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Trapped in the Mirror

Sometimes I get lost in songs.

The cage I find myself in, at times like this, are made of sound – tiny notes meshed together and harder than steel, even if they can be broken by pressing the Pause button – but the stuff in the cage, filling the void between bars and sloshing in the empty space around my (metaphorical) flesh is raw emotion.

I have an unusual relationship with emotion.  Mind you, I have an unusual relationship with most things.  I’m fairly typical like that.

Let me explain what this feels like…

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Sapphic Love?

Sappho, lyric poet of Lesbos

Sappho, lyric poet of Lesbos^

Over 600 years before the advent of what is now carefully referred to as the Common Era there was born a female child on a faraway Greek island known as Lesbos. Her name, in Attic Greek, was Σαπφώ, transliterated as the far more familiar ‘Sappho.’ More than two thousand years after her death, in the late 1800s, her name and homeland would be used for the first time to refer to female homosexuality and, indeed, this is one of the subjects that people most closely associate with Sappho.

She was a lyric poet of no mean stripe, established among her peers as both skilled and eloquent, but unfortunately very little of her work survives to the current day. According to records she was a mother to a daughter named Cleïs, after her mother, though this is by no means certain; the reference may have been to a personal and much-cherished slave-girl. She wrote about loving both women and men, yet there is considerable doubt as to the biographical veracity of her work. Certainly she was a Lesbian poet (that being, a poet from Lesbos), arguably the Lesbian poet, but was she the lesbian poet or, in fact, a bisexual poet? A Lesbian lesbian or a Lesbian bisexual?

Does it actually matter? Opinion on that will vary.

One thing that is not in question is her incredible impact across all of Classical antiquity. Sappho was a woman who had won the respect and admiration of her peers, a victory that was unlikely to have been easy. Greeks loved her. Romans loved her. She was not universally loved, of course, and saw a period of exile from her home to Sicily for an undetermined number of years – but this post isn’t about all of that, in any case.

This is about her poetic form.

I want to be clear about something, here. I am no historian. I am no anthropologist. I have no degrees of any sort, let alone those of language or poetry. As the Doctor once put it, ‘I’m a madman with a box – without a box!’ My position here comes from fascination and love of written expression, not one of formal structured learning.

I have never read anything more than snippets of Sappho’s poetry, both because I haven’t gone out of my way to do so and because I don’t speak Greek. Her poetry has been translated, of course, but such translations are by their nature imperfect.

What I have read about is something called the ‘Sapphic stanza.’

Not long ago I was trawling through pages about poetic forms looking, basically, for inspiration. I got it when I happened to see the word ‘Sapphic’ in a list of verse forms on Wikipedia. I freely admit that it caught my eye because it was related to that famous Greek poet – I’ve researched her a little before and I find her a fascinating figure. I knew her reputation was strong but somehow I had never heard of the Sapphic stanza. Aeolic verse, yes, but nothing actually named after Sappho.

I was hooked. So, like the good little fish that I can be at times, I swallowed that hook good and hard. Sadly, I was also extremely tired, so my initial attempts to parse the information I was reading were all fruitless. After a hard night’s unsatisfying sleep I came back to it and things became more clear.

Let me give you a brief run-down*.

The Sapphic Stanza

The first thing to understand about the Sapphic stanza is that it is designed for Classical language, specifically Greek. It doesn’t translate to English well. Part of the reason for this is that the poetic form used relies on quantitative metre. This differs from qualitative metre, the kind used most commonly in English-language poetry, in one very essential way: qualitative metre keys on syllable stress, whereas quantitative metre keys on syllable weight.

These may seem like the same thing. At first I was confused – isn’t the weight of a syllable the same as its stress? – but no, indeed it is not. The difference is important and makes Sapphic stanzas, in their purest form, exceedingly hard to craft in English.

Syllable weight, in this context, is defined roughly by how long the syllable takes to say. A syllable with a diphthong or a long vowel or which is followed by two consonants is long; otherwise it is considered short. In this way the single-syllabic words ‘lot’ and ‘lout’ are short and long, respectively – but only in isolation. Is the syllable ‘lot’ still short if followed immediately by the word ‘then’ or does the break between the words preserve the short status of ‘lot?’ Would the syllable be automatically made long, for that matter, if it were changed to ‘lots’?

These aspects are all concepts that my poor, untrained mind are ill-suited to understanding.

Luckily, there’s another option.

Modern Sapphic Stanza

Undoubtedly prompted by Anglocentric poets some time ago, the concept of the ‘modern Sapphic stanza’ is really easy – the poet simply substitutes the quantitative metre for a qualitative metre, equating a long syllable with a stressed one and short with unstressed.

Simple as that.

Stanza Construction

Sapphic stanzas are, depending on your opinion, either made of two lines of equal length plus a third with five extra syllables, or three lines and then a fourth that is five syllables long. I tend toward the latter view simply because I find it easier to keep in mind. Either way it comes out the same. The structure is based around the trochee (LONG-short) and the dactyl (LONG-short-short), as follows:

/x /x /xx /x /x
/x /x /xx /x /x
/x /x /xx /x /x
/xx /x

The above chart uses ‘/’ to denote a long/stressed syllable and ‘x’ to denote a short/unstressed syllable. In other words:

DA-da DA-da DA-da-da DA-da DA-da
DA-da DA-da DA-da-da DA-da DA-da
DA-da DA-da DA-da-da DA-da DA-da
DA-da-da DA-da

Or, if you like:

Apples, apples, oranges, apples, apples
Apples, apples, oranges, apples, apples
Apples, apples, oranges, apples, apples
Oranges, apples

Another way in which this differs from most of the poetry that English speakers are likely to be familiar with is that each line of the stanza begins with a stressed syllable rather than an unstressed one. The remarkable strength this imposes on the verse is undeniable and, especially when one is writing it, immediately obvious.

Sapphic stanzas typically don’t rhyme though, of course, there’s little to stop an enterprising poet from doing so. A poem written in this style can be of any number of stanzas. Go nuts, write for as long as you care to. Forget trying to fit your thoughts into X number of stanzas, risking the unlikely ridicule of others should you exceed or fail to meet that stanza count. Write one. Write 1,000. It’s your choice.

Thoughts

While I’ve only written a little in this form, and probably not very adeptly, I’ve thus far greatly enjoyed the Sapphic stanza. While this is by no means the only style in which Sappho wrote it is perhaps her best-known form. Others contemporary with her also wrote in the same style, to the point where people are undecided as to whether Sappho actually invented it or whether she simply adopted and popularised it. For my part, based on only the little I’ve read – which is barely any – I like to think she did indeed invent it.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site I don’t consider myself a skilled poet. One thing that I can say about poetry, though, is that I have a much easier time simply enjoying the process of crafting than I do short stories or longer pieces. Even articles about poetry are less fun to write than poetry.

This form, though, I found particularly satisfying. It’s difficult, there’s no doubt about that; while part of me wants to try to older, quantitative form a bigger part of me is sure that I need more knowledge of quantitative verse in general before I even try to approach that hurdle.

For now, though, I’m enjoying my little imperfect forays into modern Sapphic verse – and right now that’s enough for me.


* = Again, I hasten to point out that I am no wise poet or knowledgeable historian. This explanation of Sapphic stanzas may be wildly inaccurate but it is my understanding.

^ = Curiously enough I rather think this portrait of Sappho rather resembles Jennifer Ehle in her portrayal of Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.

Queermance Anthology vol 2 – Coming Soon!

Q2: Queermance Anthology, vol 2Earlier in the year I was fortunate enough to be able to submit a story to Q2, the Queermance Anthology (vol 2) by Clan Destine Press.

The good news: I was accepted!  My short story, Purple Forever, will be in the anthology.  As this is the first thing I’ll have had professionally published – and is the first thing I’ve submitted for professional publishing – I’m pretty excited.

The bad news: There isn’t any!  Well, there kind of is; I’m currently down with the flu, so I can’t attend the launch at the Hare Hole in Fitzroy, Friday 17th of April (ie. tomorrow).

Purple Forever is a short story of about 10,000 words that follows the story of Yvonne and Chrissy, a pair of women from Victoria, Australia who certainly know that the course of love never runs smoothly.

Clan Destine Press have collected a number of authors with varying experience, from well-known names to complete unknowns (such as myself).  It’s a humbling experience to be listed among them.

Q2 will be an excellent ebook.  My (admittedly biased but still quite sound) advice is to buy it, read it and then tell all your friends to do the same.

You can find Clan Destine Press at their website or on Facebook.  They also have a Twitter account, @clandestinepres, which you really should be following.

You can find details regarding Q2 on its product page.

RIP Sir Terry Pratchett

2015 is shaping up to be a heck of a year already.  It’s been a while since I blogged here.  Much has happened since the year started.  I was originally going to post several updates in the one but I’ve decided against doing that.  So I’ll be posting a couple of things one after t’other.

The Death of Sir Terry Pratchett

Sir Terry Pratchett, OBE

Sir Terry Pratchett, OBE

Sir Terry Pratchett passed away on the 12th of March, 2015.  Most people who had heard of him (and arguably everyone who loved his books) knew he was unwell; Sir Terry suffered from early onset Alzheimers, ultimately the cause of his death.

I met Sir Terry once.  I was a younger person than I am now, by far – I don’t recall the year – and he was visiting Australia on a tour.  I sat there while he told us of his experiences in life, his enjoyment of writing and of reading, and I was struck by his voice.  It was a surprisingly young voice, I felt, and not the Received Pronunciation accent that I had (for reasons I’m unclear of) expected.  Sir Terry had a surprisingly light voice, an accessible tone that made him immediately likeable and no lack of amusing anecdotes to please the audience with.

When it came time for questions I stood up and asked him when we might see Eskarina Smith again, as she was my favourite character.  I can’t recall my exact wording but I do know that I was too nervous to ask elegantly.  He chuckled, perhaps recognising my nervousness, and said that she might turn up.  Certainly, he added, there must be fans out there who could calculate her exact age in the Discworld universe, given how much time must have passed.

Eskarina Smith did turn up again, years later.  I wonder if he remembered me asking that question.  Probably not.  I’ll never know, either way.

I got several books (including two maps, The Streets of Ankh-Morpork and The Discworld Mapp) signed.  It was a good day.

Something strange happens when a person passes out of normalcy and becomes a living legend.  It’s a subtle change, one that happens every day.  Most people idolise their parents, typically without even noticing that they’re doing it.  Fans ascribe incredible influence to their chosen stars.

One of the things that happens is the illusion of permanency.  Most people, as I said, knew Sir Terry was unwell – but how many of us really understood that he was going to die?  Intellectually the concept of mortality is easy to grasp: ‘People die.’  That’s it.  Factual, clinical, accurate.  Emotionally understanding that is an entirely different matter.

One day I went to bed.  The creator of the Discworld was still alive.  Then I woke up and he was gone forever.

Sir Terry Pratchett was a master storyteller.  He was a master of satire.  He was capable of taking something old and familiar, reshaping it just enough that it becomes new and fresh, then presenting it in a way that can never be forgotten.  Much like someone sewing a jumper out of used socks.  His use of language was exemplary and his vision as remarkable, to say the least.

He was also, as Neil Gaiman pointed out, a very angry man.

Sir Terry Pratchett passed away in a Wiltshire town called Broad Chalke, which is perhaps as Pratchetty a town name as one could hope for.

NaNoWriMo 2014: The Aftermath

NaNoWriMo 2014: completed.

Verdict: I lost.

There are many reasons this happened, of course, and lots of excuses I could give – many of them relevant and valid.  but in the end it still comes down to one thing: I lost.  The real reason for losing is simple.

I didn’t keep writing.

But I did reach half the goal and I did finish up with a strong beginning of a novel that might, one day, be worth reading – and that’s more than I had before NaNo started.

Read on for more about why I failed and, much more importantly, what I’ve learned.

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NaNoWriMo 2014 – The Lead-Up

NaNoWriMoSomething different is happening for me in the lead-up to NaNoWriMo¹ this year.

I’m not looking forward to it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to do it, but the high-energy anticipation that gripped me in previous years is absent this time around.  In its place is a hollow dread, a nervousness, a feeling that I might just flub the whole thing.

There’s always a little of that and, I suspect, a lot more writers have it than they might care to admit.  There’s always the possibility that life will throw you a curveball and you’ll find yourself needing to abandon NaNoWriMo in favour of not having your life collapse around your ears.  I’m not talking about that.

What I’m talking about is more insidious.

Read on, if you care to…

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A Farewell: Robin Williams

Robin Williams

Robin Williams
(21/7/1951 – 11/8/2014)

It’s been a hard few days for everyone.

I awoke on the morning of the 12th of August, AEST, bright and enthusiastic for the new day – which is, let’s be clear, uncommon for me.  You see, I suffer depression and have since my earliest memories.  I have good days and bad days but I can never remember a time when I was truly free of the lingering blackness which colours my life.  That may sound self-piteous and attention-seeking but it becomes very relevant when one considers the news I was about to receive.

My partner got out of her chair and came to me as soon as she heard me get up.

“Just to warn you,” she said, her tone heavy, “Robin Williams has been found dead.”

It’s difficult to explain exactly what kind of an impact this had on me.  I didn’t know Robin Williams.  I never had the pleasure of meeting him and yet it felt like I’d lost an old friend.  I had to confirm the news with my partner a few times, get the details, before it finally sank into my sleep-addled brain.

The news of suicide hadn’t been confirmed at that point; it was still the 11th in the States.  Most people seemed to believe it was indeed suicide, however, myself amongst them.

No secret was made of Mr Williams’s depression.  He was a man of incredible depth and, as with all depths, if you go down far enough things get pretty black.  While his comic work was beyond brilliant it was his dramatic performances that, for me at least, truly shined.  He could bring an intensity to his work that spoke of a deep understanding of the darker aspects of life.  One doesn’t get that understanding, I feel, unless one has lived it.

Unlike many other performers, whose work can and often is embraced fully or universally scorned, there is something for everyone in the stylings of Robin Williams.  From Aladdin through Mrs Doubtfire, Good Morning Vietnam and One Hour Photo to What Dreams May Come, which is a lifetime favourite of mine, his work was varied and powerful.  You might not have liked Genie (being firmly within his comic work) but you might appreciate his portrayal of the damaged, striking Seymour Parrish (just as solidly within his dramatic performances) or perhaps Chris Nielsen (which combines the two aspects beautifully).

He was deeply loved, most significantly by his family, but also by the world.  It’s a hard thing to comprehend when someone you love makes the terrible choice to leave.  It leaves us deeply shocked, reeling with pain, unable to properly parse such a decision.  With my brother Colin’s death there was no doubt – he didn’t want to leave but illness took him.  My brother Brian’s, however, was a different animal altogether and so it is with the death of Robin Williams.

It seems incredible to me now that even with all the evidence, all the media coverage, that people still treat depression as a silliness.  A weakness.  I have not seen a single post, comment or article that claims Mr Williams ‘took the easy way out’ but I haven’t gone looking for them – and I have seen responses to such comments so I know they’re out there.

Such arrogance doesn’t reveal only a lack of heart, it prominently displays a lack of basic psychology (not to mention biology).  Depression is an illness, a deeply insidious sickness that clings to the sufferer more persistently than any case of the flu.  That it (and any number of other mental illnesses) still isn’t taken seriously completely baffles me.  ‘Attention-seeking,’ ‘putting it on,’ ‘exaggerating.’

What the hell is wrong with you?  Are you people just wilfully stupid?  Just because you can walk easily doesn’t mean another person’s leg isn’t broken.

Robin Williams was taken from this world by an illness.  Never doubt that.

I loved this man.  Not in the way of a friend, a family member or anything closer, I wouldn’t insult his friends and family by implying that, but I nonetheless loved him.  Just like millions across this cloudy blue marble of ours I loved him as an entertainer, a light in the dark, a genuinely kind-hearted soul.  He was a shining beacon of humour, drama and compassion.  He was a good person, and the world should never underestimate the importance of a good person, particularly in the face of so much overwhelming, crushing personal pain.

Rest well, Robin Williams.  Our skies are darker now but may we all burn the brighter for your example.


On a personal note: I know from painful experience that it’s hard to seek help – or even admit that you sometimes need it. Accepting that you have depression is a staggeringly difficult realisation.

Please, if you have depression, please talk to someone about it.  See your doctor.  Call up a friend.  Touch the world around you and ask those you love for support.  Don’t assume it will go away on its own.  Depression is not the common cold.  It is a serious, debilitating illness which and and does kill.

Even if you haven’t suffered depression long-term, please find someone to chat to; situational depression can be just as devastating as chronic depression.  In Australia we have a number of brilliant and readily available services for people who need to talk, including Lifeline, a telephone line for immediate short-term support.  The sublime beyondblue offers the same (and more) help.  Even if you don’t need advice, even if all you need is to talk and know someone’s listening, don’t hesitate.

Both beyondblue and Lifeline Australia also offer crisis support chat services over the internet.  Lifeline offers these services between 8:00pm and 4:00am AEST, while beyondblue’s chat services are open from 3:00m to 12:00am.

All of these services are available seven days a week.

Lifeline: 13 11 14 (free from mobiles, local call from a landline) || Lifeline Australia website
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eyondblue: 1300 22 4636 (local call from landlines, may be more from mobiles) || beyondblue website