Folies du Jour: Book 1, Canto 1

I

In olden days, a writer with pretension
To voice his people’s hopes in anathemata,
Would make a case for being in contention
By laying down an ode or smooth hexameter,
Before composing something with dimension
For fear he’d be exposed as a rank amateur.
Why show you’re just another two-bit schemer
And what’s more do it in ottava rima?

II

But there’s no time for lengthy preparation:
The game’s a foot, time ripe, the need is now.
The fate of the Republic’s our vexation:
Whether we get through these four years, and how.
When a sham ignoramus runs the nation,
Who cares if I’m sufficiently high-brow
To catch the wretched agon of the times
Successfully in Dante’s piquant rhymes?

III

Lord Byron knew the mixture well: Don Juan
Incorporates the seemly and the seamy.
And given the age, I venture that a new one
Should be both sanctimonious and steamy.
To flavor our shock at thinking of who won
And help us chew, then somewhat tart and creamy
Must be my verse: to catch the zeitgeist’s mood
Demands the euphuistic and the crude.

IV

It’s usual in this type of composition
To issue forth a ringing invocation:
A call to arms, a plea for a commission
To bind the wounds; and find an apt location
From which to make a suitable petition
Or lift the veil upon a desecration.
I need a spot where I can coalesce
Each bilious outflow in one putrid mess.

V

O sweet Gowanus: issue forth your scents
To cleanse my verse; your waters rank and deep
Dissolve my fetid spewing; in your dense
Alembic boil each noxious phrasing, steep
Within your iridescent current each offense,
And turn from dross to gold this steaming heap
That like compost builds life. Is it obscene
To call on you, my flush-full Hippocrene?

VI

Where are you KENTILE sign, whose lambent beams
Once shone upon the toxic sites below?
Where are the slicks you lit, the oiltar seams,
The bodies swaying in the undertow
Of the canal? Bless all my fetid memes,
Which rise above South Brooklyn’s dirty glow,
All you who muse of soft tranquility
When stuck in traffic on the BQE.

VII

Muse, cross the bridges: Newark’s meadows sweet,
Old Cleveland’s groves, the springs of Buffalo,
Descant upon the passing of Main Street,
Now empty, once full not so long ago.
Detroit shall echo, Gary shall repeat
That what was once created is no mo’:
For why spend time in genuine creation
When wealth is made through idle speculation?

VIII

Look! How we close our eyes, and levers yank
And buttons push (the way we refinance);
Or rub the lotto genie and so bank
Our futures on the one-in-a-million chance!
Deposits going south, stocks in the tank,
Our houses worthless. And yet, in a trance,
We reckon if we placed just one more bet
We’d magically absolve us from our debt.

IX

Speak, Prophet, let each narcissistic byte
Gnaw at the Babel tower of this age.
Dismantle every cable droid, indict
Each billion-dollar suit, and turn your rage
Upon the posing proxies that each night
Pour forth the toxic gas that drives the gauge
That measures book advances, honoraria,
And gobs of cash spit forth for faux hysteria.

X

Descry, O Instant Messenger, the stores
And houses boarded up, the vacant lots
And men who cluster at the corner, scores
To settle or trace up arms, the easy shots
That have no consequence—for all the doors
Have long since been foreclosed on. Join the dots,
You gamers, for the people are in hock
For taking and not taking enough stock.

XI

Direct your gaze toward the gilded suite
Within the Tower; settle on the sofa,
And ponder as the bully deigns to meet
Each sycophantic leech and fawning gopher,
How much he smirks as on their knees they bleat
For work, pretending he is not a loafer.
As long as they’re on good terms with the bruiser,
They think that he won’t shame them as a loser.

XII

A puffed-up peacock, scabrous popinjay;
Falstaff without the grace or sack or wit;
A loathsome lech, a spawn of Rabelais;
A thin-skinned and vainglorious hypocrite.
Will be Commander of the USA:
Consider that when next you take a shit.
Let tumble from your bowels into the pan
Just what you think about this wretched man.

XIII

“But wait!” I hear you say, “he’s now our chief,
And sixty million folks can’t be mistaken.
We needed change, and Hillary’s a thief,
And now the ruling classes are left shaken,
Because of their presumption. All your grief
Is just sour grapes. And soon you will awaken
In a U.S. of A. that’s rightly ours,
In which we’ll wield full presidential powers.”

XIV

My answer to these claims of right is “No.”
No to accepting that this harlequin
Has any right to strut and primp and crow.
I see no cause to offer him my chin
To punch. This baldfaced Braggadoccio
Will not go underided. If I sin
It would be in not being hard enough
Upon the flaunting, pompous piece of fluff.

XV

“But what about Obama?” comes the cry,
“The Muslim atheist, the Communist,
The enemy within, the Kenyan spy,
The interloping, two-faced terrorist,
With his transgendered wife?” A desperate try
To stigmatize a couple who’ll be missed.
Your fears were never real, just fever dreams:
Unlike your man; for he is as he seems.

XVI

What standards the Obamas had to meet!
They couldn’t get mad, they couldn’t name and shame,
Or marry twice or thrice. They couldn’t tweet
Insults, or ridicule, or just defame.
Their kids had to be kind and smart and sweet,
Michelle considerate and without blame:
They always had to leave a good impression
And not commit a solitary transgression.

XVII

And now we are confronted with this Nero
Who’ll fiddle as the planet burns: his pride
And vanity unmatched; the perfect hero
For this land, where all flagrancy’s denied,
Compunction shunned, and where a total zero
Can make torture a virtue, and deride
As enemies within those who attempt
To offer another vision. What contempt!

XVIII

Is it not weird he has no hinterland?
No book or film or play that moved his soul,
No cultural lodestars, neither small nor grand,
That left him vulnerable or made him whole?
It seems that all is surface (and it’s tanned),
A world of flash and shimmer, without toll:
No sense of loss or sorrow or regret.
Good grief, he doesn’t even have a pet!

XIX

What will he do when he is called to grieve
When natural disaster strikes the nation?
A tweet will not suffice, will not relieve
The pain of lives destroyed; nor adoration,
Disdain, or ridicule help us believe
The leader knows the sting of deprivation.
When hugs need to be given, will he reel?
Or, arms extended, will he cop a feel?

XX

More worryingly still, when terror hits,
As it most surely will, will he react
Judiciously, advisedly? Or blitz
A city, region, country when attacked
To prove his manliness? Or blow to bits
Each treaty, bloc, agreement, and compact:
To give the terrorists just what they need,
And fill the beds once more at Walter Reed?

XXI

Perhaps the Prez will be as disengaged
As George Bush was in his first months: content
To go on victory tours and get enraged
At SNL, while trying to foment
Some phony crisis so he’s not upstaged
By the dull busyness of government.
He’ll sit counting his future bucks and cents
And leave the Executive branch to Veep Mike Pence.

XXII

The danger is he’ll think he knows it all:
Filling the airwaves with his contradictions.
There’ll be perpetual conflict, and in thrall
To all the fires he sets and all the fictions,
Distracted by the thrill of daily brawl,
We’ll spend our outrage feeding our addictions.
Meanwhile the Congress will pass legislation
To end the federal administration.

XXIII

Of course, one hopes that the judicial branch
Will act to halt congressional overreach;
That genuine conservatives will blanche
At efforts to undermine freedoms of speech,
Assembly, privacy; will salve or stanch
The wounds inflicted; or they’ll block the breach
Made in the wall dividing church and state,
And protect the defenseless against hate.

XXIV

One might repose some hope, if just a flicker,
That senators will act, well, senatorial,
And seek out common ground to act (don’t snicker!).
If not, then it’s not too conspiratorial
To fear that this Republic (here’s the kicker),
Will fold before the frankly dictatorial:
And all that will be left will be amurcous
Game shows of unrelenting bread and circus.

XXV

But what about the notion that this chump
Will (at last!) shake things up, and, by upending,
Return some power to the people, pump
The economy with infrastructure spending,
And catapult us from this so-called slump
Into a future glory never-ending?
Of course, he might—except that he’s abstaining
From every promise that he made campaigning.

XXVI

What makes this flagrant treachery more galling
Is how he savors playing us for fools.
Beyond his bluster, tantrums, and name-calling
His goal seems only to dispense with rules
To allow infractions even more appalling.
It’s all too clear that he considers tools
The folks who voted for him, suckers all,
Stick figures scrawled upon his bullshit Wall.

XXVII

The coal and steel jobs are not coming back,
Obamacare’s repeal has no replacement;
The Wall will not be built, and every claque
Is lining up for inside perks. Abasement
Will be complete when every stooge and hack
Is settled into every job and space meant
For those who care for their agency’s mission,
Instead of beating it into submission.

XXVIII

So now we wait to see what fate will show.
The USA has been through worse—survived
The Civil War, and slavery, Jim Crow,
Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, Watergate; revived
After September 11, even so
A sense of hope is sometimes just contrived,
Reliant on exclusion and amnesia;
Dispensed through a collective anesthesia.

XXIX

Of course, I hope that we are proven wrong,
And suddenly he is magnanimous:
Reforms the prisons, builds the roads, makes strong
The economy (and does it without fuss),
Returns power to where it should belong,
While not throwing the weak under the bus,
And, while admitting that he can be crude,
Ensures that only rich people are screwed.

XXX

And now we wait for the Inauguration,
Our senses frayed, and hearts and souls a-flutter,
What will he say to soothe a frazzled nation?
What soaring rhetoric will this man utter?
Will he, at last, ascend to meet the station
To which he aspired, or will he simply mutter
A few pat phrases from the autocue
Before attacking his latest bugaboo?

XXXI

What will it be? Four years of garbled tweets,
Of grievance, petulance, dissimulation?
Four years of protest marches in the streets,
Met each night with a pettish lucubration?
Of dirt (financial and between the sheets),
Corruption, sleaze, and misappropriation;
Or something else? Distinction or disgrace?
We’ll find out soon enough; so, watch this space.

Posted in Folies du Jour, Works: Fiction

The Serendipity of Publicity

Nathan Heller's "Blood Ties" in The New Yorker

Nathan Heller’s “Blood Ties” in The New Yorker

A few years ago, I was fortunate to play a role in helping Gene Baur, the co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, complete his first book, which told the story of the organization and the many animals that he’d rescued from stockyards.

Last week, my company, Lantern Books, and I were mentioned in a profile of one of our authors, Jens Soering, by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker. This was a first for us. Three of Jens’ books with Lantern were named—One Day in the Life of Prisoner 179212, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse, and The Way of the Prisoner—as was the individual, Fr. Thomas Keating, who brought Jens to us, and who is another of our authors.

Farm Sanctuary: Changing Hearts and Minds about Animals and Food was published to modest success by Simon & Schuster in 2008. One of the purchasers of that book left a copy at a bed & breakfast in New Jersey. A visitor picked up the book, read it, and was so inspired by its story, and the tales of the animals who made their way to Farm Sanctuary, that she told her husband about it. The visitor was Tracey Stewart, the wife of former Daily Show host Jon Stewart. Not only did Jon invite Gene on his show to talk about his latest book, Living the Farm Sanctuary Life, co-written with Gene Stone, but Tracey purchased a parcel of land in New Jersey that will be her own sanctuary for farmed animals, and which will be run by Farm Sanctuary. She also published a book, Do Unto Animals, that, like Farm Sanctuary, is a rallying cry for less cruelty and more compassion.

In a world where it’s harder and harder to break through the incessant noise of self-promotion, information overload, and multiplying media to reach your audience and make an impression, the story of how one person read one book that changed her life and thereby brought an enormous amount of positive attention to a worthy organization is delightfully analogue, old-school, serendipitous . . . take your pick. No paid consultants; no publicity hacks; no massive media blitz. Just a book on a table that found its way into the hands of someone who was ready to be transformed. It’s perhaps what all publishers and authors dream of: it so rarely comes true, that when it happens there’s something providential about it.

I wish I could say the Heller piece has aroused great interest in Jens’ work/situation or our company, but it hasn’t . . . yet. I like to think that it’s still early days. Apartments around the world are filled with back issues of The New Yorker waiting to be read. Jens is the subject of a forthcoming documentary film, The Promise, which may remind that special someone of Heller’s thoughtful piece, and which in turn may stir the Kraken of national attention. Until then, we do our bit, communicating however we can about our books—hoping that that special someone will change her life and change the world.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , ,

Jens Soering, The New Yorker, and Me

It’s a strange thing to see your name written out in the elegant, restrained typeface of The New Yorker magazine—as I, on this Monday morning, discover myself to be (in Nathan Heller’s “Blood Ties”). As someone who’s subscribed to the magazine for almost two decades, it feels unreal—as though the “Martin Rowe, a co-founder of Lantern Books,” is someone else entirely. But the thoughtful and conscientious Nathan Heller did come round to my house to interview me; the subject of his piece, Jens Soering, is an author of four books for Lantern; and another of our authors, Thomas Keating (also mentioned), did indeed send Soering’s first manuscript, The Way of the Prisoner, to us.

The story that Heller tells is complex and layered, and, as far as I can tell, accurate. It’s also restrained and judicious, without any of the sensationalism that (one might hope) might draw attention to our publishing program—with all of the risks and rewards that come with intense media interest. But the piece, at least, offers a welcome recognition for Lantern, and I’m grateful for that.

Posted in Publishing, Writing | Tagged , ,

The Book as Souvenir

Seth Godin is one of those disruptive gurus of marketing, publishing, and connectivity, and I think he speaks a lot of sense. I especially appreciate what he says about the book as a souvenir—with all of the ambiguity that such a word implies. Witness this comment:

A book is a physical souvenir, a concrete instantiation of your ideas in a physical object, something that gives your ideas substance and allows them to travel.

Out of context, a 140 character tweet cannot change someone’s life. A blog post might (I can think of a few that changed the way I think about business and even life). A movie can, but most big movies are inane entertainments designed to make a lot of money, not change people. But books? [. . .]

Books change lives every day. A book takes more than a few minutes to read. A book envelopes [sic] us, it is relentless in its voice and in its linearity. You start at the beginning and you either ride with the author to the end or you bail. And unlike just about any form of electronic media, you get to read the book at your own pace, absorbing it as you go.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Writing | Tagged

The Fine Writer

A friend who is currently writing a book sent me an email about its progress. She told me she’d started to read H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald’s award-winning memoir of how she dealt with her grief over her father’s death through falconry. My friend had had to stop reading the book, she related, because she’d been intimidated by MacDonald’s lush vocabulary and poetic style and it made her feel inadequate as a writer. Her own language was much more down to earth, she wrote, and she was trying to tell a story very plainly.

I have not read MacDonald’s book, but my friend’s comments did strike home. I, too, tend toward lushness in my prose. I often ask my sentences to carry a lot of weight—not least by freighting them with dependent clauses, balancing them between several semi-colons, and never allowing a noun or verb to complete their tasks without colorful adjectives or adverbs as chaperones. Once I’ve reached a first draft, I polish my prose to a dazzling sheen, which is not to say that it’s clear, well-written, insightful, or compelling. It may sound resonant; it may be lyrical; it may offer to the reader a veneer that suggests a rich grain of considered thought. But, in the end, the polish can lacquer the prose to the point of lifelessness.

I’m currently reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first volume of her much-lauded re-imagination of the life and times of Henry VIII’s fixer, Thomas Cromwell. I’ve no doubt that Mantel labored as mightily over her prose as MacDonald did hers, and I do mine. What’s remarkable, however, about Mantel’s writing is that it feels as unvarnished and sometimes as muddled (who is the “he” in this sentence?) as the times she is describing. Sentences tumble into each other; we move back and forth in time and in and out of Cromwell’s head frequently within paragraphs; names are dropped, kicked around, and picked up again with abandon (and who is this “Thomas”?). Yet it all works. The prose more than breathes; it runs, pants, shouts, laughs, whispers, and has all the energetic vital signs you want in a book. It’s Dickensian in all the right ways: expansive, unafraid, pell-mell, and rich with characters and incidents. And in its own way as plain as day.

My worry as a writer is that my effort to make each word matter and to render each sentence beautiful is my way of avoiding producing sentences over which I don’t have complete control, which is itself a symptom of fearing not that I lack the tools to write a book but that I don’t actually have enough raw materials to make anything worthwhile. My facility, after all, hints at facileness. Yet a little less polish might open up cracks in the story to reveal emotional, intellectual, and narrative depths that had heretofore been plastered over by “fine” writing. The task is not to write plainly or beautifully; the task is to write truthfully. And sometimes that is a harder and scarier prospect than any prose style can fix.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Writing | Tagged , , ,

The Woes of the Author

The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society—an august body of writers (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) based in the U.K.—have produced their annual report on the dismal state of affairs for professional writers. (Thank you, Kim Stallwood, for sending it to me.) I reproduce here, for your inspection and circumspection, the salient details from the report:

THE WRITING LIFE AND EARNINGS

  • The career of a typical professional author begins in the late 20s/30s. The optimum ‘earning age’ for most is the mid-40s to 50s, with incomes beginning to decline thereafter.
  • The earnings picture is very top heavy: the top 5% earned 42.3% of all the money earned by professional authors.
  • The bottom 50% (those earning £10,432 or less) earned only 7% of all the money earned by all writers cumulatively.
  • Since 2005 the typical author has become poorer against society as a whole and now (from self-employed writing) earns only 87% of the present minimum wage.
  • Nearly 90% of professional authors need to earn money from sources other than writing.
  • 17% of all writers did not earn any money from writing in 2013, despite 98% of these having had a work published or exploited in each year from 2010 to 2013. Therefore, at least 17% of writers work without any expectation of earnings.

 SELF-PUBLISHING

  • A quarter of authors have self-published a book.
  • Among authors who have self-published, the top 10% of earners made a profit of £7,000 or more.
  • The top 20% of earners among authors who have self-published made a profit of almost £3,000.
  • The bottom 20% of authors who have self-published made losses of at least £400.

 PUBLISHING ADVANCES & CONTRACTS

  • 44% of authors stated that the size of the advances they had received from publishers had declined over the past five years.
  • 46% of authors said they had signed a buy-out contract (where there is a single payment for use of their work without the further payment of royalties), with 30% stating that the prevalence of such contracts was on the increase.
Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Writing | Tagged

The Two-Week Rule

everytime-you-make-a-typo-the-errorists-winWe have a rule in our offices at Lantern Books that no copies of a book newly arrived from the printers are to be scanned for typos, verbal infelicities, or solecisms. It’s hard to do: the eye roves over the page like a klieg-light, casting into sharp relief the typefaces chosen, the leading and kerning of letters and lines on the page, the running-head format, the dimensions of the book, the thickness of the paper, the margins, and so on. We’ve poured our hearts (and not an inconsiderable amount of money) into the book, and it’s beyond disheartening to be confronted with mistakes that somehow bypassed the author, editor, copyeditor, typesetter, and proofreader.

After fourteen days, however, we can view the errors with more equanimity than despair; and exasperation and self-loathing have been replaced by a shrug of the shoulders and steely determination not to do it again. Thankfully, technology has helped us experience fewer unwelcome surprises. Not only can we do a dummy run with one or more copies of the book, just so that we can get the three-dimensional item in our hands before committing ourselves more fully to print, but the actual print run can be a matter of only a few copies, allowing changes to be made quickly, with relatively little expense, and with relatively few tarnished copies out there in the world.

I still think the two-week rule needs to be applied—and not just for publishers. An author recently told me that she’d sent her mother a copy of a book over which she’d labored mightily for many years, only for her mother to reply immediately that she’d found three errors—and that was just for starters. Of course, it is the ordained role of parents everywhere to remind their children that, no matter how much they may feel they have accomplished, they’ll always be in the wrong. So, authors: make sure you tell your readers (and especially your supposedly nearest and dearest) that for fourteen days you want nothing but unconditional love and support. After that, one’s fragile heart might be strong enough for the uncomfortable truth.

Posted in Editing—Publishing—Writing, Publishing