Visiting the Mall

I dropped off my daughter at UVM and took a short stroll through the Burlington mall where all kinds of memories returned—being with my childhood friends. Something about the beige tile floors, the shades-of-beige walls and the nostalgically manic Christmas decorations. I know that if I’d bumped into my friends, even thirty years later, we would comfortably pick up where we left off. There’s something about childhood friendships, making us more like brothers or sisters, that can only happen among children. We weren’t mall rats. We lived too far away. When only visited to shop on holidays or to see a movie. We always burned our allowances playing video games. All this is to say that going to the mall meant being with friends; and every mall, in those days, was a kind of world’s fair. There was no internet. Going there meant seeing everything that was the newest technology—and girls. I miss the mystery of girls. I miss wondering when a beautiful girl would want to sit next to me—that girl, you know, who would make me forget all about my friends.

Childhood

There was something about those years—grade school and high school. That’s not to say that I have good memories of ‘school’. I’m sure that I “suffer”—quote unquote—from ADHD Daydreaming. Even now adults sound like they’re in Peanuts cartoons. I can’t listen to anyone talk more than 1 or 2 minutes. Forget poetry readings. Any shiny object—word or association—sends me off like a witless crow. I feel bad about that because, after all, I’m a poet. If I’m reading I will daydream words that aren’t there, and while writing too. They’re very often striking mistakes that I turn into poetry. Squeezing a thumbtack keeps me focused. I’m not joking. In school, I was the kid drawing and/or staring out the window—watching the weather go by and getting Cs and D minuses for grades. I was always picked last. For good reason. I was the loopy kid in left field staring at the clouds. I was recommended to the school psychologist because I never wanted to play with classmates in the playground. I wanted to be off by myself. I didn’t start talking until I was four years old. I did all my talking in my head. That also landed me at a therapist’s office. The amazing thing about ADHD Daydreaming, if that’s what it is, is that I dream up story ideas faster than I can write them—and everybody wanted me to be the Dungeon Master. But there was something about those school years—when I wasn’t in school.

The Putting Away of Childish Things

I remember reading this sentiment time and again when I was growing up. There was childhood and there was manhood. And it is an impoverished man who cherishes childish things. I believed it. And even as a child was saddened by that. Now, with a half century behind me, I can firmly say that all those manly writers who spouted this advice were blowhards—complete blowhards. They can take their grown-man’s wisdom along with a swift kick in the ass. I have not put away my childish things and couldn’t write poetry without them. I couldn’t write my fanciful fables, fairy tales, short stories and novels without all those childish things. If you’re still a kid—think twice before you give away your favorite toy. I still have my Space 1999 Eagle Dinky Toy.

If I Had it to do Again

I wish I could relive almost every part of my life. I used to think that the car didn’t move but that the Earth rolled under it. The gas pedal and steering wheel dictated how fast the Earth moved and in which direction. Later I wondered if time was like that. Maybe we don’t move through time, but time moves through us. I don’t know what the difference is, but that got me thinking about doing it all over again. In my latest novel, North of Autumn, the Librarian of All Things, met by the main character Zoē, offers Zoē an altogether different understanding of time. She asks Zoē to imagine that time isn’t like a stream at all. Time doesn’t have a direction. The past can be changed as decidedly as the future. She says, imagine that time is like the surface of a pond and that every mote of consciousness is like a stone thrown onto its surface. What we perceive as time are the countless ripples of consciousness, among all beings, flowing outward from each and in all directions. When I was eleven, I had Near Death Experience. I remember being shown everything that had happened and everything that was going to happen. It was all so simple, obvious and beautiful. I wondered how I’d ever forgotten.

The Devil Wants to Know

I love the Devil, not the devil of Christian mythology (the devil that the middle ages and Milton turned into a run-of-the-mill feudal Lord) but the far more fun and clever devil of folk and fable—the trickster and troublemaker. In North of Autumn and Tiny House, Big Mountain I tell stories about God and the Devil. God always means well, but whenever God tries to do something nice for all of us, it ends in disaster. The Devil, on the other hand, is the trickster who has no faith in humanity and loves to trip us up, but whenever the Devil tries to meddle in the affairs of human beings, it all ends splendidly and happily. This brings about no end of frustration for both God and the Devil. One of my favorite stories is a Taoist fable in which every bit of fortune ends in disaster and every disaster leads to good fortune. How do you know that’s a good thing? How do you know that’s a bad thing? In the Yin-Yang symbol, a white dot appears in the midst of the black and black appears in the midst of the white.

Poetry Kills

I’ve been reading Shakespeare, sort of as a break before starting my next novel, and reading Jane Austen (research) for my next novel—called Writer, Writer. I came across a passage from each that I have to pass on. First, from Pride and Prejudice:

~ “Perhaps he thought her too young. However, he wrote some verses on her, and very pretty verses they were.”
“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There was many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love?” p. 36-37

And here I thought it was me. In my experience, nothing drove off love like a poem. The better the poem, the more effective at nipping love in the bud. My reasoning is this: Any girl to whom I gave a poem probably assumed that the effort needed to write the poem bordered on a marriage proposal—especially if it was only an acrostic Shakespearean Sonnet which spelled out the girl’s name. Yes, I really did this. It took half an afternoon to write the sonnet and five minutes to end the relationship. Moral: If you want girls, forget poetry. Learn to play the guitar. Then I ran across this while reading Shakespeare’s As You Like It:

I was never so berhymed since Pythagoras’ time that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.” III.ii.163

Foot note: Alluding to Pythagoras’s transmigration of souls and to the popular belief in England that Irish bards were capable of rhyming cats to death.

I had no idea that a rhyming Irish bard could kill cats. Having a thoroughly Irish name and fancying myself a bard, I sat at one end of the kitchen table and my unimpressed cat at the other end. I recited my rhymes and my cat’s tail twitched. After an hour or so, and after the one hundred and thirty-second canto of Spencer’s Faerie Queene, my cat trolled me by licking her posterior. I gave up. Clearly, having an Irish name and being of Irish descent is not the same as being Irish. Also, it’s possible that Spencer isn’t Irish enough.

The Devil’s Proposal

I met the Devil at the mall. I always recognize the Devil because there’s always something off. In this case he was wearing a solid wool scarf. No Vermonter would do that when there’s plaid flannel to be had. I sat next to him and we both watched shoppers come and go. He was no doubt up to some mischief. “You’d like to do it over again,” he said.

“Tragic that we only get one life,” I answered.

“May you do, maybe you don’t,” said he. “Maybe there’s no me, no God, no afterlife. You die and your heirs—” The devil inhaled with pleasure. “If you love the Devil, don’t write a Will. I beg you. Don’t write a Will. Leave it to your kin and probate. But as I was saying: Maybe you drop dead and go to Heaven or Hell? If you’re looking for malls by the way, they’re all in hell now; but maybe you don’t believe in heaven and hell. What about reincarnation? That one is tricky. Consider all the nauseating whining about not remembering past lives. ‘If we’re reincarnated, why can’t we remember anything?‘ The whining is insufferable. But what if you could? What if you could remember everything? Wouldn’t every life be another episode in the same miserable sitcom?”

“Surely you didn’t come here just to vent,” said I.

“Do you see that woman just now exiting the chocolaterie. God rewarded her. She won a tidy sum playing the lottery. God’s bounty is infinite. She buys chocolate—good chocolate. Expensive chocolate. Little does she know that her little Pomeranian, her dearest and faithful companion, will be dead because of it, having run off with her Fair Trade, Oganic, 100% Chocolate chocolate bar—pure poison if you’re a Pomeranian. She’ll spend the sum of her winnings trying to save the little beast and I will get the blame for it.” The Devil sniffed. “It might have survived the chocolate but it won’t survive being run over. Meanwhile, do you see that horrid man berating his wife and children? Hurry, he scolds! Hurry! He shall go drinking tonight and I shall reward him for it, baleful scourge that I am. He shall total his Tesla, newly acquired, and he shall be fired by his investment banking firm. But, lo and behold, while at the hospital a tumor will be discovered! It would have killed him within the month. The tumor shall be removed. This horrid man, so shaken by his brush with death, will give up the bottle, his life of high finance and devote himself to his family. God’s bounty is infinite!—they will say. God works in mysterious ways!” The Devil sniffed again. “All because the fool swerved to avoid a horrid little Pomeranian with a chocolate bar in its mouth.”

Is it me?

Be honest.

I just received my first rejection for 2022. The agent, who I really thought would click with my novel (and had specifically requested magical realism) wrote that she just didn’t feel the “spark”. That made me feel like a konmari’d pair of socks. But didn’t I used to spark joy? Did I not kiss your feet?yours and only yours? Does that mean nothing? To be fair, her rejection letter was one of the loveliest I’ve gotten.

In the meantime, I’m back on the official Manuscript Wish List and #MSL website. I ran across this on Twitter: “Okay, so about 70 percent of the editors at this speed meeting event want magical realism. ME TOO. Where is it?? #MSWL“.

Hello? I have two ready-to-be-published Magical Realist novels. Two. And they’re good novels. Where are you? Are we two ships passing in the night? Am I hanging out with the 30 percent who run around in bare feet? Am I wool? Am I hole in your heel? Are my toes blown out? Oh wait, I’m just noticing that the agent who wrote this isn’t accepting unsolicited manuscripts. Well. That explains it. Where is it? asks the agent who isn’t accepting manuscripts from authors like me.

Just sayin’.

And have I mentioned how finding an agent is like online dating? We go into this thinking we’re irresistible—who wouldn’t love us?—until we see ourselves the way everybody else sees us.

[Image of fool upper right-hand side: Self-Portrait]

This and that…

The Diminishing wage of Authors and Traditional vs. Self-publishing

Having finished North of Autumn, my second novel, I’ve begun another round of submissions to agents. I chose three this time, one of whom is in Berlin and who I’m hoping will actually want to read the novel. But the waiting game begins again. Based on submitting my first novel, about half of agents simply don’t respond if they’re not interested. So be it. Since I only have so long to live, however, I’ll be giving agents 4 weeks to respond, then move one.

On the other hand, I go back and forth as concerns traditional publishing. There’s very little money in traditional publishing for the vast majority of novelists. Don’t even ask about poetry. Agents are largely allergic to contemporary poetry (and for good reason). I was reviewing some other websites so I could write a minimally informed post, and stumbled across some interesting percentages. The most striking was a site claiming that 97% of writers don’t finish their novels. No source was given for this figure and so it may be click bait. I’m not even sure how such a figure would be calculated, so be skeptical. Less skeptically, another site offers some interesting figures on the percentage of authors who earn a living wage. The site reported that “63 percent of authors who reported receiving book-related income in 2017, the average total income was $43,247“. Alternatively, of course, that means that 37% of authors received no income at all. If I were to earn the average, that would be a step down from what I could make as a builder but a hell of a triumph given what I’ve made by writing so far. The site also notes that “three-sevenths of full-time authors with any earnings were making over $50,000″—the proviso being “full time”. If one is earning enough to be a full time writer, then it stands to reason that one is making something like $50,000 or more.

If you’re a writer like me, with ambitions to be published, there’s an interesting article at the Atlantic you might enjoy—entitled “Now Do Amazon“. The author, Franklin Foer, begins the article by stating a fact I did not know:

~ One of the great literary hoaxes of our time is the book spine. A staggering number of logos stare out from dust jackets, celebrating names including Crown, Vintage, Ballantine, Knopf, and Dial. But the pluralism implied by this diversity of monikers is a sham. In the U.S., nearly 100 of them belong to a single company: Penguin Random House. The rest are owned by a small handful of competitors, one of which is Simon & Schuster.

Foer’s main concern, however, aren’t the mergers and acquisitions (blocked by the Justice Department) that have largely turned publishing into a monopoly (to the detriment of authorial income) but Amazon, which he rightly labels a monopsony.

~ Amazon is arguably the ultimate embodiment of monopsony power. It has, in the past, used its dominance to demand a large cut of publishers’ sales, according to industry insiders. And companies such as PRH have had little choice but to accept—or become bigger, so that they can bargain harder. Amazon’s pressure on publishers has sometimes come out of authors’ pockets in the form of reduced advances.

In other words, not only is Amazon making its billions by squeezing publishers (who are/were themselves hardly saints) but is greatly contributing to the long-term decline in authorial income.

Meanwhile, the website Reedsy argues, in an article entitled “How Much Do Authors Make? The Truth about Money in Publishing“, that Indie Authors (authors who self-publish) fare much better than traditionally published authors—all else being equal. They write:

~ …many more self-published authors make a living than traditionally published authors, with self-publishing royalty earnings outpacing trad pub’s advance plus subsequent royalties. This was proven by several years of Author Earnings reports — most notably, one study that divided authors into groups earning more than $10k, $25k, $50k, and $100k. The study found that the number of indie authors earning 5-6 figures/year from book sales was much higher than the number of Big 5 authors earning the same.

This is almost solely, from what I can tell, because of the difference in royalty. While a self-published author won’t get an advance, they can expect to earn 50% to 70% on each book sold while the average royalty for the traditionally published author is 7.5%, and that doesn’t include any agent’s cut.

And so I’m torn, and it’s not necessarily about the money. I probably have another 25 to 30 years to live, so what does a million dollars mean to me? A traditional publisher can market and promote my book and get it on shelves. I don’t have that skillset. On the other hand, a traditional publisher could also sit on the book and decline to market or promote it. That happens. Then all I’m left with, best and worst case, is a small advance and a book that will never see a readership. In that case, I would have been better off self-publishing. Even a small readership is better than none, and with a greater share of the royalty, I would still be apt to come out ahead.

If I’m disappointed by the results of shopping both my books this winter, then I am definitely open to self-publishing and/or looking for an Indie publishing.

Literary Revelations Publishing House

Speaking of Indie Publishers, I recently submitted a Shakespearean sonnet to Literary Revelations Publishing House. I haven’t submitted any of my poetry anywhere for years, not since founding this blog, but, you know, if I’m going to stop being a hermit… Their home page states that they are “an independent publishing house dedicated to showcasing the best literary and art work. We publish poetry, short stories, interviews, art, and novels.” Their website is really quite professional. My sonnet was in answer to their call for poems on the theme of childhood: “Hidden in Childhood: A Poetry Anthology – Call for Submissions“. If you have written poems on childhood, or have one to write, then consider submitting something and supporting your local, Indie publisher.

Chaucer was not a Rapist

Unfortunately, this article, entitled “Chaucer the Rapist? Newly Discovered Documents Suggest Not” is behind a paywall, but the gist is this: “A court document discovered in 1873 suggested that around 1380, Chaucer had been charged with raping Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a London baker. In the document, Chaumpaigne released Chaucer from ‘all manner of actions related to my raptus’— a word commonly translated as rape or abduction.” Apparently, two scholars discovered a second copy of the document in which the word “raptus” had either been removed or omitted as a result of Chaucer possibly having hired a new lawyer. The suspicion, that this was Chaucer whitewashing, led the scholars to the original writ of the case (previously unknown). It turns out that Chaucer and Cecily Chaumpaigne were both the defendants and were being sued by a Thomas Staundon who accused Chaucer of poaching Cecily from Staundon’s service. In that case, the scholars argue, raptus refers to ““the physical act of Chaumpaigne leaving Staundon’s service.” So, Staundon was not suing Chaucer for raping Cecily Chaumpaigne but suing both of them—she for leaving his service and Chaucer for poaching her. According to the article, this discovery landed like a bomb. Needless to say, there is considerable resistance from scholars, especially among feminist critics, who have produced criticism predicated on Chaucer’s having raped Chaumpaigne. That’s a tough spot for them, but it’s daily life for any scientist. One day you’re working on your unified field theory and the next some new scientific discovery invalidates the entirety of your corpus. I personally am just as happy to see Chaucer’s good name restored. Judging an artist by their art is fraught with self-deception, but the kind of man who could write Chaucer’s stories, with their humor and wisdom, doesn’t mesh with a man accused of rape.

The first Poet & Writer

There’s a lovely article in the New Yorker about the Priestess Enheduanna. I first ran across her poetry about a decade ago and fell in love with it. It’s truly powerful and beautiful verse. The article is entitled “The Struggle to Unearth the World’s First Author“. The article primarily addresses the strange reluctance of scholarship to acknowledge and celebrate Enheduanna’s primacy or that she even existed—emphasis on ‘she’. The author, Elizabeth Winkler, writes:

~ But since their discovery, in the mid-twentieth century, scholars have fiercely debated Enheduanna’s authorship. Did the priestess really write these works? Is the idea of a woman at the beginning of the written tradition—two thousand years before the golden age of Greece—too good to be true? This winter, an exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, “She Who Wrote: Enheduanna and Women of Mesopotamia,” will try to give the priestess her due.

Winkler later in the article elaborates on the apparently male-centric biases that have resisted Enheduanna’s identity not just as a writer/poet but as a female:

~ Of particular note is a statue of a woman with a tablet in her lap—evidence of women’s literacy and engagement with writing. (When it was first discovered, in the early twentieth century, the German scholar Otto Weber reported, “Our specimen carries a tablet on her knees. Its meaning is not clear to me.”) The statue and others like it have been ignored in the academic literature, Babcock told me. “If this was a man with a tablet in his lap, there would be twenty articles about it.” Such artifacts upend long-held assumptions—about literacy as the preserve of élite male scribes, and about Middle Eastern women as being confined to the domestic sphere.

What I didn’t realize, until reading the article, is just how much of her writing has survived (which is astonishing given how many thousands of years ago she wrote) and the extent to which her writing was kept alive by later generations, even to 500 years after her death. My own opinion is that when reading the poetry of Enheduanna we read the work of a literary genius—the Shakespeare of her age. To think that her voice could survive for thousands of years! It bespeaks a woman, star-gazer and poet who, in her suffering, was capable of communicating our common humanity with a language, symbol, metaphor and archetype that still holds meaning thousands of years later.

And that’s all for today, November 23rd, 2022.

North of Autumn | Ellie’s Hymn

I thought that “the final hymn” would be the last hymn I would write for North of Autumn, but it wasn’t five minutes after I posted the hymn that the current poem began to write itself out of my imagination. I call it Ellie’s Hymn because Ellie is Zoē’s deceased mother and the author of the hymns that appear in the book. These are the final words of the book and are as much a farewell to the reader.

I know better than to say:
  Give no thought to when.
There’s nothing to wish the ache away
  But that we’ll meet again.

Give to the intervening hours
  As much as absence takes
But nothing more—our love is ours;
  And the bonds affection makes.

To you alone the keys
  Who, friend and lover, part;
To you the secret codices
  And chambers of my heart.

Ellie's Hymn from North of Autumn