Saturday, 20 April 2019

Fireside talk: a beautiful new world

Relaxing by the hearth before a lovely blaze, my friend says, 
"If you say you have a book of poems I must read, I'll tell you straight away that I won't. I mean, why should I?"
"Well," I reply, "my book tells a story in poems. It's a story of love and death."
Now he looks interested.
"It's about losing," I continue, "the person dearest to you and the way grief takes you on an adventure of becoming a whole new self."
"Ok," he nods, "that's something I can relate to easier than just a bunch of poems - because now it's got real meaning."
"The book has eight parts," I tell him. "The first part is the story of Norman's and my love, our closeness. But he was sick from when we first met - I never knew him not sick. So I've chosen poems that show my awareness that I might lose him. And how Love said: don't worry - sickness and death don't frighten me.

"Then the second part is the crisis of Norman's last months, his physical deterioration, our ups and downs, wild hopes for miracles, despairs, and ultimately the healing of soul, which death wants, before it can happen.
"The third part is the time that immediately followed his death. Where his voice still rang as if from his actual voice box - loud and strong and clear. And my vulnerability - as if I too was newly disembodied in the ether with him. I've been told that's like when the Xhosa people put white on their faces.
"The fourth part - now I'm having to start dealing with worldly stuff - the estate, and so on. But it's a psychically treacherous balancing act all widowed or bereaved people would know.
"The fifth part - now I'm getting on, a bit better with everything, but I don't recognise myself. I'm changed. The dead are with me. Not just Norman. My world and their world overlap. My sense of time is far more fluid.
"Then I have a kind of breakdown. It felt at the time like a shamanic initiation. Many spirits visited the house. I went through pantomimes of experience. Sometimes it felt as if I were walking through the stars. That's the story the poems share in the sixth part.
"The seventh part is specifically about embodied love. When the body of your beloved disappears, it's such a massive physical loss, massive. Because the soul IS the body, in each incarnation. I was content to mummify my heart: I had had the ultimate and wanted no other. But God had other plans for me. Love continued to flow into my life, making sure my heart would stay open, vulnerable, alive. So, new love poems appeared to testify to these greenings even on the ashes of my husband. Those poems make up the seventh part.
"And then, the eighth and final part is my ultimate tribute to Norman: I, who have only ever been the poet's wife, rather than a poet in my own right, am led by the creative process of grieving into a new becoming. I see the facts of my blood are the facts of Norman's blood - we are poets and I can and must stand now on the strength of all I've suffered and learned.
"That's the story of Greater Matter: A Journey of Poems to Death and Beyond."
"This is awesome," says my friend, "because the poems will make more sense to me now when I read the book, and there must be other people out there, that will relate to these different stages that you've gone through, and appreciate the poems."
" I hope so. Because the poems tell the story of a soul-journey, and also how death doesn't part you from a loved one, it expands you."
"Gosh, looking at poetry for the first time in my life has really opened up a beautiful new world for me, and I've even now started writing my own poems."

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The sacred cups of words

I am speaking to somebody who has no experience in either reading or writing poems, but who is interested in the craft.
"Tell me," he says, "how it works."
"People make the mistake of taking words for things," I reply. "Everywhere you find people arguing - often they are arguing about nothing more than which words to use for some idea. They toss them to and fro like balls.
"But for a poet, words are cups. You fill them with feeling, the feeling that flows through you."
"I get that," says my friend.
"Yes. But in the first place, the feeling is one between just you and yourself, or you and God, or you and Nature, or you and Silence, or you and your lover ... whatever name you give to the state of being at-one in a particular moment.
"It can happen anywhere - in a pub, beside a stream, at a table with friends - whatever. When you listen attentively, words find you, if you're that way inclined.
"The right words always find you when you listen with your heart."
"But if I do that," he retorts, "I don't get a poem. I just get a list - say, like ..."
He rattles off several nouns.
"That's ok," I say. "You write them down, straight - stream-of-consciousness. Get it down.
"Then, when that's done, you can look at what you've got. That's the point at which you can tentatively start using your conscious mind - how can I string these words together so they make sense?
"In a way, you are taking the words like molecules of feeling. Two separate hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom don't make water. But when they combine, they make something we can drink, and wash and cook with, and swim in.
"So you link your words into something bigger than the separate words - something which you, and later your reader, can assimilate.
"Thought-water, if you like. Or thought-wine."
"I've written," he says, "quite a lot. But I've always thrown it away."
"That is good," I say. "You offer your creation in the first place to yourself, or to God; maybe to a friend you trust. The process of offering gives you feedback and matures you.
"Keep working in this way. You'll find your own voice this way. You'll learn to discriminate between what is truly yours and what is not.
"Don't think of publishing.
"Publishing is not writing and it is not reading. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the cups of words in their mysterious beginning.
"Publishing only comes as a very last stage - when your combinations of words have reached a point of being sufficiently strong to be buffeted by the physical world - a world where things are chaotic, competitive and not at-one.
"This stage requires you as a poet to be strong - stronger than you can be when you are creating a poem, where you have to be soft and open as a baby."
I read him a poem.
"That is so beautiful," he says.
"It's a lifetime behind this," I remind him, "a lifetime of being a baby.
"Creating poems is an organic process and the initial conception in the womb of your heart's music is of necessity vulnerable and sacred."

- Silke Heiss, 9th April 2019

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

REVIEW FEATURE: No Addiction to Writing?

Today, I have extracted my review of Marc Schroeder's Sleeping with Dogs from my recent newsletter, in order to give this wonderful read more exposure. Enjoy the write-up and then get yourself the book - it's important for many of us, in different ways. Purchasing details below.

REVIEW FEATURE: No Addiction to Writing?
from Give Your Writing The Edge Newsletter No.45, March 2019

Sleeping with Dogs by Marc Schroeder
Reach Publishers, Wandsbeck, 2018, ISBN 978-0-620-78725-3

You won’t regret it, no. You’ll turn the pages like leaves in the wind and then close the book with a feeling of awe at the young (well, he’s only just over 40!) author’s spirit – his courage, his stamina, his honesty, his humanity and, not least, his uncompromising love of life. I’m talking about Marc Schroeder’s Sleeping with Dogs – a personal (autobiographical) tale of the war of the self against the self, or perhaps more accurately: of the battle to quell the mind’s interminable justifications and rationalisations, by soul’s song finally pulling the human body “into the wild, to where I’d been called for so long.” (pg. 262)

The book begins in 2011, set in Cape Town during the French Open Final, with our ‘hero’ before the television, telling his reader how much he loves tennis, saying things backwards, and the words ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ on his cocaine-buddy’s knickers before he inhales “the snowy trail” she’s offering.

In two pages, we are served (pun intended) it all: an ordinary, South African, sport-loving, fun-loving, straight male, drug-doing self. If you get nothing from this story other than – Here’s someone who knows how to string words together so they pump – it will have been worth your while.

Schroeder uses the tennis match motif as a way of keeping score throughout his journey. As he fights his addiction to various drugs by doing the Ironman race; the Mont Aux Sources Mountain Challenge in the Drakensberg; a cycle ride backtracking the Camino de Santiago to cross Spain and France; going into rehab; joining a church; returning to live with his parents; planning marriage; we see the following –

pg. 59              Addiction 1 – Religion 0
pg. 67              Addiction 1 – Independence 0
pg. 98              Addiction 1 – Ironman 0
pg. 98              Addiction 1 – Rehab 0
pg. 212            Relationships 0 – Addiction 1
pg. 226            Hypnosis 0 – Addiction 1
pg. 243            Psychiatry 0 – Addiction 1
pg. 262            Love 1 – Addiction 0

These scores provide a neat outline of the ongoing skirmishes in the war against what Schroeder calls “the wolves” – whose purposeful, menacing spirit is beautifully captured in the cover artwork by Nicole Goss; indeed, the cover matches the heart of the entire story as could only have emerged out of an artist’s empathy.

The metaphor of the ‘wolves’ effectively conveys the soul’s refusal to lay down arms in the war against unhappiness and self-loathing. On pg. 142 we read:

I was afraid of the harm my soul was demanding from my body.

And 100 pages later:

I believe the further we stray from our life’s purpose the harder life will come down on us, attempting to shake us and bring us back to our true calling. My inability to heed the calls from my spirit resulted in the drugs taking control of my life. I was thirty-six years old. I’d fucked up every relationship I’d ever been in and cared about. I found no purpose or gratification in my chosen vocation [financial advisor]. I was the exact opposite of what I’d hoped for and dreamt for as a child. Yet on paper, I had it all. The sense I had wasted my one life and was continuing to do so, was overwhelming. (pg. 242)

These paragraphs are important for two reasons. First, the words “life’s purpose” and “true calling” reveal the underlying premise of the book. To an attentive reader, the drug addiction turns out, in fact, not to be the main concern – the addiction is clearly showing but ONE POSSIBLE way, in which the wild and purposed instinct (as embodied by the “wolves”) in the author’s own soul refuses to be tamed. (Depression, suicide, crime, addiction to sex, or to gaming, and social and domestic violence could, in my opinion, be other ways of revealing the same existential problem.)

As soon as Schroeder finds himself in the wild, the addiction ceases, because:

My soul was afire. […] I’d fallen in love with the mountain state of mind. (pp. 174-5)

The second theme revealed in the paragraph on pg. 242 is that of honesty. The nasty chasm – between a “paper” life and a real life filled with true soul adventure and opportunity for growth – is more than Schroeder’s body-soul is willing to bridge. In many ways, I read the halt-less drive towards revelry (described in the party, drunken driving and drugging scenes) as a – perhaps unintended – social comment on a culture that is not only too materialistic and fearful for the author’s superficial comforts, but is also deeply rejecting of the Dionysian (ecstatic reveller) and Warrior archetypes – a rejection that may overall hit males harder than females, but which is one the Western world generally has been suffering under for too long.

Adventure, wholehearted lovemaking, dancing (all of which genuinely alter one’s mental state), and self-discovery through physical trials, such as sport offers – all these doings are essential, to a lesser or greater degree, to any human soul. They are embodied in the archetypes of Dionysus (equivalent of the Roman god Bacchus) and Ares (Mars). Dionysus is the Greek god of wine, rowdy festivity, mystic experiences, and spiritual wanderings outside human civility or politics; while Ares is traditionally held to be a bloodthirsty god of war, but, in his most positive aspect, he is also the most sanguine of all the gods on Olympus, outdoing the lot in the arts of dance and lovemaking. (Ares is for good reason Aphrodite’s favourite lover!)[1]

Sleeping with Dogs is thus, for me, primarily about the bid for those rejected energies to be accepted into the author’s life; even though the author himself does not go as far as to make that explicit. But the dogs of the title, whose loyal love and acceptance of him see him through his most wretched states are, after all, descendants of the wolf. Is it surprising, then, that it is them it hurts him most to give up at the end of the book, in order that he may build a new life for himself in the Himalayas –a life that promises to honour the wild “wolf” inside himself: wolf, that loyal teacher, whose nose follows the ‘inside track’? (In their beautiful handbook on the totem animals of Native Americans, Jamie Sams and David Carson write: “Wolf would not come to you unless you requested the appearance of the tribe’s greatest teacher.” – Medicine Cards, St. Martin’s Press, New York: 1999, pg. 98)

So the score of 1 for Love in the book’s final pages is a score for self-love gained by escaping a milieu totally unsuited to a natural man’s soul. I use the words ‘natural man’ deliberately to echo the concept of ‘natural woman’, beautified by Carole King  – but Men who run with the wolves has yet to be written (though I’d argue that Carl Jung, D.H. Lawrence, and also Robert Bly in Iron John, did give it what they were worth).
One score I would dispute is that of 0 for relationships. Schroeder’s criterion is a secure, cosy marriage, and he suffers repeated disappointments in himself for failing to become a stable boyfriend, let alone a husband and father. However, his friendships with men and women alike are remarkable for the shared joie de vivre and total trust that emanates from them – a joy and – dare I say canine – trust that I hazard might well be the envy of many a tired family man worn out by the endless monkey tricks demanded by having to provide for and protect his clan. Schroeder spells it out in a simple tribute to his friend Lisa:

Lisa was anything but mainstream and loved things I loved – music, the sea and, of course, sharing passion through chemicals. I knew it wouldn’t last forever; eventually, one of us would find purpose and move on. However, for those few years, we enjoyed what we had – a wonderful variety of freedom, where we could be who we were without fear of judgment. (pg. 153)

A few of the descriptions of the drug trips at their peak echo the beautifully wrought descriptions of the great outdoors – an echo, which only proves the NEED for the natural altered states Nature in her grandeur provides us with.

Sleeping with dogs is as real as real can be. Run with your own shadow, it seems to say, and you will sleep with your wildest instincts brought into the fold of your inner peace – a peace, which in Schroeder’s case is gained by the highs and lows of outdoor activities and friendships, but perhaps, above all, by the satisfaction of WRITING IT ALL DOWN with an exquisite sureness of rhythm and word choice.

It’s with pleasure that I let this storyteller-sage’s talent flag the end of this review. May his question reverberate in your own hearts – it may well be more pertinent at this stage in our human history than ever before:

I wasn’t aware I was such a fraud, a boat without a keel, a drifting ballast-less at the mercy of the sea and the wind. I knew I wanted love; isn’t that what we’re all looking for? However, how can you love another when you have no love for yourself?

– Silke Heiss
March 2019

You may purchase Sleeping with Dogs from –
The kindle version costs $9.19 (ca. R135) while the hard copy is $15.99 (ca. R235)

[1] Jean Shinoda-Bolen’s books, Gods in Everyman, and its counterpart, Goddesses in Everywoman, offer a Jungian perspective on the major divine figures on Mount Olympus, providing a deeply helpful handle on the possibility for balance and integration of the multitude of different energies, which typically jostle one another in the mixed bag of the human psyche.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Tuesday tidy-up by Tortoise

There is a calm. Pleasant and unfamiliar.

I've revised my Timeline at the end of my book; applied the changes suggested by one of my beady-eyed editors; and emailed the other editors saying I need their final input by mid-April, so the proofreader has enough time to work his miracles before I submit the manuscript to PoeTree.

In all my years as a writer (I made a start in 1974) I've never published anything in this way before: I have no solo publication with an ISBN number, nor anything loaded on Amazon.

I breathe a sigh of relief at my vegetative slowness: I like myself being this late. It is wonderful being a slow developer. My disappointments, failures, resentments, frustrations, hopelessnesses, madnesses, despairs, depressions, manias and resignations have made the most extraordinary compost: it is soft and warm with my failures, my traumas, my giving-upnesses over and over again, having to gather my broken bones and reconstruct my self and my life.

Upon this compost of psychic energy I am now carried forward - by the force of my own shit, you could say ... transformed over the decades into a mysterious source of quiet, something is happening, which I've been dreaming almost since birth. Or before. Who knows?

I am producing a 'real' book. A book with an ISBN number, which I will market properly and make available to online buyers.

This is truly nothing special. The book industry is a zillion ants in their antheaps, and there are only so many ant-eaters about to devour them.

And yet, like the birth of any living baby, my book has its own bright star. As it currently stands, there are 238 poems carrying the narrative - the journey with my husband to his death and beyond. The poems are like 238 survivors of the 1000 eggs the Tortoise I am has laid in the sand over the past 20 months, with the patient sun of time now finally close to hatching them.

I am grateful. Keeping close to earth.

Photo: Silke Heiss