Kali Ma. A poem by Raine Geoghegan

Raine

 

Kali Ma

Goddess of Transformation
Kali follows me home from Ireland
after an encounter on a Drama therapy course.
She sits in the middle of the wooden floor
with her many arms outstretched.
At times she is quiet,
sleeping with her three eyes open.
Red bangles and jewels fall around her waist;
silver bells adorn her dark ankles.
How long is she going to stay?
She isn’t like other visitors.
She frightens my friends when she exercises her arms
and brandishes her sword.
It’s getting worse;
she’s started stamping her feet,
the earth is cracking open.
She’s dancing wildly in the garden,
hurling abuse at the neighbors.
I’ve asked her to leave.
She laughs and sticks her long red tongue out.
She doesn’t notice what is happening to me.
I stay in bed, stop eating,
sleep, dream of who I will become.
When I wake,
she is there, comforting me with her many arms.
She makes me laugh when she rolls her eyes
and waggles her long red tongue.

(Kali Ma – Hindu Goddess of death and rebirth, also known as the Goddess of Transformation) Written after attending the Heroes Journey in Kilkenny, Ireland, 1995           

Raine Geoghegan, M.A. is a Romani poet, writer and playwright living in the UK. She is a Forward prize, twice Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net 2018 nominee. Her work has been published online and in print. Her two pamphlets are published by Hedgehog Press. Her essay is featured in the anthology ‘Gifts of Gravity and Light’ with Hodder & Stoughton. Her First Collection will be published with Salmon Poetry Press in March 2022.

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Spoken Word: Writing Advice with Sue Burge

 

LITERARY ADVICE – JOIN THE OPEN MIC/SPOKEN WORD SCENE AND IMPROVE YOUR WORDPOWER

 

I’ve been reading my poems at open mic events for around seven years.  It didn’t come easily at all.  I was somewhat taken aback as in my day job I could get up and lecture over two-hundred students on the first day of the semester with no qualms, but faced with a room full of twenty or so friendly poets my knees would literally knock together.  Poetry is so personal, it feels as if you are baring your soul, and you need a good organiser and a supportive open mic community to bolster you through the experience.  In the UK open mic slots are generally very short, one poem or two minutes, compared to longer slots at US events.  Many spoken word events welcome prose too.  Flash fiction works well in the time slots available and some events feature writers who read excerpts from their novels/short story collections.

 

So why do we put ourselves through this literary torture?  What are the advantages of these events?

 

David Leo Sirois is a Canadian-American poet who organised a regular spoken word event in Paris, Open Secret, for many years, and now hosts Spoken World On-line on Tuesday evenings.  He says, “It has radically changed my work from being over-thought page poetry to work with a ‘singing” & “storytelling’ lyrical flow, with a skill for holding audience attention for extended periods of time. Now my poetry can be absorbed well when heard aloud and when read.”  He is a great advocate for spoken word events and believes they are a great way to discover one’s own ‘voice’ as a writer, and strengthen it; to try new work out on a live audience, and see what feels right, while seeing live audience response which helps participants to gain confidence in performing and in sharing work.

David Leo Sirois reading in Paris

You don’t have to be a performance poet to read your poetry at these events.  In the UK there has been some tension between ‘page’ and ‘stage’ poets at times but at these events the boundaries blur as everyone listens attentively whether it’s a performance/reading or mixture of the two.

 

Phil Hawtin, a regular at open-mic events, says, “Reading and practising my readings has made me much more aware of the rhythm and even meaning of my own writing, and particularly the importance of speed and emphasis – oddly enough, it’s made me more aware of the importance of enjambment.   And feedback to a writer is very important and is mostly spontaneous and immediate at open mics.   So hopefully my poetry has become more accessible, more rhythmical, more powerful.”

 

Julia Webb, a British poet who is part of the team organising Café Writers, a long-standing fixture of the Norwich (UK) Spoken Word scene, agrees, “It was great when I was making my first steps into the poetry world. Now I use it to try material for my up and coming books and give people a taster. “ She lists further advantages, “Practising or doing  a first reading in front of a warm friendly audience; trying out new poems; making connections and being inspired by other poets. At Cafe Writers we sometime book a good open mic-er as a guest reader.”

 

I particularly listening to the featured writers at a spoken word event.  Somehow even the most renowned poet becomes part of the gang, as if they are doing an extended open-mic session, albeit a brilliant one!  You feel so much more connected to both the features and the whole event if you have a chance to shine too.

 

Heidi Williamson, a British poet and experienced tutor and mentor, remembers how important the spoken word scene was for her, “Reading at open mic events has been (and is) hugely important to my development as a poet. Hearing the words out loud, with witnesses, changes my perception of how the poem is working. It’s a good testing ground to see how the poem coheres and comes over. It’s a vital way of connecting with others and exploring the effect of the language you’ve been fretting over in isolation for ages.

 

“I remember my first open mic very clearly – wobbling up to the mic with my hands, voice and knees shaking. It was a huge milestone for me to stand alongside new and established writers, hoping I was one of them, seeing if I could do it at all. Becoming part of the conversation between poets was a major step for me and continues to be so.”

 

I was in the audience when Heidi first took the mic and can assure both her and you, dear readers, that nerves very rarely show.  I was awestruck at her bravery and her beautiful words and it took many years before I felt courageous enough to do the same!

 

Phil Hawtin concurs, “I love the atmosphere of being at an open mic, the sense of being part of a community.  Open mics also show themes that are important to people and how some are dealing with quite difficult situations, and even riding above them.  It is such a great opportunity to see how different people approach a topic and the ‘voice’; they use to express emotions and thoughts.”

 

Julia Webb adds, “You have to be careful about length – too much open mic can be a bit much for the audience. You can’t control the quality.”   This is so true and spoken word organisers work hard to create a good atmosphere while being aware that too long an event can lead to a loss of concentration and attention.  Based on her many years’ experience, Julia adds the following advice to organisers, “Limit the number of poems or prose per reader. Have a limited number of readers. I read at a zoom event where they let everyone who wants to do open mic do it and it went on for hours – it has put me off going to that event.”

 

Many events have migrated to Zoom during the current pandemic.  How different is the experience?  David Leo Sirois says, “Open mics before a live audience give us the advantage of seeing, hearing, and feeling direct audience response, while an added advantage of virtual shows is real-time chat between audience members, or messages visible to all, plus the possibility of screen-sharing, so one can be both a reader and a listener, absorbing the writing at a greater depth. I genuinely feel there are no disadvantages to either.”

 

David takes his role as host seriously and always has insightful and supportive words for everyone who performs, ““As a host, to create a safe space of trust, I listen deeply and nonjudgmentally, treat all with respect, encourage group comments and support, and remain warmly welcoming, humble, encouraging and supportive. It almost goes without saying, but any outright disrespect, hate speech, etc. would not be tolerated.”

 

 Phil Hawtin agrees, “What I find frustrating is that despite all sense of what is acceptable, some readers still get wrapped up in their words in an offensive way.  Satire can be fun, poems denigrating/abusing say the royal family, religion, or named individuals – are not. I also dislike long preambles explaining a poem.  The poem should be strong enough to stand on its own.”  

 

It can be tricky to decide what to share with an audience.  I always have three or four possibilities (most UK events have very short slots compared to US events) out of which I choose one or two poems for a two-minute slot based on how the event “feels” – it can be a really interesting intuitive process.  Unless you are first up, of course, in which case, it’s up to you to set the tone you think is appropriate.  I’ve often sat over pizza and beer before an event sharing poems with friends and collectively deciding what to read – a lovely experience and one I hope will resume soon as coronavirus restrictions ease.  I will still go to zoom events though, one of the other advantages of having open mics via Zoom is that it has created a global community as people can set their alarms and zoom in from all over the world to an event happening in my home town!

 

So, my advice this month is to take your courage in both hands, and give it a go.   Anything which helps your words develop is worth trying.  The final word goes to Heidi, “It’s nerve-wracking because you care. It helps me not to think of myself as the focus, but the words I’ve worked so hard on are hopefully what people will be interested in. I’m the words’ best guardian and helper out into the world, and I try to be kind to them (and myself) in giving them an airing. And I try to remember to breathe!”

 

Find out more about Julia Webb’s poetry and activities and Café Writers events here:

https://juliawebb.org/about/

https://www.cafewriters.co.uk/

and more about David Leo Sirois here:

https://davidsirois.wordpress.com/

Spoken World On-Line is affiliated to Spoken Word Paris at the Chat Noir, find out more here:

https://m.facebook.com/events/1276063682814225

Here’s a flavour of Phil’s poetry:

https://thewildword.com/poetry-phil-hawtin/

and you can find out more about Heidi Williamson, including her latest poetry collection from Bloodaxe, here:

https://heidiwilliamsonpoet.com/

Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK.  She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University.  Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet.  She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris.  This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press.  Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News.   She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic.  Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon.  More information at www.sueburge.uk

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Grand Pre. A poem by Chad Norman

Chad Norman

                           GRAND PRE

                           for Jack Sears


                           Standing beside
                           the statue
                           of Evangeline
                           I get
                           the meaning
                           of Expulsion,
                           without Websters
                           or the instant ease
                           of Google
                           I simply 
                           placed my hand
                           on her foot
                           and felt
                           the overwhelming history
                           there.

Chad Norman lives beside the high-tides of the Bay of Fundy, Truro, Nova Scotia. 

He has given talks and readings in Denmark, Sweden, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, America, and across Canada.

His poems appear in publications around the world and have been translated into Danish, Albanian,  Romanian, Turkish, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, and Polish.

His collections are Selected & New Poems ( Mosaic Press), and Squall: Poems In The Voice Of Mary Shelley, is out from Guernica Editions. And Simona: A Celebration of the S.P.C.A. will be out early 2021 from Cyberwit.Net (India).

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The Disappeared Poet. A poem by Olga Stein

OLGA STEIN89

The Disappeared Poet 
(For all those courageous enough to stand up to tyranny, and for Mbizo Chirasha ) 


He is believed to have been killed by nationalist forces
in the midst of the civil war in _______.
She was last seen being removed from her home,
accused of incitement against ________,
a regime without tolerance for truth

So you know, I have become an obsessive collector
of scraps of news, grim signs and omens,
as well as voluble declarations of support, and
Internet links that lead me to volatile places,
and murky politics where dissidents sink out of sight.

________

I tell myself: A poet isn’t a shadow,
a barely there shimmer in the distance.
We hear the poet speak, and feel
a solid presence in the words we see 
even with eyes shut.

Confounded, I look for answers,
and picture a man or woman,
at a desk or by a window,
focused on a page or staring
into the distance. But there —

In that offshore refuge, this quiet gaze
materializes hopes and fears.
And though they utter truths,
such honest, private exposés, 
is art, not reportage, we say

The world has changed.
This is no cloak-and-dagger flick, 
Nor Cold War Havana, and poets
aren’t malicious spooks to be hunted
or, like Juan Gelman, the Argentine, callously banished.

Berlin has been made whole again,
Stalin’s reign is over (although the night
of murdered poets haunts us —
still, a poet can’t be disappeared
without reverberations felt worldwide, you see,

In the West, where we think ourselves free.
We cannot fathom the sudden absence 
or whiteout of disappearance, or imagine
erasure without a headline, 
public disclosure, or open letter.

This isn’t Fascist Spain, we repeat,
Recalling Lorca, and point out that
Chile’s bogeyman is also dead, and
Victor Jara was avenged when, after all these years,
Pinochet’s henchmen were convicted of murder.

We praise those with courage enough to speak —
Václav Havel, Nelson Mandela, among others.
But poets, you hear, don’t aim to
don the vestments of party leaders.
Instead, they pick up the mantles of other poets.


The gentlest of visionaries,
poets are solitary people, and
the most unlikely crusaders.
Their words are loadstars
or salves that soothe bruised souls.

Nor can poets be made to disappear (know this!),
for their writing survives and will resurface
like ancient scripts that speak to future generations,
like beacons in the distance, 
whose truths won’t be dimmed or silenced
however brutally and blindly some may try. 

________

From an “S.O.S for Poets: An Open Letter”:

“This letter is a cry for attention, a cry to fellow humans, including poets, all over the world, in Myanmar, Colombia, Sri Lanka and everywhere that words have been silenced, hearts stopped, brains bashed in. Why poets? Poets without borders. Poets as witnesses. Poets writing in the face of tyranny, saying no.” (Beltway Poetry Quarterly, May 2021)

Olga Stein holds a PhD in English, and is a university and college instructor. She has taught writing, communications, modern and contemporary Canadian and American literature. Her research focuses on the sociology of literary prizes. A manuscript of her book, The Scotiabank Giller Prize: How Canadian is now with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. Stein is working on her next book, tentatively titled, Wordly Fiction: Literary Transnationalism in Canada. Before embarking on a PhD, Stein served as the chief editor of the literary review magazine, Books in Canada, and from 2001 to 2008 managed the amazon.com-Books in Canada First Novel Award (now administered by Walrus magazine). Stein herself contributed some 150 reviews, 60 editorials, and numerous author interviews to Books in Canada (the online version is available at http://www.booksincanada.com). A literary editor and academic, Stein has relationships with writers and scholars from diverse communities across Canada, as well as in the US. Stein is interested in World Literature, and authors who address the concerns that are now central to this literary category: the plight of migrants, exiles, and the displaced, and the ‘unbelonging’ of Indigenous peoples and immigrants. More specifically, Stein is interested in literary dissidents, and the voices of dissent, those who challenge the current political, social, and economic status quo. Stein is the editor of the memoir, Playing Under The Gun: An Athlete’s Tale of Survival in 1970s Chile by Hernán E. Humaña.

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A Review of Books. By Gordon Phinn

GordonPhinnPhoto

Books Reviewed:

Glorious Birds, Heidi Greco (Anvil Press)
Freedom, Sebastian Junger (Harper Collins)
Letters in a Bruised Cosmos, Liz Howard (McClelland&Stewart)
Postcolonial Love Poem, Natalie Diaz (Graywolf Press)
Conjure, Rae Armantrout (Wesleyan University Press)
Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, Anne Carson (New Directions)

*

I am always pleased to see small presses venture out of their established playground and Vancouver’s Anvil Press’s Glorious Birds by Heidi Greco is just such a case, propelled by an appealing concision and unfussy conviviality. Subtitled A Celebratory Homage to Harold and Maude, it explores territories CanLit rarely reaches. Its author, Heidi Greco, turns out to be as fine a film critic as she is a poet and editor, and her dedication to the second golden age of American film, exemplified in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, a surreal metaphysical romance if there ever was one, is to be itself celebrated.  One hopes she and Anvil will make time and space for more of the same.  And having attended many showings of the innovative works of that era in various repertory cinemas around Toronto back in the day, I can be described as one of the already converted.  Although the era and its output has been covered in a number of anthologies, documentaries and deep dive volumes (such as Richard LaGravanese and Ted Demme’s A Decade Under The Influence and Christopher Beaches’ The Films of Hal Ashby)), there is definitely room for a Canadian slant on what was basically a US phenomenon.  We see things differently here.

Despite being of chapbook length (125pp) Greco has all the bases covered, – the inception, the editing, the soundtrack choices, interviews with principals and lashes of film buff love, I found myself celebrating her celebration and whispering More Please!

Another leap out of the box would be Sebastian Junger’s Freedom, a walking tour of rural Pennsylvania and philosophical rumination on the endless tug of war between freedom and community, again checking in at under 150pp, when others might have rattled on for volumes.  In discussing the development of the continent’s railroad system in the early 1800’s he succinctly observes that the government’s seizure of land under the principle of ‘eminent domain’ is justified by being overwhelmingly in the public interest, he lays bare the irreconcilable tug of war between the state’s freedom to ‘maximize its own prosperity’ and the individual’s right to ‘own and control land’.  Essentially, he posits, the central problem for human freedom is that groups who are sufficiently well organized to defend against outsiders are also well able to oppress their own.  And thus democracy, whether that of Ancient Greece or more recently the Iroquois Great Law of Peace.

By excising all his historical and cultural tales and revelations to ten pages of sources and references at the end, Junger accomplishes a smart but suspiciously deceptive smooth narrative line, one that can be supped and digested almost anywhere and anytime.  It is one where cooking on an open fire while hiding in nearby woods from the railway police that could easily arrest him and his rotating raft of pals is followed by blithe discussions of technological disruptions of daily life, the appalling disasters of the early railways being a major culprit; the paradoxes of warfare, where the small bands of dedicated guerillas can often outwit and trash a large standing army; what men and women will suffer to escape the predations of authority and establish footholds in the wilderness amidst the relentless slaughter of pioneers by native tribes; how athletes such as boxers anticipate the moves of their opponents from clues so subtle the rest of us would miss completely.

Such displays of chatty erudition tend to slip down like a good brandy, the pleasant inebriation of partial knowledge puffing up the reader’s pride as the body counts of the freedom-from-community struggles pass by, and the ravages of history repeat their bloody vengeance until the appalling mess has been tidied away and a new crop of desperate recruits arrives to fulfil their dreams.  History is indeed a nightmare from which we are trying to awaken but the charm of Junger’s blithe multidisciplinary pronouncements serves only to divvy up our dream life into digestible morsels.  The complexity of the historical process can be carved into self-explanatory slices for the benefit of nibblers but the many course banquet must be attended to digest the awesome complexity of the big picture.

Canadian poet Liz Howard’s Letters in a Bruised Cosmos takes that big picture and focuses on the familial relationships that comprise the details in any epoch.  A worthy follow up to her 2016 Griffin award winner Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, the lyrics of Bruised Cosmos, by turns celebratory and melancholy, evoke the small wars of relationships with their inevitable wounds, healings and last minute dives into diplomacy.  I was particularly touched by the extended meditation on absent fathers in Letter from Halifax.  I was less moved by the more experimental works:  poems that are intricately carved puzzle pieces tend to pass me by, chess games of language that I do not always care to play, but that’s just me, while long experience tells me that others will likely find challenge and stimulation in their construction and gradual unfolding.

Father’s Day

The undertaker doesn’t warn you
about the consistency of the ashes.
Not like those of say, a cigarette.
Scattering them will not be like
when you used to blow into
the ashtrays at your grandparents’
house as if blowing the fluff off
of dandelions gone to seed, for
which you were gently scolded.
The human form is difficult to destroy
utterly.  When fragments of your father’s
bones thud against the ground of his wishing
forgive yourself for the shock, the momentary
turn in your stomach.  When you see that his ash
has caught onto your shoes and leggings and skin
come to see this as your first and only embrace.

*

American poet Natalie Diaz, in her Post Colonial Love Poem, while roaming the vast terrain of history and culture also shows a tender concern for family and its challenging dysfunctions.  A brother, who appears to live in that land well beyond eccentricity, is repeatedly evoked:

Today my brother brought over a piece of the ark
Wrapped in a white plastic grocery bag.

He set the bag on my dining table, unknotted it,
Peeled it away, revealing a foot-long fracture of wood.
He took a step back and gestured toward it
With his arms and open palms –

It’s the ark, he said.
You mean Noah’s ark?  I asked.
What other ark is there? He answered.

(“It Was the Animals”)

Also, the cultural dislocation of native Americans, in what is otherwise a love song to Manhattan:

The things I know aren’t easy: 
I’m the only native American
On the 8th floor of this hotel or any,
Looking out ay window
Of a turn-of-the-century building
In Manhattan.

Manhattan is a Lenape word.
Even a watch must be wound.
How can a century or a heart turn
If nobody asked, Where have all
The natives gone?

  • (“Manhattan Is a Lenape Word”)

Other poems veer into more pain and anger at the actions of authority and police towards these original inhabitants turned victims of that vast republican dream now shrunk by industry, technology and the creeping malaise of empire.

We are Americans, and we are less than I percent
Of Americans.  We do a better job of dying
By police than we do existing.

….

At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the United States.
I am doing my best not to become a museum
Of myself.  I am doing my best to breathe in and out.

  • (“American Arithmetic”)

Post Colonial Love Poem is a powerful statement from what increasingly seems like an endangered species, and one that many feel we should all be paying more attention to.

*

Another US poet, so far unknown to me despite being the author of fifteen books, the latest being Conjure, is the wonderfully enigmatic Rae Armantrout.  Her pithy utterances, part zen koan, part haiku, are as intellectually mysterious as they are mystically profound.  And apparently Nick Cave’s favourite living poet.  I do not normally take rock star’s literary recommendations seriously, but in this case I am persuaded.  These indeed are works of a nimble brain and an elfin wit, liberated from sentiment, heartache, and that literary hospice of language as healing.

Capture

1/
The brain causes lights
to wink,

to appear
to chase one another

around a small tree
in order

to see itself
reflected?

2/
Slow up
and a sense

of importance
attaches,

a lump
in the throat:

matter.

3/
Tell us again
what we are:

foxes, stars, mice,
cars,

splotches
of color

captured.

Finally, we come to that queen of enigma, Anne Carson, who often appears to me as some hot air balloon, shooting off to the horizon of understanding, chuckling.  I have before me a very short play,

Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a modern riff on Euripides’ Helen.  Like most theatrical ventures in language, it will likely be more entertaining on stage than on page.

The poet supplants her actors’ invective and interactions with historical background, opinion and our Lady Marilyn’s take on it all.  Some samples –

History of War: Lesson 5:-

How do you define dirt?  Here is what the Ancient Greeks thought of it: dirt is matter out of place.  The poached egg on your plate at breakfast is not dirt.  The poached egg on page 202 of the Greek lexicon in

the library of the British Museum is dirt.

*

Norma Jeane takes up knitting:-

One thing I learned from psychoanalysis is how to fake it with men.

*

History of War Lesson 4:-

The economy ancient of Greece, like that of early modern America, depended on the institution of slavery, and warfare was a factory for the production of slaves.  Anyone who survived a war on the losing side was destined for this category.

*

Enter Norma Jeane as Mr. Truman Capote:-

Second choral ode.  We have three objectives.  One: rescue this play from melodrama.  Keep her away

from that wind phone.  And three: get Arthur out of Hollywood alive.

*

A surreal post-modern confection to delight the eyes and ears?  A compendium of self-congratulatory learned wit?  I wish I had attended the premiere at the Kenneth C. Griffin Theater on April 9, 2019.  Perhaps then I could have followed the thread back out of the maze.

Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

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Richard Lambert: Literary Spotlight with Sue Burge

Richard Lambert 2019

WORD CITY LITERARY JOURNAL – LITERARY SPOTLIGHT SEPTEMBER 2021

When I was a schoolchild I wrote short stories and always had an embryonic novel on the go but when I started writing seriously it was poetry which drew me into its web of words.  I’ve always wondered what it would be like to go back to prose writing, but the more I write poetry the more tackling such a large body of work becomes a daunting thought.  It was so interesting to talk to Richard Lambert about his ability to navigate through different genres so skilfully.

Richard, you have published two books of poetry, a Young Adult novel, won short story competitions and are, I believe, in the final stages of completing a novel.  It is rare to meet someone who writes not only prose and poetry but also works in a different genre (YA).  What was your starting point when you began writing seriously, prose or poetry?

thumbnail_The Wolf Road Cover 2

My starting point for writing came from reading when I was a child. I loved reading, and devoured novels, and rather foolishly I tried to write one when I was about twelve. It was more difficult than I imagined and of course I never finished it. In my late teens I started writing poems and have been writing them ever since. I didn’t try to write fiction again until I was about thirty, but I think the desire to write a novel was always there from when I was a kid. 

Do you think it’s easier for poets to move to prose, or vice versa?  What advice would you give those hoping to cross over?  What do you find most difficult, and most pleasurable, about writing in such a wide range of forms?

I’m not sure – for me, there are aspects of craft in both poetry and prose that take time to learn. My advice to people who want to cross over to a different form is simply give it a try. There are plenty of people who work in both poetry and prose. Why not? The most difficult thing for me about working in both forms is the time it takes to learn the craft that I need to write the piece I want to write – and the time it takes to immerse myself in that form. It’s time-consuming. The most pleasurable thing for me is that writing prose allows me to stay in an imagined world for longer; if I was just writing poetry, because I write lyric poetry, I don’t spend that long actually writing and being in that imagined space, and that creative act is something I enjoy immensely. So I like being able to move between both. 

I’m wondering why you were drawn to YA fiction and whether it’s tricky to get into the mind of a teenage reader? 

Shadow Town Cover Holly Revised

I enjoy reading genre fiction of many kinds – YA, children’s, crime, literary fiction. I’m drawn to various qualities in my enjoyment of reading a novel, one of which is strong narrative, and I find children’s and YA novels often have this – an onward propulsion that compels me. I think reading a lot of YA novels and enjoying the strong stories led me to try writing one. Also, children’s and YA novels are allowed to be fun and silly and fantastical in a way that literary fiction and crime fiction maybe aren’t. So, it often feels more playful and thrilling to read – and also to write. As to the perspective of younger characters, I try to remember, probably unsuccessfully, what it felt like to be younger – the ordinary daily feelings of terror and boredom and wonder that seemed especially powerful in childhood and adolescence. I think readers of YA fiction are as broad a group as readers of general fiction – so I have to write what I want to write rather than try to appeal to what I imagine they’ll want; although I’m writing within the constraints of a genre, of course, so there are also established patterns of story that I’m working with. Writing in a genre feels a bit like trying to be as free as possible within a set of expectations or constraints.

That’s really interesting, I like the idea of freedom within constraints a great deal.  How do you decide whether your idea is destined for prose or poetry?  Have you ever tackled the same project in both prose and poetry?

The two feel quite different. The kind of poems I write tend to be short, reflective lyrics, rather than considered approaches to a particular subject. With fiction, so far I tend to work from a central idea and to take time preparing, with plotting, research, creating the world and the characters, before starting the project. So they’re quite different. I don’t think I’ve ever tried the same subject in both poetry and prose, though of course there are themes personal to me that seem to crop up in both. 

How about creative non-fiction?  Would this be a future project or is it something which interests you less?  What’s coming up next for you?

I haven’t written creative non-fiction, and while I like reading it, it’s not something that I’m drawn towards in terms of my writing. My current project I’ve actually just completed, is a children’s novel, a follow up to my debut novel for young adult readers – the new novel is called Shadow Town and it’s about a boy who falls into an imaginary world and who is trying to find his way home. It was written to a tight deadline, and is coming out this October. So I’m pretty spent after completing that in double-quick time, and have enjoyed reading since then, especially poetry – Jane Clarke, Michael Longley, John Burnside, Walt Whitman, Adam Zagajewski – and even scribbling a few things down that might turn out to be poems or might stay in my notebook. 

Thank you so much Richard for these insights into parallel worlds!  I’m tempted to give prose fiction a go…

Richard Lambert was born in London and lives in Norfolk where he works for the NHS and writes fiction and poetry. One of his stories was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award and another won the Fish Short Story Prize, and his poems have been in the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, and The Forward Prize Anthology. His second poetry collection, The Nameless Places, was published in 2017 and many of the poems in it are a response to the landscape around the River Waveney, on the Suffolk-Norfolk border. The collection was shortlisted for the East Anglian Book Awards. His debut, The Wolf Road, was a Book of the Year 2020 in the Times, Sunday Times, Guardian and FT. 

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The Scorpion’s Whisper. A novel excerpt by M.M. Tawfik

scorpion's cover 1

Novel excerpt from The Scorpion’s Whisper

The Scorpion’s Whisper is a novel inspired by a desert expedition that took place in 1920 to the mysterious oasis of Kufra, deep in the Libyan Sahara. The expedition was led by an Egyptian, Hussein Bey, and an Englishwoman, Rose. In this excerpt, the foreigners’ caravan has just arrived to the oasis. Gamila, a beautiful local girl, is overcome by a sense of foreboding. She is concerned that the intruders’ sudden appearance may somehow upset her upcoming wedding to the man she loves. Gamila asks her cousin, Sondos, to make use of her occult skills to determine if the intruders are indeed a bad omen.

The two girls sit cross legged on their small hassira, just before the azan calls the faithful to the sunset prayers. It’s their favorite hideout at the edge of the sandy cliff. Their isolated knoll, unnoticed from either plateau or valley, provides an imagined sanctuary for both girls and scorpions.

The sun’s glare has mellowed and the wide flat wadi is a mirage of paradise, lying there, just below their bare knees.

“Let us listen to the scorpions,” she says. For the first time, it is Gamila who begs Sondos to perform her trick. They’ve never found a suitable name for their secret game.

It is Sondos who has taught Gamila the wisdom inherent in all scorpions. Her wild cousin has of course, accumulated a wealth of knowledge and expertise reserved for the chosen few. After all, who else confers with the likes of cross-eyed Khadra who lies on her belly for hours conversing with the ants, or the old woman from Tolab who speaks in different voices and throws stones at the sneering boys, or Zakia whose back, it is whispered, is covered in reptilian scales? After some hesitation, Sondos acquiesces to Gamila’s request.

Sondos stands up and takes a few steps closer to the edge. Deliberately, she overturns a loose stone, uncovering a scorpion’s lair. With a practiced eye, she contemplates the three or four scorpions as, alarmed, they scatter in different directions with their tails menacingly high above their heads. She hums as if she were playing a game of chance with the little brutes, or simply studying their personalities.

Her selection made, with lightning speed she picks up the chosen scorpion by the tail. The creature lashes out in terror, but in vain. Held by the girl’s firm fingers just beyond the sting, the potential killer acquiesces, suddenly no more threatening than a locust.

Gamila cannot bear the idea of losing her best friend. She wrinkles her cheeks to ensure that her eyes are kept firmly shut lest they slide open in distraction, or out of curiosity. She drifts to that moonless night, when just before dawn she awoke to a hushed commotion. The women’s subdued gasps and hurried footsteps were more alarming than the social shrieks and wailing that would come later. The sight of her relatives with swollen eyes and indigo painted faces, told Gamila what she already knew. It was an ugly, physically repulsive affair: Death. But not the earth-shattering event she had been led to assume.

And then there was the loss. The sense of irreplaceable loss. Her mother had passed, and she’d been left alone with her helplessness.

She remains sightless, until Sondos’ teasing prompts her to reopen in time for the coup de grace. With a quick twist, her friend chips off the tail’s tip, and holds the scorpion head up. Mesmerized, the two virgins watch the venom droplets as like a man’s unwanted seed, they drip onto the sand.

Sondos then wombs the wretched creature in her cupped palm, raises it to her left ear, then to Gamila’s, and intently, they listen to the scorpion’s whisper.

This extract was published as The Scorpion’s Whisper and appeared as a novel excerpt in Offshoots VII, Geneva, 2003.

Sept.Mohamed Tawfik

M.M. Tawfik was born in Cairo, Egypt. He has pursued careers in engineering, diplomacy and writing that have taken him to numerous countries in Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Oceania, and produced diverse literary works that provide “a seamless blend of the personal and political, whether in terms of dreams or disillusionment.”

He is one of the few Egyptian writers who self-translates his work into English. His most recent novel, The Scorpion’s Whisper, was released in Arabic in June 2021. The English version is still in the pipeline.

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The Beautiful One Has Come. Fiction by Suzanne Kamata

The Beautiful One Has Come

All night long I watch the planes crash into the twin towers.  And crash again.  The balls of fire, the plummeting bodies, the sudden sag of skyscrapers.  All night I watch the broadcasts from America on television and think of Nefertiti.

This is what I know of that Egyptian queen:  It is said that she was a princess from another land.  She was the wife of Akhenaten, and the mother of six daughters.  She and her husband started a new religion.  But then she suddenly disappeared from public record. 

Some scholars believe that she was banished, perhaps for defying Akhenaten in matters of religion.  She might have died.  All agree, however, that she was beautiful.  Drawings and statues attest to this.  And then there is her name.  Nefertiti: “the beautiful one has come.”

I know these things because of my sister, Reina.  She loved to talk about Nefertiti.  One might even say that she was obsessed.  In her room, there were piles of books: Sun Queen, Monarchs of Ancient Egypt, The Great Royal Wife.  And on and on.

Once, for a Halloween party, she copied Nefertiti’s distinctive headdress and lined her eyes with kohl.  She had large, double-lidded eyes, unlike my tiny narrow ones, and with her salon tan, I swear she belonged on a barge floating down the Nile.

She liked to remind people that “Reina” was close to the French word for queen, “la reine,” or the Indian “ranee,” but my parents had not been thinking that at all when they named her.

Mother was more concerned with the fortune-teller’s advice regarding the number of strokes in each Chinese character.  She was told that Misaki, the name she had originally chosen, would result in bad luck for her as-yet unborn daughter.

My parents did not understand Reina’s preoccupation with Nefertiti.  They had little interest in foreigners or their countries.

“Why don’t you study about Jingu?” our father asked, referring to Japan’s ancient empress.

She just mocked him for his provincialism and mailed off an application to the American University in Cairo.

My parents worried that my sister would transfer her passion for Nefertiti to some dark-skinned man and stay in Egypt forever.  They begged her to consider applying closer to home.

“You could probably get into Keio or Waseda with your test scores,” they said.  “You might even be accepted at Tokyo University.”

Tokyo University – more popularly known as Todai – was the most prestigious college in all of Japan, but my sister wasn’t interested.

“Todai grads are a bore,” she said.  “Look at all those crusty old men running the country.  And the younger ones think like old fogeys.”

“Well, you don’t need to go all the way to the Middle East,” Father insisted.  “Japan is safer – the safest country in the world, I’ll bet.”

Privately, to me, she said, “This country is suffocating.  I need to have some adventures.”

Finally, our parents gave in.

To show her gratitude, Reina hung around the house most of that spring and summer, helping Mother with the housework and cooking, and charming Father with her stories.

Two nights before she left, she had a big party with her friends, and the following evening, we went out to eat as a family.

We went to a seafood restaurant because Reina loved blue fin tuna sushi and she didn’t think she’d have a chance to eat it in Cairo.

Mother sighed and said, “I hope they at least have rice.”

Those are the inane kinds of things we talked about as we tended our private thoughts.  My parents were probably wondering if they’d ever see Reina again.  I was just trying to store up a few extra memories of my adored older sister.  When she came back, she’d be different; that, I knew for sure.  Maybe I wouldn’t even like her anymore.

As soon as she left, I tried to follow her in my imagination.  I tried to picture the insides of the airplane (blue seats?), the faces of the airline attendants (not too difficult, since she was flying on a Japanese airline), the food served at each meal (somewhat baffled, I could only come up with rice and fish).

All that day of her departure and into the next, I tried to guess her state of mind (scared, but excited) and the fresh sights.  She’d see camels, I figured.  Pyramids.  An ocean of sand.

A week later, Reina filled in some of the details in her first letter from Egypt:  “Dear Mom, Dad, and Mika, I’m finally here in the land of pharoahs and mummies and Nefertiti!”

Father read her letters out loud after dinner when we were sitting at the table drinking green tea.  Her words were better than dessert, and I savored them for days afterward.

The letters were usually written to all of us, although my parents and I wrote separate replies.  Finally, six months after she’d gone, a thin blue envelope arrived, addressed only to me.

Mother handed it over with a greedy look in her eyes, but I ignored it and took the letter to my room.  I turned it over in my hands a few times, letting my anticipation build.  The stamp featured a distinguished-looking man with a flat-topped round cap.  The letter was postmarked Cairo, a week before.

I brought the envelope to my nose and inhaled deeply, trying to detect a trace of Egypt – some exotic scent like camel dung or rose attar, but all I could smell was ink.

At last, I slit the envelope open and pulled out Reina’s letter.

“Dearest Mika, 

I am in love! 

You must promise not to breathe a word to Mom and Dad, but I will tell you all.  His name is Hassan and he’s a student like me.  Gorgeous, like a desert prince, a gentleman, and a poet!”

Part of me felt privileged to be taken into her confidence, to be trusted with the secrets of her heart.  But another part of me went cold with dread.  It was just as our parents had feared.  Reina would marry this man and stay in Egypt, and we would never see her again.

I thought that I should tell my parents right away.  Maybe they would force her to come home before a wedding could take place.  It would be for her own good, I thought.  Love was making her crazy.  She’d lost all reason.  After all, hadn’t she herself written that women stayed behind veils and walls, that they were not permitted the same freedom as men?  It was worse than Japan!

But then a few months later, she stopped writing about Hassan.  She never explained what had happened.

When Reina finally came back for good at the end of four years, she became an English teacher.  What else could she do with a degree in Egyptian History in a backwoods prefecture like ours?

All day, she explained gerunds and infinitives to fidgeting high school students.  We hoped that she would blend into this new life, but I think that her mind was flitting beyond the hydrangea bushes outside the classroom, across oceans and continents.  She told us that she was happy.

She discovered the International Society, a local organization that put on monthly cooking parties.  One time, they prepared Indian food.  The next, the theme was the Middle East.  Reina attended the session and made some Egyptian friends.

Ahmed was a student at the local university and his young wife Nabib was along for the ride.  Reina started spending all of her free time with them.  She even invited them to our house for dinner once.  Reina did the cooking.

“What did you say this was?” Father asked, picking at a bean croquette with his chopsticks.

Tammia,” Reina said, popping a forkful into her mouth.  “I loved these when I was in Cairo.”

Nabib nodded.  “They are just like my grandmother used to make.”

Mother gamely made her way through the meal, nibbling on prunes stuffed with walnuts and cheese pastries, but Father gave up when the mint tea arrived.

“This is too sweet,” he said.  “Give me some green tea.”

Mother quickly got up to shake some tea leaves into a pot.

Reina didn’t seem offended.  She just rolled her eyes at me.  When Nabib and Ahmed said that it was the best meal they’d ever had, my sister beamed like a hundred suns.

Toward the end of November, Reina announced that she was in need of a live chicken.  “My friends need it for Ramadan,” she said.  “Do you think that Uncle could spare one of his hens?”

Father’s brother lived in the mountains of Tokushima.  He grew tangerines and kept a small brood of pullets.  We hadn’t visited him in several months, but Father agreed to call him.

The following weekend, we were all packed into a car – Reina, the two Egyptians, Mother, Father, and me.  I tried not to gasp as we swerved along the narrow, curvy, mountain roads.  There were no guardrails, and the brush on the side of the mountain seemed to go on forever.  If we went off the road, we would be lost in the brambles and no one would ever find us.

Suddenly, a truck whooshed into view, coming around the curve as if its brakes were gone.  Father wrenched the steering wheel, taking us off the pavement for a moment, cracking sticks under the tires.  When the truck passed us, the car swooned.  And then it was just whipped up dust behind us and I heard a chorus of sighs.

Only Ahmed seemed unruffled.  “Allah is protecting us.”  His voice was sure and calm.

Reina murmured in agreement.

While my heart was still banging against my ribs, I had a thought that was almost more disturbing than our near-death.  What if my sister was changing religions?  If she converted to Islam, would she be able to take part in our family rituals for Obon and the New Year?  Or would her new beliefs make her a stranger to us?

I thought that it would be difficult, at best, to have to always be driving into the mountains for live chickens, to have to kneel and pray when the mullah’s call sounded in your head, even if you were in the middle of Sogo department store.

I fretted about these things for the rest of the ride, right up until we stood in Uncle’s yard, watching Ahmed wring the hen’s neck with his bare hands.

I shouldn’t have worried.  A few months later, Reina brought home a man who was nothing like Ahmed.  He was Japanese.  He wore a navy wool suit and a tie.  He was from a family that processed indigo leaves for dyers – a clan steeped in tradition – though he himself worked at a company that created computer software.  They’d met through friends, Reina explained.  They were going to get married.  When they looked at each other, their eyelids became droopy with desire.  I recognized that gaze from Hollywood movies, but I’d never seen it anywhere else till then.  And even when they were separated by the length of a room, they seemed to be dancing together.  So this is love, I thought.

I wasn’t sure what drew them together.  Maybe some animal call, or something beyond science.  Karma.  At any rate, they didn’t seem to have much in common.  He was not especially interested in Nefertiti, or anything else foreign, for that matter.  His only trip abroad had been a group tour to Guam a year before.  Even so, he promised Reina a honeymoon in Egypt.

The wedding was quite an affair.  My sister in silk kimono, first the hooded white one to hide horns of jealousy (though I doubted the groom, so transparently enamored of his new wife would ever do anything to make those horns sprout), then the blazing red one with its embroidered silver crane.  We all ate and drank to ten thousand years of happiness for the newlyweds.  In speeches, friends and mentors made wishes for their children, their shining future together.

Reina sat at a long cloth-draped table at the front of the room.  Her black hair, piled atop her head, was set off by a gilded folding screen.  Nothing had such luster as she did on that day.

After the kimono, she changed into a simple black velvet gown and tiara.  And I, having joined in quite a few toasts, turned to the family friend seated at my left and said, “You know, Reina means ‘queen’ in French.’”

It is early morning and now there is just smoke and rubble and tears on the TV screen.  I hear a door slide open and Mother shuffles into the room.

“Turn it off,” she says.  “Go to sleep.”  She runs her hand over my hair.

But when I crawl into my futon, I can’t rid myself of those images.  The planes.  The tall buildings.  The dust, and fear.  The blue sky.

It all starts to get mixed up with scenes of the temple at Luxor.  The tour bus.  The honeymoon couples.  The men with machine guns who jumped out from behind ancient stones.

And then there was the post card that arrived a week later:  “I have never been so happy in my life.”   

The card, with its view of barques on the Nile, is still propped against the shrine.  A black and white portrait of Reina looks down from the wall above. 

By the time I wake up the next morning, Mother has already set out a bowl of rice and a cup of green tea next to the post card.  I go into the kitchen and cook up a few bean croquettes, and then I put a plateful of those there, too.

—–

American Suzanne Kamata has been living in Japan for over half of her life. She is the author or editor of fifteen published books including the multiple-award winning mother/daughter travel memoir Squeaky Wheels: Travels with My Daughter by Train, Plane, Metro, Tuk-tuk and Wheelchair (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2019) and the novel The Baseball Widow (Wyatt-Mackenzie Publishing, 2021).

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A Letter to My Readers. Fiction by Connie Woodring

Constance Woodring

A Letter to My Readers

I am a writer of short stories, novels, and poetry. No thanks to my husband, Frank, who hates the fact that I write. He made me quit college to marry him so I would never land my dream job of art critic at the New York Times. He put me in this mental asylum after I repeatedly tried to kill him with my grandmother’s silver cake knife that was always commanding, “Kill him now. Forget what I said yesterday.” I had every right to try to kill him for being abusive and for having an affair with Fern, his boss’ wife.

I have been writing a novel, Visiting Hours, ever since I got here 15 years ago. Frank is getting tired of me sending him notes on the book which I do because he only visits on holidays and special occasions like when he bought a new turquoise Studebaker. This is his most recent response to my note I sent last week:

Dear Mary, I want you to put this letter in the “book” you are “writing.” If I find out that you haven’t done so, I will bring you home for a home visit and throttle you, no kidding.

First of all, I want to say to all of Mary’s readers that I feel sorry for you as much as I feel sorry for myself. That’s because she made me read all her poems over the last too many years. Anyone who has ever read them says that they are nonsense, no one can understand them (especially me) and that she should write about everyday subjects like our house, the snap dragons in the garden or cooking sauerkraut and pork. Since Mary is a nutcase, however, she writes about her face, glass jars, and Adam and Eve. I’ve never told her how bad her poems are because I don’t want to hurt her feelings.

Since she can’t write poetry, she surely can’t write a book. Everything she says will be against me and everyone else. She only sees the world through her eyes.  If she ever gets the book completed, which I doubt, it will lack any plot, sense or truth. That’s because sometimes she acts crazy, and other times she is very level-headed even if she doesn’t have a mind! I just hope you don’t bother to spend your heard-earned dollars on it, but if you do, at least you’ll get a chance to hear the truth from me.

The truth is Mary is the one who had the “affair,” not me. She loves my brother, Meyer, who is a real square. He talks about the same things Mary talks about like the “meaning of moonlight.” I could never stand him. He was always putting worms on my fishing pole in a secret way so I could never catch fish. He always told me, “Frank, you’re going to grow up to be just as mean as Dad.” Meyer never hit anyone and was proud of it. Even when he got knocked down our front steps by Henry Schmeller and landed on his head. I think that’s why he’s been so square ever since. He has a head problem just like Mary. Misery loves company.

I can’t say for sure Mary has cheated on me, but she thinks about my brother all the time. Probably she’ll write more about him than about me. I’m the husband, and you’d think I’d get more attention, but not from her.

I put Mary in the hospital because she was always hurting me. Slapping, pushing, stabbing, yelling, accusing, keeping me from my friends and not wanting me to work late hours. All my friends feel so sorry for me. She sure liked the money I earned, like all dames who sponge off men. I worked hard to give her every greedy thing she wanted. She only cares about things— radio, washing machine, car, dog. She never cared about me.

Mary probably also told you I beat her. She just wants sympathy from you. It’s a lie, and I can prove it. She’s called the police on me. You can ask them. They always said,” She’s crazy,” and left. All the police feel sorry for me. I wish I wasn’t such a nice guy to have taken all her abuse all these years. I’ve felt sorry for her ever since her parents were killed in some mysterious car accident when she was in high school. (Don’t ever tell Mary this, but I always wondered if she put cornstarch in the gas tank, and that caused the accident.) Her Aunt Clara and Uncle Ben took her in, but they made her slave in their hot bakery making strudel dough that tasted like dead Wheaties if you ask me. I’m the only family she has. No sisters or brothers. 

She has no friends because no one can stand to be around her for more than an hour.

The only truth part about her book, if she told you, is about my father. He was a mean, selfish, cruel man who made my, but not my brother’s, life miserable. Whatever I’ve done wrong in life, it’s because of my father. He was so mean to my dear mother she died of a broken heart. She also died of an unknown disease, but I think it’s called epitonia. He hated Mary and always told me not to the marry her. He wanted me to marry Irene Henrey, but she had teeth that were too far apart in the front. The only reason it took me so long to lock Mary up in the nuthouse was because that was want my father wanted. I never wanted to do anything he told me to do.

I never had an affair with Fern or anyone else. That’s because, unlike Mary, I believe in the sanctity of marriage, being a good neighbor and friend, being a good American, trusting in the Lord and honoring your parents even if they aren’t straight shooters, except for my father, as I explained to you.

Here’s a note to any publisher of Mary’s book: Don’t bother. You’re just wasting your time with her just like I have all these years. She can’t even finish a sentence, much less a book. She’s a rattlebrain which she says she got from her grandmother who was also a patient at the nuthouse. She has so many excuses: “I can’t finish college. I want get married like everyone else.” or “I can’t iron your blue shirt, because I’m writing a poem about a 12th century musical instrument.”

No one should try to help Mary and that includes powwow doctors, attendants, ministers, publishers and, especially, me. All I can say is she’s a hopeless case. I’m just glad I got the opportunity to say my side of the story. Yours truly and forever, Frank.

_____

Connie Woodring is a 76-year-old retired therapist who is getting back to her true love of writing after 45 years in her real job. She has had many poems published in over 30 journals including one nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. Seven excerpts from her yet-to-be-published novel Visiting Hours have been published in various journals.

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High Tea. Fiction by Eliot Hudson

Eliot Hudson

High Tea

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about, Archibald. This truly is the best of all possible worlds; Africa is butter upon bacon!” Reginald inspected the feast by straining his frail arm to hoist pince-nez before his cloudy eye. The monocle shook as he mustered the strength to hold it atop his nose—though he could well enough discern the cornucopia of cream horns, canelés, and croquembouches before him; diverse game they’d slaughtered in the Savanna; various fruits which scientists in London were {at that very moment} bickering over to bestow a correct {Latin} name. Splendiferous puff-confections presented ever-so-elegantly upon porcelain plates carefully lugged across the ocean. Shining, glimmering glints of sterling basking in the African sun.

Reginald ruminated, tugging long whiskers protruding from the mole upon his shriveled cheek, considering in which delicacy to next indulge. Having decided, he licked creaking fingertips with dry tongue—priming them before hovering over an éclair, gesticulating index finger and thumb over the chocolate dollop—just as Archibald’s plump hand swooped in, nicking the pastry beneath Reginald’s grasp.

“Quite right! Quite right!” Archibald could barely grunt beyond the custard and choux pâtisserie he’d just crammed down his gullet, slapping sugar-coated lips together. He washed it down with a large swig of absinthe, upturning the glass and downing its contents.

The two gentlemen could not have been more alike and more unalike all at once. An observance not limited to their stature—for Archibald was as rotund as Reginald was gaunt.

Reginald as prudent as Archibald was excessive. Archibald as dull as Reginald was flamboyant. Yet they seemed to complete one another. For what Archibald lacked in facial hair, Reginald more than made up for. And vice-versa.

Archibald sported what were popularly called ‘mutton chops,’ where the mutton of the chop descended from sideburns to avoid the chin and lips with proper, Victorian morality {where nothing should be flirting about lips}. Whereas Reginald’s was distinctly the opposite. Wherever Archibald did not have facial hair, Reginald did, with a very bushy petit goatee circumnavigating the mouth and extending ever southward like a South African diamond ship. Between the two of them {Archibald and Reginald—Reginald and Archibald}, they fully comprised one illustrious and bushy beard.

“As lovely as this—Africa—is, I do miss civilization…” Reginald shook his aquiline nose in the air—a nose whose odd angle seemed to always give it the air of it always being up in the air. Archibald tried to mutter in agreement, but could only communicate an aniseed burp {as the white-gloved servant refilled his glass}.

“If only these savages—oh, how I miss the Opera! The West End! What I wouldn’t give for a play, some…some…culture!” Reginald shivered unconsciously at that last word.

Civility was of course their burden, and they insisted on bringing civilization with them unto this heathen soil, if not for the sake of the Isle, then for themselves. To maintain their grasp of the couth, they insisted on routines and instruments—especially utensils. Yes, they could conquer this backward afterthought of a shipping route with ivory-handled marrow scoops, mother of pearl caviar spoons, and coral-handled sporks. For such a reason, Royale Tea was an important per diem ceremony for the two Englishmen. Therefore, the two sat down to daily afternoon cat-laps, {which, for the ruffians—unaccustomed to upper-crust lingo—is a society term for tea, champagne, and strong liquors}.

The afternoon was dreadfully hot—that is, for their native kingdom—but typical for this hemisphere at this time of year. The two chums sat beneath mangrove trees watching fruit bats flap wings heavily and heftily through the air having procured their wares. Archibald tossed back a large glass of fine crystal with absinthe {neat} into his sauce-box—or, rather, mouth—before extinguishing the green fairy of hellish vapors from his throat with bouts of deep coughing.

“Oh, smothering a Parrot are we?” Reginald asked, raising his thin brow.

“I’ll have you know, my doctor suggested it—to ruminate the gout.” Archibald tried to reach his feet to rub and showcase the painful, swollen, redness upon the tender side of his foot, but was unable to reach his feet—due to his inflexibility and the bulging obstruction of his stomach which acted as a protuberance to the fulcrum of his waist.

“We are fortunate to live in this evolved age where medicine can allow us such reprieve!” Reginald quipped before clapping his hands together for the servant to bundle tartan blankets over his gossamer shoulders—for even in this tropical weather, Reginald was constantly cold {which, of course, was a paramount reason for his doctor to prescribe him this latitude}. “What was the name of your physician, again?”

“Physician? Reginald! He’s no physician!” Archibald chortled, waving creampuff in air to accentuate his point. “He’s a métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie! None other than Doctor, Lord Bertrand Dawson, 1st Viscount Dawson of Penn—métaphysico-théologo-cosmolonigologie to the British Royal Family and his preeminence, George V! He’s imposed a healthy diet of Afghani opium…London laudanum…Arabic hashish…Ottoman cannabis…” Archibald began counting on his thick, sausage fingers, licking them delicately and dutifully as he ate full petit fours between each listed medicament.

“Oh, I’m jealous of such a doctor—er, a métaphysico-théologo-who’s-a-what’s-it. A real scientist. Much better than this quack I enlisted some years ago—a Kraut from Vienna who suggested all my problems could be cured if I simply confessed that I wanted to have sexual relations with my own mother! Furthermore, murder my father—who has been dead twenty years hence! How in the world can I murder the dead?”

“Preposterous!” Archibald shouted, dropping half of his danish to the floor as a mangrove crab quickly side-scuttled to retrieve it and bring it back to its hole in the sand.

“Agreed,” Reginald began, “here we are sitting on the precepts of man’s achievement, and there should be such…such quacks as that German. Wish he were as accomplished as your Lord Dawson.” Reginald lamented, shaking his head back and forth so his sagging earlobes swayed to further accentuate his opinion.

“Quite right.” Archibald tutted.

“Hear, hear!” Reginald affirmed—noticing Archibald had now downed the last bottle of Absinthe on the continent: “Champaign?”

“No, it upsets the oysters. More Persian caviar though, thank you, Reginald.”

Reginald clapped his hands {he would have snapped, but for the enflamed arthritis curdling his joints}, and beckoned the servant.

“Any time—I say, Archibald…As glorious as this continent is with all its splendor and riches…The only thing I don’t much care for are the poor people…have you noticed them? All on the perimeter of the resort,” Reginald grumbled, sneering as he sniffed a segment of Spanakopita whose cheese filling may have gone off in the African heat.

“Quite right!” Archibald conferred.

“I mean, we freed these people! They should really be more grateful and dignified.” Reginald waved his liver spotted hand through the air in a gesture suggesting dignity. He tried to sit up, but didn’t have the strength, so he beckoned the servant to lift him upwards and bestow a more sophisticated posture.

“Yes, dignified!” Archibald reiterated, blowing his nose into handkerchief before wiping whipped cream from his lips with said handkerchief.

“I mean, where’s their…their…dignity!” Reginald now shook in feeble fury and from the cold {of the African heat} so the tartan blanket slipped from his quivering and cadaverous frame. He clapped his hands again in the servant’s direction who immediately attended to his beck and call, swaddling the man like a wee bairn.

“Quite right. Quite right,” Archibald concurred having picked up the mother of pearl oyster fork and was prodding profiteroles to inspect their puffiness.

“You hear so much of this poverty and starvation they speak of, though I didn’t see anything of the sort at the resort here! The people looked well fed. And happy! Always saying, ‘Good morning, Sir!’ every time I’m wheeled past! I mean, look how much bounty is before us, how can they not eat? Do they not like the food?”

“Yes, if they really do have a problem with poverty and the like, I suggest they work at the resort!”

“Archibald, you genius! That would cure this blight right up!” Reginald raised his champagne flute with frail arm—struggling beneath the weight of the crystal—and the two toasted to the thought {Reginald, stealing a humble sip, and Archibald plundering humble quaff—that is before burping up oysters, for (as we know) champaign upsets the oysters}.

Archibald grabbed the snuff box from the table and offered Reginald a sniff—to which Reginald and his aquiline nostrils waved No, on account of his vulnerable sinuses. Archibald lifted the ornate tin to his bulbous drinker’s nose, red and thick with fibrous tissue and prominent crater-like pores of severe rhinophyma. He took a hefty honk of snuff—though it seemed to have backfired—for Archibald sneezed turning all the white porcelain of their fine China a brackish hue of mucous and tobacco.

“Yes, well, they’d have to clean up their act and become civilized. Some on the border of the resort look so…so…dreadful. Terrible posture—can you imagine them on the West End?!”  Reginald tried to make his point by sitting up with all the will of his underdeveloped, skeletal carcass—but needed help from his attentive, African servant—who’d also taken the caviar spoon Reginald was using to butter his bread and replaced it with a butter knife. “Yes, certainly a need to civilize them,” Reginald continued, “but if they simply acted civilized, well then—”

“They could all work at the resort!” Archibald shouted.

“Hear, hear!” Reginald resounded euphorically.

“Quite right!” Archibald pounded the table so forcefully, a fig roll fell from the fifth tier of their cake-stand and {keeping true to its name} rolled upon the sand so a frenzy of mangrove crabs came and tore it asunder, stockpiling pieces of fig roll into their individual bank deposits in the sand.

Before them the waves lapped unto the virgin sands of this untouched continent brimming with potential and overburdened with fortune. In essence, pleading for help; in effect, a piece of cake. With incalculable plants lacking Latin names, untold medicines to correct deficiencies. An entire continent like a newly discovered pill for them to consume. Soothing the Englishmen of their maladies—so the Englishmen could return the favor and sooth the Africans of their maladies! To make them healthy. Prosperous. Better. Needing them as they needed them. Who needed whom? Why, the both of them! Under boundless sun and eager, uncharted trading routes yearning to be employed. Like the sugar that coated their European pastries, this land simply needed…refining. Raw sugar into white, refined sugar.

“Why, I can already feel my gout clearing up rather nicely,” Archibald remarked, wiggling his plump, little toes.

“This truly is the best of all possible worlds. More snuff, Archibald?”

“Why, thank you, Reginald! More champagne, Reginald?”

“Heavens, thank you, Archibald!” and they clapped their hands for the servant to administer their desires.

 

—–

 

Eliot Hudson has read at the Popsickle Brooklyn Literary Festival, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and was shortlisted for the Solstice Shorts Festival 2019 (Arachne Press). He’s earned two Masters Degrees (Creative Writing & Modern Literature) at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and has studied under Rick Moody at The New York State Summer Writers Institute. His prose has appeared in Mystery Weekly, Every Day FictionMiracle Monocle, Story Of, HelenThe Showbear Family Circus, The Punxsutawney SpiritExplorationCleaning Up Glitter, The Missing Slate, and Lalitamba. His poetry has been featured in Gravitas, Coffin Bell, Willard & Maple, The Book Smuggler’s Den, Gyroscope Review,Castabout Art & Literature, and the collections Garlic and Sapphires, and Cleaves

Hudson also writes music and performs throughout New York City and as far as Barcelona, London, Rome, Romania, Vietnam and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. His most recent music video was accepted in the Caribbean Sea International Film Festival (Venezuela), Travel FilmFest (Cyprus), and the Creation International Film Festival (Ottawa) where it won best Music Video (“Sinners in Church” is currently available on iTunes and Spotify).

www.EliotHudson.com

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WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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