Mosquitoes – the stuff that poetry is made of

I have to be honest: I have never enjoyed reading poetry, and could never understand what all the fuss was about.*  In primary school (that’s elementary school to you American heathens), I recall struggling to make my poems rhyme. They went along the following tenuous lines…. “I’m a poet and I didn’t know it…” “The snow covered the mountains, look can you see the fountains?” In high school, we left the world of rhyme behind us, and instead would analyze poetry to death. In exams I “did the do” and would wax lyrical about the hidden meaning behind the words, and the rhythm, and what it all symbolized, because that is ultimately what the examiners want to read, and it worked. Lo and behold, I got that coveted A grade in my GCSE and A’ levels. (Note to anyone who wasn’t lucky enough to be educated in England – A’ levels are the equivalent of your SAT’s. There is actually a world of difference between A’ levels and SAT’s, but that’s the subject of another post.)  To this day, I turn down any editing projects that involve poetry. Give me a straightforward sentence that reaches the end of the line any day.

There is one exception, however, to the “I can’t abide poetry” rule. Many moons ago, when I was a teenager, I came across in the public library a volume of selected poems by D.H. Lawrence.  To give you some background information about this writer: This man was notorious in the 1920’s for his controversial and best-known novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, which contained some rather explicit descriptions of sexual relationships. At the time, such subjects were strictly taboo, and the novel was banned in England and the US until the sixties.

Anyway, returning to the point of this post, when I saw the name D.H. Lawrence on the spine, I immediately picked up the book. I had read another novel of his, Sons and Lovers (I am sure by now, you can detect that love was a central theme in his works), and I was a big fan. After leafing through a couple of pages, I think it would be safe to say that I was mesmerized by his poetry in which he ascribed human emotions to animals. Truthfully, after reading his poem “The Mosquito,” I have never looked at this blood-sucking insect in the same way again.  Warning: the poem you are about to read is not for the faint-hearted. 

The Mosquito

When did you start your tricks,
Monsieur?
 
What do you stand on such high legs for?
Why this length of shredded shank,
You exaltation?
 
Is it so that you shall lift your centre of gravity upwards
And weigh no more than air as you alight upon me,
Stand upon me weightless, you phantom ?
 
I heard a woman call you the Winged Victory
In sluggish Venice.
You turn your head towards your tail, and smile.
 
How can you put so much devilry
Into that translucent phantom shred
Of a frail corpus ?
 
Queer, with your thin wings and your streaming legs
How you sail like a heron, or a dull clot of air,
A nothingness.
 
Yet what an aura surrounds you;
Your evil little aura, prowling, and casting a numbness on my mind.
 
That is your trick, your bit of filthy magic:
Invisibility, and the anæsthetic power
To deaden my attention in your direction.
But I know your game now, streaky sorcerer.
 
Queer, how you stalk and prowl the air
In circles and evasions, enveloping me,
Ghoul on wings
Winged Victory.
 
Settle, and stand on long thin shanks
Eyeing me sideways, and cunningly conscious that I am aware,
You speck.
 
I hate the way you lurch off sideways into air
Having read my thoughts against you.
 
Come then, let us play at unawares,
And see who wins in this sly game of bluff,
Man or mosquito.
 
You don’t know that I exist, and I don’t know that you exist.
Now then!
 
It is your trump,
It is your hateful little trump,
You pointed fiend,
Which shakes my sudden blood to hatred of you:
It is your small, high, hateful bugle in my ear.
 
Why do you do it?
Surely it is bad policy.
 
They say you can’t help it.
 
If that is so, then I believe a little in Providence protecting the innocent.
But it sounds so amazingly like a slogan,
A yell of triumph as you snatch my scalp.
 
Blood, red blood
Super-magical
Forbidden liquor.
 
I behold you stand
For a second enspasmed in oblivion,
Obscenely estasied
Sucking live blood,
My blood.
 
Such silence, such suspended transport,
Such gorging,
Such obscenity of trespass.
 
You stagger
As well as you may.
Only your accursed hairy frailty,
Your own imponderable weightlessness
Saves you, wafts you away on the very draught my anger makes in its snatching.
 
Away with a pæan of derision,
You winged blood-drop.
 
Can I not overtake you?
Are you one too many for me,
Winged Victory ?
Am I not mosquito enough to out-mosquito you?
 
Queer, what a big stain my sucked blood makes
Beside the infinitesimal faint smear of you!
Queer, what a dim dark smudge you have disappeared into!

 * Disclaimer: It goes without saying that my strong dislike of poetry doesn’t extend to the poetry that my husband has on occasion written for me. That kind of poetry I will read any day.

An Ode to Coffee

As I sit here at 10 p.m. on Thursday evening (quite sad, really), willing myself on to edit just another couple of chapters, fuelled by a “supersized” mug of coffee, it brings to mind an astoundingly fresh historical novel that I read last year called The Coffee Trader by David Liss.

The novel takes place in 17th-century Amsterdam (in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition) and is centered around a trader named Miguel Lienzo, of Portuguese Jewish descent, who has just emerged from a financial disaster and hopes to recover his fortune by trading in the virtually unknown new commodity called [WAIT FOR IT, *DRUM ROLL*] coffee. I particularly enjoyed reading about people’s reaction to this bitter brew in the 17th century. They found it hard to believe that money could be made from this weird and exotic beverage. I can’t even begin to think what my (professional) life would be like without coffee. There’s a G-d in the world.

Anyway, on that note, my coffee break is over. It’s back to work.

Rap music…sounds like somebody feeding a rhyming dictionary to a popcorn popper

The subject of this post is a quote from my favorite writer of all times, Tom Robbins. I start reading his books with the knowledge and acceptance that the world will look radically different once I have finished. When I prepare lunch for myself, I half expect the can of baked beans to start talking to me – inanimate objects take on a special life force in his masterpiece Skinny Legs and All. You come away from the book with the sneaky suspicion that until now, you have lived your life as if you have been on the set of a black and white movie, and suddenly you are seeing things in color. A revelation. Every sentence in his book is a gem, and no word is wasted.

I recently read an online article in which Tom Robbins revealed the secret of his writing, and while I wouldn’t necessarily advise writers to adopt this approach, it was definitely an eye-opener:

When he starts a novel, it works like this. First he writes a sentence. Then he rewrites it again and again, examining each word, making sure of its perfection, finely honing each phrase until it reverberates with the subtle texture of the infinite. Sometimes it takes hours. Sometimes an entire day is devoted to one sentence, which gets marked on and expanded upon in every possible direction until he is satisfied. Then, and only then, does he add a period.

Next, he rereads the first sentence and starts writing a second, rewriting it again and again until it shimmers. Then, and only then, does he add a period. While working on each sentence, he has no idea what the next sentence is going to be, much less the next chapter or the end of the book. All thoughts of where he is going or where he has been are banished. Each sentence is a Zen universe unto itself, and while working on it, nothing exists but the sentence. He keeps writing in such a manner until he eventually reaches a sentence which he works on like all the others. He adds a period and the book is done. No editing or revising in any way. When you read a Tom Robbins book, you are experiencing the words not only in the exact order that he wrote them but almost in the exact order that he thought them.

“But wait a minute,” I interrupted. “The first sentence of your first book, Another Roadside Attraction, is ‘The magician’s underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.’ Are you telling me you wrote that sentence having absolutely no idea where it was leading?”

“Yes,” he said. “I knew I could explain it later. I like painting myself in corners and seeing if I can get out.”

Identify your audience

Before you submit your manuscript to a publisher, or better yet, before you begin writing your book, sit down for a minute and consider the potential readership. Ask yourself who you think will most likely want to read this book. This will influence the tone and direction of your book. For example, if you are writing a book about Kabbalah, we all know that you’re not the first or last person to do so; there are a plethora of Kabbalah works out there on the market. You will need to provide a fresh perspective on the subject in order to make your book stand out from the 150 other Kabbalah manuscripts on the publisher’s desk. If you are writing about a subject that requires specialized knowledge, but want to target your book to a wide audience, make sure to explain and define any complex concepts and language.

It is the publisher’s and submission editor’s job to weed out those manuscripts that are cliched and lack originality. They will only take on your book if they can identify a potential market, and unless your writing is of an excellent literary standard, your manuscript will gather dust on their desks and will eventually end up in the garbage.

One final word of advice: you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Your first page, your first paragraph, your first sentence, needs to grab the reader. Don’t expect the reader to persist through 100 pages of waffle to uncover the point of the book. From word go, you need to engage your readers.

On that note, I will get back to work.

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

I have been debating for a while whether or not to treat myself, and order this book from Amazon. Anyone out there got anything to say – yay or nay? I have heard very mixed reports, with people either LOVING or HATING it, much like the marmite phenomenon. Amazon had no less than 863 reviews on it, and after wading through the first fifty, the jury was still out.

What blows me away is the fact that John Kennedy Toole committed suicide (there goes any hope for a sequel) at the age of 33 after submitting this manuscript to Simon and Schuster, and having it rejected.

Anyone?