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It was a cold, rainy morning in town this morning – the sort of day that seems to stall around dawn and gets no lighter. Traffic was jittery, the carparks twitchy with panicky shoppers anxious to get that last space so they could go buy their Christmas tat. I only wanted breakfast, almost fell foul of the season of good-will, but managed to find a slot on the edge of town, then shouldered the rain and headed back in to the greasy spoon.

The town is impoverished, has been since the crash, and getting steadily worse – always looks worse at this time of year though, the people poor and mainly elderly, the doorways camped by homeless looking wretched. I don’t suppose it’ll get any better than this now, but on the upside there was a guy in a giraffe suit dancing for charity. It was pouring rain, and he was a big yellow smile, the brightest light by far and a gesture of jolly defiance. What a star!

I bought a 0.7 mm Staedtler propelling pencil for £6.99 to replace the one I keep losing – a good piece of kit. Same price on Ebay so nothing to be gained there, plus it’s good to get out, even on a bad day, look around, even if it’s only to see what the latest storm of economy and season has done to my town. And yes, I know, shopping on Ebay doesn’t help matters. Greenwoods is the latest casualty – there since 1880-something, now abandoned and looking almost derelict. The landlords are crippling these businesses. I wonder where they do their shopping?

The Charity bookshop that inspired my latest novel was also closed – insufficient volunteers to man it on Saturdays now. I was going to put my name forward when I retired – quite fancied it actually, sitting there in tweed jacket and brogues, an ageing hipster, preserving for my town that last flicker of bookish vibe. Looks like I’m too late though. Damn.

And speaking of that novel, brings me to the shameless self promotion bit. Home from town I shut the weather out,  cosied up with coffee and hit the laptop. Saving Grace, as it’s now calling itself, went up on Smashwords and Free Ebooks this afternoon. I’ve enjoyed the ride, like I always do, and this last bit always leaves me with mixed feelings. It’s like putting it in a bottle and tossing it into the sea. You never know where the currents will take it.

I’ve been serialising it on Wattpad for a while now, but it’s not had much of a following. Those of you who have read and commented and queried my errors, (you know who you are) I thank you. Time to take a break from the long form now though while the next one gestates.

In the pecking order of Austerity, otherwise known in older parlance as “class war” I’m still in the fortunate position of relative security and money to spend on fripperies and without killing myself working three jobs. Those this morning though, staring out at a thousand yards of misery from those derelict shop doorways, are still bearing the brunt of it.

They give me pause – that it’s so commonplace even in the smaller market towns these days is telling me there’s worse to come, and no one to do anything about it. And that quid you toss into the begging bowl, or that pasty and a brew you press into shivering, mittened hands might get the poor bastard through until tomorrow. But what then?

And what’s that got to do with Saving Grace you ask? Well, pretty much everything, but you’ll need to read it to find out. Just click the book cover in the margin on the right. Best if you’re reading this on your smartphone – you’ll need an ebook reader app like Aldiko or Moonreader too.

All my stuff is free.

 

 

 

 

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Survivalcraft for wordpressWriting stories is old hat. They’re like a wind-up Swiss Watch; beautiful, intricate and hard to make, and no one wants them any more. Sure, you can still get them, but most mass market tickers are of the quartz variety. Technology has moved on. Like cut-throat razors, there’s no need for them any more and anyone still using them is seriously retro. In the same way, written stories died with the age of Television, about the time I was born, which makes it somewhat ironic I should have spent so much time writing them. I collect wind-up watches too. Speaks volumes.

Seems like I was born too late.

In the UK it died early. America hung on for a bit. Indeed, over there, it was still possible to sell fiction, even really poor fiction, well into the seventies. But now, like us, they don’t read stuff any more. It’s all visual drama, and most of it’s so up itself the only thing it teaches us is the art of celebrity.

In the UK you had a few women’s magazines and you had the People’s Friend. They’re still around but they weren’t an easy genre to figure out. I did try, but they get thousands of stories a week showered on them and they have to pick just one or two. Even if you’ve got what it takes it’s still a lottery. No room for also-rans. There were some London literary rags as well, I recall, still are, but you’ve only to read one to see they’re seriously off the strangeness scale, that only very clever people could fathom, so I never wasted stamps on them.

For Science Fiction and Speculative you had Interzone and The Third Alternative. They supported a lot of big names back in the day and were great magazines to read, with engaging and intelligent fiction, but I guess like the rest, it was just too competitive, again no room for second best with those boys. And if you don’t know your cyberpunk from your whatsamacallit, then seriously, don’t bother, you’ll just look like a fool.

I know I did.

I had some luck with Ireland’s Own, a Wexford based publication, quite old fashioned really, like something out of the fifties. I wrote traditional Irish tales for them, which was weird because I’ve never been to Ireland, and they say you should always write what you know, but they didn’t seem to mind that. They had about twenty stories off me, the sum total of my published opus, in fact, and all of them lost to obscurity now. I’ve published nothing there in ages because the market dried me up completely. And what I really wanted anyway was to publish longer stories – novels and such – the pursuit of which finally wised me up to the whole damned publishing business altogether.

I’m reading a lot of Kurt Vonnegut at the moment – most recently a book called Timequake, published in ’97, part weird, zany fiction, also part autobiography, in which he was already lamenting the end of the era of pop fiction, the one he grew up in, the one that enabled him to quit his job at General Electric to write full time and make a decent living at it, just like I wanted to do. But Vonnegut was a generation ahead of me and had already concluded it was over at the same time as I was still trying to doggedly break in. He was a real writer’s writer, Kurt Vonnegut, God rest him.

When I say writing stories is old hat, I don’t mean they’re no longer relevant or enjoyable, it’s just that fewer people bother with them, that’s all. Stories used to pass the time at a time when we all seemed to have more time, when the evenings after work seemed longer and there was time to just – I don’t know – just be. Nowadays by the time we’ve finished commuting and had our tea, it’s time for bed and work again. So it’s all too easy to pick up your phone in the bits of time that are left and play Candy Crush than it is to immerse yourself in a work of fiction.

Me? Guilty as charged your honour. I can lose myself for hours in Survivalcraft instead of reading or writing. See pic – that’s me! But it doesn’t exactly teach you anything of any use outside the game. I’ve built an entire world in it. There are farms and mines and homesteads, and remote islands, all interlinked by tunnels, so I can get about without running the gauntlet of hungry wild animals. Years and years its taken me, just tunnelling away, piling up the earth to build more farmsteads, plant more crops, round-up cows. I’ve only to drop my phone and it’s all gone. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just an escape, like doing Soduku.

Stories are an escape too, yes, but they are so much more than that. In the main they present an experience as if it were shared. The writer beckons you in, and says come along with me for a bit. And along you go, finding yourself on a journey peopled by characters as real as any you’re likely to meet in real life. And they talk to you, show you things. They ask you: what do you think of this? You always come away from a story, a good story, with your soul changed in some way – a little deeper, a little wiser.

That’s the way I see it anyway.

For a time, some time post 2008, when our devices became portable and powerful, they seemed the perfect medium for written stories to migrate to, and that’s pretty much where I’ve been as an amateur hack since then, basically giving stuff away, and why not? given that most publications don’t even pay for it now anyway, what’s there to lose? But I’m not so sure about this any more. All I seem to be doing is creating reams of content for others to pepper with their advertising, or to content scrape, or simply bare-faced pirate, all of them like parasites picking at my brains. And then we’ve had the scandals of election meddling through nefarious psychological means, served out of our devices and pretty soon you come to realise our devices are not so much full of wonder any more, as full of shit. Apologies for the “S” word – Vonnegut is a bad influence, but you’ve got to love him.

So is it time we set our devices aside? Sure, if you go searching online you might find some decent stories, like flowers growing on a dung hill, but you’re not going to manage it without getting a lot of crap on your wellies. We’d all be better going for a walk, a real walk, in the sunshine because it cheers you up, you know? Or go for a coffee and spot how many people still have their heads stuck in their phones and up their asses. Best of all buy a paper book from a charity shop, then sit down somewhere comfy and read, like we did in the old days.

I’m coming up on retirement soon, thinking to duck out early while I’ve still got breath in me for climbing a few more hills. I’ll have all the time in the world to read and to write then, but I’ll probably just sitting flicking listlessly on my phone like everybody else, or ordering tat off Ebay, or playing Survivalcraft. Then I’ll finally have become one more zombie, good as gold, incapable of stringing two coherent thoughts, or words, together.

I hope that isn’t true, but fiction is definitely niche these days, reading it and, I suppose, writing it too. Like Dandelion and Burdock pop, it conjures up memories of long ago. But, like those childhood summers, golden age of the written word isn’t coming back and, like climate-change and Neo-con economics, it’s probably too late to do anything about it. But that’s fine, because it’s still possible to find pleasure in really small things. And it’s just as well, because small things is all we’ve ever really had, or needed in the first place.

So,.. sun’s coming up. Let’s saddle up.

And ride!

Survivalcraft for wordpress 2

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other notes coverAn excerpt from “Notes from a small bookshop” by Michael Graeme

Available from all good bookshops no time soon:

I don’t know how much strangeness you’re wanting, or how much you can take. It’s a genre thing, I suppose. You come in expecting one thing, like this dusty old geezer sitting in a second hand bookshop pontificating on how things were so much better in the old days, then here he is showing you another thing entirely.

We’ve already had the spy story, the mystery police thing, the love story, a bit of crime thriller – I mean if Milord Milner isn’t a crook, then who is? We’ve even had a little bit of bonk-buster, though I admit I glossed over much of the animal fervour of that in favour of the romantic angle, out of respect for Magg’s privacy and it just seemed like the decent thing to do.

But this is something else entirely and you’re most likely going to find it really, really weird. It’s something you might think is even verging on the speculative, or a bit science fiction-ish, but it isn’t. Trust me, it’s already obsolete, technologically quaint.

Most of us don’t want strangeness do we? We want our days predictable, punctuated by three square meals. We want a thirty minute commute, and a nine to five, then a couple of hours after tea collapsed in front of a predictable Soap while we shovel crisps into our mouths and wash them down with cheap wine from the corner shop.

Then bed and dreams.

Dreams we can do. Dreams are okay, I mean for all their strangeness – and it’s mainly because we forget them so quickly. But that’s about the size of it, isn’t it? Any real strangeness in our waking lives and we’re covering our ears going: Nah,nah,nah,nah,…

But strangeness is everywhere. Every story ever written came out of someone’s head. Did you ever pause to think about that? Isn’t it weird? We make stuff up, make believe it’s real, and it’s okay – people still want to know what happens to these other people, people like me, who aren’t actually real.

But not all strangeness is made up.

I was reading the leftleaning news this afternoon and it was telling me of a town in America, all the jobs moved out and those nine to five people with their family SUVs and their cute little clapboard houses now living in tents along a bleak riverside on the outskirts of town and going hungry. No more wine and crisps for them. This is their new normal discarded, like waste, scrunched up and tossed into the bushes, their own Milord Milners caring little if they live or die. But these are not empty beer-cans. They are people, indeed more than people, they are, in the philosophical, and even in the existential sense, just different versions of you and me.

It will kill us, you know, this thing we have created. And only those of us capable of sustaining our Milord Milners will be allowed to survive, all be it barely. In this respect then, we will be farmed like cows. Some for milk, some for slaughter.

How the Milord Milners are made these days is open to speculation. They are no longer born to it like they were in olden times. I suspect rather they are merely psychopaths, that the system favours their emotionally insensitive natures, and the rest of us are just too passive or too stupid to prevent them gaining power. Shall we merely go on allowing it then? How can we? How can we not? I mean, if we are to survive.

But what is surviving? It’s a subject that needs redefining. And while we’re at it, what is living? I mean truly living.

You can forget the notion now that through diligence, the dream of middle class semi-detached suburbia, and 2.1 children is still attainable. And the working class too, you can forget the notion of meaningful work and ample playtime for afters. You already know this. You’re all in the same boat now, your bright young ones with degrees in this and that, rubbing shoulders with you bright young ones who don’t, and all of you chasing nothing-Mcjobs in the murky, shark infested pool of the precariat, all of you filling in here and there on poverty wages until you’re automated out of existence. You own no capital, you have no provision for old age. Do you think you can still run around a warehouse when youre eighty five with cataracts and a dodgy prostate?

So what am I saying here?

Beyond stating the problem, I don’t know. It depends what you want, what you value, or can re-evaluate in your life. Whether we go on pursuing the thrill of those dubious stimulations promised by Milord Milner’s ultimately empty mouse-clicks, or we set our devices aside, and do something else, something that does not involve staring at a screen and adding to the sedimentary layers of data for others to mine and profit by at our considerable expense and ultimate enslavement.

I have a feeling the answer lies in rediscovering that truer sense of the ordinariness of the world, the purer treasure of it, and yes, the sheer grace in all of that. Only there can we recapture our souls, and live as we should. And be happy.

I don’t know what I mean by any of this exactly, only that in common with the rest of us, I’m working on it,…

Do not go gently.

Be careful what you accept as normal.

No one is a waste of space.

https://www.wattpad.com/myworks/139757309-notes-from-a-small-bookshop

 

 

 

 

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IMG_20170821_213323_429Now and then you’ll come across one of my novels popping up on Amazon, even though I don’t publish on Amazon and prefer to give them away. Instead, someone calling themselves Michael Graeme, will steal one of my titles, stick it on there and charge money for it. I know,… I’ve talked about this before, but anyway,…

It’s a common issue faced by all creatives working in the digital sphere. Why? because our “product” is easy to replicate and distribute. You just cut and paste. And it’s not just text of course: music, photographs, videos, computer-apps, games, databases, information,… you name it, it’s all vulnerable to filching. But does it matter? Should we not be viewing this ease of reproduction more as an indicator of a strange but bright new future?

Those wealthy enough can protect themselves to a degree, or at least they can for now. Indeed there’s a whole industry built up around digital rights management to prevent file copying, but the ways of defeating it are morphing faster than the defences can adapt – that’s just the nature of digital technology. So, do we accept piracy as a hazard against which there is no realistic defence long term? And more,… is this an indicator of the changing nature of society, of what we understand as industry, work and value?

It’s hard to imagine a cultural shift when you’re still living in the last vestiges of the old one. Science fiction writers and futurologists can have a stab at it. The most I’ll venture with any certainty is that in fifty years our current era will seem like the stone age, socially, technologically and economically.

The shift began with the ability to “cut and paste”. It renders anything you create, digitally, worthless, at least in traditional money terms, even if you’ve spent years working on it. How come? Well, you only need to apply the basic rule of economics which states the price of anything is proportional to its scarcity, and anything so easily reproducible as a computer file isn’t exactly scarce is it? unless rendered artificially so by technological countermeasures, and they will always have the tide of anarchy against them.

So the future is looking like a place where our traditionally paid labours are worth nothing, and all information based “products” produced by those labours won’t be worth anything either, at least by contemporary economic rules. For a time I’m sure there’ll be an elite of celebrity artists who continue to be paid handsomely via the old model, their works protected by a stout, metaphorical ring-fence of barbed wire, but by then they’ll be servicing exclusively a societal elite holed up in their security patrolled mansions – these being the crooks and the psychopaths still looking for ways to game the old system for maximum profit at the expense of the rest of us. All this even as that old system atrophies around them. And in part, they’ll do this by hoarding and guarding what bits of tangible capital remain and renting it out to the rest of us.

Already we have a generation who own nothing. They rent their homes, their cars, their phones. There’s even talk of retail models whereby we rent the very clothes we’re wearing. Stop paying, pause for breath on that tread-mill of the damned, and you’ll literally be left naked and broke as the day you were born. But I’m sure that’ll just be a temporary end-phase, that it’ll last no more than a generation, a necessary period of reflection for impressing upon us the need to think differently about the notion of value, of what we value and how we value it. And then, all writers, like everyone else, will be producing stuff for free, simply because they want to. And whatever we need, even the clothes on our backs, others will produce for free as well.

The alternative, at least for the ninety nine percent of us who own nothing, is a form of unwaged slavery, but I don’t think that’s going to happen because when a man has nothing left to lose, he’s impossible to control. And the greedy freaks, the one percent who go on hoarding wealth will be reviled and shamed and shunned to the remotest desert isles with all the money in the world to play with, money that’s worth nothing any more. And then the very notion of piracy will have become a quaint old fashioned term, one we must look up in the OED, then shake our heads in wonder such a strange phenomenon ever existed in the first place. An egalitarian utopia? Unlikely, I know, but the opposite doesn’t bear thinking about either, though I admit for now it seems the more likely outcome.

I remain optimistic though, and if I’m right, the future isn’t what it used to be. But at least I know why I give my stories away – I mean apart from it being easier and less self destructive: I suppose I’ve simply always been ahead of my time.

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It was Pablo Picasso who said: all children are artists, the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up. The fact that so many of don’t is a serious problem – it was me who said that last bit, not Pablo – and I don’t mean ‘serious’ economically or politically. I mean we risk making our souls sick. Another fine artist, the writer Kurt Vonnegut said of art, and I paraphrase slightly for artistic purposes: it’s not a way to make a living, more a way to make living bearable.

In 2006, he wrote to Xavier High School in New York by way of reply to pupils inviting him to come and speak at the school. He was one of many venerated authors so invited, and the only one to reply, which perhaps says much about the majority of venerated professional authors. Vonnegut declined to visit on account of his great age, but the Xavier Letter is now legendary, and encapsulates very well his philosophy regarding the true value of art – not as a means to make a living, nor to gain approval, or praise, or fame, but on a more fundamental, vital and deeply personal level, to experience what he called ‘becoming’.

Here it is, read aloud by another fine old artist, none other than Gandalf the Grey:

We can think of life in very complicated terms, I know I often do. Indeed we can make it as complicated as we like, or we can pare it down to more manageable proportions, perhaps even to something akin to a Zen Haiku, instead of Wordsworth’s Prelude, and that Haiku might say something like: we’re born, we fart around for a bit, and then we die, but inbetween we have a chance to grow some soul – I’m paraphrasing Vonnegut again, but he definitely said fart, though not in that letter to Xavier High School. And the best way to grow some soul is through the practice of art, any kind of art that takes your fancy.

But the problem with art is you cannot write an app to do it. And since the endgame of unbridled Capital is to complete the grand project of reducing the entire world to nothing more than the sum of its parts in pursuit of maximum profit, then art – and especially amateur art, which neither computes, nor ever pays the bills – is going to get itself rubbed out. It’ll be dropped from all the school curriculums as those fiendishly clever little chaps with their apps pare the money down until only Maths and English and Science survives the reckoning, these being the tick-in-a-box, sure-fire CV gold-star employability type subjects.

Then we’ll all spend our days between birth and death writing yet more little apps to hang off the iron brain of the human universe. And it’ll be a profitable place, that universe, at least for those who own the iron brain, but it will also be a place without much soul, a place where the farting will have become everything of value, and where none of us will be anything other than robots made of meat, and valued not a jot, and where life for anyone with a brain, and a longing for some kind of meaning – which is just about all of us – will become utterly unbearable.

So,… by all means value your Maths and your English, and your Sciences – I know I do – and make no mistake, their diligent pursuit makes for a decent pay-packet in return, even in these most straightened of times – but do art as well, and experience the mystery and the magical, intangible rewards of ‘becoming’.

Write that poem. Dance that dance. Sing that song. Don’t do it for money, or praise or fame.

Do it for yourself.

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rhinogI return from Wales feeling a bit flat. This is normal. Wales was beautiful and silent and very, very grand, but then I come home to find the garden around my ears, at least the bits of it not killed by drought, and there’s a pile of mail already nagging at me like flies, and the shower’s bust at the first twist of the dial so you can’t turn it off and the water’s gushing down the plughole and a drought order hanging over us.

So I’m wishing myself already paddling again like a little boy on Harlech beach, shoes and socks in hand, and for a short time not a care in the world, or walking a quiet stretch of rural lane of an evening, watching the sun set over the Llyn, and then a glass of Malt on the terrace of my little cottage as the moon rises over the Barmouth hills.

I fixed the shower with a blob of glue, which should hold until the next time someone uses it, and then I spent the day researching shower units to replace the broken one without needing to redecorate the entire bathroom and I ordered one off Amazon, thus neatly pushing the problem out in time to the mercy of the oppressed delivery man. And then I sat, and I tried to pick up a few threads of writing, but they were elusive, or maybe it was because the phone was in my hand and I’m glued to it already, like an addict, to the fall of the western world.

I learn that in my absence, it has been decided we are to stockpile food and medicines in warehouses that have not existed since 1945, and we’re to borrow generators from the army to keep the lights on in Northern Ireland. This sounds like fiction, the plot of a Ballardian dystopia, perhaps? It cannot actually be true, can it? It’s merely a ruse of those cheeky tabloids, something to show Johnny Foreigner we mean business, and we’ll damned well live off Spam post BREXIT, if it means we can still wag our Agincourt fingers. Or maybe these are the first Machiavellian priming strokes of a second BREXIT referendum, because who in their right mind is going to vote for Spam when we were promised milk and honey?

Then I’m sucked sideways into an article on the whys and wherefores of writing, and how it’s good for the soul and all that, and how money’s not the important thing, and just as well, and who can argue, except in the last paragraph I discover the writer’s just flogging his book on how to write, which is rather bad form, but not entirely unexpected because that’s the kind of world we live in – everyone a chancer and a spiv now.

Then another serendipitous swerve has me bumping into Vonnegut, a writer I don’t know that well, but he seems like a good egg, and he’s telling me yeah, you know it’s true, Mike, art’s not about making a living, it’s about making the living bearable,… which is something to ponder I suppose while we’re tucking into that Spam and wondering where our next tank of petrol’s coming from. At least we will have our art, except we don’t encourage it in schools any more, so we won’t even have that.

And I’m wondering about rushing out to Tescos to stockpile my own “no deal” BREXIT larder – hint, tins and dried stuff – and again feeling this terrible post holiday blues, and Vonnegut’s talking about just writing stuff because all there is is life and death and inbetween there’s this brief opportunity to grow some soul, and that’s where the writing comes in. For you. Your self. To grow some soul. You see, Mike? And I’m nodding my agreement because I’ve been living that story for a while now, but sometimes,… sometimes you forget, don’t you?

Except,…

I can’t forget that view inland from the Barmouth viaduct – that great sandy funnel of the Mawddach Estuary at tide’s ebb, or again in the evening with the flood roaring around the pilings and covering up the sand with quicksilver again, and the green mountains beyond, the mist and the light playing upon them in endless symphonies of mood.

And there’s been this poem trying to take shape in my head, something about those mountains not remembering, or the trees, or the hoary stones, or the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane. Not remembering what? I don’t know, but that’s what the poem’s trying to get at you see?

And it goes:

The hills will not remember,
Nor these scattered, hoary stones,
Nor the foxgloves
Nodding in the sleepy lanes,
Nor the oaks whose leaves,
Turning now their backs,
Anticipate the rains,…

There’s more, but I can’t feel the shape of it yet. It’s being driven most powerfully by the memory of a nearly full pre blooded Welsh moon rising, white as death over green hills and into a queer, luminous turquoise, and the air is warm and the night is still, and quiet. Then there’s the scent of that Islay malt I’m sipping, and it’s reminding me of another country, that’s also my own, a place I’ve not seen in thirty five years, but whose impressions remain strong, a place that doesn’t remember me either. And then there’s that other place, land of my grandfather I’ve yet to visit, and that’s been bothering me awfully of late. But in the main I’m thinking it’s a human thing, this curse of remembering, and those hoary stones and that Welsh moon are all the better for being without it.

Yes,… confusing I know – I’m English and Welsh and Scots and Irish, and I’m a European too, and proud of it. Identity is whatever you want it to be, and it’s best to let it stretch as wide as possible than to narrow it down so much it throttles the life out of us. Dammit what’s happening? Can we not fight back?

So, the poem? Okay, I think I know what it’s getting at now. It’s going to tell me that I am the mountains and the trees and the hoary stones, and all that, and even the foxgloves nodding in the sleepy lane, and that what I feel most keenly at times like these is my separation and a loneliness at the oneness now broken, yet reflected still in the things that are largely untouched, like the hills and the hoary stones, and the trees and the silver moon rising and that view up the Mawddach Estuary. It’s that final realisation on the path to healing the rift with this aching sense of “the other”, that in the final analysis there is “no other”. But that’s a tough sell when you’re drunk on secularism, or scientism, or religion 101, or that petty, petty nationalism, and all that’s holding the whole damned shower together these days is a blob of fucking glue.

(Sorry for the F Word)

Graeme out.

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On a dust dry afternoon,
In a quake of stupefying heat,
I tip the pencil to the page
Of thoughts as yet unspun,
And pause.

So long a ghost now, flitting soft,
Unseen, unheard while held aloft
On gossamer threads,
Wind-trailed for fey arachnid flight,
Afraid to freeze myself,
Descend into uncompromising shape,
And speak.

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