It’s a simple idea. Make a garden along the fence in the back lane and on that fence, mount bits of poetry, so when people walk the neighbourhood, they’ll pause, perhaps read something that moves or inspires them, and then, continueStefa on until next time. It’s a simple idea, but Stefanie Ivan not only had the idea, she followed through. There are perhaps a dozen poem fragments mounted, from Rumi to Margret Atwood, to Alice Major and Charles Bukoski. This year, Stefanie invited me to send her a line or two, so, I’m there too. If you’re ever walking in Griesbach, keep your eyes open. This is one of Edmonton’s hidden gems.
This is another example of a Sorbet. I love the prompt of “Imagine this,” because that is what writing is about. We imagine this and then a story comes to life. It is a joyous way to enter story.
Imagine this: When she Bernice Upton announces she would like to tell Robert Janes a story, he is intrigued.
“What kind of story? A story with a happy ending? Love? Romance? Adventure? Will there be swords?”
“No, I expect it will be like asking the waitress in your favourite café about her life and finding out her great-grandmother slept with Ernest Hemingway, and that this great-grandmother had a sister who posed as a man to get into the army in the Second World War, and this woman’s son became a speechwriter for one of the presidents of the United States – one of the good ones, not the horror they have now – and that the speechwriter’s daughter is a dancer with the New York City Ballet and that she worked on a cruise ship for a year before she auditioned for the ballet; and that ship came close to hitting a massive iceberg off the coast of Hawaii. And on that night in August, when the iceberg – all 200,000 tonnes of it – was a few metres off the starboard hull of the Albatross, the dancer – who was standing on deck, on the port side looking out into the warm tropical night, despondent because two married men had hit on her that night and this must be a sign her dance career was going nowhere – felt suddenly cold.” Bernice Upton stopped. Cleared her throat. “It will be something like that.”
This was a Sorbet a few weeks back. A sorbet is a bit of prose/poetry/or a riff that is raw and fairly new, delivered to your mailbox weekly. If you’d like to get things like this every week, there’s a form on this website. Join the Sorbet family:
The clown in moonlight
Tonight, in the back of my mind, there is a man wearing a red clown nose, and he is confused about something simple. Like why doors open one way but not the other. Or why his trousers are on backwards. Or why he sometimes feels as if he is standing on the narrow ledge outside a window, 36-storeys up looking down at everything small.
But what if the clown is standing on the balcony of a small hotel room in Mexico, looking up at the moon and the moon is wrong. It’s tilted, as if it’s not the same moon as he remembers. As if it’s fallen over. He knows if he tries hard enough, he can right the moon with just his hands and his powerful mind.
Perhaps he is confused by the moon’s silence, which it owns so thoroughly. The clown stops and listens, and the moon is silent. Hello? the clown thinks. I see you have fallen over and I will help you. It is the least I can do. For all you do for us, it is a small thing. And the moon says nothing. And the clown listens, his hand up to his ear. Waiting.
Then, the clown is, again, trying to open the door the wrong way. He pulls on the push side and fails. Perhaps he tries so hard, he falls down. Gets up and tries again, this time, turning his back to it. And fails again to open the door. Then, he crawls toward the door and sneaks his hand up the frame and still, the door won’t open.
He removes his trousers and stands on the beach in his red polka-dotted briefs as if this is normal. He will twist and turn his trousers. Unfurl, and shake them out. And then put them on backwards again, as if everything is fine. He will go to shove his hands into his pockets but they won’t be where they’re supposed to be. He will act as if this is how he prefers it.
The clown will look up at the tilted moon, and out at the ocean. The moon is still watching, listening, marking the seasons in its own sweet way. And the clown is determined to hear. He listens beyond the ocean. Beyond the breeze in the palms. Beyond the refrains of flamenco guitar coming from an open door. He will stand in the sand and he will never stop listening to moon.
The new book is called (tentatively) The Forensics of Loss and it’s coming along!!! I’ve written three endings so far, perhaps more to come. Perhaps they’re all the same ending. It’s nice to write toward an ending. Even if that ending may change. Here are the locations so far — Macon and Lyon, France — London, England — San Francisco, Palm Springs, California — Sanremo, Italy — Osoyoos, BC, and Jasper Alberta. So, all over the world. A bit of a travel mystery. I hope to top it off at 75-80,000 words.
This isn’t the elevator pitch but it’s the book in a nutshell:
Bruce loses his wife. She goes missing in Macon and he’s on the hunt to find her. The only evidence of where she might be is a story she told just before she disappeared. He uses this story as a launchpad to find her.
Yes!!! I have a poem/riff being published in an anthology of pandemic poetry this August. Thank you to Kevin Solez, who edited the collection, and certainly made my piece better. I will keep you in the loop about when it’s available. I’ve heard a few of the names of other poets, and my God, I’m in great company. The publisher is Kendall Hunt. Stay tuned.
Here I am, in the finishing movements of the perfectly paced (less perfectly written) “The Testaments,” by Margaret Atwood. There are moments of awkwardness in this text that I am not sure were on purpose. Nonetheless, it’s a fine novel — not that you need me to tell you this. It co-won the Booker for god’s sake. (along with “Girl, Woman, Other,” by Bernardine Evaristo — which I have not read yet). Spent a few days in Banff after Christmas, reading in the hot tub, drinking wine, hiking, and eating. It was delightful. A welcome break from…well, everything. Now it is a new year and I am reminded of the quote from the movie Whatever Works. “That’s why I can’t say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.” — Boris Yellnikoff
If I was going to make a New Year’s resolution, it would be that quote. To be open to anything that could provide a temporary measure of grace and grasp onto it!
This December darkness sits on the city like a beautiful, brooding woman wearing a flowing, grey satin dress that is dropped to the ground. Under her dress is a layered white crinoline.
It is snowing, hesitantly, as if it doesn’t really want to. It’s 3:34 p.m., and depressingly dark. The sun was a no-show. AWOL. Gone behind grey. On the radio, a drive-home host doesn’t know when the Solstice is – she has no idea. “Don’t things turn around sometime in December?” she says. Seventeen days, I say to the radio. How does anybody get a job on the radio without knowing when the Solstice occurs?
On the 21st, the light starts to return. Thirty-four days to get to this exact same quality of light on the other side. When did light become so important? You were aware of the value of light when you put the Christmas lights up on the house last week – you erred on the side of too many, and in fact, went out and bought more. Because light is important. Not because of the birth a Saviour story. Because of light.
Good morning!!! The Elephant on Karlův Bridge is top of mind this week, as it is still with a publisher, and anything could happen. This causes no small amount of anxiousness. I’m open to suggestions about what to do about anxiousness, and twitchiness. Let me know what I should do. You know how to get a hold of me.
Now, this alleged anxiousness raises some important questions in me about writing novels, about telling stories, and where is the “win” when it comes to publishing. Am I really anxious? Or is that just an expected emotion? Maybe I’m not anxious, but rather, excited and hopeful and honoured that my book is being read by a big publishing house – it’s being considered. For sure, I feel gratitude, humility. And it is a risk to put something you’ve worked hard on into the hands of strangers. But at my age, publishing, writing, this game in which I am intimately involved, is beyond ego. It is not about insecurities, or unaddressed damage. It’s certainly not about fame. And it is not about money. It is about story, curiosity, delight, beauty. And wonder – how is it that all of this running around mating, and dating, and falling apart, loving and hating, living and dying came to be? And isn’t it incredible? If you believe, as I do, that we human beings are hard-wired to respond to story, why? Why does “a man falls in a hole and struggles to get out, and then, finally gets out of the hole” work, every single time? The win is in the writing, the act of creating something, the surrender to imagination. There is a quote from Jane Smiley about writing that acts as a rebuttal to Hemingway’s “All first drafts are shit.” Smiley says: “Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist.” That’s a much more positive take on creation. So, if the win is the creation of a novel, a story, a poem, then what’s publishing?
Well, here’s my theory: Publishing is the woman at work who has dirty blond hair and wears sweaters, a lot, and who barely looks up when you walk past her every day. She doesn’t think she’s beautiful, but you have noticed she is – she is beautiful in the persevering way truth works. On her desk, is a picture of Woody Allen sitting on a park bench with Diane Keaton watching the sun come up over the 59th Street Bridge. No pets. No family. Just that image. You say good morning to Glenys every day and she says good morning back. It is a small dance. But that’s the end of it. You do not make forays into each other’s lives. You do not question, or comment about the weather. You say good morning. Then, one morning in December, Glenys looks up and smiles, and she takes your breath away.
That’s publishing. After all the joy of creation, and imagination, and the work of writing, Glenys smiles – and then, your work will in the world. Your story will enter a larger world.
Here is today’s sorbet. You too can get little packages like this delivered to your mailbox weekly, by signing up on the Contact page of this site.
a marigold in November
Tonight I will watch the snow. I will play music, sit, and watch the snow as it twists past the back window. Or falls – maybe the snow will just fall. It won’t serpentine, or make delicate DNA strands past the garage light, or hush the night, or quilt the ground. Sometimes snow simply falls, and is beautiful in its falling. Because the snow has an unmatched vulnerability. There is a healing in snow if you are wounded, or anxious, or downhearted. It can be a salve if you check any of these boxes. Maybe it’s not the snow, but rather, the act of stopping, and watching. I don’t know. I like to think it’s the snow.
Tonight I will watch the snow. Because it is Dia de los Muertos and in this house it is a time for remembering our dead. We gather our reminders – a ballet shoe, a bottle of Rye, a glass of vodka and orange juice, a picture of Harry in the mountains, or Rita in her kitchen, or Marie unabashedly wearing a Mu-Mu. For some reason, I always think of a bass player from a band I was in, who surprised and confused us all when he checked out early. There is even a faded picture of a beloved orange and white cat. I would like to have had marigolds (because the dead are drawn to marigolds) but it is Alberta and a marigold in November is fool’s dream – an absurdity.
Tonight I will watch the snow. Perhaps, I will play Miles Davis, or Max Richter, and join the dead in a drink as the snow falls. If the snow falls. They say it’s going to snow, but it’s weather. Anything could happen. As I age, the room on such nights becomes more crowded. Some of the dead are quietly smiling and talking among themselves in corners. Some want to play, to know things, to be who they were. Others sit and nod, happy to have been remembered. The dead will draw no pleasure from watching the snow. That task falls on my shoulders, and I am glad to carry that weight.
Tonight I will watch the snow. As if it is a prayer. As if falling snow is always a prayer.
The original of the above image once hung in Café Slavia, in Prague, and is called The Absinthe Drinker (by Viktor Oliva*). Many artists have grappled with the subject of absinthe and its affects, including Degas, Manet, Van Gogh, and Picasso — to name a few. I post this here, because this café, and this painting, make an appearance in The Elephant on Karlův Bridge. They are part of the landscape.
So as not to be obtuse about the writing process, young novels get tested. They should be tested, by readers. This step is especially important these days, as publishing houses require manuscripts to be very close to exquisite. The Elephant on Karlův Bridge has been read, by several readers, and many times by a fantastic editor in Victoria — who challenged and questioned. I ask a trusted reader to look for places where the narrative faltered — where they may have dropped out of the narrative dream (As a writer, you want to fix these, always.) And “did it capture you from the start?” And “were there questions you needed to be answered?” And “was the payoff satisfying?” And, “did you care about the characters? — not like, or dislike, but care.” I also ask about pace.
The answers to these questions — apart from buttressing your belief in the story (because writing a novel is a long-distance run, a gruelling marathon, this is important) — can shape future edits and revisions of your book. And this was the case with the Elephant book. Comments like this underscore a connection to readers: Within a few minutes I found myself 50 pages in and I was sorry to have to stop reading and get some sleep. I think this is going to appeal to a broad range of readers: It has an interesting setting and interesting characters both human and animal. Besides, who hasn’t wondered what elephants think about? This one deserves to be read by a lot of people.
And the blunt honesty of this: I think you have a winner here. As I have told you in the past, I have found some of your previous work challenging to get into. Not so with this one. I like the writing style and I find the story engaging.
I am so grateful for these early readers. The Elephant on Karlův Bridge is in the world now, being read, and considered. The elephant is alone, with other readers, and I am hopeful, and wish her well.
* Viktor Oliva was a Nouveau artist who fell in love with the bohemian Parisian lifestyle in the late 1880s, and had a fondness for absinthe and ballooning. His most famous work was “Absinthe Drinker”. The painting featured an absinthe drinker, and a green woman. It was based on the phenomenon known as “The green fairy”, a euphemism from the hallucinogenic effects of the absinthe.
Well, this is hardly a novel, (not yet) but rather an experiment to coax some characters to speak “oddly,” somewhat poetically, strangely. It’s forced and awkward but perhaps worth going after one day.
Maybe you can imagine a man pushing a shopping cart up the aisle of a grocery store and there is a woman leaned against the milk cooler – she’s blocking his way to 1%. She is wearing a camel-coloured overcoat that plays at her ankles. It’s hanging open and this allows him to see she is wearing shorts with black meshed stockings and simple low boots. It seems she is wearing just a white bra for a top. No shirt, or blouse, or anything else. Just the bra.
The man will clear his throat, hoping this woman, who has her eyes closed, will figure out she is in his way and move along.
“A man clears his throat and expects something to happen – some action, or eloquence, or balanced illusion. Some magic trick of bone and flesh and need. Maybe this man thinks there is a hidden code of polite regret inside his throaty interruption. Adjust! Adjust expectation. Cozy up to disappointment.”
And all he can think about is the white bra. He does not care about the 1% milk his wife insisted on. He does not care about the rest of his list. “Somewhere in the ether,” he says. “In the vast chaos of information that is not knowledge, there is an article about the sexiest colour of all the colours of lingerie, and it is white. It is white.” He sighs. He tries hard to look at the milk behind her, not her bra. Not the thought of flesh beneath that lacy fabric. Not the way she perfectly fills the perfect cup of that bra.
She opens her eyes. Blue-grey and intense. “So the man in the aisle finds a woman in a Safeway, sexy.”
“No, no, no, yes, no, maybe.”
“So many contrary options of meaning in such a small space. This imprecise nuance hardly counts as communication.”
“This man, who is almost at the end of his list, and just needs milk and cheese, and coffee – if it’s on sale, is thinking only of the colour. Not the breast beneath. Not the possibility beneath. Not the woman, who is a stranger, an unknown, a meditative curiosity who so effectively blocks the door to milk. This man is curious about that article’s assumption. About its proposal that it’s white, not red, not black, not burgundy, not silver-grey. But white.”
“And still, no meaning to this babel. An insignificant question, hardly posed, but reflected off glass and cold, and tiled flooring – made sharp and exposed by too-bright lighting. Some men are vague and uninteresting and without clarity.”
“A quest, then, this path to 1% milk. A hero’s journey thwarted by a white bra and the dream of the woman who made that choice. Because that woman is not standing here. The woman who chose white is elsewhere. She is perhaps of Persian heritage and devout to her kindness, her need, and her immeasurable talent in the art of passive seduction. Her intention will be veiled, always. There will be no directness to her. She seduces by denying the idea of seduction. Which sounds insane.”
The milk-blocking woman’s voice is quiet, but intense. “Words, words, words. A man must subvert his desire. Bury it deep. Pretend it never existed. Then he will be of interest.”
“Because that sort of commitment to restraint is seditious. And there are women who would find it fascinating.”
“A wise woman would know that desire is hard wired into human beings. We reproduce not because we want to but because we must.”
“This is not about must, it is about want. Perhaps the man in the aisle wants milk?”
It could have been a different conversation in front of that cooler. It could have been that you are the man pushing a loaded cart, and your wife is off in another corner of the store buying flowers because you’re going for dinner and as much as she hates getting flowers for a hostess gift, this is seemed the simplest solution for a hostess gift. You wife will come back with gerberas because that’s her favourite flower. She will not try to imagine what Rebecca’s favourite flower is.
There is a woman in front of the cooler, in front of the milk, blocking your access to the 1%. She is leaned back against the glass and her eyes are shut.
Here’s a teaser. This is the Charles Bridge, in Prague, or the Karlův Bridge. The new book is set in Prague. It’s a story about the consequences of paying attention, or not paying attention. Populated by characters who are in the process of deep change, it is also a book about how we process grief and about how we might finish well. It is about fathers and daughters. It is a story that delves into the differences between falling in love and choosing to love.
It begins as a five-ton elephant escapes from the Prague zoo around midnight and lumbers into the city upsetting the lives of everyone it comes into contact with. The elephant is the unsettling force of change, uncertainty, and she challenges every assumption. She is part trickster, part adventure and whimsy, but also the embodiment of the German idea of weltschmerz, or world pain. And it ends, well, you’re just gonna have to buy the book…