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Musing Upon Three Quotes

“To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” 
― Anne Rice 

“My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” 
― Joyce Carol Oates 

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.  

— Ursula K. Le Guin 


Is there a through-line connecting these quotes from three great writers? (I refuse to use the condescending first-part phrasal adjective “female” or “woman” in this instance. If we don’t routinely wall off male writers into a genitalia-defined ghetto when referring to their words and/or works, why would I perpetrate such a wince-inducing, overt-labelling job here re: “women writers”? Anne Rice, Joyce Carol Oates and Ursula K. Le Guin: great writers all. Period, the end. So why remark on their gender in this extended parenthetical thought? To address head-on the cynical, tiresome suspicion from some quarters that I chose three women writers to comment on in order to demonstrate how feminist/woke I am. :::sigh::: What a time to be alive and posting on “teh internets”. Well, that’s the kind of post this is going to be: one part stream-of-consciousness, one part thoughtful musing, one part—hopefully—synthesis of disparate elements into a unified whole. Tell me if I’ve failed, won’t you?) 

Let’s take Anne Rice’s quote first: ““To write something you have to risk making a fool of yourself.” Notice that she doesn’t insist the writer must make a fool of themselves; merely that one risks making a fool of themselves when they write. What could Rice possibly mean by this? 

Your interpretation may vary, but mine is as follows: There are a million, myriad ways a writer may face-plant in public. Errors of fact; mistranslations/misuse of foreign words and phrases; a question of style: writing that strikes one reader as “too flowery”, another as “too minimalist”; a theme that resonates with the writer and not the reader; vocabulary that is deemed either too high- or low-brow; metaphors that misfire and/or characters that seem eminently plausible, relatable and realistic to one set of readers, whilst striking another set of readers as wildly implausible, unrelatable and unrealistic. One simply cannot satisfy all readers all the time; not all art appeals to all people—for all time. (It might, but oftentimes—let us face hard facts here without flinching—oftentimes doesn’t.) As an artist we must accept this discomfiting fact and therefore write with our “ideal reader” in mind—whoever we imagine they might be. But if we push boundaries with our art—if we dare to question certain perceived “eternal verities” of politics (political thought that falls outside the Overton window), sex (outside the hetero-normative) and/or religion (especially as regards atheistic or agnostic thought—though this is rapidly changing: “unaffiliated” or “unbelieving/unchurched” constitutes a growing body of the American electorate) then we embark upon a steep uphill climb re: widespread acclaim and/or acceptance of our work. Or as Joyce Carol Oates has put it: “Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.” 

Which brings us to another quote of Joyce Carol Oates’: the second one referenced at the beginning of this piece: “My belief is that art should not be comforting; for comfort, we have mass entertainment and one another. Art should provoke, disturb, arouse our emotions, expand our sympathies in directions we may not anticipate and may not even wish.” This echoes Kafka: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Now, the quibble with such assertions is this: We’re not always in the mood for a paradigm-shattering, psychologically transformative piece of art, are we? Sometimes (most of the time?) we want our reading to be the equivalent of comfort food: nourishing, tasty, familiar, filling. (We’re being honest with one another, yes?) However— I think we can agree that the best interpretive literature (to use Prof. Laurence Perrine’s term) expands our storehouse of life-lived experience and thus, has the knock-on secondary effect—if the writing is psychologically astute, richly drawn and compelling—of working to increase both our understanding of the internal and external worlds. Fiction is not a lie that tells the truth: It is the concretized (black letters) fossil record (captured on paper or electronic storage device) of transfixing hypnogogic visions (author’s imagination/subconscious) that allows others, upon reading (a remarkable, semi-mystical experience in which both hemispheres of the brain fire in tandem) to embody alternate lives (viewpoint characters) and thus witness at one remove (sensory impressions received, albeit not from phenomena in the real world) the result of various played-out stratagems and the consequences of certain thoughts, impulses and actions (plot). What we make of all the aforementioned constitutes theme + meaning.

Lies? Truth? Irrelevant, as regards evaluating the efficacy and impact of well-wrought fiction (unless you’re a Victorian moralist). Nabokov had it right: What makes a writer great is the spell-binding quality of their prose: that ability to enrapture, enchant, seduce. A critic once remarked of Anne Rice: “You surrender to her, as if in a voluptuous dream.” Exactly right. Interview with the Vampire, Servant of the Bones, Pandora, Vittorio the Vampire, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy. Story after story from Joyce Carol Oates has found me perched on the edge of my chair: terrified to discover what might happen next to her characters if I continue reading; too breathless and engrossed to stop. Her writing raises my pulse rate. Ursula K. Le Guin: a national treasure (now deceased; alas!): the kind of writer whose seemingly effortless prose and command of narrative compels reading of her fiction; whose formidable intellectual gifts of analysis, insight and plain speaking glossed by a lifetime of lightly worn learning (her essays) elicit wolf-whistles of awe and appreciation. God, I wish I’d written that! Thought that. Felt that. (But you didn’t—till you’d first read Le Guin.)

And now we arrive at Ursula K. Le Guin’s quote: “The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.” 

In a single pithy observation this quote of Le Guin’s (with its attendant subtext) encapsulates the terror and the glory of fictioneering—to say nothing of the alternating cycles of hyperbolic mania and melancholic despair a psychologically unmoored writer might fall prey to.  

I was going to write another thousand words unpacking what I meant to convey in the paragraph above, but for brevity and concision Le Guin’s quote really cannot be improved upon. The challenge facing the writer is to provide the telling details of their story in expertly paced and vividly concretized fashion so that the reader may—insofar as is psychically possible—inhabit a close facsimile of the world the author envisaged; moreover, the writer should have a tale worth telling (almost all do), to have something to say about it (many don’t), and the hard-won mastery of craft acquired through a lifetime of practice in order to tell their story well (the difference—oftentimes but not always—between the professional and the amateur). The challenge of the reader is to have read as widely and deeply as possible in order to engage with story on its own terms: neither willfully misreading, nor misconstruing, a text into what it is not. If this process fails what are we left with? Miscommunication or hopeless muddle, mere “black marks on wood pulp” signifying nothing.

In sum: The writer indeed risks making a fool of themselves when he or she sits down to write—especially if the chosen subject matter, characters described and/or over-all theme is decidedly iconoclastic or otherwise at variance with received wisdom and popular attitudes. And what a pity that oftentimes proves to be!—that great work, from great artists, oftentimes goes misremarked [sic], undervalued and genre-ghettoized until such time as an artist’s ideal reader rises up with the passion and critical acumen necessary to articulate the areté (ancient Greek: excellence in kind) of a given writer and their works. 


War: Father of Nations

With a thunderous clatter of hooves & blare

of battered brassy horn

light cavalry swept down upon

doomed men in a crimson morn.


A ragged band was backed to a wall

of towering metamorphic rock  

in a foreign land long leagues from home, 

taut faces white with shock. 


How terribly fast the tide had turned! 

How cunning the savage foe! 

A turncoat scout led them roundabout

into ambush. Treacherous woe!


For weeks the marauders pillaged, burned

raped & drunken-reveled

till their captain, sated by gold & blood

cried, “Wheel, ye desert devils!”


Laden with spoils the warband turned

back toward hearth & home

basking in martial glory built

’pon ashes & bleaching bones.


A fortnight later they braced for the charge

of juggernaut-horsed cruel men 

slung low in the saddle, scything swords 

reaping again & again 


leather-clad warriors who smote & roared 

in a frenzy of berserker fear; 

the desperate band made a fierce last stand— 

spears splintered, horses reared. 


Wet work was done ’neath the pitiless sun 

to a man the invaders died; 

their corpses left to ripen & rot: 

sweetmeats for the vulture sky 


that dispatched carrion birds to feast 

on the bloating, rictused dead. 

Black buzzing hordes of feted flies 

swarmed ’round severed heads 


& limbs that littered the killing field 

soon buried by drifting sand.

What matter the names of the men who fell 

in that vanished, sun-seared land?


The victors that day soon found their homes 

destroyed by a stronger foe  

who invaded the land, bronze legions agleam 

in scarlet, azure & gold. 


Thus ever it was; thus ever shall be: 

man butchers man for wealth 

lost in turn to cyclic hordes 

worshipping power, brute force, pelf. 


If today you stroll under cloudless skies 

face turned to the warming sun, 

spare a moment to think of countless dead 

who died that you may hum 


some insipid tune of patriarchy—

family, church & state 

sing the tribal song of triumph: 

Noble! Manifest! Great!  


–Carl E. Reed

This poem employs galloping rhythm, a judicious use of near-rhyme, abandon-rhyme (note the long “O” of “foe” and “gold” in stanza 9: an example of what I mean when I argue for the primacy of semantics–at certain critical points of an otherwise sonorously harmonized formalist narrative poem–over the mere aural, or sound, consistency of end-line rhyme), internal rhyme (rhymes on the same line), alliteration, assonance, consonance, the lack of end-line punctuation except where necessary to aid comprehension and regulate rhythm (a minimalist choice which also enhances reading speed and a sense of exhilarating forward momentum) and other poetic tricks to enhance euphony and over-all impact upon the reader. I hope the work imparts the same shock of lexical energy I felt in composing it; moreover, I hope these particular words arrayed in this particular fashion speak to the reader in a meaningful and authoritative way re: our collective guilt and responsibility for continuing to engage in the transfixing, tragic and (uneasily acknowledged) ecstatic social practice of war.

The formatting of this poem (if ever published) will follow the traditional formalist practice of indenting the 2nd and 4th lines of every quatrain. (Try accomplishing that in WordPress. ARRRGH!)

PS. Mellow: start sharpening that critical knife, heh!

PPS. I am pleased to announce that three new poems of mine will appear in issue #15 (July, 2021) of Spectral Realms Journal: “The Call of Lizzie”, “Shuffling Horror”, and “Bat-winged Battle Cry”. https://www.hippocampuspress.com/journals/spectral-realms/spectral-realms-no.-15?zenid=qqgjdp8a4gt5fgkuuinkcr7vm0


The Ballad of Annie Croft

Narrative poetry (in English) has long fallen out of fashion. English narrative poetry arranged in rhyming quatrains = outdated + are you fuggin’ kiddin’ me?! (Exclaim post-modernist poetic arbiters of taste — such traditionalist poetry openly mocked as hopelessly outmoded, tired, played out. FYI: Writers of such formalist “drivel” are regarded by the apparatchiks of the avant-garde as vulgarians of the worst sort: unimaginative hacks who perpetrate tired moon-june-spoon rhyme schemes upon a jaded, seen-and-heard-it-all-before reading public. This is arrogant dismissive nonsense, of course: early 20th century faddish criticism that still holds unaccountable sway in many quarters (especially the academic) of the Realm Poetic. Such prejudice against formalist verse is as risible and wrong-headed as it is laughable. Summoned to give testimony for the defense: Robert Service, George Sterling, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Yeats, Frank Coffman, Robert Frost, et. al. Hmm . . . lotta “Roberts” in that list. Change first name?)

To be sure there is still power, potency and picturesqueness a-plenty to be found in the rhyming (and occasional near-rhyming —”missed” rhymes inject semantic tension and suspense into a work) narrative poem. Especially the ballad. The form has not yet—even now, in the early part of the 21st century—been exhausted. In fact, I would argue that formalist narrative poetry is having a bit of a moment here in 2021. Furthermore, I assert that the poetic form of rhyming narrative verse will never be entirely exhausted. How could it be, given the fecundity of literary imagination and the richness of our language?

Exhibit A (or should that be Y?) rejected by divers editors “with regrets” as being “too long for publication” (in truth, it’s asking a lot for an editor to devote 10-12 pages of a poetry magazine to one writer–especially an obscure unknown):


The Ballad of Annie Croft

A Tale of New England: circa 1660

Part I.


Annie Croft had brown eyes soft

as sable fur, her hair

red as sun-kissed roses—carriage

& deportment exceeding fair.


Her charms caught the attention

of the village magistrate;

William Moore was married

but desired to fornicate


with the woman who had acted 

as mid-wife to troubled births —

Tom & John: William’s sons

bawled, & kicked, & nursed


at the breasts of rigid Constance Moore:

helpmete of grim, hawk-eyed mien;

ten years frigid, the magistrate’s wife

praised God, & hearth, & kin


“for the bounteous beauty of new life

predestined for Hell or Heaven;

scourging rod & dour prayer

shalt ensure their souls will leaven


the afterlife with willing thralls

obedient to God—

though here they’ll hunt, & fish, & farm,

& praise our loving Lord.”


Alas, but this was not to be;

sickness swept the village.

Tom & John died three-month’s-old;

warpath Indians pillaged


& burned surrounding settlements;

shallow wells ran dry.

Barley, corn, & oat crops failed

fully half the pilgrims died.


’Twas in this monstrous starving time 

Anne’s ministering hands

eased divers aches & ailments;

she served both God & man.


Her potions, salves, & ointments

brought relief to those in need;

ancien’ practice/hallowed tradition:

medicine of roots, & barks, & leaves.


’Midst Indian war & famine, 

sickness & internal strife,

the magistrate’s bold lustful eyes

turned from his somber wife


to smiling, sun-kissed Annie

who shrank from his loathsome touch.

William schemed to catch Anne alone;

his hands itched to feel her up.


A man of means & property

respected by the Church

Wil manifested Falstaffian vices:

greed, lust, & drunken mirth.


Anne spurned the magistrate’s advances;

William sulked & called her bitch.

He grabbed her bosom; she slapped his face—

Wil lodged the charge of “witch”.


Constance Moore took up the cry;

unhinged by woe & grief

she echoed William’s charge of witch

declared, “A vile, sneaking thief


crawls odious as an ambidexter

amongst God’s very own.

This wretched girl culled souls for Satan;

let Satan call her home!”


The magistrate issued a warrant 

for the arrest of Annie Croft.

She was jailed: stripped naked, poked & prodded

devil’s marks were sought


& duly found by venal men

who understood in times of strife

a scapegoat—preferably peasant class—

must sacrifice their life


that godly folk be reassured.

Noose, burning brand, & bludgeon

were educative instruments

in the inculcation of religion


& unquestioning blind obedience

to clench-jawed grim authority.

Majoritarian Calvinist polis:

control, consensus, conformity.


Anne Croft was given the water test;

William Moore was seen to gloat

as “witch-woman” Annie forbear to drown

but perversely deigned to float.


A trial was held: rank mockery

of fairness, truth, & justice;

hysterical children testified

that evil Annie corrupted


their innocent minds with devilry.

They capered, gibbered, danced

naked beneath an argent moon:

“Ann hexed us with a glance.”


Devil’s marks, failed water test,

unexpected deaths & sickness;

the testimony of dancing children—

“I trust we’ve proved the wicked


intent & malicious mind-set 

of a peasant girl so bold

as to forge a pact with the Prince of Lies.

The devil take her soul!”


So saying, the magistrate hammered hard

’pon the table with his fist;

closing argument thus concluded, 

he added, “Think on this—


Divine Providence hath gifted us

a New Canaan: virgin lands;

though witches, warlocks, heretics

pervert our blessings—all are damned


who ally with liar Lucifer.

In New England let us begin

to lead lives of shining righteousness

& root out the enemy within.


Will ye stand with Christ our Lord?

Will ye stand with God?

Or will ye suffer a witch to live

in defiance of the Law?”


Jittery men & tittering women:

a jury of Anne Croft’s peers

threw reason & good sense to the wind,

took counsel of their fears


& returned a shameful verdict: 

“Guilty as charged,” they said.

“Thou shalt be hanged from good stout rope

’till thou art surely dead.”


A fortnight later Annie Croft

mounted the gallows afore a crowd

 of stern-eyed men, women, & children—

shaved head upright, unbowed.


Anne’s countenance was ashen

as the noose slipped about her neck;

& though she trembled, no tears flowed

when she drew a final breath


& dropped hands-bound & shoeless

through the banging scaffold door;

she fell, jerked to a violent stop—

kicked—and knew no more.


The crowd: a dark-clothed murder of crows

turned as wrenching wail

scythed knife-like through that awful scene:

I—sister Abigail


to poor dead, convulsing Annie

vented oaths & shrill, hot screams

of horror, fury, shock, & rage

at act so vile, cruel, obscene.


I aimed a shaking finger

dead-straight at the magistrate:

“Ye days are numbered, swill-belly Wil!

Ye stand before the Gate


of Judgement with thy viper wife.

Repent! Afore it’s too late.”

& shouldering through that gape-mouthed crowd

returned home to seethe with hate.


Part II.


One month later, in the misted dark

of a cold November morn’

a band of grim-faced men & I

stood ready to greet the dawn


around the cut-log, thatched-roofed home

of the murderous magistrate

& hawk-eyed, forked-tongued Constance Moore.

We’d come to congregate


& exact a fiery vengeance

for the death of Annie Croft;

our blood had boiled to see fair Annie

dance at the end of a rope.


At a silent signal the torch was passed:

fire moved hand-to-hand;

we ignited the resin’d clapboard sides

of Wil’s home with burning brands.


The pitch-smeared tinderbox house inferno’d—

hellfire flames leapt high;

crimson tongues of fire crackled;

smoke boiled into the sky.


Minutes later piercing screams

sounded from within:

the magistrate & his false-witness Mrs.

burning for their sins.


The roaring fire flared & spit;

Constance cried & called

out to Heaven for mercy denied.

Wil burst out the door


wreathed head-to-toe in guttering flame—

he hit the ground & rolled.

I knocked him flat, raised keen-edged blade

to end his life & send his soul


down to the sulfurous, burning Pit.

The magistrate’s vulgar life

voided there in blood & fire

at the bitter end of my knife.


Wil’s face was charred & smoking —

flesh cracked & purplish-black;

burnt hands fumbled at blistered throat.

I crowed: “Woe & alack!


ye lusting, lying, swill-belly dog!

A sweet soul sent aloft

was mine own precious loving sister:

mid-wife Annie Croft.


Ye works condemn thee! Murderer!

Foul Magistrate, farewell!”

& planting steel in smoldering skull

I sent his soul to Hell.


Part III.


No other “witches” were ever hung

in that old New England town;

the arsonists who’d burned the Moores

were hunted, though never found.


Decades passed & life went on;

guilty consciences tread soft;

& the subject was ever swiftly changed

when arose the name of Annie Croft.


— Carl E. Reed


Afterword: “Annie Croft” is a composite character who lives and dies three decades before the outbreak of witch hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts. Let us a take a moment to remember the actual people who perished in the madness of 1692 (WIKI):

Died in prison:

  • Ann Foster (née Alcock) – died in custody in December 1692
  • Sarah Osborne – died in prison May 29, 1692, at age 49


One Night at the Poetry Circle

The leader of our poetry circle

insists that a poem

should say something true,

that a poem must speak

in the writer’s authentic voice.


One night not long ago

after many beers & queer

hawk-eyed combats concerning

the meaning of white space

group sex, the haunting

rhythmical hitch of the line break

our leader turned to me & said:

Why don’t you gift us

an extemporaneous poem?


Root it in the earth

but reach for infinity.

Craft your words to encompass

all of cosmos & the void.


He favored me then with hipster smile

steepled beringed fingers

fattened by rich food & drink

beneath his wobble chin.

Triple piercings of ear & nose


as did his knife-like eyes.


I thought for a moment.

A thousand fire-green voices

ghosted Yeats & Shakespeare

Heraclitus, Ginsberg

Clark Ashton Smith

Blake & Poe & Dickinson

in the maelstrom of my mind.


Breath in.

Breath out.


I spoke:

You will die one day.

An inevitable sorrow.


At your funeral service

a poem

maybe two, maybe three

will be voiced by the cleric

instructed to grieve in your name.


The dead are comforted by poetry

& prayer

or so we are told.


In the years following interment

your stardust, O Leader

will be carried off in the bellies of insects

& the black gulfs struck incandescent

by the fires of a million million suns

will whisper one harsh word:



When I finished there was silence

a hard set of mouths, guarded eyes

& a soft monkish shuffle

of fashionable $200 shoes.



said our Leader

is a very interesting poem.


—Carl E. Reed

For more of Carl E. Reed’s poetry see Spectral Realms Journal issues #10, #11, #12, #13, #14, #15 (July 2021), #16, #17, & #18 (2022 & 2023). https://www.hippocampuspress.com/journals/spectral-realms

Also: Penumbra #3, 2022

Black Petals: https://blackpetalsks.tripod.com/blackpetalsissue72/ (“Vampiric Threnody” and “Ghost: A Working Definition”)

(Note: “Lost”, “Succubus Seductress” and “The Crime of Frankenstein” will appear in the October, 2021 issue.)

Santa Claws is Coming to Deathlehem: An Anthology of Holiday Horrors for Charity:

Inflections in Horror (spoken word album): https://carlereed.bandcamp.com/album/inflections-in-horror-the-weird-worlds-of-carl-e-reed

humor, scams, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Get Big Money Now! Click or Call!

As writers we learn from everything we read, don’t we? The good, the bad, and the ugly. This includes certain laugh-out-loud-funny, grammatically challenged examples of criminal hucksterism that flood our desktop computer and cell phone inboxes daily. These suspect come-ons are designed to tempt us into sharing personal financial info that will lead to immediate disaster and the draining of hacked bank accounts.

I take delight (yes, I’m weird that way: amused rather than irritated) in poorly written spam-scam e-mails that routinely hit my inbox. Even when the suspect communication is grammatically and syntactically correct, there is oftentimes an over-the-top, maniacal energy quality to the socially engineered “call now!” or “click here!” pitch that both alarms and repels. (Leastwise the literate, discerning receiver of such junk e-mail spams.) Here is a baker’s dozen of the best that have entertained me this year, with my considered (though not communicated) replies. 

Would you like to secure your level and be all monies? 

Carl: “Umm . . .” 

Stimulus is available to you now! Mistake if delay. We can give you advance on government checks. 

Carl: “Thank god! East European scammers to the rescue. Uncle Sam is such a slacker!” 

Would you like more money? If such dreams contact ______ at _____ and get approved while only ten minutes pass. 

Carl: “I’ll give you five . . .” 

Respond to Check Adventure today! 

Carl: “Yes! No.” 

Many are the peoples whose accounts fall off due to errors that are not their faults yet bills keep coming. How to resolve? It starts by saying “I want gold.” 

Carl: “I want gold! I want gold! I want gold!” (A beat.) “F#@k! Nothing’s happening . . .” 

We have been trying to complete your application for $10,000 – $100,000. Many pay only $50 a month or less. Approval come quick as you e-sign, so why stop? 

Carl: “I Googled your company.” 

Three times now you no respond to so much money. 

Carl: “And I shall ignore you three times more . . .” 

In just two minutes your life can change. 

Carl: “I’ll bet!” 

Carl, your $10,000 is here! Please contact us so that we can complete the bank transfer. 

Carl: “I don’t wish to own a bank; please send money in the mail.” 

Are you short of cash? That is not your fault. Get what you need today. 

Carl: “I am gratified and reassured! I knew being poor wasn’t my fault. 20k in small bills, please.” 

So many people have happy bills now that they modify with extra dollars. Call our operators to learn how fast you can change the bills. 

Carl: “Joy tremors! I call so fast we go back in time to modify sad-face debts.”  

We tried to reach you by phone and failed. So now we reach out with money that starts by clicking this link to see what amount. Almost everybody get big money! Bad credit is no problem to us.  

Carl: “Well sure; that makes sense–who needs good credit to get ‘big money’ ?” 

And my personal favorite for enthusiastic succinctness, the pitch that began: 

Money everywhere! 

Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Poem Composed After Reading Gertrude Stein

As Monty Python used to say: “And now, for something completely different . . .”

Gristle Zippers

Hell is a horror is a belt is a house.   

Mommy white-faced, clench-jawed, smoking dollar bills   

green green angry   

our rabbit-eared television    

blares vacuum tube pophisses &   

fingersnap jingle-jangles upon the raptured children   

twixt game glows & sporting ejects   

better soaps & tires, softer sheets, sparkling dishes  

a fork is a fork is a fork   

chow down to father. Chow down. To father. Chow  

down to. father. Chow. Down. To. Father.  

How now cows aflutter  

vulcanized rubber sighs to do, to go, to be

gathered imbecility docility virility   

conditioned by Madison Avenue to consume, to obey   

gun-metal blue the guns, knives, grenades, berets   

foundling war: writhing rhythms   

’mongst blinkered-tinkered-sphincter’d toys    

beribboned chests & broken-backed books.    

O joy! O joke! O death! Deaths.   

Fall silent in the nave   

the grave of mind.    

–Carl E. Reed


Author’s note: Gertrude Stein would not approve of this poem. It is contemptibly bourgeois and thoroughly unconvincing in the trite, commonplace sentiments it proffers as subversive and borderline anarchist; also, it is cretinously conventional in grammar and structure. Moreover, it makes too much sense; hence violates the core principle of Dada: purest pointlessness. 

Uncategorized, world-building

Some Notes On the Art of Description

Primary Sources 

The world is not   

a clever sequence of words 

or transfixing series

of images. 


It is not a poem  

or painting, 


film, literature

sculpture made of bone 

bronze, iron 

or clay. 


Then what is the world  

I asked. 


Taste, sound, odors  

sights, textures

she said.


That is not the world 

I said 

those are perceptions of the world. 



she said.



I have my poem. 

—Carl E. Reed


One of the most difficult skills to master in the craft of fiction writing is the manufacturing of presence: the ability of the writer to put their readers thereright there, in the middle of the action—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—what the viewpoint character is experiencing. The evocation of sensory stimuli via text is one of the most effective, yet spooky tools (to use Norman Mailer’s term for this knock-on effect of vivid prose) that the fictioneer has in his or her bag of tricks. When done well, the reader is all but unaware that these sensory details are being fed to them in the course of the narrative’s unfolding. They enter fully into the fictional dream without being consciously aware that tiny black tick marks on a page are the software code stimulating the machinery of the brain into producing transfixing hypnagogic visions.  

Ah, but the writer must be consciously aware! He or she, in the role of spell-binding enchanter, selects and highlights the telling details that bring a story to life. And it is exactly here that many novice writers fail—with descriptions that are muddled, confusing or imprecise; primarily visual; or otherwise lacking in vividness and color. Art conceals art, and it is not until a writer deconstructs a particularly vivid or arresting passage in a favorite work of fiction that they begin to work out the mechanics of how the trick is done.  

Stephen King notes: “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” He advises that writers describe things “in a way that will cause your reader to prickle with recognition.” 

In On Writing, his primer of the craft, Mr. King further elaborates: “Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It’s not just a question of how-to, you see; it’s also a question of how much to . . . Thin description leaves the reader feeling bewildered and nearsighted. Overdescription buries him or her in details and images. The trick is to find a happy medium. It’s also important to know what to describe and what can be left alone while you get on with your main job, which is telling a story. . . . ” 

Master prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov wonderingly reminds us:

“We are absurdly accustomed to the miracle of a few written signs being able to contain immortal imagery, involutions of thought, new worlds with live people, speaking, weeping, laughing . . . I wish you to gasp not only at what you read but at the miracle of its being readable.” (Pale Fire)

V. N. ends his short story The Fight this way: 

Or perhaps what matters is not the human pain or joy at all but, rather, the play of shadow and light on a live body, the harmony of trifles assembled on this particular day, at this particular moment, in a unique and inimitable way. 

True, the above example is all visualbut what a visual! A painterly evocation of the fall of light and shadow whilst the author dismisses transient human emotions as the raison d’être of meaning in favor of foregrounding the quotidian specificity of “a harmony of trifles” that sum to epiphany via the appreciation of beauty: that body; right here, right now.

Or this bit of exquisite, pitch-perfect verbiage (visuals + sound + metaphor) from Nabokov’s short story The Aurelian:

. . . out of the black generous night, a whitish moth had dashed in and, in an audible bob dance, was kissing its shadow all over the ceiling.

To draw upon my own writing for an illustrative sample of this technique (“Sure, sure hide behind Stephen King and Nabokov all day; let’s see some of your own stuff, bucko!” I can hear the critics snarling, knives a-sharpening) here is the opening scene in full of Samhain Eve: A Celtic Tale:


Owen Kerrigan awaited the return of a dead man. He stood outside his stone-slabbed hut, gazing across the meadow at the edge of the boggy woods, breath a chill mist in the air. A peaty tang carried to his nostrils, mixed with the fragrant wood smoke of the bon fires that had burned in the village since dawn. One hand shaded his eyes against the westering light.

Dusk of October 31st. Samhain Eve: the end the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. A time of bon fires and celebratory feasting, sacred observance and human sacrifice, daylight revels followed by night-haunted terrors and warding rituals. A portentous, carnivalesque, liminal time when the barrier between the worlds of the living and the dead thinned to nothing. It was this latter fact that was the source of Owen Kerrigan’s growing unease, as he waited for the return of the young man he’d murdered three years ago in a raid on a rival clan.

 A wooden door creaked open behind him. Owen dropped his hand from his eyes and turned to behold the perspiring face of his wife.

“Come inside, Owen. Our meal grows cold.” Tara glanced down at the candlelit, hollowed-out turnips flanking the doorway, transformed by artful carving into monstrous faces: an ancient custom meant to ward off the haints, nightgaunts and other supernatural beasties that prowled about on New Year’s Eve. “The candles will burn most of the night; let the flame guardians greet our friend.” She stepped back and closed the door.

 Mayhap Tara was satisfied that the candlelit grotesqueries would prove sufficient barrier to ward off the things of the netherworld that came a-knockin’ after dark on October 31st, but Owen was not. After all, it’d never stopped him from returning before.

 Bran. The young man’s name was Bran. A fact he’d found out only later, after a delegation of tribal elders from his village met with the murdered victim’s family and his betrothed, Deirdre, to offer iron and gold and silver-tongued apologies to avert an all-out retaliatory war.

A faint tinkling of childish laughter sounded from a hut a stone’s throw away behind him, near the edge of a stand of alder and birch bordering the southern side of the village. This was followed by the yowl of a cat and the basso-profundo cursing of his neighbor Kendrick, a roar almost immediately counter-pointed by the scolding alto of his wife.

Owen smiled a small, sad smile. He and Tara had not, as yet, produced any children.

Glancing once more at the edge of the boggy wood to the west―the direction the dead man had approached in years past―Owen said, “Come then, Bran. Return to this world if you must. But Cernunnos hear me, there’s nothing more I can do for you; no way to undo what’s been done. If I could grant you life again . . .” He trailed off, fists balled at his sides. His mouth was dry; a bitter taste of bile on the tongue.

No answer from the mire. Tendrils of fog twined amongst an acidic fenestration of scraggly shrub, withered black spruce and waxy leatherleaf.

Owen unclenched his fists. The sting in his hands abated; blood rushed back into the crescent moons dug into the flesh of his palms. He turned and went inside.


In this opening scene all of our human senses are evoked: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch.

Now look at your own writing. How many senses are evoked during the course of your narrative? I will state it bluntly and brace for blow-back: If all or most of your scenes contain only visual (or primarily visual) evocations, you are failing at the art of fiction. Your writing is sputtering along at 1/5th the power and intensity it could have. (Which is not to say that every scene must evoke all five senses; so regimented and crude an application of technique would be ham-fisted and ultimately self-defeating: the reader would tumble to what you are doing almost at once and grow annoyed.)

What is your approach to writing descriptive passages in your fiction? (Please cite some pertinent passages for example.) Are there writers you think handle descriptive passages particularly well? Particularly poorly? Would you care to cite some of those examples here? Is there anything else you’d like to say on the subject?  


The 10 Deadly Sins of Bad Editors

There is no end of articles, videos and books advising the submitting writer how to put their best foot forward when interacting with that most feared and terrorizing member of the literary species: the editor. Writers have good reason for wariness and trepidation: Editors hold your professional life and death in their hands. Most of the advice regarding author-to-editor interaction can be summed up as: Be professional. That is to say, submit polished copy. Be courteous. Read the magazine and understand what the editors are looking for. Submit copy in the requested format. Do not resubmit revised copy while the original sub is under consideration. Do not argue rejections or ask for detailed feedback on rejected manuscripts. Do not hound or harry over-worked, underpaid editors for favors outside the scope of their normal work duties. 

Fair enough. All very sensible, pertinent advice.   

But that is not what this blog post is about. No, this blog post is a writer’s critique/feedback/bitch session-rant concerning some of my problematic experiences with themAnd believe-you-me, some of this ilk need a bracing bucket of cold water dumped over their heads to snap them back to some semblance of reality/empathy for the word slaves they task with grinding out endless reams of copy written on spec for sniff-nosed rejections or equally frigid, curt acceptances. Below, please find my 10-point checklist of grievances with editors.  

Before we get into the list, however, I would like to single out two editors who have been absolute paragons of professional conduct: John O’Neil (of Black Gate magazine fame) and S. T. Joshi (scholar, editor, weird tales writer). Mr. O’Neil and Mr. Joshi are talented, courteous and direct. Talented: their advice and suggestions improved my work.  Both are unfailingly courteous in their interactions with writers, regardless of their status within the industry. (I expected S. T. Joshi—“the nastiest reviewer in the business”—Ellen Datlow—to be an absolute excoriating monster of vituperative contempt and snarling arrogance. In point of fact, I was shocked and mildly disappointed to discover that he is an exemplar of old-world courtesy and correctness in his behind-the-scenes dealings with writers: inexhaustibly polite, wryly funny and self-deprecating, offering the gentlest of gentlemanly criticism. When he puts his finger on a weakness in your work, he lets you solve it without being harshly proscriptive or prescriptive.) Direct: they do not mince words, but neither do they “erupt” at writers, issue vague or confusing communications, or retreat into sullen silence when questioned.  I confess to having been spoiled by these two venerable gentlemen. I now expect all editors worth the title to model the O’Neil/Joshi criterions of excellence: succinctness and directness in communication (without being rude or abrupt), genuine talent and demonstrated ability for giving constructive criticism, respect and appreciation for a writer’s voice, fast follow-up and follow-through. 

Some others, however. . . . Let’s just say that not all the (censored bleeps) of the literary world inhabit the writers’ camp. 

  1. Competence. You would think—at a bare-minimum—all editors could improve a writer’s work. You would be wrong. I have had editors who mangled my grammar and syntax, reversed the very meaning of what I was trying to say, punched holes in a narrative’s pace and intelligibility (“We couldn’t fit those two paragraphs on the page so we cut them out”), and in one recent head-scratching instance published an entire short story with all italics removed. (No explanation ever given.) And then there is the editor who published my story under another’s name
  1. Imperious Behavior/Commandments. “Give us your best work.” I’m not intentionally sending you my worst, pal. I’m actually delusional enough to think that any poem or short story I finish and send out after extensive revision might be worthy of passing note. So what are you paying? “Payment is 2 contributor copies”. Rights? “Acceptance of publication means you sign away all rights . . .” Next! 
  1. Curt Acceptances. Look, I understand curt rejections—but acceptances? The gold needle in the towering shit-stack of a writer’s life of rejection? “Acceptance of the work is your reward.” Of course! But can’t you be a little . . . warmer in conveying that news? “No time.” Nonsense! A simple “congrats!” or “well done!” preceding the “accepted for publication in . . .” would do. 
  1. Confusing/Impossible-to-Follow Directions Upon Acceptance. “Enclosed find attached contract. Sign and return.” Which I can’t do. Because the version you sent does not allow it to be opened and modified by the receiver. Adobe Acrobat, anyone? 
  1. Ghosting/No Response. I ask you a direct question. You refuse to answer. WTF?! Am I supposed to somehow divine the answer, perhaps through a throw of yarrow stalks or the shaking of a Magic 8-ball? Surmise your response through subtext? Re: subs: Your site says: “Follow up in 6 – 8 weeks if no reply to submission received.” Which I do. At eight weeks. Again—one week later. And again . . . one week after that. Yet one more time . . . And then I regretfully (though confusedly—what happened?) pull the story from your slush pile/in-box. Did you never get to it? Plan on going out of business? Feel the story and/or author beneath your contempt? Are simply unprofessional? (Yes, I checked my spam filter.) And don’t give me that crap about “we don’t have time to reply to submissions”. Penetrative-act you! If you have the time to solicit submissions—and publish a magazine/online site/book—you better make time to respond to writers who devote time and energy from their harried, frequently under-paid and over-worked lives (just like you, see?) to create something they feel might serve your needs. 
  1. Broken Promises.  “Pays 2 contributor copies.” Never received. “Queries answered.” Not. “Please follow up in . . .” See point #5 above. “Will be published . . .” Out of business; story never formally returned. 
  1. Changing Submitted Copy Without Notifying the Writer. Yes, maybe your suggested revision is better. Maybe it isn’t. Let’s look at it—together—before one or both of us face-plants in public. 
  1. Editors Who Treat Their Magazines as Their Very Own Vanity Press. It’s impressive that you’ve published 5,000 stories. It is! Really. Somewhat less impressive that half of them were published in your own magazine. Who edits the editor? 
  1. Editors Who Publish Commonplace Dreck Whilst Rejecting Your Literary Gems. Just kidding! That’s frustration speaking, not sober judgement or fair criticism. So okay; this should be a 9-point list! No one reads 9-point lists. . . .   
  1. Endless Whining, Moaning & Groaning, Bitchy Kvetching About Writers. I’m sure all of it is, at times, merited. More than merited—richly deserved. There are madmen and madwomen and genderless mad people (everyone in the pool!) perpetrating all manner of wrong actions upon long-suffering editors. But once in a while—please—pause to consider the sins committed upon writers by your colleagues. (Not you, of course! You’ve never committed any of “The Ten—well, Nine—Deadly Editorial Sins” enumerated above, I’m sure. Never! My goodness. Why, the very thought!)    

And now, the bonus round: 10 favorite quotes about editors and/or the process of revision. 

1.) “Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.”  (Okay, that’s one for your side!) ― T.S. Eliot 

2.) “The first draft reveals the art; revision reveals the artist.”   ― Michael Lee 

3.) “An editor is like a priest or a psychiatrist; if you get the wrong one then you are better off alone.” 
― Toni Morrison 

4.) “Just get it down on paper, and then we’ll see what to do with it.”   ― Maxwell Perkins 

5.) “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”   ― Stephen King 

6.) “Remove the comma, replace the comma, remove the comma, replace the comma…” 
― R.D. Ronald 

7.) “Editors can be stupid at times. They just ignore that author’s intention. I always try to read unabridged editions, so much is lost with cut versions of classic literature, even movies don’t make sense when they are edited too much. I love the longueurs of a book even if they seem pointless because you can get a peek into the author’s mind, a glimpse of their creative soul. I mean, how would people like it if editors came along and said to an artist, ‘Whoops, you left just a tad too much space around that lily pad there, lets crop that a bit, shall we?’. Monet would be ripping his hair out.” 
― E.A. Bucchianeri 

8.) “Writing well is more than mechanics, but it is not less.”   ― Douglas Wilson 

9.) “Be a good editor. The Universe needs more good editors, God knows.”   ― Kurt Vonnegut  

10.) “Most of these editors, as they call themselves, couldn’t even effectively edit a haiku.”― Frank Black 


Hemingway Said Write the Truest Sentence That You Know

Howcome I can’t tell you 

in simple, direct words 

the meaning of everything 

without you staring blankfaced 

or rolling your eyes? 


The meaning of your life is this: 

find meaning & live it. That’s it. 

Prance a little before you corpse. 

Life is sentience & sensation. 

Nothing more. 

Nothing less. 


As to everything else 

cosmos & the void— 

we don’t know enough yet 

to ask the right questions. 

But note: We keep probing. 


In the meantime—

indulge in the ecstasies of art 

good food, drink 

a friend, mentor or lover who is fully present 

the steadying, stalwart companionship  

of dogs.  



what more could you want? 


Some Notes Upon the Act of Rereading

Renewed Joys, Bemused Disappointments, & Rueful Reappraisals  

Most lovers of fiction, in the course of a lifetime of reading, have acquired a personal library of their favorite authors’ works. In addition to this idiosyncratic collection, we oftentimes have an ever-growing stack of “to be read” volumes weighing down our favorite end table, desktop, or spare chair. A life-long reader is also most painfully, poignantly aware that there are thousands—strike that; tens of thousands—of other great works of fiction that he or she will never find the time to read.  

Given these facts of limited time and an ever-increasing number of newer books clamoring for our attention, isn’t it curious that many of us reread beloved works of fiction? I refer here to those rare books that spoke to us in an especially personal and compelling way; that taught us something about ourselves and the world-at-large that enriched and deepened our “planet time” in a fashion lesser works failed to do.  

Why indulge in rereading? Why reread a book—any book—when multitudes of unread books insistently call out with seductive siren song? I submit to you that the essential reason can be summed up in one word: comfort. It is remembrance of the experience we had with certain books that lures us back to turn those familiar pages once again. (And please understand—by use of the word “comfort” I mean in the sense of “alleviating or diminishing a person’s level of psychic and/or physical distress” and of “an expectation of aesthetic satisfaction and intellectual, emotional and spiritual stimulation via renewed engagement with a work of art”. Definitions mine.)  

One book I reread every decade is Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine. An extended meditation on the joys of being a boy only just now discovering what it means to be alive (while simultaneously realizing the inevitability and ubiquity of death), the novel is by turns saccharine sweet and . . . something darker . . . though never bitter. When I first read the novel as a teenaged boy of 14 callow years I confess to being bored out of my mind. (How can one feel nostalgia for a time one is only now experiencing?) What kind of narrative was this, I wondered. No flinty-eyed men killing bad guys with “barking” .45 automatic pistols and/or “chattering” submachine guns. No explicit sex. No “glimmering arc” sword-play whilst contending against orcs/Vikings/wizards/other. (yawnWords words words.  

When I reread the book in my 20s I found myself noting and appreciating Bradbury’s prose-poetry style (your mileage may vary) and thought, “Yes; the book is quite evocative of a certain time and place. Well done.” My response was primarily an intellectual one. When I reread the book in my 30s my heart was pierced and my vision blurred at certain poignant passages. Rereading the book in my 40s I found myself all but overcome with emotion. Upon rereading the book in my 50s I found myself still an admirer of the book—delighting as ever in Bradbury’s consummate word-smithery—but the raw emotional reaction to plot and theme wasn’t there. The most I could summon was a wistful smile at certain incidents and passages of description. I still deeply appreciated the book, to be sure, but was all-too-aware of the authorial techniques Bradbury was using to wring response from the reader: my own hard-won knowledge of the craft served as a distancing mechanism that muted textual poignancy and experienced emotion. I was sorely disappointed and more than a little unsettled—in the reader, not the writer. 

What had changed since my first reading of the novel? The book remained the same—the exact same words were printed on those pages, after all—but the reader over the course of those five decades was five different people: a teenaged boy, a 20-something-marine, a 30-year-old married man, a 40-year-old married man, then a divorced man in his mid-50s. Each person brought his own life-lived experience and wisdom (or appalling lack thereof) to the text. Each reader was in dialogue with the author—but not every reader was Bradbury’s “ideal reader” during the course of those five decades. What will my experience be when I reread the novel again in my 60s, I wonder? Assuming I live that long. . . .  

Another writer I reread regularly for pleasure is James Thurber. Witty, understated and urbane, the best of his writing conjures wistful daydream and wry, world-weary melancholia. What also comes through in his narrative voice is the sense of a genteel, bespectacled man alternately startled and irritated by the shrill boors around him. Mr. Thurber is a devastating and shrewd observer of human nature. I envy anyone just discovering his writing for the first time.  

What books have not held up upon rereading? Well . . . Don Pendleton’s Mack Bolan: The Executioner series, for one. Don’t laugh! For those of you rolling your eyes please understand: Don Pendleton was the best-of-the-best of the late 60s and 70s “men’s action-adventure” writers. (Pendleton all but single-handedly created that genre.) His hard-boiled writing was a cross between the toughness of Dashiell Hammett and the ferocity of Robert E. Howard: each of the 36 books in the original 37-book series (excepting #16: Sicilian Slaughter, written by Jim Peterson, a hack brought in to grind out the next book in the series during Don’s dispute with Pinnacle Books) was so packed with gunfire and explosions that the pages fairly reeked of cordite and the iron-rich tang of blood. As for the teeth-gritted machismo of the exchanges between Bolan and the gangster scum he was exterminating, well . . . that dialogue was broken-bottle-to-the-eye poetry of the streets. (Note: Marvel’s Punisher anti-hero was a total rip-off of Pendleton’s character. Consider: Bolan was a combat-hardened Vietnam veteran who returned home after his family was killed by the mob to launch a vendetta against “la cosa nostra”. Frank Castle was a combat-hardened Vietnam veteran who . . .) I recently reread the first three books in the Executioner series and found them entertaining as ever, though marred by right-wing philosophizing and neo-fascist authorial asides. I also found the characterization paper-thin and descriptive narrative passages lean to the point of non-existent. There is also a whiff of sexism and misogyny presented as chivalric knight-errant-championing in the patronizing attitude of Bolan/Pendleton toward his female characters. All of this went over my head reading as an enthralled teenage boy, of course; I worshipped Mack Bolan as the exemplar of what an alpha male should be: tough as gun metal, stoic as a brick, ready to fuck or fight at the twitch of a hip or the sneer of a lip. (When I went through Marine Corps boot camp as a 17-year-old and found myself ready to drop from exhaustion during extended platoon formation runs I summoned the energy to stagger forward by envisioning Conan the Barbarian running at my left side, Bolan the Executioner on my right. I won’t repeat here what these hard-bitten warriors said to me. But mark this: they got me through it. Some turn to deities, angels and saints for life-sustaining strength and consolation; others to muscle-ripped melancholy barbarians and flint-eyed executioners, heh!)  

As to other authors: H. P. Lovecraft was a weird tales writer that utterly baffled me when I first attempted reading him at 12 years of age. I found his syntax and vocabulary utterly impenetrable. Nowadays, I delight in his measured, polysyllabic prose and the dark cosmicism of his horrific plots and ghastly imagination.  

John Irving has held up—in fact, gotten better with every passing decade. The World According to Garp is one of the funniest, yet at one and the same time wince-inducing, examinations of the human condition and the disordered workings of lust upon male/female relationships that you will ever read, all while being a poignant extended meditation on our fear of loss. Neat trick!

Jack London is as great and relevant and riveting as he ever was. Ditto Mark Twain. Oscar Wilde. Tolkien.  

Certain works of Philip K. Dick reward rereading. (I especially enjoy his short stories—vastly under-rated. Favorite novels: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said.)  

Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human, Anne Rice’s Interview With The Vampire, and Stephen King’s The Shining get reread and wolf-whistled at by me every couple of decades.  

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was reread three times in succession: first for the immersion of the fictive dream and the tick-tock unfolding of plot (turn pages—faster!), the second time for writing instruction (How did she do that?), and the third time as awed worship due an acknowledged master. (Is this book really as good as I think it is? My god, it is! Absolutely brilliant.)  

Pat Conroy’s deep and abiding humanity, lust for life and sharp intelligence infuse his characters with vivid three-dimensionality and realism. His books—rather curiously, I think—neither diminish nor grow in stature over the years; upon rereading they remain as engrossing and seemingly effortless and compelling as ever. (Is this the true mark of authorial genius, then: the ability to reach readers of nearly every age and life-lived experience?) 

David L. Ulin, writing in The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time, tells us: 

Rereading can be a tricky process, in which, for better or worse, you’re brought face-to-face with both the present and the past. It’s different than reading, more layered, more nuanced, with implications about how we’ve changed. In her 2005 book Rereadings, Anne Fadiman traces the distinction between reading and rereading: “The former had more velocity; the latter had more depth. The former shut out the world in order to focus on the story; the latter dragged in the world in order to assess the story. The former was more fun; the latter was more cynical. But what was remarkable about the latter was that it contained the former: even while, as with the upper half of a set of bifocals, I saw the book through the complicating lens of adulthood, I also saw it through the memory of the first time I’d read it.” 

What books have you reread? Has your opinion/reaction to a particular book or writer changed over time? Explain.