March comes capering and leaping in, like a giddy lamb

Yes, there are definite signs of spring in the air. Above zero temperatures, melting snow, slushy streets…and a rare sighting of yer author, out and about, taking tea at Cafe 4 U, our new downtown hot spot.

But hold on, folks, this is Saskatchewan. Winter isn’t done with us quite yet. Don’t put away your parka and Manitoba mukluks just because of a few balmy days. Surely you know this part of the world better than that.

A lot to report since my last post.

I’ve been grinding away on my poetry collection, The Algebra of Inequality, spending long hours going over each poem beat by beat, breath by breath, making sure, as Don Delillo puts it, I’m find not just finding the right word but the right sounding word. That distinction is so vitally important, the difference between good writers and those who merely string sentences together. I’ve trimmed five years’ worth of verse down to a hundred pages. For the first time I’m actually arranging the poems into groupings, rather than merely printing them chronologically. Trying to create a flow of thoughts and images, dramatic highs and lows. It’s been something of a slog but the end is now in sight.

I should have the manuscript of Algebra of Inequality finalized by the end of this month and then I’ll get our longtime designer, Chris Kent, slapping together some ideas for the cover. Hoping for an end-of-April release date and, naturally, there will be more info as we move the process along.

I’m over the moon about this collection. I’m improving as a poet and have an ability to cram the most complex and mind-bending notions into a four or five-line poem.  There’s a concision and sharpness to my verse that’s hard to find elsewhere. I think the brevity of my poems often works against them, folks thinking you have to write something the length of The Wasteland (complete with helpful footnotes) in order to be taken seriously.

I think only two of the poems in Algebra of Inequality were published elsewhere. About a year ago, I subscribed to a service that sends me weekly market updates, letting me know what publications are looking for poetry, fiction, personal essays, whatever. But I noticed many of these markets demand reading fees, even for three or four short poems, and that made me bristle. The point, as someone like Harlan Ellison has been saying for decades, is to pay the writer. Authors shouldn’t have to pony up hard-earned shekels in order to have their work considered for publication. That’s a rip-off and a scam and if we all refuse to have anything to do with it, editors would stop trying to flimflam us.

Some of these places are making quite a score. Charging $3.00 or $5.00 per submission, getting a thousand or more suckers—er, writers—to respond each and every issue. Do the math. And many of these places can’t even claim the expense of a print component, they are purely digital editions, a format which is dirt cheap to maintain.

Editors should be paying writers, not the other way around. Trust me.

What else?

Ah, yes, Hollywood North has come calling. Longtime friends of this blog will know I’ve had less than cheery experiences with people wishing to adapt my work for films. I had a particularly ugly episode with those idiots at—ah, never mind. Time to let bygones be bygones.

Honestly, I have high hopes for the company who picked up the rights to my novella “Living With the Foleys”. My son Sam is a budding film-maker and when he heard who was interested in “Foleys”, he immediately emailed me with the information: “Dad, these guys work with Guy Maddin!”.


Well, say no more. We’re big fans of ol’ Guy’s, love the originality and utter madness of his oeuvre. The man’s a certifiable genius—or should that read certifiable and a genius?

So, yes, I signed the contract and now they have a couple of years to see if they can make something out of my novella.

Finally, I’m abashed to note that I recently put more money into the pockets of Tim Cook and the corporate scum at Apple Computer.

I bought an iPad.

I needed a portable device, something I could have with me when I’m away from home, a word processor slash reading device slash music player. And then there are podcasts. It hasn’t taken me long to get addicted to them. “S-Town” was amazing and I’ve been tuning in regularly to “Invisibilia”, “WTF”, “Risk!” and numerous others. Hat’s off to NPR, they seem to produce or collaborate on some of the best stuff out there.

Since picking my iPad up a month ago, we’ve become just about inseparable. It’s constantly playing something—this morning while I was shaving I listened to “The Daily”, a program produced by The New Yorker.

I’m sure the habit will taper off eventually, but between my editing and tooling around on the iPad, the cold days of February zipped past.

Well, it’s much cheaper than flying to Cozumel, catching dysentery and spending a week in intensive care, pinned to an I.V. bag of antibiotics. Less invasive too.

I shall endeavor to update this blog more often. Kind of a weird beginning to the year and it’s taken me awhile to retool and get back on the bicycle (so to speak).

The days are brighter and longer, the chill lifting from my bones.

Better times ahead. New life and new hope just around the corner.

I’ll raise a glass to that…


Somber Days

I won’t lie to you: it’s been a grim month here at Casa Burns.

We lost a couple of people very near and dear to our hearts and that’s never easy.

Awhile back, I posted a poem titled “The Grief Path” that did a good job of alluding to the sense of emptiness and pure anguish one experiences with the death of a loved one. It exposes the rawest emotions, the agony reaching right down into your soul, the seat of your faith. Only the passage of time offers a slim promise of solace. There is simply nothing you can do for it except keep putting one foot ahead of the other and wandering up that long, lonely track. Keening your song of sorrow and woe.

And then just when it seemed like the atmosphere was lightening, some of the spiritual and emotional pall lifting…

…the decision in the Colten Boushie case was handed down.

I had the privilege of meeting Debbie Baptiste, Colten’s mother, last summer, within weeks of her son’s senseless death at the hands of Gerald Stanley. I was immediately impressed by her poise and dignity, despite the weight of the incredible burden that poor woman was bearing. I couldn’t help wondering how she felt when she heard that terrible verdict read, realizing that in the eyes of a court of law, a fundamental Canadian institution we have been taught to honor and respect, her boy’s life was deemed worthless.

What can we say to her?

Is it sufficient to remark that sometimes Justice really is blind…and deaf and dumb too? Somehow, I doubt that will cut it. She has been let down at every point of this ordeal and at the end of the day, whatever happens next, she won’t be getting Colten back.

She and her many supporters have every right to demand answers regarding how the RCMP handled the initial investigation and their behavior toward Debbie and her grieving family in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

I’m pleased to hear talk of altering the rules of jury selection, but don’t foresee any speedy or significant changes to a system that has failed, disproportionately, our First Nations people since before Confederation, compounding the misery that everyday, casual racism inflicts on them, the stereotypes they must endure.

The only thing that gives me hope are the on-going efforts we’re making—through education and increasing knowledge of aboriginal history, cultural exposure—to reach out to each other, share our stories, growing together as a nation of nations. I know people intimately involved in this process, men and women who recognize the power we can tap into whenever we collaborate, combining our energy and spirit on meaningful endeavors that celebrate our diversity, the collective strength of the many.

That’s why I grieve, but I do not despair.

I know in my heart the good guys are on our side and the better angels within us will prevail.

It will take time, tremendous effort but we cannot fail, cannot allow the small-minded, the vulture-hearted, to steal the future from us and color it blood red.

We’ll do it for Colten and all the others who die without fulfilling their promise.

We’ll do it for Debbie and the mothers who weep for the children taken from them.

And we’ll do it for ourselves, to prove we are worthy of our roles as stewards of Creation and the children of a wise and loving god.


HST–Writing routine

Hunter S. Thompson became one of my literary idols when I was nineteen years old. Reading Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas changed my life…in good ways and bad.

Imagine keeping to a writing regime like this, day in and day out:


My daily routine involves a couple cups of tea first thing in the morning, long spells of staring off into space and endless hours of self-doubt and gnawing anxiety.

Clearly, I’ve been going about it the wrong way…

My mantra for 2018

New Year’s Eve I was pacing about my office, thinking about my plans for 2018.

What am I looking for? What do I want, as an artist and human being living in these strange, dangerous times?

I have a shelf of books devoted to religion and spirituality and I paused in front of it, scanning titles, seeking a message or—

Consult the Bible? Too obvious. But I have a collection of Sufi writings compiled by Idries Shah, so I plucked it off the shelf, opened it to a page at random and found this quote:

“Detach from fixed ideas and preconceptions. And face what is to be your lot.”

-Sheikh Abu-Said Ibn Abi-Khair


If the universe was trying to communicate something to me, it couldn’t have been more direct.

No more pissing about, Cliff, time to accept your fate, don’t shy away from whatever destiny has in store for you.

No fame and fortune for me, I’m afraid. I’m not a mainstream artist, I present my works to people undiluted, without apology, an alternative to the pap and kitsch mass-produced and excreted on a daily basis.

My oeuvre is not for those who prefer their diversions light and facile and entertaining. I despise escapism; my visions are darker, offering no comfort or reassurance.

Instead, I adhere to my hero Franz Kafka’s dictum:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

Ringing in the New Year

A bit late with my year end wrap up—we were away from home for the first Christmas in ages and I’m only now getting caught up.

A quick glance ahead at 2018 would seem to indicate a year of some promise. I have two books I am readying for release, the first a volume of poetry (The Algebra of Inequality & Other Poems), which will be out April-May. A compilation of my best poems in the past five years. I am currently in the process of culling and selecting from a roster of nearly a hundred and fifty; not an easy or pleasant task. In the fall, finances permitting, I’ll be publishing a collection of short stories, Electric Castles: A Book of Urban Legends. Two hundred plus pages of prose set in cities here, there and nowhere.

Two books in one calendar year—that will be quite a stretch for my wee press but I think we can manage (crossing his fingers).

Looking back on 2017, I see it as a year where I managed to dabble in a little bit of everything: writing, photography, painting, music…

Is it good that I’m no longer so focussed on writing, that it isn’t my sole obsession these days? Am I right to believe that any form of expression belongs in my oeuvre, regardless of the media involved?

I feel such a tremendous sense of satisfaction when I see one of my books that also features cover art that I helped create or devise. That’s empowerment, I tell you. Watch for the cover of that aforementioned volume of poetry, come April; it’s one of mine as well.

I managed to achieve my target of reading one hundred books in 2017—actually, the final tally was 103. I also watched over a hundred movies last year and I’m be posting my favorites over at Cinema Arête in the coming hours.

Here’s my “Best of…” picks for the books I discovered and devoured in 2017. My reading, as ever, far-ranging and eclectic, about evenly divided between fiction and non-fiction.

Best Fiction of 2017

The Street of Crocodiles (Stories) by Bruno Schulz

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Tsar of Love & Techno (Stories) by Anthony Maara

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

We The Animals by Justin Torres

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Sleet (Selected Stories) by Stig Dagerman

Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson

The North Water by Ian McGuire

Honorable Mention:

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Trajectory (Stories) by Richard Russo

The World Made Straight by Ron Rash

Flings (Stories) by Justin Taylor

Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds


The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert by Zbigniew Herbert

War Primer by Bertolt Brecht

Flying at Night (Poems 1965-85) by Ted Kooser


Scarcity: Why Having So Little means So Much by S. Maullainathan & E. Shafir

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr

Post-Capitalism: A Guide to Our Future by Paul Mason

The Dilemmas of Lenin by Tariq Ali

October by China Mieville

The Lost Amazon edited by Wade Davis

The Art of Space by Ron Miller

A Philosophy of Walking by Frederic Gros

Keep Watching the Skies! American SF Movies of the Fifties by Bill Warren

Honorable Mention:

A Spy Among Friends by Ben MacIntyre

Unknown Pleasures (Memoir) by Peter Hook

Footnotes in Gaza (Graphic Novel) by Joe Sacco

Trouble Boys (Biography of The Replacements) by Bob Mehr


Naming the affliction

I finally have a diagnosis for what ails me.

For years I’ve suffered from a sense of thwarted nostalgia or yearning melancholy. I’ve struggled putting into words exactly what I’ve been experiencing, this unshakeable conviction that I exist outside of time, not belonging to the present day, out of synch with the rest of the world.

The other day I came across a book titled Endangered Words (Simon Hertnon, Skyhorse Publishing) and while paging through it happened upon an entry for saudade.

Never heard of such an animal and when I checked the accompanying definition, the hair on the back of my neck rose with an audible crackle:

saudade (SAH-u-dah-deh)

Of Portuguese origin, saudade refers to “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness”. (A.F.G. Bell)

Silver-skinned rocketships and routine journeys to and from Mars, the outer planets.

A “golden age” of friendly, singing cowboys, camaraderie around the campfire, the home ranch across the next ridge.

I think that’s essentially why I became a writer: from an early age I could see reality wasn’t panning out the way I liked, so it was up to me to create my own private universe.

Come visit me sometime.

Just open one of my books or short stories and say “Hello”…



An early Christmas gift from Black Dog Press

Merry Christmas!

Every year I try to come up with something special to post on this blog during the holiday season.

It’s my way of saying “thank you” to the freaks and geeks and shoe-gazers who pop in between trips to their shrink and long, meandering walks going nowhere.

At last count, this blog had something like eight hundred (800) followers and tons of other folks who drop by when the mood strikes them. To hear my latest rant on some personal or professional pet peeve.

National Novel Writing Month

Don’t get me started.

This year I’ve decided to post a batch of new music on BandCamp, stuff you can, needless to say, listen to and download for absolutely nuttin’. We’re talking about forty minutes of my ambient work, short snippets I’ve assembled into an album I’ve dubbed Pensées.

You can find the album in its entirety here.

Here’s the first cut, just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about: