The cost of words: My submission to the 2017-2018 Seagull Books catalogue

Earlier this month I wrote about the fact that I had not been writing much, despite my pledge to focus on my own work for a year.  Well since that time I haven’t been reading much either, but I have been busy with writing related activity and, fortunately, I have more work written earlier in the year that I am now able to share.

Today my contributor’s copy of the latest edition of the elegant and engaging Seagull Books Catalogue arrived.  I have only just begun to glance through it—this 428-page masterpiece begs to be savoured slowly and carefully—and, for the second year, I am honoured to have a piece of writing included.

My brief prose poem/essay, “The Cost of Words,” was written upon my return from the trip I made to central Australia in May of this year, to participate in a charity walk on the Larapinta Trail west of Alice Springs.  Thank you, as ever, to Naveen Kishore and the entire team at Seagull Books for this beautiful creation and for once again inviting me to take part.

THE COST OF WORDS

It starts, not with a shout, but with a whisper, a tightening at the back of the throat.

 Sadness was an opened door, an invitation, across the globe, to an ancient place where, for a time, the world might stop swaying, where I could focus on the moment, freightless after years of pushing against this cage of flesh and bone. Traverse a vast terrain of sound and sand and stone. I arrived empty, expectant. In my head, I had fashioned a journey of healing, imagined an ordeal to open a conduit to choked and buried grief. I longed to release the words that had ceased to flow. Unleash emotions untold.

Nature defies a narrative directive; life sets its own course. Streams flood, rivers run dry. We are not what we think we are. We are whole, we are broken. Fragile and durable in turns.

 On my first day out, my head closed in, my voice grew strained and raw. Over rockbound passages, rising ridges, jagged ground, I began to fear that a different script was being dreamed for me. My challenge would be to submit. I fought it, pressing against weakness and illness and fatigue until one day I dropped from the trail into a circle of needles and stone.

The wisdom of the desert holds you humble. Reminds you when failure, not triumph, will unleash the tears you cannot cry. Water is precious. A gift not easily spared.

In the end, I will never know, how long I could have walked in perfect health. Whether heat or blisters or skeletal complaints would have slowed me all the same. But I do know that the outback is not just rock and rust-red dust and sand. It is explosive greens, the pallid beauty of the ghost gum, the sacred promise of the waterhole, and the wisdom of the women whose ancestors walked this land for millennia.

And the possibility of redemption from ruin. Again and again.

The cost of writing is not simply the loneliness and isolation a writer’s life affords; it is the cost of the life lived, the pain, wreckage, and devastation endured to be able write at all. Words are not free.

 What might a perfect life dream forth? Nothing worth the ink that blood can bear. I am not what I think I am. I am broken, I am whole. I seek the words, the notes that bind this song I write. In my heart, after two weeks in the desert, I have carried it home. How long can this self-sufficient refrain echo before it fades to hollow silence?

Long enough if one remembers the cost of words and is prepared to pay the price.

Update: Not much writing yet, but there’s always tomorrow. Right?

The calendar may say otherwise, but with the snow and sub-zero temperatures of the past week, autumn seems to be no more than a hazy memory. More than one month into my year of writing fearlessly, precious little Writing has taken place. But’s been a positive, inspiring time all the same.

My city’s annual readers’ festival, Wordfest, was held in mid-October and this year I volunteered as a driver for the first time. What a fantastic way to meet and engage with authors! Whether I was driving children’s authors out to school events, or picking a New Yorker columnist up from the airport, I thoroughly enjoyed the conversations that arose. The programming was impressive as well, including a strong representation of Indigenous writers. But my personal highlight, without question, was the magnificent M NourbeSe Philip. I had three opportunities to talk to this most remarkable woman—a Caribbean-born Canadian poet, writer, playwright, and former lawyer—at some depth. We talked about poetry, writing, and our adult children. She was generous and supportive, especially when I shared with her the nature of my writing about the body. And her performance of excerpts from her seminal, experimental poem Zong! was one of the most powerful readings I have ever attended.

Since the festival ended, I’ve been busy. I worked during our municipal election—an absolute nightmare—we are one of the last paper ballot hold outs, turnout was unexpectedly high, and by midnight during the third recount I found that I was completely incapable of counting to fifty! Add feline dental surgery, writing reviews, editing, and a public speaking engagement (on the intersection of faith and my queer identity, in case you’re curious, a rather uncertain junction to be fair), I have found it difficult to carve out a creative space of my own. But, it’s all good. I even had the opportunity, earlier this week, to attend a book launch for fellow Albertan and Twitter compadre, Steve Passey. To be honest, I went to heckle him, but he’d stacked the house with his friends and family so I decided to be polite. (Just kidding, of course, it was a great night—with wine and cupcakes, what more could you want!)

But, in the midst of all this, the most unexpected and welcome surprise came in the form of an invitation to join 3:AM Magazine as Criticism/Nonfiction Editor. There was a time when just publishing something at 3:AM seemed an impossible dream, and my first effort appeared after the most brutal editing experience—one that almost caused a me to have writerly crisis of faith. I had over-read and over-written a complex postmodern novel. However, I learned so much from the process of working it into shape and I was, in the end, very proud of the result. I firmly believe that being edited myself, editing for The Scofield, and the workshops and training I’ve taken along the way, have all helped make me a stronger writer. And it’s an excellent way to encounter great writers, engage with exciting writing, and help bring it to the attention of others. I look forward to being part of the 3:AM team, I expect it to be both rewarding and inspiring.

So now, to attend to writing. With winter making its presence felt early, it seems the ideal time to settle down and get to work.

Writing into a new season with renewed hope: A reflection

Writers are the scattered or lost tribe of the world. They originated from one belief—even the tenants have been lost—shared rituals and music, and the same place, which was an oasis port on the edge of dark badlands. Because of a history of roaming and Diaspora long, long ago, the individual members became stultified in separate languages and they took on as protective colouring the customs and the beliefs of the populations among whom they lived. They may have given their hearts to the people. But when they meet they recognize one another by a look in the eyes as if squinting against the sun, and by the clumsy gestures of hands. Their hands are uncertainly looking for sugar signs of sharedness. This they will see, maybe with mortification, remorse and shame: That they are indelibly marked by the same stubborn illusions, the same shortcomings making their fit into life an awkward one, the same yearning for projecting connectedness and for initiating transformation.

— Breyten Breytenbach (from Intimate Stranger)

I entered September on a low note, still trying to stay a step ahead of the tendency to slide toward darkness that has been haunting me these past few years. At times I thought I had finally shaken it, only to have another challenge rise up. Last October, bereaved three times in the span of a few months but unable to begin to untangle my grief, I hit the lowest point I can recall since my teens. And paradoxically (because depression holds to its own logic) I had just sold several essays and had two pieces finally emerge in print.

Now, almost a year later, I sense a change.

I feel that I am beginning to heal, and that I am ready to begin to grieve.

The past six months have brought adventure, a degree of closure, a measure of financial security, and the recognition that with true friends, the ones that really matter, distance is not a barrier. However, I have not found a job and I have not written much beyond a few select critical reviews and a few short creative pieces. I talk about finally being ready to write, to focus on a larger project, but now that I no longer have any kind of regular income, writing can feel like a frivolous pursuit. Yet, as much as I was briefly tempted by a professional position I was interested in, I don’t really want to go back to my former line of work, even if that was a viable option and I’m not sure it is.

So, I have made an exciting—and a little unnerving—decision. From the money I recently inherited, I have put aside enough for the next twelve months. It’s a modest sum but my life is not extravagant and I now own my house. Of course, being a pragmatist, I’ve also left a decent amount for emergencies (the cat’s dental work to start) and with luck, a little travel. But rather than seeing this as a stopgap until I find a job, I am considering this as: Paying myself to write.

 My goal is to attend to writing as I would any other job. I’ve joined the Writers’ Guild, increased my volunteer commitments in book and writing related areas, and have several opportunities for contract work of various types. I want to continue to gain practical experience and build on the connections I have.

I made this decision several weeks ago, but only shared it privately with a few people. I needed to know if I could keep on task and keep my mood positive before making my commitment public. Before putting it out there.

And so now it’s public.

Today I turn fifty-seven, another fact I hesitate to share. I’m not sure how I got here so fast, but I don’t want another year to pass without making a serious effort to finally do the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. To write. To believe in myself.

It is not easy. I realize now that every day I need to work to keep from slipping back into a negative spiral. To that end, I have taken a cue from Michel Leiris whose work has been a near obsession for me of late. I’ve just finished reading his monumental work Phantom Africa which is a journal he kept over the course of a two-year ethnographic expedition from Dakar to Djibouti in the early 1930s. He simply records the events of the day and his feelings about his experiences, in so much as he has time to do so. He does not edit himself, his moods fluctuate, his doubts, frustrations, and erotic dreams are all noted. I decided to follow suit and keep a journal of this year myself. My past journaling efforts have fizzled pretty swiftly because I assumed I had to be profound at all times, to only record my sculpted thoughts. Now my aim is to comment on my successes, or shortcomings for the day, and set a goal for the next. When time or inspiration allows I go further, write about the things that are worrying me, speculate, even dream a little. I don’t confine myself to reading and writing concerns, but they are always central.

So far so good.

I hope to stay open to possibility. To read and write to purpose and potential. I have certain projects in mind, call for submissions I want to answer, but I want to kindle and nurture other ideas and see where they take me.

To trust words.

Everyone’s a monster: Gnome by Robert Lunday

We’re accountable for our boundaries, and for an indeterminate space just beyond—though we share that space with others, also accountable. Society’s a jostling. (“Medusa’s Head”)

In high school I worked, for a while, as a cashier at a sporting goods shop. One evening, in the middle of a busy end-of-season sale, I looked up at the mother and son standing at my till, and saw, where the boy’s face should have been, what I remember as a gaping black hole. Horrified, I completed the transaction without lifting my eyes again. As soon as it was possible I feigned illness and went home. To this day, I have no idea what manner of abnormality might have distorted his visage. I’d always been exceptionally squeamish, with a limited tolerance for the grotesque and gruesome, so there was no question that I would have chanced a second look to, as I imagine was a common reaction, stare at this oddity, even re-evaluate my initial response. Unexpected encounters with damaged or deformed faces still tend to trigger in me an aftershock, a need to find a reassurance in the ordinary:

The only thing more warped than freakishness, however, is the revulsion it engenders in the rest of us. We’re all chance images: faces in crowds, doors, wood grain or fabric bunching, the duck-rabbit or left-old/right-young lady; what if you were nothing but an optical illusion, and not a very amusing one at that? There’s a time-gravity, a pull this way or the other, such that we see only through desire or regret. Everyone’s a monster, made from looming disaster less than the real flaws that spun us into moving objects, searchers for the missing piece: the shadow-line, the peculiar mark, the curving strangeness. A lost knowledge: but beauty, specifically the remembered beauty of the Medusa, lets one inside. (“Cloverleaf”)

The face is the gateway, the focal point, and the fertile plain of Gnome by American poet Robert Lunday. But what, exactly is Gnome? Drawing on and incorporating literary, philosophical, and biological sources, it is a personal exploration—at once introspective and heuristic—of “face” in its multitude of meanings and implications. An existential physiognomy. Prose poetry pushing into meditative essay and back again.

The first, and to date only, book published by the inimitable Black Sun Lit, Gnome is a collection of intertextual ruminations that incorporate the words and ideas of writers and thinkers as diverse as Max Picard, Laurence Hutton, Elaine Scarry, Rilke, Yeats, Witold Gombrowicz, Kōbō Abe, and many more. Precise and considered, but never forced, the result is a series of reflections that wander from classical Greek history to psychology, from art theory to embryology. The prose shimmers with lyrical immediacy and aphoristic wisdom.

The magic of a work like this, fusing essay and poetry as it does, is the capacity to appeal to readers who might not expect to like either. But we all have faces, exist behind them, and interact with a sea of faces, real and perceived in the world around us. As such it is the ideal fundamentally human substratum through which to consider what it means to be human, to be alive in the world, and remembered in time.

The face is written by glancing phrases into a paragraph, an essay. The phrases are numerous, but much the same, after all. The face doesn’t have much to say except “I am,” “you are,” “it is” when reduced to a stare. And yet, as the world breathes around it, refracts it, ravages it, loves it, a face figures countless versions of itself into the life framed out of the mirror. I gather these figurations, save them, dissect them, arrange them in a grand monument to the fleeting visage they mark. Study the face from every angle, it becomes a cheering crowd, a thousand faces, all inklings of one face: it’s not me but my charioteer, steering one horse upwards, one down. (“The Corinthian Maid”)

Lunday’s project is essentially an open-ended phenomenological exercise, albeit with a strong Platonic edge. His task is to question—to test the instability of the lines we draw between memory and identity, internal and external reality, the embodied and the imagined. He draws on his own personal experience and observation, and builds on and around the thoughts of others, to offer reflections that we intuitively recognize ourselves.

“The atmosphere is of itself adapted to gather up instantaneously and to leave behind it every image and likeness of whatever body it sees.” (Leonardo da Vinci) The face is most often a retrospect: someone new reminds us of someone we knew before, a former friend, a type we’ve discovered in our various travels and meetings. Familiarity gradually unfolds, and the new and old faces form intersections of doubt and trust. (“Gyges’ Ring”)

Endlessly thought provoking, Gnome explores the myriad ways that “face” can be understood, but it is not prescriptive. It invites engagement. As I read it, I not only remembered that long-ago encounter with the “faceless boy;” I also thought about the way my own face—and more critically its role as mediator between myself and society—has changed over the past few decades. And I’m not referring to the inevitable effects of gravity and time. My once-feminine past is only vestigial now in the bald, bearded, unequivocally male face I see in the mirror. But which version is the mask? It depends on how you look at it.

Masks carry the bodies toward and away from one another. Spaces of association border one another; gaze and gawk interpenetrate, and meaning forms from our spontaneous, physical responsiveness to each other. The limit-experiences: insomnia, fatigue, erotic life, birth and death, wisdom.

In my face, my life as a theatre of one.

Ever tried. Ever failed. You know the drill. August 2017, the month that was.

As August draws to a close, and September opens, I have some thoughts about the pressures of prescribed reading and the complicated emotion of loss.

Joseph Schreiber 2017

At the outset of the month I pulled out a selection of potential books to choose from for Women in Translation month. I knew that with several review related reading projects underway I was unlikely to get to more than a few titles. I managed three: one of my must-reads (Carmen Boullosa’s Before), one that was somewhat disappointing (Kjersti A. Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am), and one late addition (Isabelle Eberhardt’s The Oblivion Seekers). However, I found that many of the books I tried to pick up did not work at all for me— that is, they were not right for right now. Feeling that I ought to try to manage one more before the month was out I found myself frozen, almost unable to read anything… I had to stop and remind myself what such reading projects are all about.

Raising the awareness of the fact that fewer female writers are translated is important, as is celebrating the terrific authors who may not be well known. It never hurts to look at one’s reading habits and challenge one’s self. But it is another thing to get stressed and defensive. And that is what happens when I start to measure my reading by gender. I will admit, more male than female authors line my shelves. I have addressed this fact before in other posts. I also wrote about how for the better part of two decades I read almost exclusively female writers in an essay for Literary Hub last year. For a long time, I hoped that by filling my head with female voices I would find my own. And, of course, I never did. The sense of myself as male was unassailable. Seventeen years ago I set off on a course to realign my presented and internal gender. And here I am.

At this point, I like to think that the gender of the authors I read is secondary, although I will admit to a growing need to connect with gender-queered and gender non-conforming perspectives. Most specifically I am drawn to writing that is challenging, exploring style and form. In recent months, some of those writers have, in fact, been women in translation—Fleur Jaeggy, Can Xue, Marie Ndiaye. Before next August rolls around again I am certain there will be more. And I know for a fact I will be turning to some intriguing experimental female writers writing in English. But, as a person with a differently gendered history, gender is a complicated, messy space of being. Whenever I start to feel the burden of gender pressing on me from the outside, the existential anxiety (and anger) that haunts me is stirred.

So, let me read—as and how I need to read.

But my own self-imposed reading ambitions are not the only pressures that have weighed on me this past month. My brothers and I listed our parents’ house and it sold within one week. With the possession date looming we made several trips to clear the house out and, on the final visit, I found my mother’s nail file. She carried this file with its ivory coloured handle and tattered red plastic sheath for decades. Just looking at it I see her hands. It is perhaps the single most important keepsake I have. More than anything it reminds that she is well and truly gone.

When I first came out to my mother, back when transgender was just beginning to draw some serious public attention, she asked for some time to process what I had shared, but promised that she loved me unconditionally. And she never let me down. She was my advocate, my best friend, the one person I could call for comfort and reassurance, no matter what. I was otherwise alone. There were no local supports, I faced the challenges of being a single male parent of two children with learning disabilities, I experienced a breakdown, the loss of a career, and a life-threatening health crisis. Even though she was unable to travel far near the end, she phoned me every week without fail, and I spent as much time as I could with her and my father in their final months.

When my parents died last year, my mother’s death opened an intangible void.

My parents’ house. Our last day there.

I did, however, still have one faint, yet vital lifeline—a friend in South Africa, the closest queer friend I have ever had. Bookish and bipolar, like me, she was a sort of soul mate even though we only met in person once when I visited her in 2015. But as I was tumbling, she was falling further and farther. One year ago today, September 1, Ulla took her own life. Images of the rugged Indian Ocean shoreline near her home have been seeping into my dreams. As we spread our parents’ ashes before leaving their property for the last time, all I could think of was Ulla’s being spread on the beach. I couldn’t touch the urn. My son spread my share.

Eastern Cape, South Africa

Suddenly I am doubly aware of how alone I am. How alone I have been and how weary I am.

The intersection of Pride Week, rather than providing a distraction, exacerbates the sense of loss. I cannot imagine anything lonelier than a mass of shiny happy people. I did excuse myself from the volunteer commitments I had made and now I am free to avoid the parade as I usually do. I also happened to have a doctor’s appointment so I spoke to him about my recent depressive dips and my frustration with the reality of long-term trans loneliness that nobody talks about, that isn’t fashionable, that doesn’t fit the script.

Sometimes loss feels less like a temporary passage, than a layering, compounded, defining quality of life.

Welcome to my closed space reality:

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

And so on.

Note: I should have included a link to the requiem I wrote for my friend. This piece was published at Sultan’s Seal last November, is constructed of salvaged language, and features photographs from my visit to South Africa.

I have no pride: A sombre reflection

I have no pride.

It’s Pride Week here. For me it’s the worst week of the year. An opened wound. I wake with chest pains, panic attacks. Always the same. No. The more I try to get involved the worse I feel.

I have been out for nearly twenty years, but I always feel out of place and alone during Pride.

And each year is more difficult. I have no pride.

I used to believe that it would get better. Then I believed that it didn’t matter. But it hasn’t gotten better. And it does matter.

Things have changed. I have changed.

Yet I’m not sure if the cost has not been too high.

I no longer know where I belong, my body and I.

 

Remember, Body

Body, remember not just how much you were loved,

not just the beds where you have lain,

but also those longings that so openly

glistened for you in the eyes,

and trembled in the voice—and some

chance obstacle arose and thwarted them.

Now that it’s all finally in the past.

it almost seems as if you gave yourself to

those longings, too—remember how

they glistened, in the eyes that looked at you,

how they trembled in the voice, for you;

            remember, body.

                              –C.P. Cavafy (tr. Daniel Mendelsohn)

 

A few thoughts about July 27: The days that haunt us

It is, in my time zone, still July 27th, and all day I have debated whether I should call attention to what this date means to me.

For many years, July 27th was, quite simply, my wedding anniversary. Celebrated with affection for years and then, as my marriage became increasingly untenable, barely noted in passing. Since my marriage ended the date typically passed like any other, but every now and then something would occur that caused me to remember the distant significance of the day. Like a fading echo down the years.

Today, my brothers and I accepted an offer on our parents’ house—just shy of one week after it was listed, just over one year after they died. Good news given the poor economy and the less than prosperous state of the village they lived in. But, money and estate matters tend to stir up family tensions. A testy conversation earlier this morning has left me feeling defensive, angry even. And no matter how hopeful it is to be one step further in the process of moving beyond the aftermath of our parents’ unexpected and overlapping deaths, it is not easy.

But the July 27th that I cannot even begin to address involves another encounter with death. My own.

Two years ago today, shortly after midnight, I went into cardiac arrest. I have written very little about this episode because I have no memory of the incident or the days immediately before or after. It has been difficult to process this event, or what it means. The cause was a pulmonary embolism, likely related to travel. I survived because my son happened to hear me, called emergency, and started CPR. But it’s not that simple. Family dynamics again.

Several times I have contemplated writing through the trauma. Try to understand why I survived. What it means.

If this near-death experience had gifted me some magical insight into the preciousness of life, I could write one of those finely crafted inspiring pieces filed under the category: Creative Nonfiction.

I have tried. That’s not my style. I am beginning to understand that my life only makes sense in scraps and fragments, even more now than ever.

I am forever in the process of writing myself into being.

 Time to gather those scraps and fragments.

Image copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017