The Trophic Chain and Other Animals

 

‘Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience […] daring to say no in the name of his conscience. His intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.’

– Erich Fromm, On Disobedience

 

The recent Twixter development with reference to the Eyewear Publishing’s abrupt fall from grace looks like a time-bomb waiting to go off for a few years now. (If you use social media, you can easily find out what I am talking about, so I am not going to revive it, for ethical reasons. It has already taken too much of my headspace, plus it is not the focus of what I am about to say.) Regardless of what is going to happen next, I cannot but bring up a wider issue – the present symptomatic state of the literary space, and, particularly, the publishing industry.

At a time when competition is supposed to promote quality and integrity, a well-oiled trophic chain keeps on growing; and the institutions building this up seem unable to ‘snap out of it’ as the pressure to ‘make it, and make it big’ has become a scope in itself. (I use the concept ‘institution’ in the sociological sense.)

The general turmoil is now backfiring on writers trapped between their need to get work published and the pressure to accept arrogance, humiliation and to conform, ad literam, to the publisher’s demand (in some cases). But if the book sells, all is forgotten and forgiven. Before you know it, it slowly becomes common practice. Then it is widely spread across, used as a functional business model and, finally, adopted as a cultural value. What for? Just to prove that neoliberalism works well.

There are many brilliant independent publishers too, with a natural propensity towards quality and excellence. Some are young, some are struggling to survive, and others are actually doing really well. I have admiration for all of them and I support their journey. The beauty in their work (and, ultimately, their success) comes from their ability to reject the established cultural food chain. But to break a system, one needs to create another. And why shouldn’t this system be about more agents which say no, which disobey, which continue to change?

As a writer, I can only keep my side of the bargain through writing and saying no in my own way.

I say no to submission windows, for instance. As I don’t write between nine and four with a lunch break and a bit of time for elevenses, I prefer publishers with ‘open windows’. I prefer to work with people rather than with systems. One has to recognise there is some scope in accepting submissions only at certain times. One must consider the publisher’s high volume of manuscripts, the financial constraints, staff availability and so on. However, there are two further considerations to make here:

a). some publishers recognise their struggle to manage two hundred submissions over a period of four months, whilst others, with less staff, manage over four hundred in two months. Is it a matter of grit, determination, passion, or just management?

and

b). secondly, rather more important to me, the problem of equality and diversity. The idea of preferential treatment to subscribers and their own protégées. And you can also jump the queue if you are Carolan Fluffy. What happens then with the young, the very young or the struggling writers unable to afford subscriptions, or talented writers at the very beginning of their career? They need to join the queue and wait longer to have their manuscript read. (And, in some cases, it takes months, if not years to get a response.) One would have thought that in such a competitive market things could have been more efficient, and more honest.

I say no to submission fees. This is simply based on arithmetic. Browsing through the writing competitions promoted via official channels, and adding up, the monthly sum for submissions is higher than some writers’ food bill. A high percentage of great writing and talent gets overlooked. And if this is not the publishers’ loss, it is certainly our cultural loss.

In a society where cultural losses are neglected, the freedom of expression has no meaning and obedience is identified as a virtue.

Maria Stadnicka, 21st July 2018

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Thought

Just before midnight, in the unpreventable moment

my mother woke up to give birth to me,

I jumped out and spilt her blood on the floor.

 

My first angry poem, scream at the top of my lungs,

in the pale room.

 

A dormant city blessed the muddy wreath above the cradle

and

asked me to keep the noise down.

 

Mother went back to bed.

 

The following day I learnt to

write on white walls with red letters.

 

White Shirt

You see, it can rain with blood drops.
The proof the white shirt I’ve been wearing for the past two days
on my walks through the city.
Now ruined.
I have been saying all along that
someone died there at the top floor
but you keep reading, ask me to
sit down and drink the cup of tea
before it gets cold.
Death is not a matter of your concern, you say,
we have to hope like everyone else
for a better world and
let the justice be done.
Of course, but I
always like the tea very cold,
my hopes interrupt your thought process
as they remind you every day that
growing old means nothing.
I am the same unnecessary love,
making a spectacle of myself,
making a revolution out of silvery-grey ribbons.
In the big void, I keep standing up
with my stained shirt still on
and say no.

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Photo: Maria Butunoi

Conversation with a Stone

(‘Perhaps this is not a poem…’ C. Milosz)

And because I was made a poet
a lot of blood is spilt
on the neat grass, when I walk.

For fear that I will have
nothing to give back
I collect old books.

My word confesses to its imperfection
with the honesty of a fractured second.
Not that I mind,
not that I have high hopes,
only tall steps.

Because of this self deluded truth,
it happens that waking up in a desert
is not a surprising coincidence,
but a certainty, like a niggling pain in a missing limb.

I am not grateful to sleep facing the wall
but hey! someone needs to show a bit of courage
and say nothing
when nothing is to be said.

And though no one will remember
the poem once written but me,
after all, forgotten things are
the only possessions worth keeping.

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Photo: John Stadnicki
http://www.johnstadnicki.co.uk/Site/Welcome.html

Cubes and Other Lessons (V)

For a while you kept feeding me
ink pots instead of water.
My mouth locked in a bud
could only touch black fruit
and blue.
The language came afterwards
to check my vital signs;
my weak pulse made the world see
I existed at last
in words:
unspoilt spring, not creature, not flower, not cloud.
Stone.
But when you stopped,
I vanished.

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Photo: Maria Butunoi

Thought

I will say it again,
with the risk of repeating myself:
the poet does not exist really,
do not wait for him, do not.

The words themselves, not the tears, will choose to
get out in the world and
find you.

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Photo: Maria Butunoi

For Thou Art With Me

I was just talking to you when
The sudden breath I heard from the other side
Made me think
I too had
The same great fear of living forever
But said nothing.

Perhaps nothing was meant to settle
In front on this wall
And no! the metaphor you look at now
In this precise moment is nothing
But a distraction in my need for time.

Born to sit very still and observe
The details of your small victories
I am therefore only a brief graceful trap
Which you should never directly face.

I exist
On both sides of the fence
Exactly because you quietly follow my voice
In this imperfect landscape
A drop of ink, revealed by the greatness of your half empty glass.