Category: inspiration

A poem for “wannabe” writers & other miscreants

An Intimation of True Genius

Before I sit down and write my masterpiece

I think I’ll take a few minutes and go over my notes

check my sources and of course compose a brief 

biography of the author who despite his apparent 

lack of credentials has achieved true greatness with

his soon-to-be completed debut novel a sensation on 

all seven continents endorsed by the glitterati honors and

prizes pouring in optioned by Hollywood dining with

royalty hobnobbing alongside jetsetters existing in

a social whirlwind object of adoration and naked envy

topping every bestseller list appearing on all the right

programs lionized by my peers no limit to my reach and

power once I finally find the time to buy pen and paper

take a seat at my humble desk and commence work on what

will undoubtedly become a pillar of the Western canon

my much-anticipated long-awaited magnum opus

the only story left untold

*******************************

The context of this poem:

I don’t know how many of my fellow scribblers have been annoyed by some arsehole you encounter—perhaps after a reading or literary gathering—who assures you that they’ve got a great book idea and “one day” hope to have occasion to commit it to paper. Or a total tool who, upon hearing you’re an author, gets very excited because “I’ve had some amazing things happen to me, you should write them down, I bet it would be a bestseller”.

If you’ve had a similar experience, you have my permission to print this poem and carry it around in your wallet, to hand out whenever you come across one of these utter, contemptible fuckwits. That ought to shut them up.

“Mutant Thoughts (I)”

This is intended to be a semi-regular column devoted to my various enthusiasms, pet peeves and the strange notions that all-too-frequently bedevil me. Not intended for folks with delicate sensibilities or soft brains. Read on.

  • Recently received a note from an Italian digital musician wishing to use images from one of my strange, short films to accompany a piece of music he’s been composing. Why not?
  • Things like that happen every so often. Like the two individuals (one from Hong Kong, the other the Netherlands) who contacted me seeking permission to include my photos of the “cut-up” method for inclusion in a scholarly book or as part of a presentation at an academic conference. Happy to oblige…always in the hope that exposure in different venues will help draw attention to my literary work (well, a fella can dream, can’t he).
  • Some good, smart discussions on Twitter lately regarding books, writing process, films, politics, etc. (Shout out to Shaun Hamill, Steve Savile, Geoff Andrew, among others.) The trolls seem to have gone into hiding for the time being, leaving room for rational discourse. A refreshing development.
  • How do my fellow progressives feel about the first month of Joe Biden’s presidency? Anyone who was expecting massive policy changes, a sudden lurch to the Left, an administration to rival FDR’s is either soft in the head or has only just awakened after a fifty-year coma. “Meet the new Boss/Same as the old Boss.”
  • Go out today and either buy or borrow a good book. Just this once treat your frontal lobes and higher brain functions with the respect they deserve. Enough with the empty-headed, escapist fare. Remember: you are what you read.
  • The fact that Justin Trudeau and his cabinet declined to join the rest of their parliamentary colleagues in a motion condemning the treatment of the Uyghur people at the hands of the Chinese shows just how morally bankrupt and hypocritical the Liberal Party of Canada has become. An absolutely disgraceful display.
  • We’ve signed up for a three-month tryout of the MUBI movie-streaming service. Great selection of cinema from around the world…but the goddamn thing keeps freezing and buffering, even during a 15-minute short film. I’ve contacted them and they’ve reached out, trying to effect a fix but so far, no good. And if they don’t solve the problem soon, hasta la vista MUBI!
  • Is it just me? It seems like my fingernails and toe nails are growing at an accelerated rate during this extended lockdown. Please apprise if something similar is happening to you.
  • Sherron keeps trying to get me to explore the wonders and benefits of kimchi…but I still recoil from the stuff. It looks like the material that gets caught in our kitchen drain; it may be a miracle food for some, but my rising gorge says otherwise.
  • Back to the Big City (Saskatoon) soon to check the state of my new hip. Hopefully will have a bit of extra time for a side trip to Peryton Books and, later, some tasty ethnic cuisine before heading back on the road.
  • Making excellent progress on what will be my next Black Dog Press release, Notebooks: 2010-2020. Printed up a draft and will give it to Sherron for proofing in about a week-ten days. And then final tinkering and polishing. Still anticipating an early May release date (perhaps even sooner, but don’t you dare quote me on that).
  • Listening to a couple of newish Bob Mould CDs in my office the past few days. Ol’ Bob still rocks, the spirit of Husker Du lives on!
  • These days half the time when the landline in our house rings it’s either a “robocall” or a scammer. This is what our society has been reduced to.
  • One Twitter post in particular caught my eye the other day. A high school student was seeking advice on how to publish their book. Excuse me? Isn’t this a case of putting the cart before the horse? How about learning the rudiments of grammar and syntax first, gaining a basic understanding of language or, like, paying your fucking dues? We don’t need more books published, we need to identify and weed out the absolute shit that’s already being churned out at an accelerating pace. Most of it produced/excreted by sub-literate tits with no notion of just how terrible they really are. Sorry, kid, you won’t be getting any help from me.
  • I’ll close this first installment with an appropriate quote from Aldous Huxley: “If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.” Yep, that about sums it up. See you next time!
Photo: Sherron Burns

Podcasts are eating my brain

It’s true.

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:

“S-Town
“Dirty John”
“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…

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.

 

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

Zang!

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.”

Celebrating you

Ah, the grand adventures we’ve had.

Last year’s trip to Europe will be pretty hard to top but I’m convinced we’ll manage.

Thirty-plus years together and every single day is still fun, the hours in your company a treasure beyond assaying.

We’re essentially very silly people. We laugh a lot. Two irrepressible clowns. Our humor definitely veering toward the strange and bizarre. “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, the Marx Brothers, Jacques Tati, “Team America”, and the bookstore gals in “Portlandia”. The sharper the satire, the more expertly the scalpel wielded, the more we like it.

Because if you start taking life too seriously, you quickly figure out, to paraphrase David Thomson, the world doesn’t really want to be saved. And that, as they say, is a mighty hard row to hoe.

Better to experience existence with a healthy sense of the absurd, gales of incredulous laughter, rather than tears of self-pity.

More than three decades of shared joy, passion, a long history of creative collaborations (including two terrific sons). Always seeking to inspire one another, egg each other on, pushing the envelope, aesthetically and spiritually and experientially.

We’re the damnedest couple. I’ve never met a pair like us, with so much obvious affinity and chemistry and yet two totally different, independent, strong-willed individuals.  We’re nothing like clones, our differences can be quite profound. We’ve had some heated arguments and they haven’t always been resolved. Some are on-going and irreconcilable. Like your insistence that Justin Trudeau isn’t an airhead and humans are fundamentally good, wisdom and faith will prevail, offering a bright, shining future for our species…

What I most appreciate is your ferocious loyalty, the way you’ve supported me, my life’s work, from the moment we officially became a “couple”, recognizing and acknowledging the importance of literature to me, to my very essence. Never a flicker of doubt, despite some tough, trying times. We’ve had to sacrifice quite a bit, struggled financially to maintain my status as a full-time author and not once have you expressed any resentment or criticism.

There’s a line I sometimes quote from an otherwise forgettable Jack Nicholson movie, “As Good As It Gets”. At one point he says wistfully to Helen Hunt: “You make me want to be a better person”.

That’s it. That what you do, not just for me, but for everyone who comes into contact with you.

Thank you, Sherron. For all that we’ve shared, for everything still to come.

“Forever and ever…”