Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Our cockatiel loves Woody Allen

Heil, Poirot!

The nice people at Caffeine Destiny have included two of my poems in the Fall edition of their magazine. I submitted them yonks ago and I'd half-forgotten that I'd even sent them. The poems are 'Sometimes' and 'Scrap Values' both very recent poems (January 2008), actually written with a couple of days of each other. I'm always puzzled by the choices editors make. Of the five poems I submitted back in February these would not be the ones I would have picked but there you go.

I don't put the dates written on poems when I send them out. I always worry that if an editor sees a poem that's ten years old he'll pass it over for something fresher. I have nothing to base that on but that's how I feel. Whether those feelings are reasonable or even rational I've never much worried about but it is interesting that she would pick two poems written so closely together.

I like the layout of this mag. It was half the reason I chose to submit to it. I have no idea what its readership is but they do a respectable job. I had some poems published in a print journal recently and the presentation was decidedly amateurish. But there you go. My only gripe is that the bio is left-justified; I do like my straight edges. And I'd have liked a line space before the second poem. But that's just me being petty. Sorry nice people at Caffeine Destiny.

The first poem is biographical in much the same way as William Carlos Williams' poem about eating the plums from the fridge ('This Is Just To Say') is biographical and it's framed in a similar fashion. The structure is simple. I quite often use a mirrored or palindromic structure. This one has two stanzas each with two lines of eight syllables surrounding a block of five lines each with five syllables. Unusually the last couplet rhymes but since the emphasis in the last line is on 'bothered' I let it stand.

This was one of those pieces I rattled off in five minutes and was in half a mind to throw away. I simply wrote down what I was feeling at that moment without any frills. I was tired and I had too much to read. I'm constantly tired. 'Fatigued' would be a more accurate term but it sounds so Jane Austen – three times in Pride and Prejudice alone (I checked). And I always have way too much to read. Every time I sit down at my laptop I have this wall of e-mails and news feeds and comments sitting patiently waiting to be given my full and undivided attention. And there are times when – to use the vernacular – I'm just scunnered with it all. I know, I know, I know it's part of the game. I have to be visible but I don't want to be. I really don't.

We have a bird, a cockatiel. My wife rescued him from a dirty great big magpie and he's quite taken over our house. Carrie named him 'Poirot' after the great fictional detective but he gets called 'Birdy' after the not so great fictional Vietnam vet. Actually that last bit's not true. He get's called 'Birdy' because he's a bird and I have no imagination. Actually that's not true either. I'm just lazy. I call my goldfish 'Fishy'. I used to give my fish sensible names like 'Mars Bar' but now they're all just 'Fishy'.

Anyway, our bird can be quite noisy when he wants to be. As I'm writing this he's in the next room screaming at Woody Allen. I have a photo of Woody Allen on my bookcase that he's infatuated with. He keeps hauling him out of his frame and chewing on him. In the morning though he prefers to sit on his stand by the window and announce his presence to the world. It can wear one down after a bit. And that's where the poem came from. I was sitting here feeling burdened and there he was without a care in the world, standing on one leg and prattling away at passing doggy-birds and little-girl-birds and the occasional feathered-variety-type-birds.

Of course he's trapped too, a) by his hard-wiring – he's programmed to greet the sun in the morning – and, b) by the window through which he can see and hear all these other birds but can't get to them. My wife could have shooed both birds away when she head the ruckus on the window ledge and we would have now, "[a] silence where there could have been a bird" as fellow Caffeine Destiny contributor Annie Finch might have put it. Yes, sometimes he is noisy but I would never have written my poem without him.

The second poem, 'Scrap Values', is structured in couplets of 5 and 6 syllables but I organised it into three four-line stanzas because it makes more sense that way.

As a writer I've always been fascinated with words and their subtle shades of meaning. Some more than others. Take the words 'price', 'cost' and 'value', for example. Superficially they look as if they all should mean much the same thing but they're so different. There are hidden costs and things aren't always worth what you pay for them; values change and often you pay in other ways; for some things you never stop paying.

The poem is, of course, about personal worth. How does one determine that? To some people I'm valuable, to my wife and daughter, precious even (and not just in the cute sense) but to others not so much. In my last job for the first five years I was invaluable and then they brought in new systems and new people and suddenly I was eminently dispensable. I wrote a book. Yay me. I've had nothing but good reviews. And yet, because my current novel is driving me to total distraction and back, I don't feel like much of a writer. I had a couple of poems published on the Internet. Big deal. There is also my health. A lot of the health problems I have stem from overwork. I've paid though the nose for my aching shoulder, my bad back, the shooting pains in my wrists and my sore neck. Now I have them, what are they worth 'on the open market'? I think perhaps the cost was too high but I didn't see it at the time.

As my fellow contributor Arlene Ang writes in her poem, 'The Model Particular': "Sometimes seeing a wound / heightens the pain factor in the mind." You might not realise what you are doing to yourself until life takes you by the lapels, gives you a good shake and says: "Look!" That's really what happened to me a year ago when I started this blog. I looked, saw the wound and let out one almighty, "Ouch!"

I believe it's a good thing every now and then to step back and count the cost. I left a comment on a young writer's site a wee while back warning him about the dangers of overwork. He's young and still has bounce-back-ability but all you need to do is blink twice and "ten years [will] have got behind you" and what will you have to show for it?

I've never really been a carpe diem kind of chappie. I've pretty much finished whatever project I was working on, stuck it in the proverbial drawer and waited for the next idea. I'm not alone in that. One of the first records I owned was a recording of The Planets with Sir Adrian Boult conducting. A marvellous, sparse recording and I wish I still had it. (I have a version by Karajan just now and it's a bit too enthusiastic for my tastes). Anyway, in the cover notes, Boult talks about his friend Holst who he describes as "one of those fey beings" – it was the first time I'd head the word 'fey' – and how Holst had, on completing his score, literally stuck it in a drawer to be discovered by a friend some time later. Not quite sure I'd appreciate my friends mooching around my drawers but I guess it was a different time. And the rest, as they say, is history. At the time I was quite taken by that. Now I think he was a plonker. Sorry Gustav.

I mention 'demographic' in my poem. It's a word I hate. I really have no idea what the demographic of my blog readership is. I suspect that most are fairly well-seasoned and I know a few have their own regrets because they're written about them with some candour. But to my younger readers (Hello, younger readers) I'd remind them that all we leave at the end of our tour of duty here is scraps and it's up to other people to root through them to see if there anything worth salvaging. It's a fact of life. You can decide for yourselves if you think it's something to be sad about.

In his sermon on the mount Jesus said not to hide your light under a bushel whatever a bushel is when it's at home. I say unto you, don't stick your novels in a drawer for your friends to find and then never invite them over for Sunday brunch.

"Time pearls", at least that's how Jordan Davis, another contributor to the magazine, puts it and by that I assume he means that time is reduced to small, precious moments. That said, I've read Steinbeck's The Pearl and I know that some pearls can be malformed and as ugly as ulcers. I have a few perfect moments but there have been more that I have not made the most of. If you're not careful you'll look back at, what Darren Demaree describes as "a domino / sequence of nothing", moments not taken advantage of in the back seat of The Odeon.

You might think these are two sad poems and you'd be right. Despite the rippling humour I display on occasions in my posts the fact is that I'm really not the most effusive of people and I tend to see the sadness in everything; it's my gift and my curse. I don't regret writing them. We use what's around us. Yes, I know, it's the whole "If life hands you a lemon" speech again but that's about the size of it. There is no subject that cannot be turned into art and there will be other sad – or potentially sad – people out there who will read these poems and either relate to them or decide they don't want to go there, no way Pedro.

I wrote in a poem once: "I don't believe in destiny / but I do in inevitability" and I liked the sentiment so much I stuck it in Living with the Truth for those of you who've read it and just thought, Wait a minute, I've read that somewhere else. It's something I believe as much as you'll tie me down to admitting I believe in anything. If you drive a car like a maniac then it's inevitable that something bad is going to happen to you sooner rather than later. It was inevitable that I was going to end up here or somewhere pretty much like here at about this time in my life. I'd hoped it might be a bit later but I wasn't being honest with myself. As I writer I have a problem with honesty because every time I put pen to paper lies flow like … really flowy things. But you may lie to your readers – Christ, it'd be boring if you only wrote the truth all the time, even journalists can't bring themselves to do that – but only a fool lies to himself.

Now, all of you clamber on your desks and go: "O Captain! My Captain!" and I'll stick the kettle on and we'll have a nice cup o' tea and a bit of shortbread.


Anonymous said...

Great blog post, Jim. Disarmingly casual, funny, wise, truthful, insightful, poignant.

Rachel Fox said...

I like your 'Sometimes'. Sometimes the simple things are just right.

Rachel Fox said...

And can I just say that, by your standards, this post is fairly's like the plague...catching...I like it!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Adrian, that's exactly what I was aiming for.

And, Rachel, yeah, amazing to think I was going to toss it but there you go.

Dave King said...

I go along with all of that. In fact, I find it very Wood Allenish. Congrats on getting the poems published Jim, even if not the ones you would have chosen - what do you want,jam on it?

Jim Murdoch said...

Hey, Rachel, I can ramble with the best of 'em, you better believe it but your crown is safe ... for now.

And, Dave, yes please, raspberry, but not the kind with the seeds in it because they stick in my teeth.

Anonymous said...

At least he doesn't offer verbal criticism as my African Grey does -- it's very disheartening to hear "PHEW! Daddy pooted" just as you complete your most worthy literary composition to date.

If he likes it, Riley tells me he loves me.....(I know awwwwww)


Ken Armstrong said...

Did anyone ever tell you that you were a Kick Ass Blogger?

Jim Murdoch said...

Nah, Margaret, all our wee bugger wants me for is scritches.

And, Ken, I've been trying to train Birdy to say exactly that but he just gives me a look, crawls onto my chest and goes: "Scritch me. Scritch me now."

Conda Douglas said...

Your post gave me a wry smile, a chuckle (at the photo of Woody Allen--ah, our animals, I have a dog whose favorite food is raw onion)and a moment of reflection.

Thanks and congrats on you pubs.

Jim Murdoch said...

That must be fun, Conda, when he clambers on your lap and wants to slobber all over you.

Marion McCready said...

Congrats! I like both these poems - very poignant, and I laughed at dave's comment. The online journal looks like a very good read, thanks for the link.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Like your Caffeine Destiny poems. I had poems there too.

I see one of my UC Berkeley classmates has poems in the same issue as you (Katy Lederer). We were in workshops together 15 years ago!

Jim Murdoch said...

Sorlil, Glenn, glad you both liked the poems. I checked out yours too Glenn – it was a good pairing.

PurrPrints said...

I agree about finding it Allen-ish--and your bird is terribly cute too (I have an african grey myself)

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback Purrprints. I had a look at your site BTW - some lovely art there.I'll think we'll be having a pendant for my daughter for Xmas for sure.

tashabud said...

This is quite long, but it is all worth it. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Your subtle antics and humour put smiles on my face. It's a beautiful prose. I wish you would have posted the two poems. I would have liked to have read them.
Good Day,

Jim Murdoch said...

Tasha, the link was right at the start of the article. Since you missed it here it is again: Caffeine Destinty. Glad you liked the article though.

Fran said...

I came because you gave Sharon's poem its proper title and now have enjoyed both articles and poems so will be back. Fran

The Weaver of Grass said...

In response to your remark that we only leave scraps behind us for others to root through - I bought a little plaque in the US, which I like to think I live by (in a metaphorical sense!) "If life deals you scraps - make quilts!"

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the comments, Fran - delighted to see another Aussie has found their way here – and Weaver too – always room for a Yorkshire lass – hope you both stick around.

Anonymous said...

wow what a nice post

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for dropping by, Kit, hope to see you again.

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