He’s one of my literary heroes—he and George Saunders are the two best short story writers in the English language.
For a number of years he wrote a column for The Believer and in 2017 Tin House Books (great little press) released a collection of those pieces titled The Tunnel at the End of the Light.
It is, needless to say, a smart, articulate book and I wanted to quote a passage from Shepard’s Introduction to give you an idea of why I revere the man so much:
“The Republican Party has for decades claimed that the American government is the implacable enemy of the American people. This administration (Trump) is working to make that statement true for the first time for a very large majority of citizens.
That leaves the streets, and we can already see what’s in store for us there. The militarization of the police over the past forty years, begun with the war on drugs and amped up a thousandfold by the war on terror, was never really about threats from without and has always been about anticipating threats from within: as in, What happens when economic inequality and political irrelevance become so grotesque that they lead to civic unrest? The solution to the problem, for the Republicans and the corporate Democrats who have held power, has never been, So I guess we should do something to alleviate economic inequality. It’s always been, When the have-nots have nothing left but the streets, we need to be ready to take the streets away as well. And of course the exponential growth of the surveillance state will help with that. Hence our leaders’ seeming lack of concern over the last decade or so about all the metadata about US citizens—citizens who haven’t been suspected of a crime—that’s being hovered up.”
A looooong interval between posts.
Well, what do you expect? I’m a working author, with a mind that doesn’t allow for much leisure or fun.
Mainly, I’ve been editing The Algebra of Inequality, my latest collection of poems. It has been an agonizing process, choosing the best poems from the past five years, winnowing out the rest. And sometimes a poem gets the chop not because it lacks tunefulness or thematic unity, but for other, more nebulous reasons. Somehow it just doesn’t quite fit with the rest. It’s a judgement call and often I had second, third and fourth thoughts, so the whole thing became ridiculously drawn out and fraught, dragging on for weeks.
But now it’s done. The interior layout is just about ready and my regular cover guy, Chris Kent, is hard at work on another doozie. I’ll be leaking a sneak peek of said cover in the coming days; it’s based on one of my paintings and, knowing Chris, it’s bound to be eye-grabbing.
Yes, what’s up with the painting, why has it become so important to me? Because when I haven’t been editing, I’ve been regularly making that trip down to my little basement dungeon and attacking canvases with acrylics, a screwdriver, awl, various other implements. Getting physical. The results are odd, distinctive, and the works tend to elicit interesting reactions from the people who see them. But it’s a thrill leaving text behind for awhile and working purely symbolically, utilizing a totally different area of my brain.
Recently, I’ve also completed a large, complex collage piece that may end up as the cover for my short story collection later this year.
One of the poems I lopped from The Algebra of Inequality was one I concocted a number of years ago, titled A Personal Cosmology. It has a strong, visual component. I used some square styrofoam and black paint to create a series of stark, geometric images. Then I employed “automatic writing” and started scribbling, one short prose bit for each of the six images. I think I posted one of these images and accompanying text a few years ago but, for the first time, this is the complete version of Cosmology.
I love this piece, it comes right from the soul, but it just wasn’t right for the collection.
It was one of the final cuts, a hard one to leave out.
Click on this link, scroll through it…enjoy:
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
This blog is now ten years old. Ten years to the day.
Well, well, well.
Who could’ve imagined “Beautiful Desolation” would still be around? I’ve seen the stats: most blogs sputter out after a year or two, the individual(s) involved eventually losing interest or not finding the time or unable to post regularly enough to keep it up to date and viable.
I can understand that. Over the lifetime of this blog, I’ve written 450+ posts, averaging about one every ten days or so. Which for a full time scribe and stay-at-home dad is a pretty hefty investment of time and energy. Plus, I’ve never posted just for the sake of posting, I’ve always had something to say or share (even if it’s frequently, especially in the early days, invective and bitter, icy fury).
Right from the beginning, “Beautiful Desolation” was a platform, a bully pulpit from where I could hold forth on subjects near and dear to my indie, contrarian heart. My thirty+ years as a professional author provides me with a host of experiences and encounters to draw from, and I must say it gives me considerable pleasure when young writers contact me and tell me how a certain article or mini-essay or rant I’ve posted inspired them or bucked up their courage during a low patch in their life. My entire career, from the get-go, has been all about empowering myself as an artist and not allowing others to tamper with my work, diluting its emotional, aesthetic and spiritual intensity and passion. That was an obsession for me even before I “turned pro” way back in 1985. I have always fiercely defended my work and questioned the effectiveness/competence of editors who take it upon themselves to “improve” my writing, “smooth out” the rough spots, etc.
I made it plain from those initial posts that this blog is devoted to the celebration of literary, intelligent, innovative, genre-busting fiction that defies fashion and formula and seeks truly new and unique representations of the world around us. I’m contemptuous of amateurish drivel and people who think insisting on proper grammar and syntax is “old school”. I respect authors who make herculean efforts to write and revise their work, laboring tirelessly, excellence their only goal. I’ve been a full-time author for a long time and struggle each day to find the courage and inspiration to go on. It takes me weeks to polish a story, years to finish a full-length manuscript. So you’ll excuse me if I say that, by those standards, dabblers and weekend scribblers and NanoWriMo wannabes just don’t make the grade, sorry.
It’s been interesting to go back to some of those early posts on “Beautiful Desolation”—some of them are very, very angry and confrontational. I’m thinking of my pointed words on contemporary science fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s rather lifeless interview on “Oprah”, the mediocrity that is CanLit and my repeated diatribes against the idiocy that is National Novel Writing Month (“part-time writers unite!”)
The nastier stuff kind of flickered out after the first couple of years, though I’m still capable of delivering withering scorn on command. I’ve said a few things about paranormal romance and shapeshifter-erotic-fiction that had a few people gnashing their teeth and hastily “unsubscribing”.
Ah, well. Some folks are touchy about being sub-literate and dull-witted.
Recently, this blog has taken on a more overtly political tone, which reflects my growing interest in leftist politics, socialism, Marxism…really, anything that is an alternative to the capitalist juggernaut devouring all the resources on this planet, rendering it unsuitable for a growing number of species (a list that will eventually include, y’know, us).
The election of CEO Trump to head Corporation America, the emergence of the far right around the world, as well as the on-going shenanigans of the neo-liberals and their wealthy sponsors, have alarmed progressives and activists, who view the rising intolerance and racism as part and parcel of a system that disenfranchises and impoverishes the masses, in order to fatten the wallets of the elite.
A concerted effort to unite disparate voices and causes under the banner of freedom, true freedom, must be undertaken or we are headed down a long, dark, scary road. I hesitate to predict what our society will look like when we reach the end of that particular journey. My imagination quails at the notion, quite frankly.
But, as I’ve come to realize, one can’t always dwell on these gloom and doom scenarios; for the sake of balance (and sanity), you have to be able to conceive of a better, healthier, more equitable world, a chance at a brighter tomorrow. And so I’ve sought out individuals and organizations, voices that offer entirely different perspectives on where the human adventure might lead us, given the right kind of moral and spiritual leadership. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover people like David Harvey and Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek; Paul Mason, Naomi Klein and Tariq Ali. The LEAP Manifesto and the existence of good, ideologically committed leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders offer at least the hope for change, the introduction of real ideas into a partisan, over-heated discourse.
Books like Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, Klein’s This Changes Everything and Karl Marx’s Capital provide us with workable blueprints for correcting our course, indicating different, less spooky paths to travel, and once absorbed they alter your whole mode of thinking—I’m talking a complete paradigm shift. We don’t have to live the way we do, there are methods we can employ, mindsets we can adopt to alter our lives, our ingrained habits and actually make the world a better place, just by our example.
I’m sure I’ll be writing about this in more detail in the months/years to come.
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed “Beautiful Desolation” in its various guises. Ten years has given me the time and scope to cover a lot of ground and during that interval I’ve undoubtedly said some things I probably shouldn’t have and managed to piss off an impressively wide assortment of people. But all along I’ve made it manifestly clear to even the most desultory, unwary visitor: if you’ve come to this blog looking for reassurance and treacle, a collegial atmosphere and warm, fuzzy support system, you’ve opened the wrong door, I’m afraid. This site is about the price we pay for having feelings, for being alive and sentient in a world that’s increasingly chaotic and disorienting, our “civilization” gradually losing its thin veneer of humanity, revealing the glistening skull beneath its skin.
“Beautiful Desolation” is, in that sense, the perfect title for this blog.
The more I think of it, what could have been more appropriate?
* * * * *
A few recent developments I should mention:
The Mindful Word, a site devoted to conscious creativity and holistic wellness (hey, how can you argue with that?), has published two short essays I composed, offering advice to young, developing writers…and warning of the possible perils of semi-autobiographical fiction and memoirs. Pop over there to check them out and then take some time to poke around–it’s a cool site.
I also somehow managed to place an extremely odd piece, “A Personal Cosmology”, with The Oleander Review, a literary journal published by the University of Michigan—the issue in question is due out in April. Here’s a sample from “Cosmology” I posted awhile back. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Finally, “Happy Birthday” to my pals Laird and Karen—who share the same birth date and the unfortunate tendency to root for two historically dreadful hockey clubs (the Leafs and Canucks, respectively). This lifelong Bruins fan tries not to hold that against them, although sometimes, I admit, it takes concerted effort to restrain my natural tendency to trash talk. But, then again, it’s hard to feel smug when your favourite team includes an unrepentant arsehole like Brad Marchand.
Note: the accompanying pictures are drawn from our Summer, 2016 visit to Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Istanbul, in particular, continues to haunt our memories (and sometimes our dreams). What a magical, terrifying, wondrous metropolis. One day, we hope to make it back…
I’ve been going through a notebook I’ve been keeping since 2010—kind of a “scratch” book, to horse around in. Poems, lyrics, essays and short stories, in very raw form.
Found the following two poems, which may or may not make it into my next compilation, slated for release Spring, 2018:
We emulate our gods
by turns jealous and paranoid
desirous of silver and gold
hiding our indifference
behind impassive masks
reluctantly doling out favours
callow, prone to deceit
* * * *
Nothing to do with rockets
miles off course
spiralling out of control
threatening civilian populations
programmed for self-destruction
to prevent serious harm
© 2017 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)