Sunday, September 30, 2012

Poetry Monday: Gertrude Stein

It's Gertrude Stein week at ModPo, and I'm afraid I'm not jumping for joy. That isn't to say that I don't enjoy the work of Stein. My uncle gave me a copy of The Autobiography of Alice B Tolklas at far too young an age (about the same time he gave me poetry books by Rimbaud and Plath) and I became deeply engrossed in the descriptions of bohemian Paris in the 1900s (the start of a kind of Francophilia that has remained with me), the warmth and camaraderie, and above all, the experimental fun and whimsy inherent in the writing.  But Stein's poetry has been something else for me altogether.  In the ModPo video on the topic, Al Filreis asks the question "How comfortable are you with something that is seemingly incomprehensible?" Like Molly, one of the teaching assistants, I'm not at all comfortable. So yes, this week I'm out of my comfort zone. But I'm in that place with an open mind, ready to work and ready, above all, to grow.  Here's the first poem that we're working on and after a few readings and a little exploration through the video discussions, I've already begun to grow a little more comfortable. The poem is "A Long Dress" from Tender Buttons. It's actually one of the more "accessible" poems in Tender Buttons, but I use the word accessible in a fairly generous way as you'll see when you read it.


What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current.

What is the wind, what is it.

Where is the serene length, it is there and a dark place is not a dark place, only a white and red are black, only a yellow and green are blue, a pink is scarlet, a bow is every color. A line distinguishes it. A line just distinguishes it.

Here are some of my early thoughts.  On first reading, "A Long Dress" seems to refer to the dress literally as  a constructed piece of fashion, created out of the machinery of a sewing machine, powered by electrical current (or even wind current), crackling with that electricity and beauty: the long line of fashion, tradition,  motion, beauty. It seems to be one complete thing: a covering, a symbol of wealth and beauty, a 'dress-up'. But when we ask what it is and what is the underlying 'current' (both in the sense of the times and in the sense of the scientific principle that drives its utility), we begin to deconstruct the dress into both the languge that makes it up in this instance. The lines we see are the lines of poetry; they are the lines of creation where we make different colours and different meanings by changing our lines, our pauses and syntax, and by the way in which we can modify and combine our lines to make many dresses, many colours, many poems, many different types of meanings where nothing is dark and everything revealed. This is the nature of human creation - to combine and create. Red and white make pink rather than black, which might be hinting at the dark places beneath the dress - the blackness under the surface, both in a sexual sense (in which case white and red equaling black is metaphoric), and in in the sense that the seeming darkness can be brought out into the light depending on the lines we create. The colours are only seemingly paradoxical. The dress is only seemingly whole. Time (currents) is only seemingly real (a fact we learned from Einstein). Our bodies are only seemingly fixed and solid (because made up of atoms and in constant motion and transition). This is what Stein is aiming to show in her work. Lines are the arrangements of our lives. They aren't any more real than this moment which is already gone, but they're all that is.

So now I've looked hard into this work and written my own little explication on it, I'm no longer feeling uncomfortable with it. I'm ready to crackle with these currents. What about you?  Does this poem make you uncomforable?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Banned Books Week 2012 Virtual Readout (and Ulysses pie)

Banned Books week is nearly here (Sept. 30-Oct. 6) and this year I decided to do my annual reading from my favourite banned book of all - James Joyce's Ulysses.  In 1922, when the book was published in full, New York postal officials seized and burned 500 copies of the book (there were plenty of other, less official burnings as well). Rather extensive blasphemy, the eating of fried kidneys, breaking wind, and of course, plenty of sexual innuendo made this book a heavy target for censorship, but due to some very staunch supporters, the book survived until, in the US at least, the rather articulate judge John M. Woolsey ruled it to be not obscene, but rather (and I quote from my decrepid, falling-apart, but much loved 1961 Vintage edition shown off in the video below) "a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women".  What's your favourite banned book?

Publishers Weekly has just put up a yummy Ulysses pie infographic in which they've looked at the distribution of some key items from the book (click here to check it out). It's pretty reductive - as all infographics are, but fun anyway.  Finally, I can't let the mention of Ulysses go by without once again pointing you in the direction of Frank Delaney's marvellous Re:Joyce - a series of short (free) podcasts that 'unpack' Joyce's great masterpiece in minute detail, without ever losing the coherency of the whole. If you've ever wondered how this book became so famous, or even how to begin reading it, Delaney's your man.


Sunday, September 23, 2012

Poetry Monday: Lorine Niedecker

Last week in ModPo, we learned so much and covered so much ground (this week looks even richer) that it's hard to know where to begin in picking just a tidbit from it to share with you. Before I get lost in Imagism, which is where we're headed this week, I thought it might be fun to just present my favourite poem from the Whitmanians and Dickinsonians we covered (I think you can guess which camp I've fallen into, though I'm a little of both, and of course it's something of an artificial dichotomy). There was much that I enjoyed, but the biggest challenge for me was in learning to understand and even take pleasure in Rae Armantrout's "The Way", which you can hear the author read at PennSound.  This was a difficult poem that I began by rejecting, almost angrily. Working at it and finding my own "way" into the work was a revelation and opportunity for growth for me.  I will cover more of that topic later, but for now, I'd like to share with you  Lorine Niedecker's "Grandfather Advised Me" or "Poet's Work", a poem that indeed sums up, for me, the job of the poet in a few words, condensed perfectly:  

   advised me:
         Learn a trade

I learned
   to sit at desk
         and condense

No layoff
   from this

All writing is about condensation in one form or another (we pick from the chaotic vastness of human experiences and condense it into specific, powerful meaning) . Though I never thought of it in quite this way before, I think that Niedecker is absolutely and profoundly right. The poet, even more than other writers, condenses (selects, coalesces, combines, unifies, and then eliminates all wastage so that what's left is absolutely, utterly shining and essential). In a scientific sense, condensation is the change of the physical state of matter from gaseous phase into liquid and/or solid phase (deposition). In that loose vastness, matter disperses, disintegrates, and entropy takes over. The poet gives form, structure, connectiveness, and above all permanence to this dispersion of life that surrounds us - reshaping the entropy and disintegration into meaning that lasts. It's an act of creation, or to coin Auden, "poetry makes nothing happen" - with the emphasis on "happen" as in, turns nothing into something (I knew my Audenitis would resurface again at some point).  

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Books and Bickies at Morisset Library

Today I spent the morning as the guest author at Morisset Library's monthly Books and Bickies session.  I nearly cancelled, due to the fact that I'm all out of books after last week's event (more on the way...) and have rather a lot to do, including finishing a story for a rapidly advancing deadline. I decided to go anyway and I'm very glad I did. Firstly, it was a reasonably sized crowd, but more than that, most of the people there had actually read Black Cow, and were intelligent, articulate, and enthusiastic (the perfect combination). It was one of the most invigorating hours I've spent: talking books in general and my books in particular. One nice fellow told me that, while he hadn't (yet) read Black Cow, he absolutely loved Sleep Before Evening and was especially impressed by my original use of metaphors in the book. Since he was a former English teacher, his approval of my metaphors was good enough for me (he also told me SBE was far superior to another 'similar' book Trainspotting, which he hated :-)). The group also talked about the impact of e-books and what that meant for the future of libraries, about notions of sustainability and 'affluenza', about characterisation, about Tasmania and why I chose it, and lots more. They even asked me to read specific chapters that they liked and noted.  The wonderful librarian Andrew Boyce stage-managed the whole thing (and brought the biscuits and a few library copies of my books). I was so energised by the event and the positive reception I got that I finished my story within the hour of arriving home. Libraries rock.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Poetry Monday: On WCW's "Smell!"

I'm reading William Carlos Williams again today. We've had WCW before here, with "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower". Following is a poem written while WCW was a fair bit younger, which I've been reading and analysing as part of the wonderful ModPo poetry course I've been doing (I'm afraid you're going to have to follow along with me - I'm immersed in it). The poem is William Carlos Williams' "Smell". Of course you can take this poem at face value (sorry...), and indeed, as it sits below, with Williams' rather distinguished nose right above it, that's certainly the initial temptation. It's fun enough in a literal sense: who hasn't followed his or her nose into the "festering pulp" like a hungry dog.  But of course there's more to the poem than that.  You can listen to WCW's own reading at the PennSound Archive (an amazing resource that I can't recommend enough) - he reads with obvious delight at his own foibles. What writer hasn't wondered in one form or another, something similar - in curiosity, in desire, or felt that "deep thirst" for "that rank odor of a passing springtime". Think lower, baser, more richly sensual. In a meta-poetical sense, I see this as the writer's lot - to pick at everything, to smell it all, to taste what is unlovely and savour it.


Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedreggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
Can you not be decent? Can you not reserve your ardors
for something less unlovely? What girl will care
for us, do you think, if we continue in these ways?
Must you taste everything? Must you know everything?
Must you have a part in everything?

Writing the Tough Stuff (Or Killing the One You Love)

A guest post by Aaron Paul Lazar

It’s not easy writing a scene where you kill the one you love.

Of course I don’t mean your actual spouse or lover. I mean the wife, husband, or sweetheart of your main character.

I’ve done it in FOR KEEPS. Thinking about it tears my heart out every single time.

That’s what I mean by “writing the tough stuff.” Sam Moore—a retired family doctor who is our resident hero in Moore Mysteries—is very much like me, except he’s twelve years older and retired with enough money to putter around in his gardens all day. Let me repeat that. All day!

I hate him for that.

Okay, so maybe that’s a little extreme, considering he’s fictional. Shall we say, I am exceedingly jealous of his lifestyle? Although Sam was a family doctor and I am an engineer, we’re still a lot alike. We both love to plunge our hands into the soft earth and grow things. We both love our grandkids so much it hurts. And we both have spouses with multiple sclerosis. There are plenty of differences, too. I cook, I write, and I take photos. Sam doesn’t. But of course, it’s not a competition. At least I don’t think so…

In spite of the fact that he’s not real (at least not in the traditional sense, LOL), I relate to this man and feel his pain when he’s hurting. Sure, you say, writers should feel ALL their characters’ pain. We have to, to get into their heads and nail the characterization. Don’t we?

But I’ll bet some characters are closer to your heart than others.

Sam’s wife, Rachel, shares many qualities with my dear wife, Dale. They both endure MS, they both love to read, they are both chair-caning artists. Some of their symptoms are the same, but that’s where they split apart. Rachel loves to cook (that’s my job in our marriage), she’s in a wheelchair, and she stays pretty upbeat, considering her challenges. They both adore their grandchildren and both love to read. Rachel’s a tribute to Dale, in all honesty. But she also has morphed into her “own woman,” too, and I love her deeply. Er... through Sam, of course. (Honey, don’t be jealous!)

In the first two books of the Moore Mysteries series, Rachel sticks by Sam’s side, supports him when he’s overcome with grief and is plagued by strange paranormal events, and loves him deeply enough to keep him sane.

That’s why it really hurt when I had to kill her.

In For Keeps, the third book in the series, life takes an awful turn. When Rachel is murdered by a serial killer, it puts Sam back in the psych ward, the same place he was thrown when his little brother disappeared without a trace fifty years earlier. Desperate to fix things, he calls on the power of the green marble, the talisman his little brother Billy controls from afar that whisks him back and forth through his past.

Unlike those of us in real life, Sam gets a “do over.” He flies back in time to desperately try to fix the problems that lead to this gruesome act, and over and over again, he attempts to tweak the past to bring his dear Rachel back to life.

How do you write such a scene without losing it? How do you make it feel authentic to your readers? How much is too much? And how can you be certain that your character’s reaction will ring true?

It’s not easy. Matter of fact, since I loosely base Rachel on my own wife, and since Sam and I are really quite alike, it was close to torture.

I called upon my darkest, most powerful emotions experienced when my father died and also when my own dear wife almost died several times in the past few years. I’ll never forget the time the nurse in the ER called the nun on duty to bring me to a little room where no one would see my reaction to her impending news that Dale might not make it. She carried a box of Kleenex under one arm and a bible in the other. She was so sweet. Yet it was one of the scariest moments of my life. Thankfully, my wife pulled through and is doing okay today.

That hollow-gut, black-sludge-in-your-heart feeling is horrible when you lose someone dear to you, isn’t it? It’s all encompassing. Sometimes you just want to deny that awful truth, and pull away—far away—like Sam does in the following excerpt. I tried to channel those feelings when getting inside Sam’s head. Let me know if you think it worked.

Here’s the setup. Sam just picked up his son, Andy, from the airport and they enter the house after arriving home. Andy’s just arrived from his second tour of duty in Iraq, and this is his long-awaited homecoming. Rachel’s been cooking all morning to welcome her boy home. All day, Sam has ignored the insistence of the green marble, which has been pulsing, glowing, and searing his leg all day from his pocket; little brother Billy—who communicates from beyond through this talisman—was trying to “warn” him that something was terribly wrong.

For Keeps is book #3 in Moore Mysteries, and is now available through Twilight Times Books and The series can be read in any order.


Sam raced toward the laundry room in a panic. Rachel’s wheelchair sat abandoned in the hall, and his son froze in the doorway, hands clenching and unclenching at his side.

Andy’s voice thickened. “Maybe you shouldn’t come in here.” He spun and tried to hold Sam back.

One of Rachel’s shoes lay beside the doorjamb. The brown clogs. Slip on. With lambswool lining. She loved them so much she wore them even in summer.

Sam drifted closer, terror pooling in his stomach. As if in anaphylactic shock, his throat tightened and threatened to close off his air. His heart beat wildly now, in his throat, ears, chest.

Sam barreled past his son and stumbled into the room, his voice hoarse. “What happened?”
Rachel lay on a basket of laundry, her eyes wide open, looking with blank surprise at the ceiling. Sam’s garden shears protruded from her heart. The image danced before him like heat waves on tar, shimmering with unreality. Blood ran from Rachel’s floral print blouse to the sheets stained red in the basket, pooling on the white linoleum floor.

The room tilted. A series of screams of No No No No No resonated in his head. Or maybe he yelled it aloud. He couldn’t tell as he shoved Andy aside and collapsed beside her, checking for the pulse that evaded him like a cruel tormentor. Neck. Wrist. Ankles. No beating met his probing fingers.

“NO!” He drew the shears from her chest, sickened by the soft sucking sound it made, then wadded up a compress of pillowcases and held it over the wound to stem the flow. More blood dribbled from the wound and curled around her pearl buttons. He realized with a start that she was still warm.

He looked wildly about the room, as if a solution lay beneath the neatly folded piles of towels and linen. “Call 911. Hurry!” He cradled Rachel in his arms, smearing the blood between them, and feeling her arms dangle away from him, as if she didn’t have the strength to return his embrace.

Andy cried out, his anguish pinging across the small room. He squeezed between his mother’s body and the washing machine, holding his hand out to his father. “Dad. It’s too late. She has no pulse. I checked, too.”

“NO!” Sam’s mind reeled, his vision clouded, and the scent of blood tasted metallic on his tongue. “Who did this? Is he still here? She’s still warm, Andy. Find the bastard!” He stiffened when his brain repeated a phrase he’d heard during some of Rachel’s favorite shows.

Don’t disturb the evidence.

Panic slewed over him, boiling inside his head, freezing his arms and legs.

My garden shears. The killer took them from the barn. Used them on my Rachel. And my prints are all over them.

A great gulping scream filled his throat, tearing out of him like a primal scream. “RACHEL!”
Her head slumped sideways when he moved away, as if she was rejecting him. He checked her pulse again, muttering under his breath. “No way. No. No.” In a sudden manic thrust, he stood and reached for the marble, searching his pockets, patting madly at his pants and shirt. “My God. Where is it? What did I do with it?” Sam asked aloud. “Billy! Why didn’t you warn me?”

Inside the double-stuffed world that batted him between reality and nightmare, he remembered the marble’s insistent throbbing all morning. Billy had tried to warn him, had tried hard.

“Dad, come on. You can’t help her now.” In spite of Andy’s two tours of duty in the heat of battle in Iraq, the bodies he had seen and possibly created, and his soldier-toughened soul, he wept. Loud and strong, he wept and choked on his words. “Dad. Please. Leave her be. It’s over.”

Andy pulled him to his feet. Sam stared at his son as if he’d never seen him before. His eyes widened, trying to piece together a puzzle. Who is this nice young man? And why does he look so familiar?

Andy took him by the elbow and started to shuffle him toward the living room.
“Come on, Dad. Let’s go sit down.”

“No. Please. My wife needs me. She has multiple sclerosis, you know.”

Andy’s eyes popped open. Tears still streamed from them, and he shook his father’s shoulders as if he could not only snap him out of it, but maybe bring back his mother, too.

“Dad! Come on. Hold it together. Don’t do this.”

Sam stopped and stared at his bloodied hands. His legs weakened to jelly. He stumbled, then braced himself against the wall as sobs wracked him in waves of increasing amplitude. He slid to the floor and buried his face in his hands.


Dear God.

Not Rachel.


Thanks for reading! I hope you were drawn into Sam’s world, and that you might want to see how our favorite retired family doctor gets out of this one.

FREEBIE! The FOR KEEPS Kindle eBook will be free to all readers on Sept. 14th, 15th, and 16th 2012, as well as on October 12th and 13th. Please stop by for your free download here. Also, all of my other books in my three mystery series will be priced at $1.99 during this sale. Check them out at

Aaron Paul Lazar

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

National Year of Reading: Three Paths to Print Event

 Today I participated in a wonderful group event at the Toronto Library with other local authors Jaye Ford and Wendy James.  The session was titled Three Paths to Print and we did indeed talk about our paths to print, our publishing and writing experiences, and the whole notion of what's in involved in having a novel published.  Thanks to the promotional efforts of Macleans Bookshop and Lake Macquarie Library, the session was well-attended with a lively, interested audience that asked us some terrific questions, took notes, and generally kept us talking past our allotted hour.  We talked about such things as the need for and role of agents, on editing and keeping track of timelines over a full novel, writers conferences, critique groups, rejection and tenacity, what our average writing day/schedule was like, and a lot more. One of the things that really struck me was, not so much the differences in the paths that we 'took' to becoming published authors, although of course our experiences did differ in many respects, but the similarities in terms of our interests, our writing processes, and our senses of what it means to be a professional writer. 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Poetry Monday: Emily Dickinson

ModPo is here! We're just about to begin the 10 week long course in Modern and Contemporary poetry (30,000 worldwide participants and rising! Who says poetry isn't popular?) and I'm afraid you, dear readers, are going to be following my updates every (poetry) monday as I talk about the course and what I'm experiencing from it (or at least giving you a taste of the poets I'm enjoying). I'll try and keep things rather brief, but that's not usually my style, so apologies in advance if I go a little overboard. You already know I'm a poetry nerd, and the course is going to be something of a feeding frenzy for me, so forewarned is forearmed.  Now I did tell you last week as we skimmed the surface of Walt Whitman, that Emily D was coming to Poetry Monday this week. One of my earliest exposures to Dickinson was via my dear uncle, who composed the most beautiful version of 101 or "Will There Really Be a Morning". I've had this piece of music in my head all week (with Ricky's voice) and now I'm gifting you with it.  This version is sung by soprano Maria Mascari and played by pianist Ken Dake. Mascari really draws out the longing inherent in the words: the long dark night, and the hunger for clarity and freedom from pain. 

Though the course doesn't start until tomorrow, the Facebook page for it has been extremely active, and instructor Al Filreis posted up a short Dickinson poem (185) with the words "Let's Discuss":

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency. 

We had 256 responses to this, and some of these responses changed my perspective of the poem.  My initial response was the obvious (light, tongue-in-cheek) science trumping religion, but Dickinson chooses her words so carefully, and I began to look closer at the fresh way she combines her words and to think about the very female perspective she represents on empirical wisdom, sitting as she does here, between the priest and the doctor.  Look closer, she seems to be telling us to go deeper.  There's more below the surface. Not everything is immediately visible to a "Gentleman's" eye. Feel free to chime in with your own interpretation. Or just enjoy Mascari's exquisite voice on what I think is one of Dickinson's most moving (and accessible) poems.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Happy International Literacy Day

Happy International Literacy Day everyone.  I think that, of all the causes that I support, literacy is the dearest to me.  Not only because it's the backbone of my life - I grew up surrounded by books and they continue to broaden and add joy to my life and the life of my family and friends (that includes you!), but also because, as UNESCO very rightly puts it, "Literacy contributes to peace as it brings people closer to attaining individual freedoms and better understanding the world, as well as preventing or resolving conflict." In other words, literacy is the root of our global intellectual, mental, and moral health.  UNESCO has  recommended 5 things you can do to support literacy in your community:

1.  Donate books and reading materials to your local school or community centre
2. Start a reading club (if you've already got one - well done - maybe your club could do #3)
3. Volunteer to teach literacy classes in your community  
4. Become a mentor of a non-literate person
5. Send your literacy stories to joinliteracy(at)

In any case, as you cuddle up with your books this evening, remember that there are 504 million illiterate people in Asia and the Pacific alone.  Even in the US, the functional illiteracy rate is sitting around 20%!  Check out this infographic. 42 million adult Americans can't read at all.  If that isn't a call to action, I don't know what is. Why not share your own literacy stories in the comments below? Or talk about what literacy means to you. Let's share Literacy Day together.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Poetry Monday: Walt Whitman's Song of Myself

As ModPo begins in one week, I thought I'd prepare (and have a little fun too) by reading, outloud, the last (and maybe most well-known) stanza from "Song of Myself" by Walt Whitman. Whitman's work opens the course - we'll be spending the first two weeks on him and Emily Dickinson (so you probably know what to expect next Monday...or do you...?).  As I've suggested in the video, please chime in with your thoughts, your favourite bit of Whitman (not talking about samplers here), or your thoughts about modern poetry in general.  I've studied lots of things over the years, but it's been a long time since I last took a literature course, though there was a time when it was all I took, so I'm quite excited to be going back, as it were, to my roots. I'm hoping that the course will add depth and another dimension to my reviews of modern poetry (especially highly experimental forms, which I struggle with), and of course, I'm fully expecting it to be fun, and just a little indulgent. Yum.