the wind left in a hurry
got tangled in a field of sunflowers
on the side of an Italian highway
inside a memory flickering in my mind
yesterday’s cloak of Wrong
is still clamped to my clavicle
it’s too hot for this kind of holding
today will be the work of letting go
if you see a shadow limping
it is my Wrong searching for a bone
let it pass
Interview with Bruce Meyer
Part I of II
The Hours – Stories from a Pandemic by Bruce Meyer
“In the course of social isolation, social distancing, and social solitude, every hour can seem to last a year. In The Hours, Bruce Meyer presents six stories that showcase how individuals responded to pandemics throughout history with dignity and determination. Whether it is on an island cut off from the rest of the world and connected only by an aging ferry link, through Zoom calls and the realities faced by modern healthcare workers, or through a couple trapped on an abandoned cruiser ship, Meyer depicts the struggle against what we cannot see, and the faith that endures beyond the hardships of the present.” Published by AOS Publishing, June 29, 2021 – books available for pre-sale now!
My friend Bruce Meyer has a new book out. This is a collection of short fictional stories written during this pandemic we’re still dancing with. As mentioned above in the synopsis, Meyers’ latest work dives into the past and face the present with stories about facing the wild landscape of emotions and humanity during times when it is very difficult to do so. But Bruce always finds the beauty. He always finds the love, and he uses his gift of creative writing to hold up this beauty and love for readers. And it helps us feel better. That’s important, isn’t it?
Here is the first five questions and answers in a series of ten between Bruce and I. We hope you enjoy the conversation, and feel the beauty and love!
VS: I’ve been a fan of your poetry for years. Here’s the truth: I had no idea how well-published you are as a fiction writer too! Congratulations on your latest collection of short stories: The Hours – Stories from a Pandemic (AOS Publishing, 2021). I read the collection over two days; devoured it really, and the loudest question in my head was this: how does your creative writing process differ across genres? Let’s say between poetry and short stories?
BM: Anne Michaels and I had a long discussion about this over lunch one day (we’ve known each other since our undergrad days when I was among the first to publish her work. She is gifted with both poetry and fiction. My answer boiled down to this: in fiction, one has to keep track of linear logic and in poetry one has to keep track of metaphorical logic. Metaphorical logic deals with images, startling connections, gaps, leaps, and a hint of narrative whereas the short story or flash fiction can’t do that. Shakespeare, in his plays, never has flashbacks. He can’t. The narrative must always move forward like a shark. He uses digressions such as Gertrude’s report of Ophelia’s death, but he can’t leap around. Poetry can make those leaps, In fact, poetry asks for those leaps. Poetry wants to rely in the thread of a single image whereas with short stories the writer must rely on the thread of time, the character who changes in some way, the development and recreation of a fragment of life and not merely a postcard from life. Some writers I’ve known, such as Atwood, say they can’t work on poetry and fiction at the same time. I do. I find that shifting gears clears my head for the other genre, sometimes in the same hour or same evening. Fiction is also more demanding. The language has to be precise, as in poetry, but it must also be sustained. I tell myself, don’t start an idea you can’t finish. Poems pop into my head and I write them down. Stories get mulled over: in fact, they need to be mulled over and thought-through long before a single word goes to paper because I have to see where the story is going. With poems, I can move stanzas around, lop off sections, tear out middles (it sounds violent and there is a violence from which poems are born — a creative violence) whereas stories are aged. I often get down a first draft and leave it for months, then go back and rewrite the whole thing. Poems demand immediacy. Stories demand aging. That said, I love both because both genres honor the language and the ideas behind the language if they are done right.
VS: This is a timely collection though the subject matter within several of the stories reaches back in time. Yes, there are ‘pandemic’ events/themes within each story, but not all of them focus solely on the COVID virus we are facing now. Tell me how you figured out the time and setting for your stories? You can be specific to a certain story or you can speak to your overall attractions to the times/settings or both! (This is a research question, at its core!)
BM: I didn’t want to write a book about COVID. COVID sucks. I wanted to write (as I usually do with fiction) about people wrestling with challenges and enduring throughout the tough tests they face. The current pandemic is not the first nor, I hate to say, will it be the last. I grew up listening to stories my grandmother told me about the 1918 flu. Her friend’s parents died and the friend (who I knew) had to sew them in the bedsheets they died in and haul their bodies to the curb for the trash collectors to haul away. That was the genesis of the story, “The Island.” People literally dropped in the streets. In the case of non-viral pandemics, no one knows how many people perished in the 1911 heatwave that struck the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada and even hit Toronto and Southern Ontario. My wife, who loves doing her Ancestry.ca work and I were discussing the heat wave and a the Ontario government seized that moment to open up Northern Ontario. That year saw the germ (no pun intended) of the idea of the Northern Ontario Railway. My wife’s father was born in the bush, in a lost place called Lowbush, because his mother went north around that time to work in a lumber camp or a way-station in the middle of nowhere. Pandemics, as I mentioned, take many forms. I had a story, “Vision,” that didn’t make the cut for the book but that one is about the Black Death and its impact on eastern England. What drew me to consider ideas (and I dropped about half a dozen or more stories from the original batch, including one about Tiny Tim the 1960s musical comedian) wasn’t COVID but pandemics. The story, “Yellow Jack” is based on news items I kept running across where the crew abandoned cruise ships and the ships simply drifted around the Atlantic with all the passengers on board. The final story, “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” reinforces the thesis of my fiction: that we can overcome the obstacle in our lives until we are exhausted by them. For that story I wondered, what if someone lost their hearing in the war? I had a cousin on my grandmother’s side who was a Marine sergeant during WWII and a radio operator on Guadalcanal and he lost his hearing when the command post he was talking to exploded. The explosion, heard through earphones, deafened him. He went on, after the war, to have a long a prosperous career. But I kept wondering what would become of someone if they had no postwar plans, and the absurd idea entered my mind about the deaf man becoming a piano tuner, not by hearing but by touching the strings. We had an Englishman who used to come to our house and tune my grandmother’s old upright, and he showed me how I could feel when a string was tight enough to produce the right sound and he said, “You don’t have to hear it, laddie, you can feel it.” When I began The Hours I made a conscious decision to try not to write about COVID, though Zoom is about the offshoot of the current pandemic. I wrote that just as we were “pivoting” to the digital meeting. I know several local nurses who burned out early in the conflict (I think of it as a war), and my own internal medicine doctor appeared at an appointment one day looking as if he’d gone beyond death. From those experiences, I assembled the story. Stories are made up of assemblages of experience — they are the black holes of literary genres because they implode information and narratives, they suck as much into their fiber as the writer will let them. The worst thing a story can do is strike a single note.
VS: I can feel your poetic voice in each of the stories. Your gift for playing with language and masterful metaphor is very alive. Here’s an example: The heat wave that would not leave eastern North America brought madness and death to the cities as it sank its fiery jaws into people’s minds. And another: He kept these sounds wrapped in his mind, as if they were a roadmap back to the safe side of the Pacific. Love it! Tell us about how you make sure your poetic writing ‘voice’ reaches into your fiction.
BM: With that last line you quote — a person doesn’t need to be able to hear the outside world to hear the world inside their own heads. My grandfather was deaf from childhood. I asked him once how he knew so many songs. His pastime was to lean on box television in his bay window, beat time with hands on top, and sing songs from vaudeville pre 1914. He told me he could hear everything inside his head just as he had heard it sixty or seventy years before on the stage at Shea’s Theatre in Toronto. What I have to watch with fiction is the same thing I have to watch with poetry: I need to make sure the voice remained narrative yet detached, that I don’t permit too many adjective or adverbs to creep in, that it maintains a sense of arms-length concreteness of diction so that the action, not the words, is what one remembers. Narrative relies on this separation of voice and language, and the writing of both poetry and fiction boils down to one phrase: just tell it. I didn’t write fiction at university and I regret it. People I knew went on blah-blah excursions about “the craft of fiction.” Yuck. There really isn’t “a craft of fiction.” You get an idea. You tell someone what happened. You tell them what happened as directly and cleanly as you can. And then you walk away. They’ve heard a story. Language can ruin a good story, and I am constantly aware that I have to reel in my florid prooose or the story becomes intolerable. Likewise for poetry. Readers don’t pick up a piece of writing to hear me go on about something in self-indulgent language. They want to know about something — and the more concrete that something can be the better. That’s really all there is to it. Tell the damned story and get out of the way of what happens because readers want to know the character, not the author’s peacock feathers of words. Rilke says to young Franz Kappus, “Mr. Kappus, write about things.” Rilke was spot on.
VS: Do you love roses? The title story ‘The Hours’, is my favourite in the collection. I’ve loved roses since I lived in a small brick house in Windsor’s little Italy – and there were rose bushes galore all around the house. (Windsor is also the ‘city of roses’!) Tell us about your knowledge of roses, plants… how nature finds its way into your writing. How important is it to include nature in your work, overall?
BM: There. I did my job. My story reminded you of something you know and love. That’s what good writing should do. It should try to teach. I shouldn’t try to philosophize. It should trigger, in a personal and gentle way and not in a trigger warning kind of way. I don’t want someone to break their heart before they break their hearts from empathy for what they witness in the character. My grandfather and my mother grew roses. I can’t seem to grow a thing. I’ve had cactuses die on me. My grandfather had a yellow Persian rose that my great grandfather had brought with him from Ireland as a shoot. The story was that the original bush was in the garden of Persepolis when Alexander lay dying and though the stalks were covered in hundreds of thorns — a real bramble — he asked that the flowers be strewn over his death bed. The perfume was incredible. Roses do it all in terms of flowers. Perfume, flowers, even the hips after the petals have dropped, and the potpourri (my wife still has a bowl of potpourri from all the roses I gave her when we were courting, including the bouquet on our wedding night) — all those things made the rose the most complete flower of all. And its nearest kin in the plant world is the apple with its hidden star at the center if you slice the apple equatorially, and all the associations with apples, and garden, and apples being seen as artists such as Cranach saw them… as eyes staring at us. I wouldn’t consider roses or apples to be nature. Nature, for someone who spends time in the northern bush, is a completely different idea of plant life. Roses and apples, gardens and orchards are a form of artifice. They are works of art. To garden to paint a canvas, to take living things and through design and know-how, and seamless transitions, make something entirely unnatural out of living things, and by doing so raise them from the realm of nature to something beyond nature. Call it art. Nature happens. Gardening is created by a gardener. Eden was the first canvas and the characters didn’t quite work out correctly.
VS: This is a publishing question for those of us who are interested in getting our work published. Your poetry and fiction has been published as single entities and also as full books/chapbooks. Where to go to find out about submission calls, contests, etc..? And, is it ‘okay’ to be published by different publishers for your books?
BM: Sure. Why not? I think I could keep five publishers in business. I never repeat myself. Each project is something new. I think it is a writer’s duty to say something new with every story and every poem. I generally get my information on markets from my networks on Facebook and Twitter, from Submittable’s Discovery, and from sources such as Poets and Writers except that Poets ad Writers items are expensive in terms of fees and I try to avoid those. I think people should be pay me to read my work rather than paying magazine editors to read it. Another source is the League of Canadian Poets. I’m a member and they have a regular newsletter with markets in it.
Bruce Meyer, writer, poet, teacher.
Stay tuned for part two of our conversation!
To find out more about Bruce, including his long list of publications, click HERE.