The 10

When I moved to Boston from Florida in 1990, I was literally starting my life over again. I had gotten divorced and had spent eight of the prior ten years in Florida, with it no longer feeling like a home and with nothing to hold me back. Moving back to Boston was like returning to my youth. Of course, at that time I was 28 and uncertain of my future. Nevertheless, it was going to be a fresh start.

Clothes, my writings, and very few personal possessions were my entire world. And books. However, since space was limited (as well as funds for shipping anything significant), I opted to bring only ten books. Twenty-seven years later, I do not recall what they were. Suffice it to say, my house is currently a small library.

It got me to thinking about what were the important books, or rather, what would be THE important books if ever I were in a position of “starting over.” I realized I could make a list now and then later, tomorrow or a month from now, that list might change. My only caveat was that I could not name “complete” volumes or collections, other than poetry. There would also have to be a viable reason for each: WHY were they important. After some thought, here is my list (at least for today) in no particular order:

1) The Bible, Old and New Testaments, King James Version. For the poetry and for the beauty of the language as well as a reminder of my ethical roots.

2) The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham. A story of a spiritual journey (which I first read at a low point in my life) seems an obvious choice if I were on a new spiritual journey.

3) Ulysses by James Joyce. I’ve only started it, never delved too far in. Again, the language is magnificent and the story of a journey within a day is impressive.

4) The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. Never has murder seemed to be written about with such panache. A major influence on my writing.

5) Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. The intricacies of thought coming from an insurance executive is stunning. Truly a craftsman.

6) Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas. Such unbridled passion and lyricism. There is nothing like him today.

7) Jazz: A history of America’s Music by Ward and Burns. The companion piece to the documentary series. You can HEAR the music while reading.

8) The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Well, we need some good pulp fiction. Bitter, brutal, nasty, and raw.

9) The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. If you’re on a spiritual journey, it might be helpful to understand yourself.

10) On The Road by Jack Kerouac. A combination of lyricism, passion, brutal honesty, and unmitigated gall. And a reminder that the road doesn’t end.

That’s my list. I’d love to see yours.


Something Beyond Words

I recognize that poetry, among the writing disciplines, is probably the most subjective. The commentary and feedback I’ve received from contest entries gives a wide range of reasons WHY the piece in question was not worthy of a prize. Largely, I read comments regarding strong imagery. I respect and accept the comments, knowing full well I could enter the same piece the following year and a new judge might feel differently.

But some 25 years ago, I was associated with fellow poets Joe Gallo and Cathy Coley in Boston where the poetry scene was lively and engaging. Our discussions revolved around our respective readings and how they related to our own work. Prosody, versification, word choice were all intensely discussed. Rhythm was as important as rhyme (or off-rhyme). The SOUND of the poem was highly significant.

Consider the Latin word “carmen” which primarily signifies “verse” (as in the Carmina Burana). The word itself is derived from the root meaning “to sing” and, as such, carmen could mean “song” as well. The word we use to designate a verse could also mean a song.

I have come to see contemporary poetry running alongside the visual arts, whether painting or sculpture or even graphic design. What we can see is vastly more important. Accordingly, we want our poetry to create a visual sensation. But why not close your eyes and listen, allow the poem to create a mood, perhaps a biorhythm which you can feel innately?

One of the things Joe Gallo referenced was poetry that went beyond words. However he meant it, I took it as meaning the creation of a sensation not exclusively linked to what we can see. While I admire young poets creating vistas of imagination and exuding colors and textures, I would like to encounter someone who pays as much attention to form (even old forms that are rarely used or considered) to dispatch a wave that can only be felt and not seen.

Perhaps that poet is out there. I will keep looking.

The Commitment

April was National Poetry Month. I haven’t written all that much new poetry since my days in Boston over 20 years ago. A piece here and there as something inspired me. Concurrent with that, a Facebook friend sent out a challenge for a daily minimum of 10 minutes worth of writing. I came up with a poetic idea and accepted the challenge, feeling guilty that it wasn’t fiction and, in some cases, I wrote such a brief amount. Nevertheless, this was worthwhile.

Inspired by Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, my idea was called “A Month of Sundays in Stevensville.” It was to be impressionistic snippets of what Sunday meant to me, in the distant past as well as the present. I found that it became increasingly difficult as the month went on. But I succeeded and paid homage to National Poetry Month while motivating those within the Facebook challenge.

I used to participate in NaNoWriMo and found it to be entirely useful in motivating a daily writing goal. I know these sort of things are important, especially if you find yourself in a position where “real life” is encroaching too much on your creative life. I have also learned how to integrate both which is why I do not create daily writing goals.

This does not mean that I am not motivated or that I am not committed to my efforts, regardless of what others on social media may think. You can be committed to writing every day. There is Stephen King’s famous quote about that. However, like NaNoWriMo, simply putting words to paper (if you’re Old School) does not mean a novel is finished after X amount of words or pages.

When I do sit at my laptop, I am investing my all into the work at hand, becoming annoyed at an interruption, discarding thoughts of food or anything else from the outside world. I have stepped, like Alice, into my own personal Wonderland and that is where I must be.

All I have described is my personal preferences, how I work and prefer to work. The most important thing is to be committed to your writing in a fashion that suits you. The commitment is everything.

Poetry: To read or to hear?

For a moment, let us set aside Spoken Word, as it is, by its very nature, meant to be performed, read aloud, absorbed by your ears. It does make use of hip-hop rhythms, intricate patterns of rhyme and syntax. However, as its focus is primarily on performance, we will not consider it for this discussion.

Poetry. Prosody. Free verse or formed structure. First laid down on paper, arranged by line and stanza. There it sits, to be read and viewed and taken for its overall aspect. You can see end rhymes as easily as you can hear metrics. Some would say that it is not alive until it is vocalized, placed into the ether for those willing ears to encounter.

Then there is the poet who has mastered his voice and sense of projection, who knows the nuances of highlighting the words which will create the most emotional impact. Regardless of the form or structure or word choice, this is a piece of work that captivates. Or does it?

I have spent several nights over the last year going to poetry readings in Wichita and talking at length with writers who are looking to capture something essential of Human Nature in their work. They are to be commended for their efforts. In doing this, I have had to take a two-sided look at the nature of poetry. In sitting quietly and listening to a person recite their work, I seek out tonal qualities, in essence, the musicality of the piece. Separated from the paper, there is no sense of metrics other than what the writer reads into it. This makes the piece’s success completely dependent upon the vocal recitation.

Additionally, I have had the opportunity to view the written work and found that, in some cases, the lines are too long (akin to a modern-day Walt Whitman) yet with no intent toward metric consideration or syllabic count. They are lines placed as written. Perhaps there are good word choices, turns of phrase, sensationalized allusions. Every once in a while, there is a poem that looks like…well, a poem.

There is no intention at being dismissive. The world of writing and literature has changed and is allowed to change. But I still believe that poetry to be a metrically conscientious effort in which words dance separately from the images they are trying to evoke. We should be able to hear the poet’s voice in the silence of our own minds as we read. If a poem works only because it is being read in an ideal fashion, it is not, to me, a complete success.

So, as I continue to venture forth to these events, I enjoy what I am hearing. In the end, I want to be able to enjoy reading it as well.

Where Are You on the Time Continuum?

There will always be a debate regarding your individual relationship to the Past, Present, and Future. On a personal level, there is much to be said. Is there an event from your past that has permanently marked you and defined you? Are you afraid of your future to the extent that you focus intently on the here-and-now? I’m not here to discuss or contemplate those issues. As previously stated, this blog discusses the writer and the writing life.

So, let’s talk about what we do as writers in terms of past, present, and future. I know much of what I write in the past was, well, crap. I re-read it and see how much out of my element I was. I’m proud of my “creativity”, the notion that I had good ideas. But the overall execution was poor, to say the least. Currently, with one published novel and another on the way, I can definitely say I’ve gotten better. But is that enough? To have moved from ‘crap’ to ‘better’ is an improvement but not an ultimate goal. So what IS the ultimate goal?

I have a delightful piece of Transgressive Fiction which is well-developed but could be expanded. I’m currently working on a piece of meta-fiction as well as a novel of contemporary literary fiction. Additionally, based on my associations with a small but impressive group of poets, I have started writing poetry again. It is obvious that I am willing to move forward. But in what direction?

My association with my current publisher is solid. However, if I provided him with something totally off the wall, would he be interested? Do I do a sequel to my first published piece simply because a couple of reviewers suggested it be done? Is it reviews, royalties, or literary satisfaction that I am seeking?

The bottom line goal is perfecting the craft of writing. In this attempt, it may take several methodologies, many different courses of action. As a married homeowner with a full-time job, can I afford to be artistic or should I focus on commercial success?

There are not rhetorical questions nor are they even answerable. If I am fortunate enough to awake each morning, there is a protocol that must be followed with desires interspersed. What has happened has brought be to this point. What I do will take me forward. A sense of hope permeates my thoughts of tomorrow.

So, where are you?

I don’t know what it is, but it’s new.

We have so many expressions to describe changes in our lives. A new beginning. Turning over a new leaf. A fresh start. And too often we use the arbitrary time period of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day to make declarations, those ever-present resolutions. I am not entirely certain that I have begun anew. Rather, transitioned or morphed, continuously progressed as both a person and a writer and artist. Let’s make some declarations to identify the current mind-set.

Initially, this blog was to allow me to discuss my two passions: writing and cooking. I have shared some interesting pictures and recipes but I have already encountered so many other blogs who are far more passionate regarding their culinary pursuits. They spend far more time photographing and offering recipes that I will have to leave you with my favorite expression — It’s All About The Food! — and leave it at that. At heart, I am a writer and an artist. Whereas I always want to be known as a person who makes a tasty dish, I’d rather ultimately be known for my art. That being said, this blog will focus on The Writing Life and my experiences within that realm.

I am no longer actively involved with any writing groups. For six years I was a member of one, going so far as to be president for 10 months. Unfortunately, the rigors of the position, the lack of participation from most of the other board members, and the sense that it was more of a social and networking group dedicated solely to getting published, left a bitter taste in my mouth. As the new year begins, I will not renew my membership. I have left their Facebook page as it no longer offers me anything of benefit. There was another local group that I thought of joining. Unfortunately, at their recent conference, there was a pathetic plea to acquire newer and younger members. Parallel to that was the almost obliviousness that these older folks had no clue as to what the newer and younger members want or need.

I prefer to spend my time in smaller groups, at poetry readings where people of all ages and all types meet and, working through their nerves, read their work hoping for validation, commentary, suggestion, and encouragement. These people focus on craft, the art of writing, far more than the immediacy of publication and the corresponding marketing that is necessary. I have, for the past six months, been involved in a critique group. This comes nearly twenty years after the passion of being surrounded by poets in Boston in the mid 90’s. Friends who would read your work over and over as you would for them. Scintillating conversations that led to real development. Now, older and hopefully wiser, I recognize the benefits of my small group.

Writing conferences still hold value for me. I will be attending the same one for the third year in a row this year, going back with product to sell and discuss, and reconnecting with some very interesting writers who have become friends. This is the best of all worlds.

There is no way for me to denigrate NaNoWriMo. My first attempt was in 2007. Five years later, that effort (after much revision) became “Swan Song”. The weekend after Thanksgiving, during a promo through BookBub, it rose to #2 on Amazon’s ranking of free e-books.

By the same token, I undertook the 30 day challenge at a time when I needed to jump-start my writing. I continued for five more years, “winning” each time. However, the last three efforts lacked any viable story elements to continue construction/reconstruction/editing. It proved I could do it. I started thinking of Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” continually writing “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy’ and calculated that composing that sentence 5000 times would make me a NaNoWriMo winner. I no longer need to jump-start my writing and I no longer wish to write at such a pace. The craft of writing dictates a more meticulous approach, one that is both calculating and passionate, one that savours the sound and feel of the words more than their weight.

So, I did not participate in 2013 and I do not intend to participate for the foreseeable future. I’m working on a different timetable and the people I associate with are as passionate about the craft and art of writing as I am.

I am going to explore more of the world of social networking as much as I can within the time constraints of being a married homeowner who is a full-time employee. I’ve added Instagram and Tumblr to my repertoire and will attempt to tweet more often. My hope is to find more like-minded people: artists of any sort (writers, poets, musicians, photographers, etc.) who have a definite passion for their craft and can appreciate the inter-connectivity between these media as well as mathematics and science. I know we can create something greater by piecing together ALL that is around us.

My personal goals are shared between myself and my loved ones. This venue is for writers and artists. Let’s talk. Let’s share ideas. I welcome all who currently follow to reply and let us all know where you are at with your work; what you want to achieve; how we can be a resource for your efforts. Knowing how much joy I get from reading and critiquing others’ works and how it makes me better has made me enjoy being a ‘teacher’ and mentor as much as a motivator.

So, is this a new leaf, a fresh start? No, not really. It’s just me, H.B. Berlow, Writer and Artist, moving forward. And it will be all new.

What An Artist Can Do

It has been eighteen years since I have held residency in Boston. And yet I still feel violated. I lived there at a very significant point in my life. It was after the sadness of a divorce five years earlier had morphed into inspiration; when I met good friends who convinced me that I was, indeed, a poet; when childhood dreams of living and working in Boston had come true; and, ultimately, when I met the wonderful woman who would become my wife.

The first explosion occurred barely a block from the music store we both worked at. The concept of a ‘music store’ is an anachronism that can not be overlooked, largely because this kind of life, this world we live in now, makes the mid-90’s seem like a giant anachronism. I and several co-workers probably ambled out to the sidewalk, trying to catch a glimpse of the elite runners making it to the finish line. I was standing there, so many years before the madness.

I accept the fact that I am older now, not nearly as bohemian, responsible, with a consideration toward “selling out” more so now than back then. I understand the importance of the impact of 9/11 and how this time in history has specific protocols and procedures. On the opposite side of 50, I hold life more dear than ever before and recognize its frailty.

And yet I still feel violated.

I can not continue to absorb any of the media, whether it is news, talk, sports, online, Twitter feeds, Facebook posts. I do not care to allow political heads thump chests in front of me nor do I desire to consider the financial repercussions. Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Dudeist — none of them have anything new or different to say that has not already been said after Columbine or Waco or Oklahoma City or NYC.

I’m waiting for the painters and poets and singers and writers to make sense of things. I’m waiting for the only group that can reach down into the ultimate depths of humanity, into the pits of depravity, behind the clouds of depression, and raise us to the heights of a blessed light. I’m holding my breath for the first song or stanza or canvas to portray strength and hope and love, words that do not need capital letters because they already stand apart from the other words. A tune or lyric or sculpture will carry me forward and renew my faith.

That’s what an artist can do.

After the Meeting…

It seems I’m not the only one who is “jazzed” after a meeting with other writer’s. This past Saturday was the monthly meeting of the KWA and afterward a secondary meeting of those interested in or members of the new Indie Writers Alliance.

Discussions are profuse and lively and at times stray from pure discussions of writing and the business thereof. Considering it takes a life filled with experiences to be a writer, it is acceptable to deviate.

I find myself taking feverish notes in longhand and hoping that I can read my own handwriting afterwards. I write down websites, email address, brief words and phrases, anything and everything that made an impression for future use, review or research.

And I’m not alone. On the KWA’s Facebook page there were several comments of the same ilk. You see, writers can not work or live or exist in a vacuum. Yes, writing is a solitary craft, a lonely art. But in the end, we write not for ourselves but to put our work “out there.” And it is highly gratifying to read later that the people who I have just shared ideas with feel in essence the same way.

I recall, some sixteen plus years ago, when I was immersed in the Boston poetry scene, talking with a young man in perhaps his early twenties. I asked him who he read. He responded that he didn’t read any other poets so as not to influence his thoughts and mood. I don’t know about you, but the words “Bull” and “Malarkey” come into my mind when I hear such nonsense. We are not islands. We absorb and experience everything that is around us. We can learn from those who came before us, in one fashion or another, whether by assimilating or rebelling. But we definitely can not create outside of the influence of all else.

I relish the opportunities that being a member of a writer’s group have afforded me. And I can’t wait until what might transpire after the NEXT meeting.

Poetry Collections now available

I finalized the proof copies of my two poetry collections and slightly re-did the cover of one.

Ornithology, and other Jazz Poems is a poetic rendering on the life and music of Charlie “Bird” Parker. It is an attempt to assimilate the musical stylings of be-bop into a literary form. I received some encouraging feedback from Peg Nichols of the KAC (Kansas Authors Club). She suggested I try to get a reading done at the American Museum of Jazz up in Kansas City. The suggestion alone gives both myself and the piece a renewed sense of life.

{Peg’s blog, Kansas Plains People focuses on the writing life of Kansans. It touches closer to home for me.}

In The Art of Legerdemain, the life of a Magician is compared in counterpoint to the life of a Poet. Both create illusions out of seemingly nothing; both attempt to awe and dazzle their audience; and both wonder whether their works will have any lasting influence. It is, in essence, a literary autobiography of a period in my life from the late 80’s to the mid 90’s when there were both personal and artistic changes and transformations.

It is amazing to me to consider that the only possibility to put these collections out 20 years ago was via a printed chapbook. Perhaps this is the contemporary digital version of that. I am more proud of my efforts in getting these published in this particular forum. It shows that you CAN teach an old dog some new tricks.

Poetry Collections

I just got my proof copies of the two poetry collections I put together on Lulu. They are currently in PRIVATE status. I’ve learned (after many mistakes) to not make them available until they are satisfactory.

My wife (my editor) was reviewing them last night and was impressed. She says she is not much of a poetry reader but I think that makes her a better judge of the work. Too often, people who “know” poetry might have pre-conceived notions of what it is supposed to be.

In the meantime I am showing the covers which I am quite happy with.

Ornithology is a poetic interpretation on the life of Charlie “Bird” Parker and his influence on jazz music. It was attempt to incorporate the rhythms of be-bop into a verse form. There are other Jazz Poems that are included, written in the early 1990’s when classic jazz music was a major influence in my artistic life. (Now, of course, I am the Tikiman and focus on Lounge Music and Martinis.)

The Art of Legerdemain is a collection of poems using the concept of the Poet as Magician. Both create illusions seemingly out of nothing. Both dig deep into the Spiritus Mundi. Both have doubt whether anything they do will have any lasting influence. These were written during the mid-1990’s and I have my dear friend, Joe Gallo, to thank for the many discussions we had regarding poetry and life. (Can anyone guess where the cover design came from?)

When the final editing is down and the pieces are ready for public consumption, I will advise accordingly.

« Older entries