Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Harvest Moon Muse

The moon has to be every artist's Muse. Especially writers. Especially poets.

Who hasn't been taken with the moon at some stage in their lives? From the fanfare of the moon landing or the wide-eyed glory of a full moon, the romance of moonlight or the link to lunacy, its emotional significance in astrology, the moon plays a part in all our lives. 

But to artists, it's inspiration. When there's a full moon in the sky, it's like a crystal ball of inspiration gleaming, and our pens are ready for plucking, as Yeats remarked, 'the silver apples of the moon.' Maybe its because our intuition is at a peak and so we're more able to attune to insight. Whatever, the moon plays the role of creativity's advocate. 

So, before September is over, I thought I'd write a bit on the harvest moon. (I know it's already passed and I've missed it - damn - but anyway...) For those of you who don't follow moon lore, the harvest moon is the full moon closest to the autumnal equinox, which means it usually occurs before or after September 21st. You can't miss a harvest moon - a huge golden full moon, low in the sky, so close it seems to be sitting on the horizon.

The harvest moon is my favourite moon. One worth waiting and watching for.  I'm especially taken with the whole lore of it. I've always thought there was something special to the harvest moon: the time of reaping and sowing, September's scythe moving us on through the fields of life, letting the old stuff fall away, while embracing the new, the simultaneous contradictory acceptance of regret and rebirth, and all its connotations with seasons and the cyclical nature of life. To me, the harvest moon represents change, the pale gold light of it a new currency, a horizon harbinger, the quiet shimmering significance of autumn transition. 

I'll never forget the first time I saw a harvest moon in the sky - it was absolutely HUGE! Like a magnified moon.  Hanging just above the hills, yellow-gold in colour and so close. I remember holding a palm up to the car window and having it dwarved in comparison. And I was so full of regret at the time, I felt it all related somehow to this huge moon in the sky. We were right in the transition period, mid-September, when life begins again, when moving on is a natural occurence, and I couldn't move on from one particular thing, and this moon suddenly put it all in luminous perspective.

So anyway, I wrote a poem about it. About the whole reap and sow, sow and reap aspects of it.  I couldn't but, it was so damn strange and extraordinary and hung in my mind for months later until I did. (Well actually I wrote a few poems, a repetitive villainelle proving a handy form for the subject matter.) One of which I've included (ta-dah) here:

Harvest Moon Dirge

Last time I was supposed to see you and didn't - 
there was a looming harvest moon in the sky, scythe 
bent low to sweep the barren fields of my soul, 
what I didn't reap, what I didn't sow. 

Blinding, bright, like an optic nerve of sky, searing 
nucleus of Fate and mirrorball of revelation,
mirage of maybes and white-washed whimsy,
illuminating all that was dark before.

So promising - a luminous wafer, haloed horizon,
orb of pale gold possibility, pearl of potential,
lucky penny wish found and framed in sky, 
harvest, of what a heart could have at full loom. 

And ominous. Gaping question, glowering accusation, 
peering pupil dilated, the shock of a faceless 
dice; Time's white skull with a toothless grin,
do or die dagger night-sky ultimatum. 

Or so obvious. Your lit-up face, that wounded wide-eyed stare;
full moon a magnifying glass on my half-heart haunted 
from moments missed and memories shadowed
by the looming lunar ghost of what might have been. 

And seems it wasn't only me it affected; I'm sure you've all heard the classic Neil Young song 'Harvest Moon' which I think so gracefully captures that to-and-fro type of swaying between past and futures, looking back and moving on. (It's included at the bottom incase you haven't!) And so many poems written about it, two which I'm particulary fond of posted here too. 

The experience of that harvest moon was exactly like as Carl Sandburg explains in his poem 'Under the Harvest Moon': "Love, with little hands/comes and touches you/with a thousand memories/and asks you/beautiful, unanswerable questions." And maybe that's what every full moon or noticed moon does to us: asks us beautiful unanswerable questions. It could explain the hold the moon has on us not just as artists, but as human beings.
The moon - such a guiding and inspirational force for writers, definitely more to follow on this topic. With more moon poems, by the tonne. Watch this space. Suggestions welcome!

moon musing,

~ Siobhán.


'Under the Harvest Moon' -  Carl Sandburg
Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions. 

'Moon In Virgo' -  James Lee Jobe

You are not beaten. The simple music rises up,  
children's voices in the air, sound floating out
across the land and on to the river beyond,
over the valley's floor. No, you cannot go back
for those things you lost, the parts of yourself
that were taken, often by force. Like an animal
in the forest you must weep it all away at once,
violently, and then simply live on. The music here
is Bach, Vivaldi; a chorale of children, a piano,
a violin. Together, they have a certain spirit
that is light, that lets in light, joyful, ecstatic.
"Forgive," said The Christ, and why not? Every day
that you still breathe has all the joy
and murderous possibilities of your bravest dream.
Forgive. Breathe. Live. The moon has entered Virgo,
the wind shifts, blows up from the Delta, cools this valley,
and you are not beaten; the children sing, it is Bach,
and you are brave, alive, and human.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Why I Write - Writers (and Me) on Writing

This blog has been a long time coming. Why? Because it's important.  And here it is: Why do I write? Why do you write? Why do writers write exactly?

Is it to make a living - albeit a very random and penniless one? To provide a public podium for our frolicking imaginations? Because we're wordy and want somewhere to indulge our verbal acrobatics? To dictate to the masses? On a notion, a whim, a wish? To make ourselves heard? To have the last word?

Writing is not just a pastime, a hobby, or indeed a career. It's a passion. A pursuit against all odds of ordinary. Not the shallow stereotype of  scribbling and doodling and making up stories to entertain, it's more about engaging with the world, responding to it and creating. It's not trivial, it's powerful. 
It's hard to explain - exactly. There's a lot to it. I've tried to explain it to people and I can never seem to get across how important, essential it is. Most writers, serious writers, would say that they feel they have to write, that it's an inner essential need, as necessary as breathing. 

Granted, there are 'writers' who engage in the art of the pen for entertainment sake only. Those who engage in writing from time-to-time, a hobby. And on an echoing note, there seems to be a stereotypical consensus out there that writing is something you take up  only when older, as retirement recreation, like knitting. (I say this as it seems every writing group I've ever attended has been populated mainly with older members.) But why? Some of the greatest writers have been and are young writers. Those who have been passionate about the craft since they first put pen to paper in single digits. Today young writers are clearing the score-board - Zadie Smith for example and this year's mid-twenties Orange prize winner, Tea Obreht (and Cecelia Ahern, dare I say it, one of the wealthiest and youngest writers around, regardless of her chick-lit status). Wilfred Owen was only in  his early twenties when he wrote what is today considered some of the greatest war poetry ever.  Keats left a legacy behind him after his death at twenty-five. Seamus Heaney was peddling verses at school, as were the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen when she was just a young woman on the threshold of adulthood... Need I go on?

Anyway, back to topic - Why do I write? Not as a hobby. I have enough other hobbies. Reading is a hobby. But writing is not. Writing is more important than a hobby, more demanding, more purposeful. Writing is the career I'm chasing, but more than that too, it's also a fulfillment of a kind, of every kind. A fire that I've lit and tended to and if I let go out, I'll turn to ashes and embers in its wake. It's a need, a devotion, above all else.

And why do writers write? Margaret Atwood, one of my favourite writers is someone who has managed to express this 'need' for writing. She has been writing since her youth, as most great writers have been. In her book on writing  'Negotiating With the Dead', she examines the whole business of writing, the whys and whats and hows on a psychological level, and one memorable passage where she pieces together all the reasons for writing she has ever heard from writers of all shapes and sizes goes as follows:
'To record the world as it is. To set  down the past before it is all forgotten. To excavate the past because it has been forgotten. To satisfy my desire for revenge. Because I knew I had to keep writing or else I would die. Because to write is to take risks, and it is only by taking risks that we know we are alive. To produce order out of chaos. To delight and instruct (not often found after the twentieth century, or not in that form.) To please myself. To express myself. To express myself beautifully. To create a perfect work of art. To reward the virtuous and punish the guilty; or - the Marquis de Sade defense, used by ironists - vice versa. To hold a mirror up to Nature. To hold a mirror up to the reader. To paint a portrait of society and its ills. To express the unexpressed life of the masses. To name the hitherto unnamed. To defend the human spirit, and human integrity and honor. To thumb my nose at Death. To make money so my children could have shoes. To make money so I could sneer at those who formerly sneered at me. To show the bastards. Because to create is human. Because to create is Godlike. Because I hated the idea of having a job. To say a new word. To make a new thing. To create a national consciousness, or a national conscience. To justify my failures in school. To justify my own view of myself and my life, because I couldn't be a 'writer' unless I actually did some writing. To make myself appear more interesting than I actually was. To attract the love of a beautiful woman. To attract the love of any woman at all. To attract the love of a beautiful man. To rectify the imperfections of my miserable childhood. To thwart my parents. To spin a fascinating tale. To amuse and please the reader. To amuse and please myself. To pass the time, even though it would have passed anyway. Graphomania. Compulsive logorrhea. Because I was driven to it by some force outside of my control.  Because I was possessed. Because an angel dictated to me. Because I fell into the embrace of the muse. Because I got pregnant by the Muse and needed to give birth to a book (an interesting piece of cross-dressing, indulged in by male writers of the seventeenth century). To serve Art. To serve the Collective Unconscious. To serve History. To justify the ways of God towards man. To act out antisocial behaviour for which I would have been punished in real life. To master a craft so I could generate texts (a recent entry). To subvert the Establishment. To demonstrate that whatever is, is right. To experiment with new forms of perception. To create a recreational boudoir so the reader could go into it and have fun (translated from a Czech newspaper). Because the story took hold of me and wouldn't let me go (the Ancient Mariner defense). To search for understanding of the reader and myself. To cope with my depression. For my children. To make a name that would survive death. To defend a minority group or oppressed class. To speak for those who cannot speak for themselves. To epose appalling wrongs or atrocities. To record the times through which I have lived. To bear witness to horrifying events I have survived. To speak for the dead. To celebrate life in all its complexity. To praise the universe. To allow for the possibility of hope and redemption. To give back something of what has been given to me. '

Phew! That's a mighty long list, but no doubt an accurate one, of both lowly and lofty reasons. Margaret Atwood herself, leans to the idea of writing as a way of lighting up the 'darkness.' She also notes the example of Samuel Beckett, who famously said that writing was all he was good for. And Flaubert, who said that you will always write the greatest for yourself, and not any audience.

Hmmm. So many different reasons, seemingly correlating to the literature status sought,  those with lowly ideals and those with lofty ones. Me? I write on an impulse, and electrifying urge.  Like Lord Byron, to clear all the clutter out of my head and onto the page where it becomes legible (lest I go mad in its cerebral  crowding and in-squabbling).  To define things: the world, states of emotion, truths, myself. 'To give to airy nothing a local habitation.'  Because I'm head-over-heels in love with language. Because I'd like to spend every spare moment  I have tinkering at the treasure of words and nothing else. Because it's a fire that needs to be fed. Because writing makes things matter.

Why do we write? As Rilke put so beautifully, in every serious wannabe-writer's handbook - 'Letters to a Young Poet - 'This above all - ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple 'I must', then build your life according to this necessity...'

And the answer is a resounding YES - for those of us who are serious about writing.  The lofty ones, the committed ones, the do-or-die ones. The ones who may have it tougher, struggle to make a writerly living, whose futures consist of garrets and solitary scribbling, who go to writer-groups for literary criticism not tea and chit-chat, who  painstakingly ponder on the meaning and magic of manuscripts, rather then churning out lite, bright, by the bundle bestsellers.  Oh well, we have the deep soul solace of words, where they merely skim the surface.

(Maybe I've left out some quotable writers on this million-dollar question, have I? Anyone out there able to quote some more?) Or better yet, add some new reasons to this treatise I've set out??  And you fellow lofty writers out there - share your aspirations! Now that I've laid down my gramophone, I'm all ears as always...

wondering and pondering and writing on,

~ Siobhán.


Monday, 12 September 2011

Hurricane High-Kicks

I'm writing this post in the middle of a ferociously stormy day, wind battering the windowpane behind me,  whishing and whipping up a frenzy in what seems to be the high-tail end of a hurricane passing by!

Yay! I love stormy days. Routine bites the dust and everyone is swept away by a gusto of awed annoyance. Normal conversation is out; comments on the weather in - the refrain 'it would blow you away out there!' not a weather-monger's exaggeration anymore, but a shuddering real possibility! How exciting!

Is there anything like a stormy day to blow the cobwebs away?? Clear the head, big-time. "There'll be no sleepwalking around today" a woman commented to me earlier. Hell no! Not when there's a hurricane in town and the only thing on your mind is walking successfully through it! Storms put us back in touch with this great  physical planet of ours and away from the whirlwind in our heads we may be caught up in. Nature when loud, makes herself heard above all other common cacophonies. Hence, the mighty cobweb-blasting.

While storms offer up all kinds of metaphors and allegories to a writer, this one  just occured to me today while wind-walking (ah, i.e. almost para-gliding): that walking against the wind must be what it's like to go against Fate, or against the current of convention. The physical equivalent. Damn hard thing to do with a wailing wall of steel in front of you, pushing you back, screaming you down, gales bashing and lashing up a fearful stupor of inferiority, rendering you helpless and hapless.

(Whoa, there it goes again, the wind getting up. Not whistling, but roaring!) No wonder it's personified all the time, as compared to the other elements. Some writers have even referred to wind as having a 'spiritual energy.' Didn't the Holy Spirit after all, manifest in the Bible as great gusts of wind? Maybe it's the sheer invisible power of it that embues it with such significance.

Then there's the emotional element, with storms being an allegory for emotional states and emotional crises (explored in the poem below by Adrienne Rich). Talk of weathering the storm, battening down the hatches, preparing for stormy days, knowing the storm-clouds will pass has become almost clichéd in our emotional language de jour. Lots of writers have explored this facet. Weather is perhaps the most ubiquitious metaphor to a writer, who can use it for figuratively moulding and describing our changeable emotional psyches.

And there's the Dorothy phenomenon also. As in Wizard of Oz Dorothy whose house was lifted and transported to Oz by a tornado/twister. The magical-realist-fantastical element to a storm. You can't help but think of that on a stormy day! Take a falling slate on the head, fall, blank out - and hey presto - you're on a yellow-brick road to enlightenment! Or maybe it's another way of saying that in with a storm blows realisation, of some kind or other (not necessarily including a wizard.)

What I like about storms too is the primitive mode they put us in. Batten down the hatches, ride it out, with supplies and survival tactics at the ready. The snuggled-up-and-stay-indoors policy. They're the only encounter with real natural 'danger' most of us will experience. And they set the adrenalin on high alert, reminding us that we're alive and there's a big bad wailing world out there, trying to huff and puff our neat self-made securities down.

They also carry an essential ego-check for us: we're pretty much helpless in the face of the elements' power. 'Man has need of nature, but nature has no need of man' is something we should not forget. Nature in all her malevolent glory is majestic and menacing. Even metaphysical. As writer Joan Didion has noted, 'the wind shows us how close to the edge we are.' It reminds us of our mortality and of each moment blowing through time, adding a sweep of meaning to the otherwise calm (and sometimes claustrophobic) mundane. 

On that note, I'll sign off and get back to storm-enjoying, 

Have a safe day!

~ Siobhán.

'Storm Warnings'- Adrienne Rich

The glass has been falling all the afternoon,
And knowing better than the instrument
What winds are walking overhead, what zone
Of grey unrest is moving across the land,
I leave the book upon a pillowed chair
And walk from window to closed window, watching
Boughs strain against the sky

And think again, as often when the air
Moves inward toward a silent core of waiting,
How with a single purpose time has traveled
By secret currents of the undiscerned
Into this polar realm. Weather abroad
And weather in the heart alike come on
Regardless of prediction. 

Between foreseeing and averting change
Lies all the mastery of elements
Which clocks and weatherglasses cannot alter.
Time in the hand is not control of time,
Nor shattered fragments of an instrument
A proof against the wind; the wind will rise,
We can only close the shutters. 

I draw the curtains as the sky goes black
And set a match to candles sheathed in glass
Against the keyhole draught, the insistent whine
Of weather through the unsealed aperture.
This is our sole defense against the season;
These are the things we have learned to do
Who live in troubled regions.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Judging a Book by its Cover - Vintage 21st Delights

September again! The month of practicalities and new studies and beginning the factual filo-faxing of the year ahead.  New semester. New season. New me. But best of all - new books!

For all readers (or maybe just me) - September is a time for all kinds of book-buying. Stemming from the textbook new smell and feel-good freshness of new stationary of the whole back-to-school September schtik, embedded in the inner calendars of our mind, (well for me anyway!), reading comes back to the fore in September's newly darkened evenings.

Vintage books must surely have this in mind with the recent re-issuing of some of their classics to celebrate their 21st anniversary in publishing: luxurious vellum-velvet-to-the-touch covers in retro rainbow colours. I stumbled upon these treasure finds in a bookshop recently. Quelle surprise! of sapphire-blue dip-dyed pages and cover of Louis de Berniere's  'Captain Corelli's Mandolin', exotic magenta of AS Byatt's 'Possession', orange-red of Margaret Atwood's 'The Handmaid's Tale', blushed-pink of 'The Time-Traveller's Wife', lipstick red of 'Memoirs of a Geisha' and more, all the chosen colours somehow echoing some sense of the theme or style of the books themselves. 

Which reminds me of one of my surprising finds book-browsing in my university's library for a literature assignment once. There I stumbled upon what looked like a 1st edition of Shakespeare's sonnets - scarlet-red-hardback, bound together by fraying threads, and pages as yellow and browning as old newspapers with real vellum pages! I remember placing it in the photocopier like some precious manuscript from a museum, an authentic artifact of tradition uncovered in the jungle of dusty books that was the literature aisle.

Vintage's re-styling is another reminder to us that books - the  actual paper physical manifestations - are still way more coveted and appreciated than the cold metal screens of the iPad, Kindles and whatever other new-fangled digital doo-dahs there are. (I don't think you can source first editions  or the like on a screen...?)

There's nothing better than the bulky feel of a book in your hand, its bent spine a sign of significant page-turning, dog-ears a sign of fondness and word-wallowing, yellowed pages a mark of its classic status, the slightly musty smell like wisdom, and the discovering of all the secret pleasures of solitude uncovering its secrets and significance.  

How can a steel cold square of an iPad or Reader beat that? Books have personality and character, these devices don't. And my favourite part of reading - underlining and scribbling passages of interest, passages read over and over, that rise like gold from the text and settle into the muddy waters of daily mundane routine, to glint and gleam and remind us of the real treasures in life - how can this be made tangible by a Reader? 

I was a slow reader when I was young, speed-wise. When my friends and I used to have multiple read-offs (started by my one of my friend's discovery of the unputdownable then en-vogue teenage novels 'Point Horrors' from the States), to test each other's reading powers by seeing who would be finished first to be rewarded by the  first-pick of the next book swap, I would always be last. It was pointed out to me when I was caught pondering over the same page for around 10 minutes before moving on - the words were so precise, the sentences so neatly clicked into place to create an aha moment of revelation - how could I move on? I was transfixed by the typeface, the printed proof. I wanted to memorize it and let it melt into my mind. 

With a book, you can do that. You can linger and loiter as long as you like, flick back and forth through pages at your ease, savouring the soft paper feel, whereas the blank glare of a iPad pushes you on, demands you keep going, with no old-skool way of marking the meaningful stuff, putting your own little stamp of presence on the book.

Maybe these new editions constitutes an attempt by Vintage to fly the flag for the physical book, the look and feel and smell and touch of it, to up the style stakes, snazz it up, jazz it up for the aesthetic battle between books and technology!

See details of the re-issued titles here

Happy reading!