Progress of an Errant Penguin

Today is the fourth anniversary of the very first post on this blog.

Some of you have been around since the beginning (God bless you), while others have been late arrivals (we left you a few beers in the fridge, but be sure to leave the last one for your host).  In those four years, this site has been visited by tens of thousands of folks, over a thousand of whom have seen fit to leave comments, the vast majority of which have been smart, sharp and thought-provoking.

Thank you, one and all.

About a year ago, I added a feature to Beautiful Desolation, namely a “ClustrMap”, which shows where on the planet my visitors call home—every single time I look at that darn thing, found on the lower right side of my menu, I have to smile.  Man, isn’t technology something?  It allows people from every part of the world to reach out to one another, make contact with another human being, regardless of political, cultural and geographic divisions.  People drop in from as far away as the United Arab Emirates, even the supposedly walled off Islamic Republic of Iran.  I can’t tell you how much that moves and thrills me.  God knows what they think of this place once they find it but the important thing is they can find it and, perhaps, discover a community of folks with whom they have more in common then they ever imagined.

Freaks of the world, unite!

I am honored to be one of those freaks, a mutant, a rebel and non-conformist, an indie, an artist, a—a—an errant penguin.

I’d better explain that last part.

Awhile back, I watched Werner Herzog’s documentary “Encounters at the End of the World”.  It’s filmed in Antarctica, a hostile and brutal region of the world which, understandably, offers up a range of features and fauna found no where else on the planet.  It also tends to draw people who are quite unusual and Herzog introduces us to a number of them, including some who would definitely fall into the category of “freaks”.

But what I found most fascinating about the film is when Herzog explains the phenomenon of the “rogue penguin”.  Every so often, a penguin leaves the regular nesting area and heads off into the interior of the continent.  There’s no water, no food and eventually the penguin will just run out of gas, lie down and expire.  There aren’t any theories, nothing that explains the bizarre behavior of these creatures and here’s the strange part:

Initially, when humans came upon one of these rogue penguins waddling along inland, miles from where it should be, they would scoop the critter up and take them back to the other penguins, congratulating themselves for a job well done.

Only one problem:  the penguin would immediately turn around and start right back, retracing its tiny footsteps and damn the torpedoes.  People in Antarctica are now instructed to leave the determined creatures alone, let them go, even knowing it’s to their certain death.  Defying nature, defying logic, stubbornly persisting in behavior that is, apparently, purposeless and self-destructive.

I relate to those crazy little fuckers.  I empathize with whatever quirk in their mindset that draws them away from the herd mentality and compels them to strike out on their own, regardless of the consequences.

Frankly, I think it’s a perfect, though admittedly weird, metaphor for my writing career.  While it might be more safe and comfortable to behave like everyone else, compose work indistinguishable from a host of other authors, there’s some kind of kink in my personality or brain chemistry that simply won’t countenance it.  I won’t be controlled or managed or “handled”.  I refuse to create material that tries to conform to the marketplace or caters to fashion.  I do not submit to the judgments of editors and agents and couldn’t care less if my books become bestsellers or earn so much as a dime.  I won’t prostitute my talent by writing “franchise” novels, based on someone else’s conception.  You do that, fellow scribbler, and, to quote the great Bill Hicks, you’re off the artistic roll call.  Forever.  End of story.  You’re another fuckin’ corporate shill.  Everything you say is suspect, everything that comes out of your mouth is like a turd falling into my drink.

So sayeth Saint Bill.

I am an errant penguin, tottering off to my doom.  I am that freak who for, whatever the reason, can’t help veering off the beaten track, saying unpopular things, creating work that no one has seen before.  Don’t bother trying to reform or cure me, there’s no hope of that happening.  Just let me continue on an odd, meandering path that will, eventually, peter out, my body surrendering to the elements, dropping in my tracks, eyes still on a far horizon I know I’ll never reach.

(Photo credit:  Guillaume Dargaud)

* * * * * *

Lots more ahead in the months to come.  Soon I’ll be making an announcement re: my next book projects and I think you’ll be surprised—hope it’s a pleasant surprise but, regardless, let’s just say this errant penguin won’t be dissuaded from his course.  You can follow me or not; that’s up to you.

Thanks for coming by and keep those comments and suggestions coming.  It’s a pleasure conversing with folks of your intelligence and perceptiveness.  All I’ve ever wanted is an insightful, literate readership.  And, boy, you folks definitely fit the bill.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I’ll close off this special anniversary post  with a few of the poems I read at last night’s “Open Mike” at our local library.


Mass Extinction


It feels like the end of something

a dead zone spreading outward

from some remote Pacific atoll


I remember when the weather was normal

and the bees weren’t dying

and you could see the stars


Since when did the natural become un-natural

man-killing winds

biblical floods

the grass eating holes in our shoes?


And who will feed all the hungry mouths,


if you take sick and wither away?




Remember, thou art mortal

as doomed as a spring flower.


Shine brightly in your scant time

a dazzle of colors until you are plucked.




in miniature rooms

furniture built to scale

stiff, painted figures

coiffed hair, handmade clothes


placed with faces averted

subdued for the sake of the kids

a scandal in smallville

plastic lawyers on their way




The 20th century is a skull

gleaming in a dry creekbed.

Emaciated goats graze nearby

while, high overhead,

the sun sets fire to the sky.

No sound but the wind,

the awful inescapable wind.


“Darkness, take my hand”


Here come the shadows

here they come

watch them come

come shadows

come shadows

here they come

here they come


© Copyright, 2011  Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)


  1. Melissa (ATX)

    Hey, you! Long time, no comment.

    I think I might be one of your renegade penguins at heart. I just started the query process. I’m batting a 1:3 in terms of acceptance rate. After a week, it already feels stupid. Here I sit at my writing nook crafting just the right “pitch,” hoping that some agent will subjectively like my manuscript (and not really knowing what “subjective” means anyway). And all the while, I question the savvy of the publishing industry as a whole. They’ve recently proven they make mistakes – really big mistakes. St. Martin’s went batshit insane. Agents are scrambling (at least on blog) to make everyone think that the waters are still fine. The financial mistakes this industry keeps making (repeatedly) herald a scenario similar to what happened to big record labels in L.A.

    These are the people with whom I’m entrusting a writing career? Oh. My. God.

    I have three partials out and am thinking about requesting them to be disregarded. I don’t know what I’ll do exactly. But look, I’m a ghostwriter. Obviously what I write meets “industry standards” (again, whatever that is). I am frankly not convinced, given the whole Border’s and Barnes & Nobles FAIL, that the industry as a whole will remain intact as I know it in another year. I don’t want to waste my time tethered to an outmoded model of business that’s beneficial to exactly no one.

  2. Cliff Burns

    It’s a tough call: I spent part of last summer on the road, taking my books around to various bookstores in Western Canada. While there are still some indie bookstores out there, their numbers have dwindled precipitously—the good ones will still take books they think will sell. The chains are more reluctant and if they do stock your indie-produced books, it might be in the purgatory of “local interest” or “regional authors”, which is the same as labeling them as “total crap”. Ah, well…bookstores account for very little of my total sales and I’ve pretty much given up on that venue. These days I’m selling ten times as many e-books as physical paperbacks and Amazon Kindle numbers far outstrip sales of the paperback versions of my books.

    Agents circa 2011 aren’t developing talent, they’re looking for a fast score that will earn them 15% of an inflated advance from a hack who will be nonexistent in 2 or three years. If you don’t have the potential to make them tidy sum so they can afford to retire sooner, you’ll get ye old form letter.

    Editors are just plain stupid—the rare good ones have left the business, disillusioned. What’s left are corporate lackeys and semi-literates who, again, have the “big score” mentality.

    I guess I’m just confirming your gloomy diagnosis of an industry that is changing very rapidly, the old selling models obsolete; one must either embrace the change or get left in the dust.

    The ridiculous book deal that Hocking got from St. Martin’s shows that folks in the publishing biz are panicking, grabbing up anything that will rationalize their keeping their jobs for another year. Flooding the marketplace with crap, cultivating dingbat readers who can’t get enough of vampires with consciences (and no sexual organs) might work for awhile, but the alienation of good, discerning readers is a disastrous policy in the long run. That’s your core audience, for Chrissakes. The part-time, hick reader, the “home run” mentality is not sustainable and I truly believe the big crash is coming, multi-nationals dumping their publishing arms, venerable houses collapsing like buildings made of cardboard. E-books just can’t provide the level of profit the big boys need to maintain the tidy margins they expect from good investments and sales of “dead tree editions” continue to plummet. The bookstores closing en masse reveal the dominoes are falling and in a very short while the sea change will render the publishing world absolutely unrecognizable. Very few bookstores, Amazon at the top of the heap…and everyone else left to pick over the spoils.

    Depressing, but there you go. Serious authors will either be relegated to the small presses or will have to educate themselves, rather late in the day, about indie publishing and D.I.Y. And they’ll have the same problems I have, trying to find a way to promote good work in a tidal wave of amateurish muck.

    I wish them all the best…

  3. Roy J Challis

    In the fifties and sixties we used Steppenwolf, that lone wolf that leaves the pack and strikes out on his own, as a symbol for that offbeat, wayward artist. I can remember looking at the stars wondering when my parents were going to come from whatever far flung planet to pick me up because I was convinced I could not be from this place.
    I have no problem visualizing Cliff as a tuxedo clad party-goer wandering into the wilderness; the sound of the party behind him. And so it should be.

  4. Cliff Burns

    Dumb, flightless birds; lousy sense of direction, evolutionary mistake. Oh, I see a lot of comparisons between those weird little avian buggers and yers truly.

    Good to hear from you, chum…

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