Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Re: Duce Use Cycle

I spend more time than I should looking at the search terms that lead people to this blog. It’s not like I’m trying to attract visitors to reap ad revenue. In fact, I usually feel queasy when more than 100 people visit my blog in a single day, as if I’ve done something really wrong and should probably take my last post down.

Fortunately, most of the people who come here from search engines spend a few seconds, figure they’ve been sorely mislead by Google and shuttle off elsewhere on the web. And all I'm left with is the string of letters that led them here. It seems a shame just to let them gather dust. I was bought up to believe that if you couldn't make a robot out of a toilet roll, the least you can do is recycle.

But what to do with these search terms. Sure, I've made the odd found poem from them (see here and here), but what about the questions I could never answer (“who frequents funerals for the thrill?”), or the sad, sad image searches (“empty office chair”). What about the what-the-heck-are-you-looking-for-and-how’d-you-get-sent-here ones (“my-itchy-dick-needs-rubbing”) or the searches for people that aren't me but I might one day steal their name and use it as a pseudonym (“sheldon cuff”).

Sometimes I feel like maybe I should be less of a disappointment to these people. Maybe I could actually give them something useful.

In order to get the blog GreenStar rated, I’ve decided to ‘give back’ and ‘recycle’ in one go. So, for those of you looking for a band name or an album title (and really, who isn't?), here are some suggestions that started life as search engine queries. 

For those in search of a band name

[the] bad selfies
body writing whore
soundwave cutie mark
ending for the marriage plot
[the] farewell names
bl4h bl4h bl4h
[the] scary building[s]
lillibutt's big adventure
"slender novels"
island of strange noise
[the] little blizzard[s]
leaky school funding band

For those in search of an album title

park like a douche day
Hamlet for children
nautical superstitions
overpopulation of seals
Carolina West tongue


Musical Interlude, or Dipping-toes-in-other-people's-pools Playlist


There’s one kind of search that brings people to this blog that might not end in total disappointment. There are a surprising/pleasing amount of people googling about poetry. The sad thing is there’s not enough online, or it’s so poorly filed, that the schmucks are pointed this way.

But in the continued spirit of (re)giving, here’s a found poem:

A poem for those in search of literature

poems about bursitis
10 greatest new zealand poems
top book to read
fun nz poems
dialogue of lord wilmore in the count of monte cristo
insults farts
short poems on intention
count of monte cristo red liquid
small poems on wildlife century
new zealand poem marriage
short poems for liars

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Boring for poetry (day) 2012

Okay, so tomorrow is National Poetry Day here in lil ol' Aotearoa. Here's a press release if you're the kind of person who needs one of those to believe things like national poetry days exist (or if you want to see a list of poetry events happening tomorrow).

Some pre-reading for the day:

Pip Adam's review of Geoff Cochrane's latest collection (she feels much the same about GC as I do, but says it far better than I could).

Hera Lindsay Bird's left-right combo (part one; part two) on her favourite poets.

How I commemorated National Poetry Day last year.

And here's a poem I wrote last year when I was feeling more dull and inarticulate than normal. It was first published in the beautiful but short-lived journal Pasture from Kilmog Press.


The Orange-Yellow River is filled with young people
calling Come on democracy!
as if it were a soccer team.

I am not here to swim. Can’t you hear
the noises from the streets in my stomach?
I’m boring for joy.


I knew a girl,
her clothes were on fire
for a life of quiet understanding

but she had two orange boyfriends
skating in her heart’s first event
who were all: yeah, yeah, you know.


The Yellow-Orange River is filled with young people
calling Come on bureaucracy!
as if that would affect me.

Yeah, nah, I’m busy folding and unfolding
the heavy creases of, uh, life.
I’m, like, boring for joy.


We all encounter
problems on the hard shoulder.
If this is not the case, my bad —

there’s green space in my weakness,
space for walking, and perhaps a garden.
But no, my love. Oh, oh yeah, my bad.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Short Story Corner: Jim Shepard: Love and Hydrogen and You Think That’s Bad

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've read two Jim Shepard collections in recent months.

Love and Hydrogen: New and Selection Stories (2004)

Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected StoriesThis book features 22 short stories, a number of which appeared in Shepard’s first collection, Batting Against Castro. I really enjoyed Love and Hydrogen, but I’m just gonna come right out and say it: the book is too long.* It feels like a compendium rather than a collection. I've written elsewhere about my preference forsingle collections over best ofs, and it’s a similar thing here. Most of the stories were great, some weren’t, and it was hard to think about this book as a single entity. More on it shortly.

You Think That’s Bad (2011)

You Think That's Bad: StoriesShepard’s fourth (or 3.5th) collection, however, is about the right size: 11 stories, some of them quite long. Together these 225 pages feel like a comprehensible mass. Perhaps too comprehensible. After a while, it began to feel as if each story was a retelling of the same story: taciturn male struggles to connect with those around him. Even if this is true for 10 out of the 11 stories (11 if you accept the female narrator of ‘The Track of Assassins’ is just another variation on this same central character), Shepard gets away with it because he overlays the most interesting and varied plots and settings over top of the same framework.

So we get a guy who works in black-ops military technology, a trek into the Persian mountains, Dutch water engineers bracing as the near future’s floodwaters rise, a battalion in ‘Nam, a team of scientists researching avalanches above a Swiss village, a physicist working for CERN, the special effects wizard behind Godzilla, a gruesome tale of child murder in Fifteenth Century France and a team of Polish Winter Mountaineers.
Reading a Shepard short story is like reading a Wikipedia entry as if it was written by Richard Ford. Well, most of the time. Some, like ‘Cretaceous Seas’ are shorter, voice driven pieces. Others, ‘like ‘Boys Town’ are more contemporary ‘loser’ stories, with less scope for encyclopaedic knowledge. The sort of thing George Saunders does about sixteen times better.

Three more things that bugged me:

1. The ubiquity of the present tense. Call me old school, but it’s only been the current default setting for literary short fiction for a short time and I don’t think it will remain the default for long.

2. There are a lot of endings (in this collection and in Love and Hydrogen) where characters are about to die (of thirst, in an avalanche, in battle, in a police shoot out, in a Messerschmitt 163...) or at least get really messed up. In order to extricate the narrator from the plot a moment before they die, Shepard grants them a moment of reflection where they’re allowed to say something sage and inscrutable, like:
“They’ve ensured that we’ve progressed this far, and no farther, when constructing our connections to this wild and beautiful earth.” (‘Poland is Watching’)
In isolation, each ending is okay, but after two or three it feels like a tic, after four or five: a crutch.

3. There’s a lot of stuff about national identity that sounds like it’s coming from an American rather than a real Dutchman or Pole or Brit.

In ‘The Netherlands Lives with Water’, the Dutch narrator is full of homilies about his countrymen. 
“Passion in Dutch meetings in punished by being ignored.” 
“She’s only trying to hedge her best, I tell myself to combat the panic. Our country’s all about spreading risk around.” 
To me this screams fugazi. Do I think, ‘Oh, that’s such a Kiwi thing to say’? Only if I’m overseas at the time. I’m largely blind to national traits while living in New Zealand. It may suit Shepard’s Dutch story to make all these Dutch comments, but that just puts a wall between me and his character.

These three bugbears are also present in Love and Hydrogen, but there’s more diversity. It’s not all great ‘color’ (in that terrible American sense of ‘color commentary’ during a sporting contest to obscure the fact this is game number 61 in a season of 82 and essentially meaningless) over the same frame.

‘The Gun Lobby’, which opens the collection, is a contemporary loser story, but it’s bigger and bolder than ‘Boys Town’: the loser’s wife holds him hostage with weapons sourced from his gun-dealing buddy.

‘John Ashcroft: More Important Things Than Me’ is a kind of political diary that starts out like a piece of McSweeny-ish irony at the expense of an earnest Republican, but turns out to be a sweet and heartbreaking meditation on fathers, sons and loss.

‘Alicia and Emmett with the 17th Lancers at Balaclava’ takes the isolated, obsessive male struggling to connect with his family life and runs it on two parallel planes: 1) he’s the historical advisor on a movie about the charge of the Light Brigade 2) he’s actually taking part on the charge of the Light Brigade.

‘Runway’ has the kind of set up that I expected to end with a number 2 (dude about to die... story ends): a man starts lying down on an airport runway, moving further and further up the tarmac over a series of nights, getting closer and closer to the squash zone. I’m not sure I’m happy with the story’s actual ending, but it was pleasing to see another route taken.

There’s also a bit of number 3 (national identity malarkey), but because it’s embedded in possibly the greatest short story about sport that I’ve ever read (‘Ajax is all about attack’; about the Dutch football team in the sixties) I forgive it completely.**

‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ follows a similar pattern to ‘Ajax is All About Attack’ except it’s an insider’s view of the band The Who, and what made them special. It’s a bold move to make John Entwistle your narrator and make him weave in and out of soundbites and urban legends, but it is possibly the greatest short story about rock music that I’ve ever read.***

These kinds of stories take cajones. They take research. And they take incredible skill to find a believable voice and a narrative with any kind of drive.

Love and Hydrogen may have too many stories, but it surely contains greatness.

If not for ‘Ajax’, ‘Batting Against Castro’ might be the best sports short story I’ve read.

‘Love and Hydrogen’ might be the best ‘two men in love’ short story I’ve read (and it just so happens to take place on board the Hindenberg).

The book is lousy with superlative, or near-superlative, stories. And for that reason, I can overlook the overstuffing, the lack of whole-ness, and proclaim it an awesome book.


* Yes, I realise the hypocrisy, given my SS collection featured eighteen stories and tipped the scales at 315 pages. Love and Hydrogen is only 320 pages in paperback, but there’s a lot more words on each of those pages... And if I was to do it all again, I’d probably roll with two or three less stories in A Man Melting.

** It’s also worth nothing that the narrator, Velibor Vasovic, is not Dutch, so it’s likely his antennae is up and detecting national quirks. He can say something like, “Even then I could see that it was very Dutch to look for the simple solution,” and get away with it.

And the stuff about his native Yugoslavia is couched in terms of regional differences (he’s from the hills; in Zugubic rebelliousness was “old farmers fondling their donkeys in public”) or specific to individuals, so his utterances are believable.

But even this tactic of one non-American looking at the inhabitants of a foreign country can grate after a while, like the Czech resistance fighter who is about to be captured by Nazis in ‘The Assassination of Reinhard Heydrich’: “Being German, they spent an hour boxing in the square, eradicating escape routes.”

*** Though I did wonder how Shepard got permission to quote Who song lyrics in the story. Perhaps Playboy, who first published the story, fronted the $$$?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I'm about to crash, but...

Okay, so I need to finish THE NOVEL some time next month. To do this I'm going to have to "crash" in the Kazuo Ishiguro sense.

“He [Ishiguro] takes a lot of time to prepare a novel, just thinking about it, and then he draws a line through his diary for three or four weeks. He just writes for 10 hours a day, and at the end he has a novel.”
Well, my crash isn't quite like that. I mean, I've already written 85,000 words. But I need a couple more in places, a couple less in others. I need to make one character appear in an earlier chapter because I've said he was there in a later one. And once I've got everything "in", I have to make it sound not sound like writing. 

So in a week or two I'm going to stop blogging until THE NOVEL is put to bed.

But before I hit 'snooze', I've got to post my thoughts on the two Jim Shepard short story collections I've read (once I've written those reflections, of course).

And I just bought the new poetry collections from Geoff Cochrane and James Brown, and Jenny Pattrick's new novel Skylark.

I'm excited about all three, but nothing can quite compare to the excitement of having a new volume of Geoff Cochrane in your hands.

The closest thing I can compare it to is when I was in my early teens and I'd just brought a new CD and you can't do anything until you've listened to it. We didn't have a CD player in our car, so sometimes I had to make do with reading the liner notes on the way home. Some times, OK Computer for example, the art and the lyrics were a good place to start. Other times, something by The Stone Temple Pilots say, reading the lyrics let a little of the air out of an album.

So when I jumped on the bus today after spending all my allowance on books, I just had to start reading The Bengal Engine's Mango Afterglow.

It's good. How can it not be? But I'm going to take my time, read it alongside Warm Auditorium and then post something thoughtful when I return from my crash.

Until then, you can pass the time by reading my take on Cochrane's previous collection, The Worm in the Tequila. (NB: I totally picked that 'The Lich-gate' would make it into Best NZ Poems 2010)

While I'm posting photos of books on the spare bed in my office, here's my copy of The Warwick Review's NZ issue which arrived in the mail about ten days ago.

It features cover boy Vincent O'Sullivan, Fiona Kidman, Elizabeth Smither, Greg O'Brien, CK Stead, Chris Price, Diana Bridge, Patrick Evans and my short story, 'The Cuddies', which begins the night before Valentine's Day:
In the last few hours before sunrise, Dave Cuddie took the opportunity to visit old friends. He walked along the rows, directing his flashlight at the plaques and nodding his greeting to Hot Chocolate, Dusky Dancer, Racy Lady -- names that had lost their humorous tingle in this his seventh year patrolling Mrs Bonaventure's rose garden.
If you want to read the whole story and you're not in the UK (or can't wrangle a copy of WR), you'll just have to wait until a kind publisher lets me release another collection of short fiction (and hope 'The Cuddies' makes the cut). So, 2021 maybe?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Twitter flail / Anniversaries / Spotify

Why I suck at Twitter

It’s a combination of lack of nerve and a lack of anything interesting to say.

To illustrate, here are some tweets that I drafted and crafted into the requisite sub-140 characters but thought better of actually publishing:
Just described a dead boy's penis, from the perspective of a skua gull, as a "bonanza grub" then thought better of it. #amwriting
There’s nothing like walking smack into a ranch slider to suggest you’re a little distracted.
On the thinness of rejection letters. #essaysleftunwritten
I just bought a pair of grey trackpants from the warehouse. I look like a PE teacher and I feel like a slob. A comfy, comfy slob.
(I actually turned this into a 500-word column, which means I’m more worried about sounding dumb to 269 twitter followers than c.50,000 subscribers to the Saturday Dom Post).

Sometimes I just have a word or phrase stuck in my head and I want to tweet it but chicken out.
Katabatic winds. 
Sometimes it’s more of a note to self or what might be the title of a short story
Reindeers eat their own antlers
Invitation to Meddle
Operation easy sandwich
Tusk to tusk 
This is why we can't have nice things 
So what do I actually tweet? Not a lot.

'A to Z' by Kumi Yamashita
(heaps of cool stuff on her website)

Momento Mori

It’s two years and four days since my first and only book was published, which means its two years and five days since my book launch and two years and six days since I proposed (and that proposal was accepted). I’m working on an epitaph along the lines of: Highlights cluster once the work is done.

Perhaps that’s A Man Melting’s epitaph. Perhaps it’s every book’s.

In one last gasp at relevance, shortly before its second birthday, A Man Melting got a mention on some Canadian’s blog under the headline ‘A MAN MELTING: I REALLY LIKED THIS ONE, BUT I STILL DON’T LIKE SHORT STORIES

Money-quote: “I suppose my complaint is one I hold for most (if not all) short story collections and that is that I wish it was a novel.”

Please explain.

“... these characters were so swiftly introduced and then denied me.”

Okay. Any advice?

“So hear this, Mr. Cliff, write me a novel, okay? Because you’re one bang up writer with heaps of talent.”

Cool. Well, I’m almost in a position to do an Alison Holst (‘Here’s one I prepared earlier’). Maybe this time next year.

Spotify - an update

I raved about Spotify back on 30 May. Since then, I signed up for the free 30 day trial and neglected to read the fine print (or any print). If I had, I would have read that after 30 days you automatically get rolled over for another month and your credit card or paypal account will get charged $12.99.

Fair enough. So I have another month of Premium Spotify left. It'll come in handy next Friday when I host my work's mid-winter party. It's Friday 13th themed and I don't own 'Monster Mash' or 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' and whatever music the youngins will want to hear at 11.30pm when all the managers have gone home.

Thanks to Spotify I've been listening to a lot of new (to me) bands. Said The Whale, Django Django, Hey Rosetta!, Margot & the Nuclear So and So's, Immaculate Machine... It kind of ruins you when making a party playlist coz chances are no one else has heard any of these bands and you'll get that 4 mins and 24 seconds lull when everyone looks at you and their eyes say, 'Why'd you have to go and do that?' and my eyes say, 'But it's Django Django!'

Monday, July 2, 2012

The purpose of funerals

via toonpool.com
I went to the funeral of a colleague last Tuesday. Bruce had battled cancer of the oesophagus since September but before that he’d worked at the Ministry for close to 39 years. On my fourth day in the job we both went to Taihape to see how the recently built Area School was working. I drove the rental car and he held forth on the history of the Ministry of Education on the way up and the history of the Property team’s drinks club, which Bruce managed, on the way back. I used to tease him about this later, once I got more comfortable in the job and with my colleagues. Bruce knew he was difficult to stop once he got going, and he sure had a lot of knowledge to draw on when on a roll.

I spent two years sitting on the other side of a partition from Bruce, but one of my most vivid memories of him comes from a conference at Westpac Stadium. It was the lunch break and I was standing in a group with Bruce, another colleague my age and a manager who’d recently stopped drinking wine on Fridays, enough to tell us she was pregnant. As we ate our sausage rolls and sushi, Bruce asked her how the pregnancy was going. She bravely said that she’d had a miscarriage. (This is one of those anecdotes that can be used to speak highly of either person...)

My colleague and I were lost for words. It seemed such a cruel thing to happen to a lovely person. It would have been her first child. Perhaps she might not get another chance. If Bruce was thinking these things too, it didn't show. He wrapped his arm around her and gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He said some genuine, consoling words. It was a kind of heroism to see this man rubbing this woman’s shoulder surrounded by bureaucrats struggling to eat club sandwiches.

At Bruce’s funeral we heard from his nephew, his school friend, a colleague (not me) and his daughter. Their stories shone light on new aspects of the man on the other side of the partition – his guitar playing, his teenage entrepreneurism — but also built upon the image of quiet heroism I’d been worrying over like a rosary since I’d heard of his passing.
The manager, who had long since left the Ministry, was there too. So was her two month old son (he cried more than anyone else that day).

It wasn't too late for her.

I’m sure the presence of this new life at his funeral would have cheered Bruce. It cheered me.

One does not expect to be cheered at a funeral, but there's always something uplifting. At least that's been my experience of funerals. The ostensible reason everyone is gathered together in a drafty church in Upper Hutt sucks: a man has died. But the real reason we're there is because he lived and we are drawn to be around others who knew him, if only for one last afternoon.