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
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…”
The morning after the Manchester bombing
an old grey tomcat sleeps under a white maple
in our backyard, oblivious to human affairs,
indifferent to the harm we inflict on one another.
I wish I had his equanimity, then I wouldn’t feel
so bewildered by a universe that seems to condone
random violence, so disappointed in a species that has
forgotten the simple joy of napping beneath a shady tree.
Yesterday, after spending most of the afternoon cleaning and re-arranging our garage (onerous task), I settled myself on the back deck with a glass of scotch, a small cigar, my notebook and a volume of The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert.
Herbert was a Polish writer who, despite growing up in an authoritarian environment, managed to compose magnificent, soul-rending verse.
As I was reading poems like “Mama” and “Chord”, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what it wold be like to live as an artist in a society where personal and aesthetic freedoms are strictly curtailed, the regime relentless in its pursuit of any kind of opposition, the smallest display of rebellion.
It was someone’s job to
scrutinize every syllable,
search each metaphor
and allusion for
significance, a deeper
meaning that might
subvert the apparatus,
throw a monkey
wrench into the works,
or cast the slightest
aspersion against the
omnipotence of the
…but artists like Herbert and Vasily Grossman and Andrei Tarkovsky managed, somehow, to frustrate their ideological masters, producing works of lasting genius. What was it that made them so strong, so immune to the powers of the state, when so many of their colleagues caved in to pressure, conformed, compromised their visions? Was it some form of faith? Pride? Strength of will?
My God, the courage it would take to stand your ground, refuse to dilute or skew your art. Would I be that strong under similar circumstances? Could I resist the blandishments and threats? Choose exile and disgrace over safety and security?
Which somehow led me around to:
I cannot see the
My faith is
not so simple,
I ask for proofs
and the universe
spasms of hilarity.
God is laughing
but I, stubborn
fail to crack
© 2017 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)