After Otto Dix we know
why they send them home
in closed caskets
The war dead lack elegance
refusing to conform to
classic depictions of beauty
Their wounds gape
wet and labial, inviting
Death and Eros
indecently clutching, an
untitled lost gouache on cardboard
2018; All Rights Reserved
Ever since I picked up my iPad a few months ago I’ve been obsessively listening to podcasts. To the extent that my reading has dropped off to next to nothing and there is no way in hell I can reach my usual 100-book threshold by the end of the year. I’ll be lucky to make it to 75, for Chrissakes.
I can see why more people are listening to podcasts, while fewer and fewer find time to pick up a book.
Podcasts are immersive, well-produced (the ones I listen to) and frequently riveting. You find yourself binging and, whoops, there goes the morning.
Favorites? Well, I’m a big fan of Pod Save America–the cast is made up of bitchy, ex-Obama staffers–The Daily Show, Intercept (Jeremy Scahill is one of my journalistic heroes), Mehdi Hasan’s Deconstructed (never miss it), Science Vs., Planet Money, Hidden Brain, This American Life…
But if I had to list the podcasts that have had the most impact on me in recent memory, that roster would include:
“In the Dark: Series 2” (The Trials of Curtis Flowers)
“The Caliphate” (featuring the great Rukmini Callimachi)
“The Caliphate” is an extraordinary ten-part series (affiliated with the New York Times) that traces the growth and spread of ISIS throughout the Middle East, their recruiting tactics, life under their regime, etc. Ms. Callimachi bravely skirts the front lines of a violent conflict in order to gain further insights into the mentality driving its members, the perversity of a “faith” that permits followers to murder, rape and terrorize with impunity. When she meets with survivors of the Yazidi movement targeted by ISIS, hears their harrowing accounts, I almost couldn’t bear it. But at all times Ms. Callimachi behaves with impeccable civility and respect, her integrity and humanity shining through even the darkest moments. She and her team are to be commended; nothing else came close this year.
As an author, I’m troubled that more and more people would rather listen to amateur storytellers offering rather polished versions of some strange but true episode from their lives (“The Moth”, “Beautiful Anonymous” “Risk!”, etc.), than tackle a consciously literary offering . On the other hand, as an artist I’m challenged by a medium that was previously unknown to me. Sure, I’ve recorded lots of spoken word stuff, but an actual venue that allows me to directly address my audience, grant them an inside look at the life of an indie artist, struggling on the margins, trying to draw attention to my work in a 500-channel universe, while, simultaneously, venting on political matters, airing out pet peeves…well, I can definitely see some attraction to that.
I believe I shall ponder this further…
My book designer, Chris Kent, labored mightily over the weekend, sending me a number of versions of the cover until he came up with the absolutely perfect look for The Algebra of Inequality.
Chris took the cover art I gave him, a painting in acrylics I completed earlier this year, and transformed it into something that is gorgeous, evocative and utterly in keeping with the mood and themes of the book.
I shall say nothing more, merely post his final version for all to see.
I believe this is Chris’s 11th book for Black Dog Press.
I think he’s got something, don’t you?
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.”
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
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
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