December 27, 2008

Year in Review

Though I'm in a fallow period right now, this has been a busy year for me as a writer. In February, I began work on a play, FIREWATCHER'S WAGES, which fulfilled a long-time ambition of mine: I've long wanted to write a play about which I could make the double boast Ben Jonson makes in the prologue to VOLPONE, the last half of which is: 'five weeks have fully penn'd it." But in some ways that was the least remarkable thing about a play that seemed to arrive from nowhere. I'd often thought about the ORESTEIA of Aeschylus, particularly the first and finest play in the trilogy, AGAMEMNON. I'd certainly often meditated on the brilliant image that dominates the first half of that play: sentinels with signal fires dotted along mountains from Troy to Argos, to alert Clytemnestra of Agamemnon's return some hours before his ships can speed their way home. I'd certainly thought often enough about the poor sod of a Herald at the beginning who's been watching, sleepless, a year for that distant mountain signal, can't they hurry up and finish the sack of Troy already? But I hadn't considered at all, before I suddenly found myself exploring them, the possibilities in a play with the Herald as its lead character, and his opening monologue in verse where did that come from? In fact everything about the play as it unfolded--the shifts from verse to proe and back, the rhythms of progressively deepening and darkening comedy scene by scene, the three original song lyrics with tunes that seemed to arrise out of the action and speech spontaneously--all of it was just about as much a surprise to me as it could be to anyone viewing or reading it.

That was only the beginning of a remarkably concentrated period of activity that lasted through mid-May. Apart from a number of flash fiction pieces, poems for the collection I was compiling, MIND MADE SYLLABLES, opinion pieces for my blog The Evitable, one full length short story, I was working, rapidly and overlapingly, on a series of theatricales: EMPTY BOWL, extensively rewritten from an earlier one act 'Zen play', inch foot time gem; LIVE PERFORMANCE, also reworking an earlier fragment (with a title so uninspiring I can't now recall it), I FORESEE TROUBLE, about a telephone psychic, and a screenplay I'd been mulling over in my mind for a little over a year, WITH A BULLET (FARGO meets the song stylings of Leonard Cohen).

You'd like these periods of sharpest inspiration to go on forever, but sadly and annoyingly, they sometimes pick the most inconvenient moments to grind to a halt. By mid-May I'd finished I FORESEE TROUBLE; LIVE PERFORMANCE was beanced and foundering, didn't know how to connect the first act to a second that was refusing to assume definite shape, partly because I was far from sure I was happy with the first act (Joss Whedon was asked to help work out problems in the 'third act' of a Hollywood blockbuster a few years back, and told the producers 'The problem with the third act is the first two acts.'); EMPTY BOWL had a first act of monumental ambition that i was mostly happy with plus two complete scenes of the second act and part of the long third scene, I thought I knew just about everything that should follow from this in Act II and III, but I wasn't writing them, only brooding day after day about the architectonics (which is a word I've always wantaed to use somewhere, but you'd be amazed how rarely an appropriate context comes up): I didn't know how to manipulate the action on the stage set as I'd devised it so it could flow and move the play forward. Irksome, especially when you consider the play was written to epic scale, with thirteen speaking parts and the need for at least that many extras to swell a fairground scene. If a play's going to be almost impossible to produce in toady's budget conscious theatre climate, is it too much to ask that it not be equally difficult to write?

WITH A BULLET was thoroughly plotted and maybe 75% written except for a necessary line-by-line overhaul, but it was difficult to bring enough concentration to bear.

A lead character in EMPTY BOWL--whose last decisive action brings the play to its close--is a poet named Wabi. Nonnie Augustine, poetry editor at the online magazine The Linnet's Wings, had read Wabi's songs (independently of their play context) in an online writer's workshop we both belonged to and asked me to submit them. So I sent them along to Marie Lynam Fitzpatrick, the overall boss editor of Linnet's Wings and with it the first act so she'd know the context in which the poems appear.

About mid-June I had a letter from Marie saying they'd like to publish both the poems and the act I'd sent them. Agreeing to this I began proofreading PDF pages and typing into my own file the scenes from Act II I realized I hadn't got around to putting in yet, and discovered I'd worked out the problem I'd had which kept me from finishing. In about two weeks I'd completed Act II and III--which combined are slightlly shorter than Act I by itself, you'd likely play it with just the one intermission should anyone (and the sooner the better) choose to do so. Conscious that the immediate prod for finishing the play had been Marie's letter, I wrote to offer her the whole play if she wanted it, if it didn't seem too big a page-gobbler for one issue; which is how my largest publication to date, and my first full-length play publication, came about.

Though I was still writing the odd flash fiction piece, and one more full length story in the period between mid-May and June, the late June-early July completion of EMPTY BOWL was my largest sustained effort then and for a while to come. Brooding about WITH A BULLET--planning to work it out seriously during a week's holdiay in the sand dunes around Bellfontaine in late July-early August. I was already feeling looser and more creative on the drive up--wrote a complete ten minute play, 'Please May I Live?'--except for a little fine tuning later, strted and finished on the five hour drive.

At the cottage I got to work on the logistics and even ballistics of WITH A BULLET. Hours of free time stretching out before me, I'd sit in a butterfly chair with clutters of draft pages and compile, compose, revise. On the way back into the city it was finished and ready to type into files.

That was my last powerfully sustained burst of creativity this year. I worte a fair number of flash fiction pieces in August and September and a diminishing number, sometimes fewer than one a week, since. I've been mainly occupied with sending out playscripts to theatre companies and stories and poems to magazines that accept email submissions. Finally a way of sending out manuscripts that my budget can always accomodate.

Apart from EMPTY BOWL, The Linnet's Wings ( has published an essay I never expected to see in 'print' (and there are plans to publish physical copies beginning with that issue, so--fingers crossed--I may even see it in PRINT) I AM BEING EVERYBODY THEY CRIED, an essay on the work of Peter Barnes, the greatest playwright for the stage in the English language in the 20th Century. There's been a delay in a 'day calendar' anthology of flash fiction pieces, 366 stories each on a single page of which six are mine, and the same editor is still in process of organizing an animated anthology which will feature the animated version of one of my short stories, 'Who Was That?' Next year perhaps, one of the two dozen or so theatre companies who currently have one or another of my plays in their submission files will decide to be the first to premiere one of them onstage. Ideally two or three at once, each with a different play. Might rack up serious frequent flier miles if I were expected to attend at each. I'm not holding my breath--I've discovered that's a dangerous thing to do in the writing trade.

December 5, 2008

Harper & the Coalition

{I wrote this to my neice in response to a couple of letters cheerleading the coalition from her current residence in Brussels}:


You'll have heard by now I imagine that Stephen Harper's dodged the bullet for the time being with a prorogation of the House. If you want to catch up with debate on this subject over here, check out and The Globe and Mail website for Ed Broadbent's comments (and Rick Salutin's in the Globe as well). And definitely check out Rick Mercer's latest Rant on All our national news sources are worth googling on this subject. I've been reading the three Toronto dailies just to keep up with who's saying what.

The National Post, curiously enough, has little to say in defence of Harper--loads to say against the (potential) Coalition on the other hand. Lorne Gunter seems to tacitly approve Harper's attempt to bankrupt the Opposition parties, but even his comment seems mainly aimed at the (potential) Coalition, who he accuses of avoiding confrontation on matters of principle throughout the previous Harper government, only to finally stand up on their haunches and protest when their funding was endangered. considering how much Harper got away with by bluff and bluster in the last parliament, Gunter has a point, but the more cogent point is that voter representative funding was intended to replace large donations to political parties by private interests, and somewhat has. (I'm not up on the ins and outs, but I seriously doubt either private interests or political parties have entirely divested themselves of loopholes.) The key point is that it was a democratizing influence, and the secondary point is that the recent election has drained every party's coffers. the party in power gains a huge advantage over parties stripped of this entitlement: Mercer's not being the least bit alarmist when he says the only tendency of a move like that is toward a one party state. I wouldn't want the NDP or the Green party in power under those terms, because no party whatever its principles can be counted on to act well without strict democratic oversight. Giving that kind of power to Harper and that group of thieves he has in cabinet--Flaherty had higher ambitions obviously than merely fleecing the treasuries of Ontario and its chief city--now he can do the country and the capital--fuggedaboutit, giving them that kind of power would not be materially different from committing suicide. Harper's shown himself capable of doing quite enough harm without diverting an inch from his principles.

Harper's something of an anomaly in Canadian political life--apart from Mulroney he's the only Conservative Prime Minister I can think of who wouldn't be considered left of centre in the U.S. John A. MacDonald might been conservative in comparison with Laurier, but he was more radical than Lincoln--and a politician as wily as MacDonald in the U.S. mihgt have brought slavery to an end without a war. We should return to our traditions I think before we forget what they were.

All for now,
love, Uncle Martin