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The Devilry of a Writer’s Workshop

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People sometimes ask why I still bother with writing workshops. You get the: ‘But you’ve been published in journals, you’re on all these shortlists, you seem to know what you’re doing?’ Knowing it’s all a bit excruciating, obsessional, frustrating, maddening…that dealing with loneliness is a big part of being a writer. Not being sure if any of it is any good anyway: mollycoddling your own unmoveable masochism. Yet there is something really peculiar that happens your own writing when you’re surrounded by people pushing the boundaries with theirs. It’s contagious and corrupting; reading the crushed muffle of someone else’s secrets, their desires, their strange reveries, their intuitions, their truth. How others in the room perceive those words differently on the page/screen, how the tutor feels it could or should work better. What is the writer really trying to tell us? How can they show it more effectively?

At an eight-week short story course at the Irish Writers Centre this summer, taught by Sean O’Reilly, the notion of the ‘repressed voice’ came up a few times. ‘Go change your name,’ he advised. ‘Because the person who’s writing is not YOU! It’s a different being and you have to let him/her out.’ In response to how nauseated or shocked newbie writers sometimes feel at what they’ve lobbed on the page, a story will often form a bizarre and unimagined curlicue. One that sets out with a calm, eloquent narrative, morphs into an ugly malicious pisstake; an angry rant at a family member; vengeance towards an old lover; hidden hurt at something that refused to happen despite unyielding desire. Life, essentially, and how it regularly doesn’t work out. We love to read about it. Peepers of mishap. Oglers of shame.

‘The writer’s voice is not programmed to say ‘kind things’ that will make you or others feel good for reading it,’ O’Reilly told us. ‘You don’t like this person, they terrify you. They contain everything you’re unable to say. The one who wants to write is a bad article! However, this other is the one that will write something interesting, the one that will produce art’. Hearing a base truth like go_into_youself-_mediumthis can be a real comfort when struggling to start a new story or facing into another redraft of a long abandoned novel. Embarrassment dissolves, the ‘stuff’ that’s been burdening you, that’s been stopping you writing, heads off into a grubby corner, leaving you to get the job done. It’s at this juncture that judgement wastes away and a group of writers really get to know each other, get to know the work. There’s nothing more gracious or satisfying than being part of shared trickery like this. It’s why I find myself back at workshops even though I know, essentially, that writing is something you need to grapple with alone, in the joyless hours. What is it that Rilke said? Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.

povSo what do we do with fiction at these workshops? At its most elemental writing is about keeping ‘story’ under control in a form. We learn pretty quickly through reading each other’s work and listening to feedback that we need to lure the reader in with comprehensibility, with ordinary story (but even better if it manages to be gripping). We achieve this via a network that keeps the characters together, that makes the story glide and grow. ‘Action is thought!’ is the workshop mantra. In each paragraph something must happen, the story must move forward. Who is telling that story, point of view, the role of the narrator (close or from afar) will all impact on how the reader digests it, both consciously and subconsciously. This will determine if a story works or not. The obvious is often really tricky, we are told. It’s what blocks a lot of people from writing in the first place. You have a bunch of characters but for some reason nothing happens because the writer is avoiding the obvious in an attempt to be clever. But the obvious is often necessary. It’s that little link between one character and the other, why they are connected, we need that little bit of information, we need to know the intricacies of their relationship, we need to see it on the page.

If you doubt the veracity of your own story, apply the oral test: can you tell another person the story and keep them listening to you as if you were sitting in the pub on a Friday night rattling off the plot? Is the person going to get bored hearing you tell the story in an unexciting way? Similarly on the page you have to keep the reader linked into the guts at all times. You do this with action, with movement, you do it through the protagonist’s eyes. The reader cannot fade out if they’re not following at any point, if they get lost. It’s that awful, that crude.

For example if you’re going to deal with obsession, a character is obsessed with a ‘thing’ or someone…you’re going to have to treat that as a theme in itself. Establish the obsession, show it to the reader at work without relying or giving direct statements that ‘this is an obsession’. Timeline is crucial when it comes to hanging the story off a workable architecture. Writers often make the mistake of setting a story over a very short time-span. While a short story is just a ‘sliver of something’, a delicate insight, that sliver can still be set over weeks or months. It doesn’t all have to happen at a ferocious pace over half a day. You can’t establish obsession as a back story, you have to open out the metaphor. Dramatise it so we [the readers] can see it flouncing and floundering. We need to cringe and be entertained. We need to understand how this obsession works, how it is crippling or capacitating the main character. Trying to shove too much into a tiny little bit of action and not letting the idea establish itself over time if why a story falls on its rump.

After you finish that arduous first draft, you will need to ‘go back and rub your nose in it’ even if you let it sit for a while. It won’t just sit there and change itself. O’Reilly said there’s nearly always feelings of nausea and revulsion at ‘first attempts’, but that this can be a good sign. ‘It’s a bit painful to go back and face into what you’ve exposed of yourself onto the page like it is to go confront any situation where you’ve made a fool of yourself. It’s embarrassing, a bit disgusting, a bit shameful. But in there somewhere is what you need, the material trying to get out.’ One tactic is to resist it, the other tactic is to cover it in words so you can’t find it. We are often hiding the material from ourselves that drove us to write in the first place. After the workshop finishes, you’re free to head to the pub for some sneaky pints and a packet of Tayto, press *delete* on your laptop and vow to start all over again. This malarkey is all about resilience. Without it your stories are dusty ideas that’ll never make the gloss of day.

*This was written as part of my Online Writer in Residence gig at the Irish Writers Centre this autumn. Every year the Centre will host four writers on their blog to talk about the arts and to showcase their own work. 

Dubstopia

Dubstopia is a long short story where nothing and everything happens junkie Gonzo as he wanders around Dublin – and his head – on a dodgy errand. It’s deliberately ugly & experimental and has plenty of swear words, bad grammar and other unsavoury linguistic bits flung in. It was written on a short story course at the Irish Writers’ Centre a few years ago now and was published recently [in April 2014] in US journal Literary Orphans, ISSUE 12: Swift (Ireland & the Irish). The journal also features work from:

–Background Art & Illustration for this story is by Zak Milofsky

–Photo Art of building by Sarah Hardy

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Scrambled egg beside a steaming gee-pad Carol left on the mattress. Lidl brownie with ants. Two packs of Amber Leaf. Wet jeans. Sun tearing in the window through an A-Line skirt she stole from yellow teeth bag-face in Oxfam. Book of Yeat’s poetry open on a fumble in a greasy till and add a halfpence to the pence. Leather Joe’s address book with dead dealers whacked by the Nike gang in Finglas. A picture of his granny curled on a couch holding a bunch of Chrysanthemums; monster Holy Mary in a Punto blue dress peering down her seersucker top. Carol’s shoe stuck in an antique trumpet. His passport. Loose turf. Sunglasses mounted on a Stanley knife.

It was too late in the morning to leave The Old Bank: PinStripe would be downstairs showing clients around giving it the high-dough this and that: sash windows, safe room intact, De Valera around the corner, locked horses on the towpath, ladies with hats, worth a packet when the stock market convulses back, priceless mirrors, legend says there’s a ghost, sixteen rooms; would make a cracking hostel, Real McCoy Victorian chimneys. Gonzo decided to hang back a while and have a wank.

He wanted to bang the nurse in The Mater who took bloods. He wanted to bang her cos she talked down to him. He wanted to bang her cos of the dirty way she leant over and smacked the vending machine, pillow tits blobbing all over the gaff and well she knew it and well the old codgers with the fucked hearts knew it and well the pleated receptionist with the tall latte knew it and well the trolley-pushing hunchback in plastic green knew it and well he knew it: they’d jelly when he gave it to her goodo. She’d have to shut the fuck up saying shit about Hep-C, muscling, skin-popping, if Carol took mushrooms when breastfeeding the day the baby died. He wanted to bang her for saying things he didn’t understand – subcutaneous – posh words for abdominal bloating and liver damage, infertility and testicle shrinkage. He wanted to bang her.

zak-milofsky-11-300x300She’d be down at the Old Mill on the canal sucking off Leather Joe for a bag. Willy would be there too with the scab-ho wrestling over a lukewarm tin of Stonehouse, suckin’ her face off. Beamer the old tramp with the no veins. Hasslebat, his ginger eyebrows lighting up hot worms in a snow of forehead. Smell of piss hacking the sun-up. Widearse Wendy with her tales of Berlin, before Guzz floated down the river with a bag of leaves in his mouth. Guzz who survived winters in Leeds in the eighties sleeping under truck stop Lorries, draining antifreeze through slices of white bread under the engine holes. Phib, their Jack Russell in a rusty pram lickin’ stolen Satsumas. They’d be swaying by now, talking bollox, tapping passers-by. ‘Scuzzz me scuzzzz me scuwizzzzmeee. Do you want me to be like you? Is that it, do you want me to be like fuukin’ you?’

He didn’t mind what Carol did as long as no-one came in her. She’d be back with the gear in the afternoon, giving it the full candy: ‘Darlin baby I fuckin’ lurv you, d’ye know dat? I’d fuckin’ keel over fur yew.’ They’d lie on the wet mattress and roll into the Mournes biting sweat gashes off rivers, green slime, bits of broken helicopters, church bells in ears, cold tinny blue and God’s feet, big as cheese urns, landing unceremoniously in a crumpled scared heap, pulling at Carol’s scraggly hair to see was it a bastard lion’s head, vinegar swish-crash, fluff cellophane greed stirrup blood mount. Sometimes the bank would turn into a spinning barrel turning shrill pork belly with them naked rolling and banging into the ridges with running whiskey gag, the wood burner he nicked farting out leftover specks of fire on cling-film skin, until they couldn’t breathe alone or together and then Carol would hear the ghost of the bank inside the old windows, telling her to pick up the horse shit and bring it to the man in the Botanic Gardens for the flowerbeds.

“D’ye hear hiyim?” she’d say.

“Wot?”

“He’s in heeyore, talk’n aggen.”

“Curse he is, shurrrup an’ he’ll go ‘way, fuuksaike!”

She’d hear the dead baby too, asking for his doo doo. ‘Gimme boy doo doo, doo doo mine!’, and he’d have to pretend to hand the absent baby something, anything that might look like adoo doo and then he’d slap it into her to get her to stop seeing the baby and she’d ask for another one – tits well gone since they’d started using again – nipples were teacher’s eyes squintin’ at the crap way he pronounced Irish words. Sometimes he’d bash them, but she never seemed to give out about that.

“Gimme a baybeee, I want mi babee back”.

sarah-92He stopped bursting into her cos all three kids were reefed away. No way would he be doin’ that again. So he’d pull out and squirt on the wood floor, and she’d slip on it going to the jacks and call him a ‘prick’, falling asleep until the others came later. He’d collect them on the fire escape, one by one, no way hosay during de day in case PinStripe got to know about the squat. Couldn’t use the burner until late at night cos of the smoke snakin’ and they weren’t able to cook in it just on a camp hob so over and over again went without food for days sambo’d into a lot of other days. Lucky to have de place. Most had to sleep in the bandstand on the canal or in de laneway behind Doyle’s Pub that burnt down, sausaged in giveaway blankets with Leather Joe screamin’ inside night terrors of ginger arse rape Da until the sun flew up over the broken roof tiles and car beeps gnashed at them, pong of Spar hash browns, burnt dry, useless as donkey pelt.

By three o’clock the pains were rippin’ and no sign of her, so he lashed down the ladder with its shitbag of miry snails, out onto the North Circular Road. Chink Man was outside his shop with its windmill of sweeping brushes, Jesus clocks and Sudoku toilet roll. ‘You no come in here!’ he shouted. Carol dipped him too many times, taking a slash-swipe at his Mrs another time when she was packing the window with animal motion sensors. ‘Mine’s a beef satay bud!’ Gonzo hissed back, sticking his middle finger up in the air. ‘You complete b.a.s.t.a.r.d!’ Chink Man roared. Only once did Gonzo wonder why he hated him so much for taking a job he’d never want.

Quick glance down Goldsmith Street and onto more bump of side road. Every step up step down hurt like fuck. Fatsos by the cattle-cart stomping into Curves gym to the lyrics of I Will Survive. He sang along to stop the pain from slit-sucking out his intestines. And now you’re back from out der space…I jus walked in to find ye ‘ere with dat sad look on yer face. ‘C’mon now ladies, knees up and up and up again, that’s it, keep going, let me see those knees!’ The Russian tattoo shop and Made By Mary with its calf hole carvery, Brenner in De Joy on the left, IRA prick, dying for Mother Ireland in a 15 X 20 exercise yard, the hospital with its wheelchair morgue; militia of swollen ankles, around by the battered yellow flower shop and on and on, holding onto his guts like a stolen Christmas present. Sweats horsin’ down under denim, face the dye of fresh snot. Passed the launderette where his Ma used to wash the boy’s clothes on a Saturday before packet potato soup with dinosaur lumps. ‘Don’t sit on the machines Patrick, what did I tell you Patrick, are you listening to me Patrick?’ When he was small enough to be growing that snorkeler that would give him ‘Gonzo’ for all his days. He’d probably never see her again. She certainly didn’t want to see him again. Most days he’d clear forgot what she looked like.

Outside Reproductive Choices on Berkeley Street: he could see a scrape-load of them, redder than Mars moons, holding up placards for their right to life like taxi drivers at Dublin airport on the pick-up. He read in The Sun that Obama got rid of aborted baby cell flavours in fizzy drinks, the ones that make you belch. Bowed de corner onto North Frederick Street bucklin’ to puke; stream of moss green gooey liquor pouring into slick brick. “Look at de state of ‘im!” he heard a voice bellow from a basement flat. Gonzo wiped de puke with the corner of his jacket, using the other sleeve for his eyes. The worst was the misery of desperation. Digging up dead people for pocket watches, the scrap metal run, bashing old people in old houses for a twenty euro bag. He could hear more voices. More laughter. More bawl. Howling from inside the ancient sewers under Dublin filled with fibre-optic cables, calp, acorn turds, fermented Vikings, diagonals of dead birds flying through Centuries of tidal pools to get here to nowhere. ‘Down here ye wankorrrr! Gonzo, ‘ere!’

At Bustlers’ Gym, the ugly bake of Dessie Kearney peekin’ up, a cortege of dagged ewes geekin’ out from the slip of lace curtain with meringue holes for suckin’ in the day. ‘Have you got any gear?’ Gonzo asked. ‘I’m in de bads’. Dessie beckoned him down the spinal. In the sitting room on the table, he could see the spoon, tang of cotton fever. Plug-in neon wolf picture on the wall to send heads carroty spinners. Two cans of UHT cream on de mantle. Skinner in a Sideline jacket handed him a leprechaun head of Nescafé. They could sort him out, Dessie said. He could sort them out too, with a favour. Gonzo wasn’t known, or wasn’t that known, or cared about. Bob’s your uncle. Fannywollop’s your aunt.

Dessie held him down like a barber might do with a six year old boy. ‘Scank the Russians are sellin’ is drivin’ the cops plinky plonky,’ he explained. ‘Low grade cack that makes punters scrabble around dem streets like hogs. Dublin City Council having a right old mickey fit with collapsing junkies everywhere and those Triad muppets fucking about chopping gigot chops off wackos owing as little as a tenner. Kip so it is. It’s not how we ever did things. Even dem grannies are gettin’ in on it selling horse tablets down the Boardwalk till new stashes arrive. Bitches used to be happy shifting cauliflowers & pears. All of it needs sorting or we’re toast’.

Skinner piped up: ‘Going for a song as well, so it is. And they’re lobbing chemical splatter into the gear Gonzo. No competition. More addictive than Big Whippet or Mullingar Mud’.

The drug scene in Dublin had got boiled egg bad. Four friends in as many months had dropped dead from bad gear. He looked at Dessie who was eyeing two lesbos on the couch. One of them, skinny as rashers, was pretending to grate her tongue. ‘Yewer fuukin’ gas’, she said to her mate, bending over to kiss her full on the gnashers. Both wore matching Dolphin necklaces.

‘There’s small kids farting about on bicycles  picking iPods like apples off O’Connell Street,’ Skinner told him. ‘Muggings are up a thousand per cent, robbed cars selling for under €500, all cos of this new shit that’s on the streets. Havoc. Operation Stilts Gardaí are calling it. Clamping down like steel clips on a dirt-bird’s nipples’.

Gonzo hated Dessie even in school when he lobbed custard out the window at passing priests and pensioners, chasing after seagulls on de Buckfast zig-zag, giving his 15 yr-old girlfriend a black eye for buying de wrong smokes. Skinner was worse, he could tell. Grade-A psycho who’d snap yer fingers off quicker than a fat kid at de zoo smashes a Kit Kat. Now they were turkeychesting with Russians dealers, taking on the entire muscle-for-hire empire. Russian gangsters in silver jackets trafficking teenagers by day, raping dogs of an evening. Ghetto of mayhem and fear papers were calling it. Funnel-dump from ringworm roads right up to Talbot Street, Gardiner Street and down the flank of docks to Fairview, casting into surf and howling out of rust-caked eyes into waves, sand shifting beneath drug boats, narrow little sea gods sucking at gravel and dancing a slithery leap. Low-cost booze and spat-back-up methadone from lippy whores in slippery capsules was all you could see in the city centre before one o’ clock in the day. By early afternoon the needle peddlers creaked into the gush of lanes behind Moore Street, Abbey Street and beyond, sliding to a stop the same way drops of water do on Carol’s shampooed hair. Cops didn’t give a gypsies’ as long as people like him hurried de fuck up and died. Junkies only made news when they snuffed out at tourist sites or were found lynching from concrete tongues high up between those buildings on Dame Street.

He didn’t take much convincing. Skin’s hands spread his furry cheeks apart to do the business. Arse was a humongous burger, the ones he used to get in Wendy’s in O’Connell Street when it first opened in 1987: spongy warm baps, melted Easi-singles, hot pickle sauce. Slip slop, slip slop, up with de cacks. Three bags of scank in his butcher’s bin, street value:  €90,000. He’d drop de sludge and be back by three ticks, home to Carol for around five.

The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said, out loud. Pains fostered out elsewhere, he felt boundless, happy. Met her roight here with a gang of inner-city boys from de flats around Dominic Street, drinking cans and dancing to U2 songs on a ghetto-blaster sometime in the middle of 1994. She’d weight on her then, chubby sweet smile, horse-tail of hair whooshing from end to end in de sunbeams. They kissed for an hour without stopping: wet balmy tongue slosh he’d never done with any other burd. Sometimes he still felt guilty, but Leather Joe said, ‘There’s no stopping some, and ye never forced her to take it.’ The counsellor from NewPaths also explained that ‘damaged people have a knack of stumbling on one another no matter what, in the way that water always seems to meet its own level.’ It made sense that first time they tried to get off it together. Both their dads were alcos and bashed them. Both their Ma’s couldn’t see anything wrong with their Da’s and bashed them. Few weeks later, they fumbled and gorged and slopped into one another under the flat-leaf bushes in the Gardens. ‘What ye doin’ to me boy, wot ye bleedin’ doin’ to me!?’ Lads circling de railings, clutching chimps, uuumphin’ them on. ‘Slapper! Do her one!’ Afterwards they said Gonzo was a right grunter, like those fuckin’ mating seals on RTÉ. ‘It’s you and me babe, no-one else babe, you’ll do me babe.’

At the edge O’Connell Street where pigeons shat on the cement noggin of Charles Stewart Parnell, a crowd of mallets warbled about pay cuts. Aulone clutching a salad cutter was ranting blue horror about pension rights. ‘Sixty four billion to those feckers in the banks so they can fix their own balance sheets!’ Grey-haired Sinn Féin geezer smellin’ of haddock was giving it welly about Éire needing a game changer. Group of girls, no more than five or six with banners: It’s My Ireland Too. Normally he’d stick around for de dip, but Dessie warned him not to feck about, get it done & dusted ‘pronto’. Skinner held onto his social welfare card and Carol’s dead Ma’s gold locket she asked Gonzo to keep safe for always. Cash and more gear when the job was done.

Gonzo wolfed sideways shrieking his childhood battle cry: ‘Me head! Me head!’ He spottedHot Wok on North Earl Street, stomach doing a Hare Krishna pink salmon drum. Thai waitress with ladyboy lips looked like a hot slapper off the internet with a rake of sausages slithered in so her shaggy wangle was a filtering system inside an astronaut’s suit. He sat at the window starin’ out at so many formless faces, then back down at strips of steaming courgette. ‘Tolkuchka’ was the word Dessie used to describe the Russian drug cartel that had taken over. All those words ended in a choke. Carol had done a few down the canal when they were clear out of dough…said they were rough as horseshoe crabs, cocks reeking of sauerkraut.

‘Every bit of ‘em smells like a belch,’ she said. ‘Love slappin’ their wimmin’ as well’.

Pumped up on steroids, egg hatch maggot breeders, dripping sex trade, artificial money, begging scams. He could even see those Soviet-bloc prozzies too, a whole PVC red army of them soggy-spread over the back seat of metallic Audis’, slurping on mafia peckers. Head nut was like Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects except taller again, well able to giraffe over the walls of Mountjoy Prison, boiled eggs in his gob crammed full of heroin, dropping straight into famished jaws. Baba Yaga they called him, because of his man boobs. Lived in a steel hut at the edge of Rooster fields in North County Dublin. A gaff that stood on electronic chicken legs, garden fence emblazoned with teeth he’d personally knocked from debtor’s heads.

When the crowd in Foley Street got this new gear that Dessie and Skinner had messed with out onto the streets, napalm vomit and bedlam would rain down on Dublin town. Hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land, both man and beast. ‘Nuclear button is up me crack,’ Gonzo murmered. He had a looming vision of advancing Russians from every stone wall and crevice in Ireland, marching into Dublin, fat knuckles fisting indigo sky. There’d be black smoke meandering their necks, hiding bricks in plastic bags, Glocks in socks, AKs, MAC-10s with their spray and pray facility, lumpy grenades, nail bombs, acid pellets, even animal traps to pull down the enemy at window displays outside Cleary’s. Вы ирландского народа умрут самой ужасной смерти! Где твой Бог сейчас!

He spotted Widearse Wendy out de window crouching down at the door of Dunnes, knickers on display, damp with piss maps of the Philippines. She was swinging a bottle of Old Cellar at passing shoppers scouting cut-price gizmos from the pop-up shops. ‘Gonzo, ah me old bud, GONNNNNZO!’ she spattered.

‘Carol was reefin’ for ye,’ she said. ‘Some onion head lookin’ for you, says ye owe him a wormload of Euros’.

She was sitting with a Roma pleb, trombone full of bronze; old feet smashed up for begging bone pickle. He was only ten minutes now from de clop. ‘I owe no-one nutin’,’ he said, trying to figure out who yer man might be. ‘Is Carol alright?’ he asked. ‘Hope she’s not giving dem uns much grief?’ She could get snarky sometimes when juiced up to de girders. ‘Ah she was givin’ Phib a bit of a kickin’ cos he was in and out of the water,’ Widearse said. ‘Leather Joe says yez should get rid of the smelly little fucker, more mischief than worth. But I says ‘no way’ sure it wouldn’t be nutin’ round ‘ere without him, mad little yoke. Ah Gonzo ye shoulda seen him, in and out of dat water, de little ears on him, smellin’ of knacker nappies so he was. Have ye any odds for uz?’

Gonzo told her discretely he’d no spondoolies but he’d soon be in de loadser if a certain thing worked out later on. They’d have ‘em around the squat in de morrow, beer and boiled cocktail sausages, Bord na Móna goat turds in de burner, enough gear so they could all stay stub for a few days, sopping in boogie. He leaned over slowly, down to her waxy ear crack where he murmured de score as a morning prayer O Lord open our lips told her what was inside him in anyways in the darkness of this age that is passing away. If she said ought to any fucker dem Russians would make sure he was floating beetroot body parts in a stinkin’ pot of Zharkoye in some nameless side-door soup kitchen down the quays.

‘You always end up on your feet while the rest of us are on our bleedin’ heads,’ Widearse Wendy laughed, handing Gonzo de Old Cellar. Then she bowed over and whispered in Trombone’s ear. ‘Don’t be tellin’ that cunt anything of a consequence!’ Gonzo snapped, sorta raging now she’d trust a metal nicker with anything he prized on dem der Russians. ‘Don’t be a mean bollox! Ferka’s me good pal an’ he doesn’t have an easy go of it ‘ere’. He looked at Ferka who was by now grinding his teeth, some of ‘em small wallets of gold. Gonzo wondered if he picked this patch deliberately cos it looked out onto the towering stainless steel spire stuck in the Vena cava of O’Connell Street. ‘Him and his crew are probably going to melt dat fuckin’ thing down and live off de pickings for the next forty years and you won’t see him for angel dust!’ Gonzo told her, taking another glug. Metal was big business for his lot and they seemed to be spreading across Europe melting whole cities and trapping as much heat as possible. ‘Youza faggot fucker!’ Ferka roared, punching him in the crotch with his trombone. ‘I’ll bash de fucking granny outta ye with dat poxy yoke!’ Gonzo said, lunging at Ferka, crushing Widearse Wendy in the push forward. She started roaring and banging at the window: ‘Stop, will yez fuckin’ stop dis!’

Two security guards ran out of the shop to see what was going on. Big black blokes in fiend blue, large dangly batons, torches on their belts, fortified faces, boulder braces mineral ore. ‘If it isn’t the all-important rent-a-cops!’ Gonzo quipped, still gripping Ferka’s greasy swab of hair. ‘Dis fucker needs to know his place, but it’s nothing to do with youse, no trouble here.’ Widearse was beside herself, leaping about like Marlin. ‘He’s not bashin’ my mate’s head in, he’s not!’ she told the taller security brawn, smashing Ferka from Gonzo’s grip. ‘They’re both having a go for no bleedin’ reason,’ she wailed, deep now in her tiny grief of fly speck and goose egg, big fat smelly daddy raging up into life to bang her head off the rusty washing machine one more time in the small Cabra garden. Rolling around she was – from Marlin of the Seas off Cotez to a cuntarse cement mixer in an industrial sandpit on the outskirts of a Cappagh horse camp – too drunk to see what was really going on.

‘Get out of this doorway now! Our customers do not appreciate this!’ Ruby eyes looked like he’d seen his fair share of gang rape and coercive migration. He was pointing his liverwurst finger up the road where the curtains flailed in the wind outside Guineys’. ‘Fuck off back to Bangurawopa or wherever it is that youse eat one another, fukksake,’ Gonzo said, trying once more to kick one over at Ferka’s head. Ferka had fear soldered onto his face: wankstain nomad from North India following the Bisto fart of Alexander the Great to fertile lands where they settled on roundabouts melting metal and washing scarves. ‘It’s in his trousers!’ Ferka began to roar, ‘He is up to no good that bastard!’

Wendy bundled up the street, her chondrite meteorite arse blocking out the sun. Ferka too, gone in search of iron seraphs. Arms grabbed Gonzo from behind, smashing him forward, bursting his face open on the pleated gravel below. Arms, maybe even more arms (the city seemed so full of them) reefing his jeans down. ‘Fuck’s sake, stop it, I ain’t done nothing!’ But still the voyeurs fanned in, mud-puddling butterflies to blood. Three, maybe four or more fingers…drilling turnin’ twisting into his insides deep inside his trousers. Never crazed up pain like it. All the fists he ever knew in the big clench of years: priests, uncles, mad burds, the fat cat who owned the billboard company and beat the bollox out of him in front of faces outside Mass, nothin’ was worse than the arms smashin’ him up in this dirt-bucket of Dublin day. Blood, a lot of blood, that’d grow darker with the afternoon, if he ever managed to get out of it.

‘Shut it or ye’ll get it in the head,’ one of the arms said.

An aulone in brown bandaged legs shouted, ‘Bowsies, feckin’ bowsies!’

There was no way he could explain this to Dessie and his Basement Bandits. Already he could see Carol’s head mashed open; these cunts didn’t mess about. Arms conked like a discarded doll in the playground up de flats, broken bottle rammed right up there for good measure. He was flung and rolled, rammed and kicked down the street into a side lane, where the bashing went on for barbed eternity.

‘I’m fucked, I’m fucked!’ Gonzo roared as he saw two teenage girls pointing, laughing.

Dilly no douse no dee, dilly no douse no douse no douse dilly no douse no deeeeeee.

‘Yez ‘av no idea, I’m a gonner!’

Did he tell Dessie & Skinner where the squat over the bank was? Was he boastin’ about the gaff before they iglooed his arse? Carol would be back by now, pissing the mattress, eating a batter burger, waiting on Gonzo to come back with new gear. ‘Yer nothin’ but fuckin’ trouble,’ she’d say, ‘useless prick like ye, and ye gave dem yer card?’

Ring stinger, so much so, he could barely toddle up Church Street. Now he knew how she felt the first time he gave it to her in the arse. He had to use HB ice-cream to cool her down after. A seagull played the bodhrán gliding up the street squawking about ham. Nothin’ would ever be the same. These were serious heads. Dangerous heads. Mavericks. Think nothing of using shooters. Maybe they’d be OK just hidin’ out in the bank for a while. Rest of Ireland was doing the same. Stay gizmo’d until he heard of them being popped. All of ‘em uns ended up popped. Time & time again, saw it rolling. He wasn’t going back inside either, leaving her to her own devices.

The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. He  didn’t know if he was here already an hour ago. He didn’t know where he’d end up or how he’d come down and if he was really here or half here an hour or more ago. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said. They’d have to lay still when he got back home, until a different kind of light shined. ‘Come out of charity, come dance with me in Ireland,’ that cunt Yeats said in the book under the mattress, but he didn’t know jack shit about the skank or de Russians or fiddlers like Carol, all thumbs and kettledrums, sucking off ghosts at the window in The Old Bank on Doyle’s Corner.

****************************************************************

I will be reading more fiction in Cavan town on May 6th:

cavan

Shortlisted, eh!?

The Man Who Lived in a Tree

June Caldwell is a runner-up in the 2012 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition

Balloon faces from years on the gear; bodies so thin they could thread through gaps in gates all across the lit grid of suburbia. They squalled and mauled their way around the city in the limp hours, hassling the likes of him trying to live out a life on his own. Most were just passing through the bend at Broadstone; heading on south towards Smithfield to score, or back down the crack in the road to Phibsborough and Finglas in the direction of home. “Story, bud!?” they’d shout up at him in unison, “Story?”

He wondered how they’d managed to spot him at all. For six months, four days and a couple of lean hours, he’d peeled off the pathways entirely and headed up the tree beside Comiskeys’ pub and the old abandoned factory that looked like a Sealink ferry flopped on its side. There was a small patch of avocado grass on the bend, where the houses tattletaled behind a hairy park, in front of redbrick flats (mostly boarded up) and the bulk of bus station with its kinked parked army poking out above a tall Victorian wall.

In the squiggle of high branches he laid out a single-plank bed using pilfered council clothing full of cotton wool to pinion him in. On the lower branches he flung bits of clothes, old bags, photographs, a leather satchel his father used as a revenue man, a tablecloth he’d stolen from Jury’s Inn, letters from his mother, Euro-shop tool kits, grilled crisp bags, and a lifelong collection of medals. If he lay on his side he could watch the locals paint their lungs in russet outside the pub,crowing about monies owed and goods stowed.

On his back, the 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 overcooked stars that seemed to have a lot in common with him. When he closed his eyes he was still able to muster up Lorna in their flat in Camden, pirouetting across the floor to Kate Bush’s The Whole Story, goading him about reconstituted spuds.

“One, two or ten?” she’d ask, cocking her leg behind her in a kind of chef-jest. “They taste of nothin’ but poxy water!”

For an entire summer they lived on tinned potatoes and Fray Bentos pies. She was taking a course in Contemporary Dance at a small amateur getup in North London and liked to prance about in the evenings in her blue knickers & bra, cooking up the same leaden fare on the one-ring cooker over and over. He adored her milky boobs and olive eyes, her animal cackle and the fact she could only fuck with her clothes on because she was so ‘County Wexford shy’.

On those smoky summer nights in ’88, he sprinted all the way from the building site in the still sweltering glare of evening to pin her to the bed for as many hours as he could. She found it impossible to look at him straight on but he’d stretch her elfin hands out behind her as far as the bed bars,  jammed like a butterfly, until she gave in, squealing. He’d kiss and lick the sweat off her for ages afterwards. He would’ve sucked her up whole through a straw if he could.

It was a good six weeks before the tree spoke to him. Speckles of information at first: age (169 years); classification: Grey Willow; planting date (as yet unknown, same too for exactly how he got in the ground); how he loved the rain and sodden soil beneath him; the classic oval-shaped leaves that tickled all year ’round; his greyish green fleece-like belly; the sawflies, aphids, caterpillars and leaf beetles that populated his arms and legs since the primary days; things he’d seen and witnessed: famine, republican marches, car crashes, building booms, child rape, dog snatches, stabbings, carnivals, Christmas celebrations, guided tours, industrial strikes, Luftwaffe raids, surreptitious deals beneath his bough when the chickpea moon was at full-flourish; his hopes and dreams for any kind of future at all.

“Is me being here dragging you down?” he asked Willow, and the tree told him that all was “grand & dandy” as long as he didn’t spill chemicals on him or cut into the branches with any sharp objects. He handed back tips on the art of being indistinguishable, what was the best time of day to leave the tree to find food or other sundries he may need, all kinds of kind advice he never expected from anyone anymore under any circumstances at all.

Willow also told Miller about the escalation of drugs in the area, gangs hawking their trade in the all-encompassing daylight. “They’re as brash as you like,” he said,”knack-bags dropping off stacks of cash and even guns, young kids from the flats flailing about in the grip of addiction, that bloke form over there who bit off the security man’s ear outside McFrowans where nurses go sniffing for prison officer husbands.”

It was all drink, drugs, litter, loss and mayhem, according to Willow.

“The residents have a right pain in their hole,” he explained, “.complaining 24/7 that there’s nowhere safe for the kids to even kick a ball”.

The old abandoned railway line was now off limits even though all plans to develop the Northern Luas line had fallen off the government’s fiscal arm like a scab.

By early evening Miller was gathering his bob-bits from the grass from under the scrag of bushes beside Comiskeys. Across the way Lower Dominick Street was coming alive, the plywood apartments with artificial fireplaces and hoary Formica kitchens emptying residents out through the gates in search of something to do. He’d lived up that stink of road before, sold himself when his mother composted him for good and he could do nothing but guzzle himself into more torpor after Lorna’s death.

“You can’t stay around here destroying yourself, making a show of us, not caring a damn,” she whined. He understood. She had, after all, seen his father do it for a bucket of years.

German men on ‘culture holidays’ looking for a group jiggle, brawny truckers with a furtive hunger they’d prefer their A-line wives not know about, the mobile phone boss who needed to be sucked off before bi-monthly stock flotations. There was more sex on the streets of Dublin than could ever fit in the snug mousy insides. It didn’t bother him much, it even worked for a while, and he was able to pay for a small room in an apartment in Parnell Street near the cinema. But two winters in he’d been roughed up too many times and found himself back out on concrete, living at the back of a wall beside a restaurant fan. There was always food in the laneways, a vortex of throwaway, and some of the foreign workers would leave dregs out for him after they’d cleaned up the spillage of nightshift: bits of sloppy burrito, jerk chicken, wild wilted spinach and other khaki leaves plucked from the roadsides of Wicklow and Meath for the benefit of three stars in Dublin.

“Take it out here and be good to it,” Dhudha would tell him, passing out plates of food through the ventilator hole. All the way from Uttar Pradesh, his English was hilariously bad and nothing he emitted made sense. “My boss says you are the baggabond! He kill me if he knew I food you!”

Sometime in 2010, the Somali dealers moved in around the laneways of Parnell Street pegging their needle-loads to the retro-famished. A lot of the restaurants closed down because of racketeering. He never saw Dhudha again but dreamt he was back in India in a jam-packed town selling clunky wooden toys to foreign children on the side of a hill, spending afternoons pointing his donkey-skin feet into the eggy sunshine. Three people were done with blades in the laneways and two men pretty much like him were hospitalised after been beaten to beyond what he thought might be the level of atoms. It became a tracksuit catwalk of mêlée & mayhem – not a ruddy-faced Garda in sight – so once again he moved on to the porch of a deserted banana factory at the back of the Four Courts and later, when the gang of teenagers began throwing cans at him when he was out for the count, moving up towards Broadstone to a bandstand in Temple Gardens.

“You are better off here in any case,” Willow told him. “I’ll watch out for you in case those scallywags come back.”

How could he intervene if they did more than shout at him this time? Willow was begotten to the earth shaking him and not the other way around. And lately, just lately, he’d asked for a cut of Miller’s street profits. “This way, we’re both self-respecting,” he explained, but Miller was becoming less sure. There were even nights where Willow was ‘finding’ punters for Miller and in the depth of agladdening sleep, he’d be hauled out of the tree to do the business.

“Come out Tarzan ye mad yoke!” the punters would roar, and Willow would gently push him towards them with his large hairy branches.

In truth, he was exhausted running away for a living, worn-out with people badgering and hassling, of voices following and shadows prickling him. He be even better off as an addict himself, as if he could ever afford it! He didn’t get why they were so angry in general but also at him, blaming the recession on everything. It’s not like they even worked during the good times, like he’d done for so many years; and as for the women in the flats across the road who started shouting abuse out the barred windows at him: “Get off the grass ye mentler!” “Stop scaring the kids!” The old guys from the pub who said he was upsetting the little ones making their First Holy Communion; babe-in-arms bouncing in meringues on rubber apparatus to the side of the bus station, and the traffic cop who told him that the man driving the Ghost Bus almost swerved when he saw him up the tree. He could wring all their necks at once.

“There’s nothing illegal about me being here,” he told Willow. He’d looked it up in the National Library, the new-fangled anti-loitering laws; there was only mention of being firmly on the ground, outside ATMs, beggars holding out their hands to collect money in polystyrene cups, Roma who live on roundabouts. Some of the laws were so old at this stage even though it was surely teetering on an epoch of hovercraft; the statute books in Ireland still insist you carry a bale of hay with you to feed your method of transportation. No-one could tell him he was doing anything wrong and Dublin City Council itself was not aware of any deeds for the tree.

He imagined the end would come just as he was dozing off, when he rested his tender neck on a gnarl for the night, faint buzz of white noise approaching. Dosed up on blue and green shots, glops of Goldschlager, gobs of Guinness. The gang would hunch up the road from Parnell Street banging the railings with sticks and bars, jokes and jars, in search of him or anyone like him. It was the coke too, sending them clear bats.”Let’s kick the living shite out of him; head right open, the seagulls will have his brains scoffed by morning.”

In front of them Lorna’s ghost is teaching his dead mother how to dance: two sets of legs, knitting needles in the dark, clanking. Willow wakes in a rage, sees what’s happening and spurts his tree sap all over the gang and the ghosts, submerging them beneath the ground. How funny that Miller’smum didn’t know the jive before now. “Like this Mrs Malone!” Lorna tells her, “Just let yourself go!” They would dance on for him even when he lay on the grass, wholly broken.

Fancy something erotic for autumn?

Writer Sean O’Reilly is hosting an erotic writing course this autumn – a bit of an experiment for the Irish Writers’ Centre – at a time when sexy stories are being sucked up by the global publishing industry. How can we write about sex in a tasteful effective way, causing a stir in the reader, while giving enough insight into the character’s psychology to make the story believable, intriguing, real..? Irish writing seems to shy away from any attempt to represent the reality and complexity of our erotic lives. Sex is a secret. Desire is merely a plot-device. The story of a character’s erotic life or the growth of a character’s erotic taste seems to have no bearing on a convincing psychological portrait of a literary character.

This 10-week course looks at the history of the genre of erotic writing, examining classic texts in both prose and poetry, and concentrating on student’s writing in this field. Using both poetry and prose, participants will learn that the ‘erotic’ is more than the description of sexual acts but the context in which they take place, about power and phantasy, and in particular, about the representation of desire itself. O’Reilly has a unique approach – forensic even – to analysing words. He is deeply interested in people who are serious about writing, and will do to your writer’s block what Polish builders did to concrete here during the boom. A story I wrote on one of Sean’s previous courses made it to the ‘Top Ten’ in the 2012 RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition and is published on the RTÉ TEN website. A second one [a Dystopian tale about Dublin junkies] is being edited for inclusion in a literary magazine and has developed into a novel-in-progress.

Below is a Q&A I did with Sean for the IWC blog on the erotic writing topic. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and SleepThe Swing of Things and an experimental erotic novella: Watermark. [Click the book cover above to buy Sean’s book]. The Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word course runs from 25th September, on Tuesdays for ten weeks – 6.30pm to 8.30pm – and costs €280 or €260 for members. Places are limited so if you’re interested…See you there!

“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics,” the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, “they are often writers and artists”…is there any truth in this statement!? In the current situation in Ireland, where the arts seem to be a branch of tourism, of green jersey consensus, yes, it’s important to remember that the artist may be an outsider, an angry voice, a twisted voice, a moral outlaw, jailed and loathed, or a voice that doesn’t give a damn.

What empowered you to want to teach a ‘writing desire’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre…was there a literary gap that needed to be filled (no pun intended)? Not sure what ’empowered’ means. I’m interested in desire as a literary theme. As a subject. A premise. As the basic predicament for story. The question of pleasure for example. Anybody doing a deal with the devil will have erotic pleasure high on their list of demands. Or seduction. The magic of seduction. What is it to seduce, to cast a spell, to invade the fantasy life of another person? The story of a character’s desire-life is as interesting as the story of their intellectual or spiritual development. Or emotional. As morally interesting. In this course, I’d like us to look at how desire is represented in fiction, at how erotic tension is created, at descriptions of sexual fulfillment and disenchantment, at the body and its tastes but all of this with the aim of inspiring, reading and talking to inspire writing around these themes. People are there to write at the end of the day.

What is the core difference between ‘romantica’ and ‘erotica’ in fiction, given that our romantic and sexual lives are so inherently fused in real life? Are they? All I can say is good erotic writing is an investigation of the character’s world. The foundations and the Iimits of the self. Power. Society. The Law, the inner legislator. Bernard Schlink’s, The Reader, for example. Or Kundera’s hedonists in occupied Prague . Or Edna O Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation. Books exploring a culture, a time, through the story of desire. Or Angela Carter’s work; the sense we are backstage with the dramatis personae of desire, the bored divas, the villains with their false moustaches, the acrobats, the broken-hearted, all our dreams dripping with greasepaint. Or those poets interested in the physicality of the line, the tactility of the spoken.

Is there a long-strong tradition of good erotic writing that we’re not particularly aware of? There’s been writing about sex and sensuality for as long as there’s been storytelling. For as long as we’ve wondered about what the meaning of life is or been curious about other people. Long before there was even a notion of the individual self. We have some erotically charged early Irish poetry. Chinese literature has some very early examples. Boccaccio’s Decameron, published in the 1400’s, the source for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a good starting point for the European stuff. Or you can go right back to the some of the stories in the Old Testament. What was happening in Sodom that had to be stopped? Aside from the Marquis de Sade, and his forensic encyclopedias of pleasure, and censorship, I’d say the most powerful effect on the development of erotic writing in the West has been psycho-analytic theory. I’d point to Philip Roth, and books like Sabbath’s Theatre, as an example of a modern writer using desire as the driving force of his characters.

The ‘Writing Desire: Flesh to Word’ course will be taught by both you and poet Kimberly Campanello, how will this work in practice? Will participants have to be au fait at both prose and poetry or can they simply write in one genre if they prefer? The basic idea is to use the reading of both prose and poetry to inspire writing. Participants can write in whatever form they want but shouldn’t be afraid to read across a whole range of sources. For example I would encourage anyone to read Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. The course will suit anyone who is already working on/thinking about a piece of work with desire as the main issue. Each week there’ll be a loose theme, we’ll try to identify some of the different currents in erotic writing, the celebratory approach, the big Yes, as opposed to the more conflicted erotic text. Kimberly and I will take alternate weeks, using extracts from prose and poetry for discussion before we look at participant’s own work. Like I said, people should be there to write.

What do you think of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? I think we’ll have to make it the starting point of the course. “This is wrong,” Anastasia says early in the first book during a romp with Mr Grey, “but holy hell is it erotic”. We’ll have a look to see if the writing actually manages to get above clichés and create any erotic tension, what makes a bad sex scene. And we’ll look at this notion of wrongness, of transgression, a common ingredient of erotic writing. But then again it’s interesting to think about reading and pleasure. Reading is sexy again. That can’t be bad. The book has now become a fetish object; it means much more than the words inside the covers.

There was a story recently in the papers about a court case involving a couple who had a row about the book, the man annoyed at the woman for reading the book again, for talking about it too much. The woman went round to her mothers. After a while, there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was her boyfriend who, she told the judge attacked her with a bottle of brown sauce, pouring it over her head. Saucy? the man was shouting, You like saucy? I’ll show you what saucy means.

How do you delineate between the erotic and the downright pornographic? Or are we being unfair to porn….discuss? Does some porn contain literary value? I don’t think there’s any need to delineate anymore when artists in every medium play freely with them. Filmmakers, writers, cabaret, hip-hop, painters. Porn, like erotic art, wants to arouse. To stimulate. To turn the reader on. That used to be seen as not a fit ambition for literary art. A half-decent sex-scene should cause a bit of a stir in the reader. But when it’s a very good scene, I’d say, it should also be telling us something about the characters involved, about the meaning of the sex between them, and about the context in which it’s happening.

Is the widespread availability of internet pornography ruining natural erotic thinking/feeling, i.e., expectations of what a sex life should/could involve, the pull/drive that gets people together, how this is then expressed in literature & art? I’ve heard it said the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is a reaction against men and online porn. Against the infidelity of men on their machines. A rebellion. I’ve also heard it argued porn helps men NOT do certain things, a palliative so to speak. It keeps them off the streets. But the same was said about the use of prostitutes. And about sport! It could be entertaining to wonder what the 50 shades of Grey trilogy will help women NOT to do? Hopefully the internet is educating as much as it is ruining appetite. The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, can be sated and overindulged. It’s an old parable. The parable of excess. Think of Casanova. Those who have searched for wisdom in sensual experience. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Think of Yeats poem, The Pilgrim. The sensualist, after years of erotic wandering, turns to fasting on Lough Derg, tired of “…passing around the bottle with girls in rags or silk/ in country shawl or Paris cloak” but by the end of it all, after excess and austerity, he concludes on his life’s journey, “I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say / Is fol de rol de rolly O.“

What is your favourite piece of erotic writing and why? It would have to be JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Published in Paris in 1955, it’s part of the uninhibited big Yes style of erotic writing. It was banned for obscenity. The central character is an American in Dublin, he’s got a wife and a kid, and money troubles. And when it comes to women, he just can’t stop himself. That’s his crime and his innocence. He can’t control himself. He is comically beyond any moral judgement or censor. His lust is all he has and leads him round in circles and deeper into the world of Dublin at the time, giving us a very real picture of the place, and even the predicament of women at the time. It’s the Dublin of Behan, Kavanagh, etc., and Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. He’s got a bigger appetite than any of them, free, guiltless. The writing, moving from sparse, short imagist sentences to rampant flows of interior randy monologues, will make you laugh from your guts as you savour and feel – and admire – his hunger: a powerful concoction. The flesh made word. I wish I’d been around to see Richard Harris in the stage version. Three nights it lasted in Dublin in 1959 before it was shut down!