You know that’s always the case. When I’m hard at work, the last thing I think about is composing another blog entry. Don’t get me wrong, you folks are great, love hanging out with you, but writing, the creative act…well, that’s my lifeblood. My raison d’être.
This time, yes, there’s been creativity, a new short story…but, in all honesty, I’ve been devoting most of my time and energy to promoting Disloyal Son. With the hundreds, thousands of books being released every month, how do I draw attention to a solid, literate novel that anybody with two neurons to rub together will love? How do I compete with shapeshifter erotica and zombie porn and glorified fan fiction? Well, first of all, I send out review copies. Lots of review copies. To the major newspapers, mystery magazines, selected bookstores. Along with promo material and fliers that we agonize over, striving to come up with the most enticing wording. Again, trying to separate this book from the herd. The dung pile.
Good God, there are a lot of terrible books out there. Not just “self-published” either. The traditional publishers apparently believe the vast majority of contemporary readers (especially women) have the I.Q. of brain-damaged marsupials. If you’re looking for a quality book to read this summer, good luck. The trads no longer have any interest in cultivating authors, helping them find their voice and develop as artists. They’re staffed by corporate drones who merely seek “product”, mass market releases—swiftly excreted, endlessly repeated. Passionless, derivative, facile, inept.
You want to know the difference between my approach to writing, as opposed to just about everyone else’s? I care. I respect language, the traditions and legacy of literature. I treasure a well-constructed sentence and expend enormous efforts honing and shaping my work. I’m a freak when it comes to editing—meticulous to the point of, well, insanity. While many of my colleagues seem content with one or two drafts, getting their slop out as soon as possible, I drag out the process of creation to the extent that completing a short story takes weeks and a novel like So Dark the Night required over three years before I was finally satisfied and released it. And that was working on it full time, every single day.
Writing is not a craft to me, it’s an art. There’s a difference. A big difference. Most scribblers can’t make that leap. I can. Every single one of my books is intelligent, challenging, innovative; none conform to expectations or fall back on formula. I try to get that across to readers, reviewers but it’s hard. They see that Black Dog Press is my imprint and right away start thinking “this is more self-published crap”. Dismissing me out of hand. Never giving me a fair shot.
I defy anyone to read the first 5-10 pages of one of my books, choose whichever you like, and then stop. By that point it will no longer be a question of the origins of the book, the circumstances of its publication—you’ll be too caught up in a great read. Of that, I am 100% certain.
Reviewers have written about the element of surprise in my books and stories and I think that’s key. When you’re reading one of my tales you have no idea how it’s going to end or what’s coming next. I love pulling the rug out from under you, leaving you in a whimpering heap. Never saw that coming, did you?
That quality is very much in evidence in Disloyal Son. It’s a mystery, within a mystery (and then some). The truth revealed in bleeding layers. If you give it a chance, it will be the best book you read this summer, maybe this year. And I don’t need to buy a four-star Kirkus review in order to know that.
Sale copies of Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination have arrived.
As you can see from the picture below, we’re already filling orders—and I’m happy to personally inscribe books for that picky literature buff on your Christmas shopping list.
You’ll find ordering info here.
And there’s still plenty of time until Christmas…
Yesterday was my birthday so, devious creep that I am, I leaked a cover shot of my next book to a few select friends and then, later that day, allowed Sherron to post it on my Facebook page.
So, now that the cat’s out of the bag and clawing up the furniture, here’s Chris Kent’s stunning cover for Sex & Other Acts of the Imagination. Chris has been part of the creative team since So Dark the Night and his covers always manage to capture the essence of the book in question.
Is this his best one yet? Drop me a note with your opinion.
In the meantime, kids, feast your eyes on this (click on image to enlarge):
Release date: November 20, 2014
An intimacy only death allows.
Forced into close alignment to conserve space.
A press of upturned faces.
Rows and rows, near a field of spring wheat.
Bright sunlight, a perfect cloudless day.
In defiance of this latest atrocity.
* * *
The Last Room
Is someone there?
Why don’t you come nearer?
Step into the light…
I can barely see you.
There’s so little time.
Please, show yourself.
I don’t want to be alone.
Take pity on my penitent soul.
* * *
—careening down a narrow path, bucking and weaving through the forest, in headlong flight.
“Hurry! It’s catching up with us!”
Realizing my mistake when the trees around us begin to glow, giving off a vivid, blue light.
The ground vibrating, feeling it through the floorboard beneath my feet.
“Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus, help me—”
The light coruscating, fierce, accompanied by a blaze of heat, the exterior of our vehicle starting to blister and smoke…
* * *
Reporting as ordered, funneled in with the rest.
Hemmed and jostled, barely able to move.
Exhausted and compliant.
A clipped, officious voice from the loudspeaker, appealing for calm.
Distant shouting, the news spreading in visible ripples through our midst.
The gates are closing…
© Copyright, 2014 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
I was one of the invited guests at the launch of the second installment of the Battlefords’ only homegrown arts magazine, Feed the Artist. I contributed a brief essay to this latest issue and was impressed by the quality of the work (prose and visuals) I found throughout. It’s quite gorgeous; make sure you check it out.
Congratulations to everyone involved with Feed the Artist, the editors and artists who worked so hard to bring a dedicated arts and culture publication to the citizens of this region.
Here’s what I said to the sixty or so people who assembled at Crandleberry’s to give the magazine a grand send-off.
Thanks to everyone who attended. It was a magical evening.
* * * * *
I think it’s appropriate that we’re launching the new issue of “Feed the Artist” here, in a very public venue as opposed to a more formal setting. While there might be benefits to holding events in clean, well-lighted places, featuring all the latest bells and whistles, there’s also something cold and antiseptic and, let’s face it, increasingly corporate about these fancy-shmancy new galleries and performing arts centers.
Some of you either participated in or were witnesses to the “Tree” piece that was conceived and created around a locale in Battleford. The natural setting became an important element within the performance. I’m also thinking about the “Flash Mobs” that have broken out in this region of late, people congregating in public places and singing and dancing while startled spectators try to take everything in.
All of this is happening outside the rarefied air of institutions and brick and mortar facilities. Because art, after all, is portable, not confined to designated areas and “safe” zones. Why not utilize non-traditional locations to tell stories and highlight the rich history and culture of this region?
Time for artists to escape museums and galleries and theaters and bookstores and re-enter public spaces, remind the citizens of our communities that we have something to say about life, the universe…and the human condition. Something essential, something they need to know if they’re to stay sane in an increasingly frantic and chaotic world.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Populist Manifesto” addressed some of these points nearly forty years ago, so I’ll conclude by reading an excerpt from that work (what’s an arts gathering without a manifesto?).
Populist Manifesto (Excerpt)
Poets, come out of your closets, Open your windows, open your doors, You have been holed-up too long in your closed worlds. Come down, come down from your Russian Hills and Telegraph Hills, your Beacon Hills and your Chapel Hills, your Mount Analogues and Montparnasses, down from your foothills and mountains, out of your teepees and domes. The trees are still falling and we’ll to the woods no more. No time now for sitting in them As man burns down his own house to roast his pig No more chanting Hare Krishna while Rome burns. San Francisco’s burning, Mayakovsky’s Moscow’s burning the fossil-fuels of life. Night & the Horse approaches eating light, heat & power, and the clouds have trousers. No time now for the artist to hide above, beyond, behind the scenes, indifferent, paring his fingernails, refining himself out of existence. No time now for our little literary games, no time now for our paranoias & hypochondrias, no time now for fear & loathing, time now only for light & love.
-Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Copyright, 1974)
In the spring, when the snows subside, dissolve away. Sometimes a careless farmer will plough up the wrong field. Or children will make a grisly discovery in the woods.
We have been condemned, collectively, for those dark times. You would think we all owned Kalashnikovs and a cluster of hand grenades.
They will not forgive the desecration of the churches. Those pictures. Awful, awful. Though some of us insist they were faked…
Listen, we can’t keep apologizing for the past. What’s done is done. It could happen in any modern, civilized state.
They want to call it genocide but we reject that.
It was war and terrible things occurred.
We won’t be treated as pariahs.
We have sinned but are answerable only to God.
Copyright, 2013 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
From his favorite hideaway, five storeys above the ground, Little Po is an inconspicuous witness to the chaos below.
There has been talk of trouble for weeks, soldiers and police regularly taking up stations on street corners, stopping and harassing people, making a nuisance of themselves. Intimidation is the norm with the ruling junta but this time, it seems, their tactics have only succeeded in making things worse.
Shouts and screams, the rattle of automatic weapons and crak-crak-crak of small arms fire. Smoke drifts over the neighbourhood, a grey, evil-smelling pall. There are makeshift barricades and men roaming about with home-made clubs and pop bottles filled with gasoline. The building shudders from a nearby explosion, a crump as a burning car bursts its seams, provoking whoops and cheers from the surrounding crowd.
Little Po is safe or, at least, safer than he would be down there, in the midst of the mob. Some women have joined in, adding their unmistakable shrieks to the din. Most of the men are intoxicated, swilling alcohol looted from a nearby store. They swagger about, brandishing crude weapons, their courage fortified by drink. The boy creeps back under the overhang created by ducting and ventilation works. Finds his tattered blanket and slips into an uneasy sleep, sucking his thumb for comfort when the tumult disturbs his slumber. This sooty rooftop, shared with none but the occasional stray cat and roosting pigeon, is a refuge, shelter from a dangerous and hostile world.
He wakes to dull morning light, the stench of burning rubber.
His hunger is an undiminishing ache, a twisting, voracious worm in his guts. He spends most days in a surreal netherworld; sick, confused and disoriented. Bumping into buildings or colliding with passersby, clutching at them for support and being swatted and cursed for his trouble. He begs, he steals and still only manages to scrape by.
As he descends via the rickety fire escape, he is aware that slowly but surely he’s losing the battle. Malnutrition is eating his frail body and soon he will be reduced to nothing. When someone reaches such a state, people say that person has “joined the invisibles”. One day, they’re simply gone, evaporating into the air, leaving nothing behind, not even an ounce of bone dust to bury or mourn over.
The first person he spots when he ventures out is Old Fania. Her pet monkey chatters on her shoulder and she makes a warding gesture at him. He gives the witch a wide berth. The monkey eyes him sullenly but is constrained by a short leash made of twine. The little beast has been known to inflict a painful and septic bite.
The streets and avenues have been transformed overnight. Rubble and debris are scattered carelessly, gutted buildings stripped of everything that can be carried or dragged away. He scours the ground for leftovers, something to eat or barter. But he’s competing with other scavengers who fiercely guard the meager leavings, growling and threatening him if he approaches. He is smaller and weak and therefore must go without. It is not that ordinary folk are unsympathetic or hard-hearted, it is merely that deprivation has become a way of life to the people in this part of the city. They have been herded together, marginalized, made to feel they must fend for themselves. Poor and increasingly desperate, they have lost any sense of shared or communal suffering.
The riot last night followed days of demonstrations, spontaneous protests against the inhuman living conditions. There have been scores of deaths, nervous soldiers shooting into crowds, protesters beaten and dragged away by security forces.
And finally the world press has taken notice. Reporters flood in and, congruently, the economy goes into a tailspin as investment money dries up, foreign nationals leaving in droves. It is a familiar, sad story in this region of the world.
Little Po drinks from a puddle and forages from a dumpster behind a restaurant. He is covered in rat bites and festering sores that won’t heal. He knows that his situation is increasingly desperate but there is nothing to be done about it. As he clambers out of the stinking bin, the back door of the restaurant bangs open and an employee toting a five gallon pail of grease and slops spots him. They regard each other for a long moment and Little Po finally slinks away, what little food he has found clutched in his fist.
There are rumours that local businesses have hired a squad of off-duty cops and given them the job of ridding the city of riff-raff. Some kids were gunned down as they sat on the steps of a church. A church. In the last two weeks, several dozen street urchins have been either killed or spirited off in dark vans, never to be seen again.
Later that morning, Little Po is walking through a park and spots Fish and the Silent One. Fish has fresh bruises on his face, rolled for pocket change. And the thing is, everyone knows Fish has absolutely nothing worth stealing. He tells the joke that he’s so poor, someone once cut him open and stole his heart. And he’ll show you the long, zippered scar to prove it. The Silent One glowers behind him, a menacing presence. His head is squashed, misshapen. He can’t speak but his dangerous mien says don’t fuck with me, brother.
Little Po falls in alongside them and they head off to the mission together, stand in line for a bowl of watery soup. Supposedly there is a piece of chicken in there somewhere. Either donations are down or the priests have been dipping into the collection plate again. Little Po deftly palms an extra slice of bread, the maneuver escaping the sharp-eyed Brother’s notice.
When they finish, they hang out in the graveyard for awhile. Fish produces three precious cigarettes but smoking only makes Little Po queasy so he puts his away until later. Soon afterward a cranky old caretaker shows up and chases them away.
Fish says he wants to stop by Ven’s place, that he’s heard something and Ven Ficus is the one to go to if you have information to trade. Depending on his mood, he’ll either reward you generously or snap his fingers and have you turned in to a human pretzel. But Taft, Ven’s imposing gatekeeper, says his bossman isn’t in today and hints that it’s in their best interest to fuck off. Now.
Fish is disappointed but vows to come back later. Taft goes back inside and they hear him say something to the other hoods. Mocking laughter follows the trio down the street.
As they walk, Fish has to keep stopping to retch. Every time he does, he groans. He says something feels broken inside. Little Po and the Silent One exchange grim looks. Who knows when the free clinic will open again. The French doctors who ran it were declared persona non grata and given forty-eight hours to clear out. No one has replaced them. Word is the junta was embarrassed to have foreigners tending to the needs of the poor. This past winter Little Po caught a bug that made him cough until his ribs ached. He truly believed he was going to die. His lungs still feel tender, especially on cool days.
In the early afternoon he parts company with the others, waving as he angles away.
Despite the soup he is still famished, light-headed. He thinks about the slice of bread in his pocket, the one he is saving. Little Po takes out the bread, raises it to his mouth and bites off a piece. This is the way it is. You are hungry and when you have food, you eat.
Later he will curse his greed. This, too, is the way of things.
But for Little Po, time has shrunk, contracted, the future no longer measured in years, months, weeks, but days, perhaps hours. His skin is transparent, his arms and legs thin, meatless. His joints ache; pain and hunger and despair are constant companions. The world around him is losing definition, leaking away at the edges.
Soon he will join the invisibles. It is almost certain. He knows this. Maybe even tonight, on his rooftop haven, under the high, eternal stars. He wonders what it will be like to be dead. His undernourished imagination has a hard time grasping the notion. The priests speak of heaven and hell during the sermons that are mandatory with the free meals they dispense. In the afterlife our sins are remembered and judged. The worthy are rewarded and the evil ones consigned to an all-consuming fire where they burn forever and ever, a-men.
Little Po steers a course toward the only home he has, occasionally stumbling, nearly falling. Traffic rolls heedlessly by. The soldier on the corner stares past him, through him. A few moments later, Little Po looks for his shadow and can’t find it.
Perhaps it is only the angle and intensity of the sun. He moves on, seemingly lighter than air, no longer able to feel the hard, unforgiving ground beneath his feet.
© Copyright, 2009 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
* * * * *
“Among the Invisibles” was written the last time I entered a short story competition.
It didn’t even make it past the initial round of readers.
You understand now why I rarely enter these stupid contests?
To read more of my tales (and some novel excerpts), go to my Fiction & Novels page.
A memorable evening last night: we launched my two new collections, New & Selected Poems and Stromata to an enthusiastic audience and, I add (much to my relief), there were no glitches or screwups on my part. I read for just over 35 minutes and then took questions from those in attendance. Great questions too, folks seeking clarification on my status as an independent author and also asking me about the changes in my writing over the past 25 years, among other things.
I’ll post some pictures ASAP but we also had two cameras running so in the next couple of weeks we’ll be uploading the entire reading on to YouTube where people can tune in and see me in action.
Without a trace of humbleness, I can tell you that there aren’t too many authors in this country who perform their work as well as I do. I take my responsibilities as an entertainer very seriously; I have been to too many readings where the authors have forgotten that they must also be performers. When I hit that podium, it’s my intention to blow people away, destroy their preconceptions, make it a night they won’t soon forget. And usually I succeed.
Thanks to everyone who came out on a chilly autumn night and an especially big THANK YOU to my production crew—Sherron, Sam, Sean, Micah—for their hard work.
Watch for the finished film, I really believe it captured one of the best readings I’ve ever done.
Man, was I hot…