June 18, 2012
Perhaps I shouldn’t have Googled myself. But who can honestly say they haven’t looked into that electronic mirror? If Jesus were around today, he’d probably be the only person on Earth not to even want to explore his computer self, those little masturbatory keystrokes revealing one’s achievements. Or lack of them. Me, I mean, not Jesus.
Don’t get me wrong. I only Google myself occasionally. I’d just had a poem published in Andromeda Street. I knew that of course, I’d checked out the site, but I needed to see the evidence reflected back to me, the great mathematical Google God presenting me to me on an airy platter. It’s deeply satisfying to see yourself emerge, like a woman in a bikini from an over-size sponge cake. Then the eye always travels to the crumbs, the other ‘me’s, the doppelgängers of name.
There aren’t too many Sebastian T. Smails in the world. It’s an unusual name. But there was a crumb this time, another me. Seems he was a writer too, but of short stories, not poetry. In Wyoming, U.S.A.. There was exactly one story by him, published in an American literary journal of the sort I dub Smart and Serious. Where genre is a very dirty word, and the readership sometimes reaches seven. But I’m a poet, so seven seems a fairly decent number. There was yet another Sebastian T. Smails with a trucking business in Queensland, called DeepNorthQwik. Only three in the whole electronic world, a tripod of Me, limping along. Better than being a John Smith, though, a centipede’s leg, lost in a moving forest of abundance.
I did some work, finishing a sonnet about trees and age, in which the word ‘autumnal’ did not make a single appearance. It was taut. It was elegant. It was good enough to send off to Wombat, the right wing journal which has Australia’s most brilliant poet as the literary editor. So far I’d only scored form rejections, not even personal ones from the great man.
But this time he liked it, and eventually my fourteen lines appeared wedged between an article about how the existence of the Stolen Generations was a myth, and another about how being stolen was good for Aborigines anyway, because they learnt so many useful things. Like logic, presumably. I only had eyes for my poem, though. In real black print, not that electronic pixelated muck. And then, a fortnight later, I Googled myself…
…and found that Sebastian T. Smails of Wyoming, now had a personal web-site, and my poem ‘Transpiration’ was listed under ‘Recent Publications.’ I sat, staring at the fat-faced American. He was wearing a dark beret, and had his head on an angle, as if he were just too intelligent to view things straight on, too totally quirky and poetic. He looked like a French cockatoo who’d been hitting the crackers and absinthe a bit too hard.
I e-mailed him saying that unless he removed the reference to my poem immediately, I would sue. This was a sad joke. Copyright lawyers aren’t cheap, and my total earnings from poetry totalled $672, including the $50 cheque I expected from Wombat. The wages from my day job, as a library assistant, were squandered on rent and food and other luxuries.
I waited a month for that cheque, fuming at the American Sebastian, sending him more and more irate e-mails. Eventually I rang Wombat, and the office administrator reminded me that I’d requested an electronic payment so I wouldn’t have to pay for depositing a cheque made out in a foreign currency. I was too stunned to argue. How had the other Smails known to ask for the electronic payment before the poem had appeared? Or had he rung afterwards, just in case payment had not been made? Who’d go to that much trouble for $50, anyway? Our plucky Aussie dollar may be worth almost as much as a real God-trusting dollar these days, but still, it seemed a little desperate.
I forced myself to do a little work on the manuscript I was about to submit to a publisher. No identity-stealing American was going to stop me seeing it in print, turning the pages, feeling its slender beauty. I fell asleep, dreaming of Lord Byron, who awoke one morning to find himself famous…
…and awoke to discover that the American Smails had a poetry collection called Leaving about to be published by Castanets, in London. Need I tell you the name of my intended book? I think not, attentive reader. I think not. The manuscript sat on my desk, next to the cubist Cyclops eye of the computer, ready to go. I would never have sent it to Castanets though. That was a bold move on behalf of the Septic Smails. I was thinking much smaller. Local, in fact. I opened my e-mails.
There were twelve urgent messages, from me, sent to someone of my name, each more desperate than the preceding one. I found a copy of a contract sent by Castanets, signed with a familiar signature. My electronic transfer account had new funds, too. I reached for a mirror. I’d obviously been working too hard. I’d put on weight, and my hair was thinning. I groped for my coffee, and my hand caressed a piece of cloth. A beret. It was black. It fitted perfectly.
Obviously, I was being consumed by that other me, like a 1950s film where a big red cloud of Communist rubber sucks people in and eats them. Only, I had to ask, was it really so bad? American me was doing better than I was. Better than I could reasonably have hoped to do. I could attend readings, continue writing, and it seemed some money was finally trickling in. If my identity was being subsumed, I didn’t really care. Eat away, Google blob, I thought. Suck me up. I’m yours.
Then I heard the trucks, a dozen of them, rumbling outside my window. A man in a blue singlet was knocking at my door, yelling ‘Boss’, holding a clip-board. I felt the beret morph into a cap, my beer-gut spill over my suddenly short shorts. I’d been Bloogled again. I grabbed my manifest, and headed for the door.
‘Bloogled’ won third prize in the 2009 ‘Best of Times’ humorous short story competition and was published on the competition web-site, November 2009. Judged by Chris Broadribb, who also organises these competitions.
I was going to write something new in honour of National Flash Fiction Day (the 22nd June) in New Zealand, but my mind is simply not working in prose at the moment, so I recycled this one. (The attentive reader will note that the hero-loser of my story is a poet. At least most of the time.) At just over 1000 words, it’s arguably too long to be flash. It falls into the dead realm between flash and what is regarded as a ‘proper’ short story. Many narratives go wandering in that desert, and few are ever seen again.
Unusually for anything I write, there is the tiniest inkling of plot detectable here. Most ultra-shorts I enter in flash competitions are in fact prose poems. Please don’t tell anyone, though.
I look forward to seeing if any eligible Tuesday poets win prizes in the national flash fiction competition being finalised now in New Zealand. There’s at least one title on the shortlist that could possibly belong to a Tuesday poet, methinks. But I won’t provide clues as to who I think that may be. Because I’m probably wrong.
Little Nell’s death scene from The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, ‘improved’ into a happy ending by an alien’s tool.
November 14, 2011
It’s been a good week for my fiction writing, which I generally see as a secondary function to poetry. I sometimes sneak prose poems into story competitions, and hope that the judges will accept the lack of plot and character development! My first small collection of ‘real’ stories, A Quiet Day, was published in 2009 by Ginninderra Press, and was just highly commended in the 2011 Society of Women Writers Awards in Sydney. The judge was Susanne Gervay, who is an established and prolific young adult and children’s fiction writer. (Here’s a link to her blog.) This was very gratifying for me. Susanne told me that there was a poetic element to my stories; I didn’t mention that this element is always threatening to eat the plot!
This week I am going down to Melbourne because my flash fiction ‘A Writing Unexpected’ won the Big West Festival Competition and I’ll be reading it at one of the events. That’s if the airport is open, as a certain President Obama is visiting Canberra this week. The only other problem with the awards being in Melbourne is that I come back to Canberra missing that city too much. I am still having withdrawal symptoms from Sydney last week.
My very silly story ‘Little Nell’s death scene from The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, ’improved’ into a happy ending by an alien’s tool’ was recently highly commended in a humorous story competition. You can read it here if you feel like something quite ridiculous, along with the other prize-winners. There was a special prize for the funniest title, and I thought I would win that!
I am such a pessimist that I focus on one typo I left in the story when I read it. Perhaps you will find it if you go there. There is no prize, dear reader, if you are a pedant too!
Speaking of US Presidents, I just read Stephen King’s new novel about the Kennedy assassination. There’s a real storyteller, like Mr Dickens was before him. I have spent many night with these writers over the years, running through the hours in a readerly marathon, totally absorbed. I just don’t have that narrative urge, but prefer the sound of words. They left plot off my mental Swiss Army knife, and put on extra tools for wordplay.
Which is why I’m mostly a poet, who dabbles, however seriously, in fiction. Here’s the link to my skimpy story again.
October 21, 2011
This is the cover of my third book, with a somewhat pensive sheep under a very blank sky. (It’s a poetry collection.)
Hal Judge launched The Cancellation of Clouds at 6pm, Thursday 20th October 2011 at Smiths Alternative Bookstore, Alinga Street, Civic. (Civic is another name for Canberra’s ‘city’ centre – a non-existent thing, really – and the name is intended to contrast with political, governmental, national Canberra.) Hal gave a very thoughtful speech, and I read a few poems, and drank a poetic amount of wine. Senator Nick Xenophon, an independent Senator from South Australia, also read a poem, after he launched the bookstore’s new bar.
(Thanks Lily Mulholland for this photo.)
If you would like to order the book, please go to this page, within the Ginninderra Press site. The first review of the book, by Professor Peter Pierce in The Canberra Times, describes it as ‘droll, intelligent and varied’, which was a very positive thing to read. And totally right, too! Another reviewer, Michael Byrne, states that ‘It is…love for (and embracing of) the different that seems to define Cottier as a poet.’
And in the book’s first international recognition, New Zealand poet and man of letters Tim Jones describes The Cancellation of Clouds as an ‘Australian poetry collection with a distinctively wry yet dark tone and very effective use of long stanzas and densely packed lines.’. All very gratifying, especially hearing I’m more dark wry than white bread…
Now I return you to the real piece that bears the title given above. I originally wrote what follows below back on January 22, 2009, and it still seems a good inclusion for my blog, although I notice a recent trend to write a little more often here than I did originally. For a long time this was the first post the reader saw on my blog, and I only recently allowed it to move away from its ‘sticky’ position on the first page.
In my case, cicadas and tortoises seem apt metaphors for the process of writing. My first book, The Glass Violin, a poetry collection, has just been published by Ginninderra Press. Some of the works in the collection go back twenty years, so the easy option of comparing myself with a tortoise comes to mind. There’s nothing like a good old shell of cliché in which to hide an idea.
Yet I actually write quite quickly. I’ve just been a shocker about trying to have my work published. About a year ago I decided to put an emphasis on seeking publication, and I have been quite fortunate in finding places that liked my work.
Cicadas spend most of their life underground, only emerging after years and years to produce an ear-splitting cacophony. They only live a short while after emergence. As a practising poet, I feel a lot like one of these insects, pushing through editorial mud, but hopefully the process of publication has just begun. I wrote this poem about the vocabulary used for referring to poets as emerging, developing and established:
White, shovel-shaped finger-nails,
rotten smell, the world’s worst bulbs.
Like durian fruit mushrooming,
zombie poets emerge, pushing
through editorial soil, groaning,
after a decade’s slushy stew.
Perhaps some emerge politely,
quaint chicks toothing oval eggs.
Others make neat papier mâché
cocoons from rejections, wait,
then one day, poof! Harlequin
wings, trembly antennae. Most
are born bogongs, banging on
bright lit windows. Any more sir?
(I like to think that my poetry is a little more melodic than the noise of a cicada, although this example is admittedly a little less than elegiac. Incidentally, all poems on this site are by me, unless otherwise indicated.)
This will be a very occasional blog, as this cicada prefers to work on her poetry. It’s always a temptation to bury yourself away, once the soil has been so very comfortable for so long…
And since then, a second book, this time a short collection of short stories:
Both can be ordered from Ginninderra Press, under poetry and fiction respectively.
August 18, 2011
Trail of disinformation
‘Does it really matter, love? After all, we’re talking about a snail, aren’t we? I put down bait for them. Or squash them. It’s them or my veggies.’ Bill smiled, ate a peanut, and drank a little more beer.
‘It’s a special snail. A green one. Tiny.’ I sounded vaguely desperate, and I knew it.
‘But it’s still a snail, green, orange or purple. Rainbow even. I just don’t see the point, worrying about an ugly little bugger like that.’
Bill had hit the nail, or the snail shell, on the head. We were just talking about ‘ugly little buggers’. We wanted to prevent the development of a proposed mine because of the presence of rare miniature green snails, only found in one small pocket of rain-forest. If it were koalas, once the subject of a bounty, we would have been national heroes. A rare species of bird would be understandable. Everyone can see beauty in a bird. But a mollusc is quite a different kettle of fish. Too far beneath our eyes to count. Too near our feet.
It was Jennifer, my best friend and fellow conservationist, who came up with the idea to give our campaign to save the habitat of the endangered snail a certain indefinable…je ne sais quoi.
I knew we were onto a winner the next time I ran into Bill at the pub. He was reading the newspaper, the one that Jennifer had just leaked her ‘secret information’ to. It trembled in his hands. I noticed that he wasn’t smiling, or cracking jokes like errant carapaces amongst the beans. Indeed, he seemed a little angry, a little red in the face.
Bill turned the paper over so I could read the article he had just read. I had to cover my nascent smile as I read:
‘French offer to take Aussie snails
This paper has heard that an offer has been made, through official channels, for all the endangered miniature green snails in the area currently being considered for the development of a new mine to be removed and relocated to France, at the expense of the French Government. It is hoped that the species may prove edible.’
‘Bloody cheek’, said Bill, as he took a long drink of beer. ‘They’ve got their own snails. Poor little buggers. Why do they want to steal ours?’
He’d forgotten his previous comments about pellets and gardening. We had wrapped the miniature green snail in the flag, rendered it as Australian as the kangaroo. We eat them, but that’s different, apparently.
Despite vigorous denials from the French embassy, the story stuck. The public was outraged. Next week, the Government officially declared the snail habitat protected.
And deep in the bush, the tiny snails act out their slimy lives, safe from the development of a new tin mine. And of course, safe from any forced repatriation to the restaurant rich and risky boulevards of Paris.
April 30, 2011
What a year for disasters. New Zealand, Japan, the recent storms in the United States, and, of course, the catastrophic floods in Queensland. There are probably many more too, but these four are the ones I’m most familiar with, perhaps because they happened in developed countries, which tend to get more attention in the media. But wherever such events occur, the suffering is undeniably real. And to have a disaster in one’s own country means a certain responsibility to help in some way rests on those who were not affected.
I am very proud to have a tiny story called ‘Beating creativity’ (so flash, if you blink, you’ll miss it) in the book 100 stories for Queensland, which will raise funds for the Premier’s Flood appeal. The book will be launched on 3rd May, and will cost $19.99, and you should be able to order it through your local bookshop soon after that. Or you will be able to go here to find out how to order the book electonically, as a hard copy or an ebook. Here is some more information about the project, from the home site:
“One hundred beautiful stories. Our stories. When so much was lost or destroyed, this was created. That’s something that can never recede or wash away.” ~ Kate Eltham
CEO of The Queensland Writers Centre
100 STORIES FOR QUEENSLAND has something for everyone, from slice of life to science fiction, fantasy to romance, paranormal to literary fiction. Heart-warming, quirky, inspiring and funny the stories between these covers will lift readers to higher ground.
ISBN (Print): 978-0-9871126-2-0
ISBN (eBook): 978-0-9871126-3-7
RRP: A$19.99, US$19.99, ₤9.99, €9.99
UPDATE: There will be a slight delay with the hard copy. Best to go to the 100 stories link in the blogroll (or here) for further details. The hard copy book can now also be ordered from Amazon.