely in my invented worlds, I would wither away, cease to exist in material form. A thing more sensed than perceived, shadow-dweller, incorporeal yet still cursed with sentience, formless but denied the release of death.

I’m honored and privileged to lead the life I do. That’s something I must never forget or take for granted. I’m blessed and renewed by the knowledge that I’m serving some higher purpose, contributing (in some tiny way) to the Grand Design. Sometimes, when I’m at my absolute wits end, that’s my sole motivation for continuing to put words down on paper. That and the unqualified support and faith of my family. Whatever successes I’ve had are the result of the love and encouragement I’ve received, the sacrifices those closest to me have made to allow me such a fortunate existence.

For that and much, much more, thank you, to my family and friends, my readers…and my Creator.

Couldn’t do it without you.

Wouldn’t even try.

100_0706

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Among the Invisibles

 

From his favorite hideaway, five storeys above the ground, Little Po is an inconspicuous witness to the chaos below.

There has been talk of trouble for weeks, soldiers and police regularly taking up stations on street corners, stopping and harassing people, making a nuisance of themselves.  Intimidation is the norm with the ruling junta but this time, it seems, their tactics have only succeeded in making things worse.

Shouts and screams, the rattle of automatic weapons and crak-crak-crak of small arms fire.  Smoke drifts over the neighbourhood, a grey, evil-smelling pall.  There are makeshift barricades and men roaming about with home-made clubs and pop bottles filled with gasoline.  The building shudders from a nearby explosion, a crump as a burning car bursts its seams, provoking whoops and cheers from the surrounding crowd.

Little Po is safe or, at least, safer than he would be down there, in the midst of the mob.  Some women have joined in, adding their unmistakable shrieks to the din.  Most of the men are intoxicated, swilling alcohol looted from a nearby store.  They swagger about, brandishing crude weapons, their courage fortified by drink.  The boy creeps back under the overhang created by ducting and ventilation works.  Finds his tattered blanket and slips into an uneasy sleep, sucking his thumb for comfort when the tumult disturbs his slumber.  This sooty rooftop, shared with none but the occasional stray cat and roosting pigeon, is a refuge, shelter from a dangerous and hostile world.

He wakes to dull morning light, the stench of burning rubber.

His hunger is an undiminishing ache, a twisting, voracious worm in his guts.  He spends most days in a surreal netherworld; sick, confused and disoriented.  Bumping into buildings or colliding with passersby, clutching at them for support and being swatted and cursed for his trouble.  He begs, he steals and still only manages to scrape by.

As he descends via the rickety fire escape, he is aware that slowly but surely he’s losing the battle.  Malnutrition is eating his frail body and soon he will be reduced to nothing.  When someone reaches such a state, people say that person has “joined the invisibles”.  One day, they’re simply gone, evaporating into the air, leaving nothing behind, not even an ounce of bone dust to bury or mourn over.

The first person he spots when he ventures out is Old Fania.  Her pet monkey chatters on her shoulder and she makes a warding gesture at him.  He gives the witch a wide berth.  The monkey eyes him sullenly but is constrained by a short leash made of twine.  The little beast has been known to inflict a painful and septic bite.

The streets and avenues have been transformed overnight.  Rubble and debris are scattered carelessly, gutted buildings stripped of everything that can be carried or dragged away.  He scours the ground for leftovers, something to eat or barter.  But he’s competing with other scavengers who fiercely guard the meager leavings, growling and threatening him if he approaches.  He is smaller and weak and therefore must go without.  It is not that ordinary folk are unsympathetic or hard-hearted, it is merely that deprivation has become a way of life to the people in this part of the city.  They have been herded together, marginalized, made to feel they must fend for themselves.  Poor and increasingly desperate, they have lost any sense of shared or communal suffering.

The riot last night followed days of demonstrations, spontaneous protests against the inhuman living conditions. There have been scores of deaths, nervous soldiers shooting into crowds, protesters beaten and dragged away by security forces.

And finally the world press has taken notice.  Reporters flood in and, congruently, the economy goes into a tailspin as investment money dries up, foreign nationals leaving in droves.  It is a familiar, sad story in this region of the world.

Little Po drinks from a puddle and forages from a dumpster behind a restaurant.  He is covered in rat bites and festering sores that won’t heal.  He knows that his situation is increasingly desperate but there is nothing to be done about it.  As he clambers out of the stinking bin, the back door of the restaurant bangs open and an employee toting a five gallon pail of grease and slops spots him.  They regard each other for a long moment and Little Po finally slinks away, what little food he has found clutched in his fist.

There are rumours that local businesses have hired a squad of off-duty cops and given them the job of ridding the city of riff-raff.  Some kids were gunned down as they sat on the steps of a church.  A church.  In the last two weeks, several dozen street urchins have been either killed or spirited off in dark vans, never to be seen again.

Later that morning, Little Po is walking through a park and spots Fish and the Silent One.  Fish has fresh bruises on his face, rolled for pocket change.  And the thing is, everyone knows Fish has absolutely nothing worth stealing.  He tells the joke that he’s so poor, someone once cut him open and stole his heart.  And he’ll show you the long, zippered scar to prove it.  The Silent One glowers behind him, a menacing presence.  His head is squashed, misshapen.  He can’t speak but his dangerous mien says don’t fuck with me, brother.

Little Po falls in alongside them and they head off to the mission together, stand in line for a bowl of watery soup. Supposedly there is a piece of chicken in there somewhere.  Either donations are down or the priests have been dipping into the collection plate again.  Little Po deftly palms an extra slice of bread, the maneuver escaping the sharp-eyed Brother’s notice.

When they finish, they hang out in the graveyard for awhile.  Fish produces three precious cigarettes but smoking only makes Little Po queasy so he puts his away until later.  Soon afterward a cranky old caretaker shows up and chases them away.

Fish says he wants to stop by Ven’s place, that he’s heard something and Ven Ficus is the one to go to if you have information to trade.  Depending on his mood, he’ll either reward you generously or snap his fingers and have you turned in to a human pretzel.  But Taft, Ven’s imposing gatekeeper, says his bossman isn’t in today and hints that it’s in their best interest to fuck off.  Now.

Fish is disappointed but vows to come back later. Taft goes back inside and they hear him say something to the other hoods. Mocking laughter follows the trio down the street.

As they walk, Fish has to keep stopping to retch.  Every time he does, he groans.  He says something feels broken inside. Little Po and the Silent One exchange grim looks.  Who knows when the free clinic will open again. The French doctors who ran it were declared persona non grata and given forty-eight hours to clear out.  No one has replaced them.  Word is the junta was embarrassed to have foreigners tending to the needs of the poor.  This past winter Little Po caught a bug that made him cough until his ribs ached.  He truly believed he was going to die. His lungs still feel tender, especially on cool days.

In the early afternoon he parts company with the others, waving as he angles away.

Despite the soup he is still famished, light-headed.  He thinks about the slice of bread in his pocket, the one he is saving.  Little Po takes out the bread, raises it to his mouth and bites off a piece.  This is the way it is.  You are hungry and when you have food, you eat.

Later he will curse his greed.  This, too, is the way of things.

But for Little Po, time has shrunk, contracted, the future no longer measured in years, months, weeks, but days, perhaps hours.  His skin is transparent, his arms and legs thin, meatless.  His joints ache; pain and hunger and despair are constant companions.  The world around him is losing definition, leaking away at the edges.

Soon he will join the invisibles.  It is almost certain.  He knows this.  Maybe even tonight, on his rooftop haven, under the high, eternal stars.  He wonders what it will be like to be dead.  His undernourished imagination has a hard time grasping the notion.  The priests speak of heaven and hell during the sermons that are mandatory with the free meals they dispense.  In the afterlife our sins are remembered and judged. The worthy are rewarded and the evil ones consigned to an all-consuming fire where they burn forever and ever, a-men.

Little Po steers a course toward the only home he has, occasionally stumbling, nearly falling.  Traffic rolls heedlessly by.  The soldier on the corner stares past him, through him.  A few moments later, Little Po looks for his shadow and can’t find it.

Perhaps it is only the angle and intensity of the sun.  He moves on, seemingly lighter than air, no longer able to feel the hard, unforgiving ground beneath his feet.

 

© Copyright, 2009  Cliff Burns  (All Rights Reserved)

* * * * *

“Among the Invisibles” was written the last time I entered a short story competition.

It didn’t even make it past the initial round of readers.

You understand now why I rarely enter these stupid contests?

To read more of my tales (and some novel excerpts), go to my Fiction & Novels page.

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“Time to break with long-standing tradition. No room for humility, maintaining artistic ‘Purity’ and all that bullshit. Gotta get with the program, boy! Right now, you have the profile of a blind mole and you gotta do something about it, capiche? So, let’s hop to it…”

That’s the publisher part of my brain, giving me a good dressing down. Lately that impatient, cigar-chewing entity has been making his presence felt, insinuating his way close to my psyche, whispering his poisonous advice.

Unfortunately, it seems I’m starting to listen to him. I’m behaving very much out of character and as evidence I offer up the following:

First, I’ve entered a couple of my books for literary prizes.

I know. Spooky, isn’t it? I usually have zero interest in such things—couldn’t tell you who won the last Pulitzer or Booker or what have you. But my publisher got his way and I popped four copies of The Last Hunt off to the judges of the Western Writers of America’s “Spur” Awards and a similar number of my New & Selected Poems to the folks behind the Saskatchewan Book Awards. Rather dubious bids to draw attention to my work, I thought, but those misgivings were completely disregarded.

Second point:  I’m submitting a tale to the annual “CBC Short Story Prize”.

Sherron sent me the guidelines for this year’s competition and my Muse, with uncharacteristic glee, supplied me with a 1450 word offering that I’ll be mailing later today (just ahead of the deadline). Weird. Not only am I sending them a tale, I’m also paying a $25.00 “administrative fee”, a practice I’ve always derided in the strongest terms. “Ripping off writers,” I snorted. “Isn’t it supposed to be editors paying authors, not the other way around?” Etc.

Something’s going on. The problem is, I’m an independent author and publisher. There are two sides of my personality to satisfy and right now they’re pretty much at war with each other. The writer in me has no interest in shilling his books, evincing a distaste for the kind of shmoozing some of his colleagues do, trying to curry favor with the Powers That Be. The publisher persona, however, insists these books we’re producing cost money and, besides, they’re good books, why not do what we can to get the word out? It’s not about greed, it’s about securing a decent readership for well-crafted stories of obvious literary merit…

Ah, he’s a clever bastard all right. And he’s been winning a few minor skirmishes of late, exploiting his new found sense of authority. He was delighted when I sat down at my desk and commenced a brand new tale for the aforementioned short story contest.

Until he read the final draft.

“It’s not…not…and too…there isn’t any…” Spluttering, unable to finish his sentences, incandescent with fury.

And the author in me rejoicing, enjoying the spectacle. Waving the printed sheets of paper teasingly, skipping away while his counterpart screams and gesticulates…

Another terrific short story in the can.

Too bad it doesn’t stand a fucking chance of winning.

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Memo to one and all:

You might be noticing a few changes to Beautiful Desolation—I’m streamlining, consolidating for the purposes of simplicity. Eliminating some pages, expanding or creating others.

The end result will be that you’ll be able to navigate around my blog more easily, find what you’re looking for in less time. The new look will also highlight the growing importance of short films and music in my creative life. Technology has allowed me to explore disciplines other than writing and for that I’m immensely grateful.

You’ll find tons o’ free material to download—novel excerpts, stories, personal essays, films, ambient music, spoken word pieces…hours of fun and entertainment.

But the idea, of course, is that once you fall completely under my spell, want to read everything you can get your hands on by this whacked out Cliff Burns dude, you simply visit my bookstore, follow the link(s) and drop a few shekels my way.  Because I gotta tell you, without the occasional sale, some actual coin in pocket, this indie guy finds it hard to pay the bills. The “freeconomy” is fine and dandy for some, but as far as creative artists are concerned, it’s also getting harder and harder to make a buck. And, like everybody else on this side of Heaven, sometimes we find it a real squeeze.

‘Nuff said.

If you notice any glitches or broken links, drop me a line (blackdogpress@yahoo.ca) and I’ll effect a fix ASAP.  Might be a few bumps in the road along the way but, when all is said and done, this blog will be more navigable and user friendly and that’s worth a little short term pain and frustration.

Thanks for coming by.

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A memorable evening last night: we launched my two new collections, New & Selected Poems and Stromata to an enthusiastic audience and, I add (much to my relief), there were no glitches or screwups on my part.  I read for just over 35 minutes and then took questions from those in attendance. Great questions too, folks seeking clarification on my status as an independent author and also asking me about the changes in my writing over the past 25 years, among other things.

I’ll post some pictures ASAP but we also had two cameras running so in the next couple of weeks we’ll be uploading the entire reading on to YouTube where people can tune in and see me in action.

Without a trace of humbleness, I can tell you that there aren’t too many authors in this country who perform their work as well as I do. I take my responsibilities as an entertainer very seriously; I have been to too many readings where the authors have forgotten that they must also be performers. When I hit that podium, it’s my intention to blow people away, destroy their preconceptions, make it a night they won’t soon forget. And usually I succeed.

Thanks to everyone who came out on a chilly autumn night and an especially big THANK YOU to my production crew—Sherron, Sam, Sean, Micah—for their hard work.

Watch for the finished film, I really believe it captured one of the best readings I’ve ever done.

Man, was I hot

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The official launch of my two latest efforts, New & Selected Poems and Stromata: Prose Works, is October 4th, 2012. Sherron created a wonderful event poster. Hope to see you there:

(Click on the poster in order to view it full size)

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Well, what do you know:  an early Christmas present.

Corey Redekop is a terrific Canuck writer–his debut novel Shelf Monkey is anarchic, funny and viciously satirical.  Thus, I was mighty chuffed when someone directed my attention to a review he’s just posted of my 1997 short story collection The Reality Machine.

I’ve been searching for blurbs for the print version of So Dark the Night and Corey just handed me some on a silver platter, with little sprigs of parsley on the side.

Bless you, Corey…and don’t take too long with that followup to Shelf Monkey.

Helluva writer, that boy…

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I am scornful of this notion of “Can Lit”, a national literature that embodies Canada by reflecting its many cultures and locales, its history and unique character. I recall the comments of a visiting Irish film-maker who opined that Canada was the only country he could think of that puts a “points system” on its arts. You can bet that didn’t go over well with the gate-keepers and poobahs of Canadian culture.

That dingbat editor (now senior editor, God help us) who told me “it’s too bad you’re not an East Indian writer” also said, in relation to the same manuscript, “it seemed awfully American to me”, without ever clearly articulating what she meant. I suppose she took issue with the fact that I didn’t use Canadian place names or employ characters with obvious ethnic backgrounds (academia and the arts are the last stubborn bastions of the discredited ideologies of affirmative action and political correctness). My manuscript was too encumbered by, y’know, an actual story, a plot that moved along at a good clip. It went against the tradition of Canadian writing where nothing ever happens, whole forests denuded for narratives where passive verbs and even more passive characters are the norm, people moving about in a fuddled daze, not doing anything or saying anything of interest, two hundred and fifty pages of navel-gazing. Sounds like great beach reading, eh?

I recently finished Julian Symonds’ The Tell-Tale Heart: The Life & Works of Edgar Allan Poe and was delighted to learn that Poe thought the notion of a national literature to be complete humbug too. Keep in mind these words were written 150 years ago (and feel free to substitute “Canadian” for “American” in the last line):

“We get up a hue and cry about the necessity of encouraging native writers of merit–we blindly fancy we can accomplish this by indiscriminate puffing of good, bad and indifferent, without taking the trouble to consider that what we choose to denominate encouragement is thus, by its general application, rendered precisely the reverse. In a word, so far from being ashamed of the many disgraceful literary failures to which our own inordinate vanities and misapplied patriotism have lately given birth, and so far from deeply lamenting that these daily puerilities are of home manufacture, we adhere pertinaciously to our original blindly conceived idea, and thus often find ourselves involved in the gross paradox of liking a stupid book the better, because, sure enough, its stupidity is American.”

Amen, Edgar….

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