Tag Archives: cliche

Poetry: To Submit or to Not Submit

That is always the question.

I’ve had a lot of experience with poetry. I began writing it as an emotional outlet around the age of 12 and yes, I have many of those poems still, not that they’re salable. I became more serious about the genre in my twenties and began taking university courses, earning a degree in Creative Writing, which covered the poem as one of three forms.

I’ve written hundreds of poems, published over a hundred and have as many unsold. I am an assistant poetry editor at Chizine, have edited a few books of poetry and have just finished some preliminary judging of the Rannu poetry competition. I’m still learning much about writing poetry and there are a few things that people should consider when writing and considering whether to submit their poem.

A hundred years ago, structured verse was common; it had a rhythm, it had end rhymes and it may have had internal rhyme, plus other styles such as assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc. The rigors of study for such forms is not equaled today. In fact, the fashion of end rhyming a poem has fallen mostly out of favor because people aren’t trained to do it well and therefore make horrible rhyming verse. There are editors, like Chizine’s, who won’t even look at it. From time to time we might but on average it won’t get very far and is a waste of the author’s time. Yes, we’re biased and with good cause. It’s often bad bad bad.

There are exceptions to rhyme and rhythm and that is if you are doing an older form of poetry that requires rhyming lines or a particular structure, such as haiku, villanelles, sonnets, roundels, etc. But they take practice in working the form and making good choices for rhymes. So overall, if you’re a new writer, don’t rhyme. There are many magazines that will not buy rhyming or formal verse of any kind.

There are then the many overused metaphors and clichés that we recommend you don’t use in a poem because it’s a surefire way to get rejected. Of the top of my head, here are a few: my heart drums, twinkling eyes, fluffy kittens, fit as a fiddle, the eye of the storm, the tip of my tongue, heart on your sleeve, mad as a hatter, heart of gold, and on and on. If you’ve heard it too often then it shouldn’t be in a poem. Sometimes a poet plays off of a metaphor or cliché and twists it to great effect. Individual words that are GRAND CONCEPTS can be a hard sell as they take a great deal of finesse to pull off. Sandra keeps very entertaining poetry submission guidelines at the Chizine site with the gothic poetry generator: http://www.deadlounge.com/poetry/created.html. If any of your poems sound vaguely like these ones, don’t submit them. They’re emo but they’re not necessarily good or unique. Think twice before you use words like love, death, heart, blood, tomb, womb, life, etc.

Last that I’m going to touch on today is theme. Some themes have been done to death (another cliche; indeed they can serve a purpose). If you’re going to write about love, death, nature or a host of perhaps less familiar topics then you need to be sure you’re doing it in a unique way. My life as a clam is likely to be more interesting than my life as a man, woman, vampire. I see poems like the ones I used to write and I realize how much they reflect the maturity of the writer. When I say maturity I don’t mean age but experience in writing. With a poem, before you submit, you should always read it aloud. It’ll help you catch a lot of things.

All of these “don’ts”  are of course rules that can be broken but an artist works best by knowing the rules well first. It takes a deft hand and you can still run against an ingrained hatred or fear with editors. If we’ve seen too many death poems (and we see a lot at Chizine) we may already believe it’s going to be another one of those death poems, no matter how unbiased we try to be.  Poems can take as long to write as a story. Check them for clichés and metaphors, overused themes and images, and for originality. And then when a poem sparkles and shines, by all means submit it to a magazine.

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Writing and Cultural Appropriation

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From time to time an author is accused of cultural appropriation, where they write in or about a culture other than the one they are most familiar with, their own. Cultural appropriation can take on many nuances, from intimations of racism and bigotry to naiveté and misconceptions of history.

An example of cultural appropriation could be a white person with Maori tattoos, a person from India eating smoked salmon, the women of the Middle Ages wearing turban-style headdresses (from the Middle East). In this sense one culture adopts aspects of another culture. Throughout history, this has always happened as one group migrated or conquered another group. Blending languages, religions, styles and eating traditions were just some of the ways in which culture was appropriated.

In the world today, especially in Western culture, relaying and exchange of information as well as goods is swift and nearly universal. This means that after a certain amount of appropriation the culture assimilates or becomes a melting pot. This is neither a bad nor a good thing but it is just the way humanity adapts. We are always attracted to or repulsed by something new, until we get used to it.

In writing, cultural appropriation has usually had negative connotations. In other aspects of politics and life, when it’s mentioned in the media, it usually has a criticism attached. Sometimes the criticism is justified, say with a white writer whose story is about blacks who are only all ghetto, given to gang activity and play basketball on the street. That story may be playing off of stereotypes and only show the people in a negative light. It is usually when a writer of another culture, and most often a white author writing about another culture, that the term of cultural appropriation comes out. W.P. Kinsella is well known for writing stories involving Native/First Nations people and he’s white. I don’t believe he’s ever been blamed for cultural appropriation because he doesn’t stereotype everyone and he makes them real and three-dimensional. The criticism usually happens if someone writes of another culture but does so with cliché characters or stereotypes.

Often as not the accusation will grow to ridiculous proportions, such as; you cannot write about blacks because you aren’t black. You can’t write about women because you’re a man. I was once told by another writer that I couldn’t write about old people because I wasn’t old. Now I might not have written something well or in the correct viewpoint but in fact if we started pointing the finger and saying we could not write about gender, race, culture, religion or lifestyle other than our own, then we would all be writing about ourselves. The stories would be autobiographical and all characters would have to be us. I often roll my eyes when I hear the term. While I believe in honoring and respecting all people, and trying to avoid saying “you’re wrong because you’re not doing it my way,” I also do not believe that I cannot write about or include another culture than my own in the stories I write.

It has become the politically correct thing to say the moment a white person (usually) writes about anything other than their own people. And interestingly enough, it’s usually tossed about by other white people. Definitely when we write we are responsible for not perpetuating stereotypes and racism. However, if I’m writing a period piece and the character is thinking or talking within his time and it serves a purpose to move the story forward, then I must write that character accurately with attitude and vernacular, no matter how offensive it is to our modern sensibilities. And in fact, I’m most likely making a point, or indicating some horror of the past by including such a viewpoint. It is important that before we start painting everything with the cultural appropriation paintbrush that we understand the context and the message. It is one way we can understanding of events, cultures or people different from us, by writing about them, and putting ourselves in their place.

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Things I’ve Learned From TV

I recently took a week off and, conserving my funds, made it a working vacation for writing. This means I wrote one story, finished another, submitted a bunch of poems and stories and started rewriting my novel…again. In between that, cleaning and doing the great purge on my place, I was also suffering from a case of Smallvillitis. What’s that? Well it’s where you start watching Smallville, on your laptop and watch an episode every day. Of course, this was season 9 so I’ve had the disease for a while. In fact, I watched season 1-9 this year.

That’s actually pretty bad for someone who professes to not watch TV. But I can blame that on Joss Whedon and Buffy who got me back into watching interesting and intelligent TV. Still, I try not to become a total couch potato. However, watching so many seasons at once really lets you see the character and story arcs of the show. What gimmicks or themes are big for them: for Smallville, the theme of power and what’s right and wrong are tantamount, laced with unrequited love, jealousy, faith, fear, alienability, etc. The other thing that becomes evident are the gimmicks or tricks that the directors and producers like for a show. Some of these are the clichés of Hollywood and some are clichés in the making.

Smallville survives because it has interesting enough plots, characters changing sometimes so subtly from good to evil and back and pretty good dialogue. But it falls captive to some of those TV realities, which do not affect our real world. Not just Smallville, but other shows and movies get caught up in the same trap. Below is a partial list of some of the things I’ve learned from TV and from Smallville.

  1. Creepy things in fields and graveyards (or meetings in such places) are always accompanied by mist. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Kansas or the Alps, there’s bound to be spooky mist.
  2. Cars, no matter how small the fire, will always explode. If this were true people would probably never drive them. Explosions are actually very rare. I once copyedited a Hulk novel (I think) where the truck transporting grape jam exploded and the fire was hot enough to melt glass and turn everything purple from the jam. Of course, that’s hot enough to melt a lot of stuff and anything organic would carbonize, not retain its color. I think they still left it in, no matter how inaccurate it was.
  3. Air ducts are always big enough for a full human to crawl though, and spic and span clean. I look up in the buildings I walk through and never notice ducts this big, nor do I think that they could support the weight of a human if I see one. And usually they’re half the size. Where are all the spiders and grungy dirt bits filtered out from the great outdoors?
  4. Elevators always have a hatch at the top, big enough and easy enough for someone to escape into. Everyone is of course a super athlete. In the one level elevator into the underground garage where my bank is, there is a grill and yes a hatch big enough to crawl through, should I be able to hoist myself up. But I don’t often see these in business buildings. And what do the escapees do anyways, crawl up the greasy cables to the next floor?
  5. Fires in houses, even primitive cottages will still cause and explosion. Yes, like cars and trucks watch out for the giganto fires. Toss a lamp down, and it will flame crazily and instantly, and yes the house will explode sooner or later.
  6. Every slum even in big cities, has guys burning fires in oil drums. Next time you’re out in your big city, think about or drive through that bad or down and out are of town. Vancouver has Canada’s poorest postal code with the Downtown Eastside, and you know what, even there with drug addicts and alcoholics and people who need care, there is not one oildrum with a fire burning in it. Dang where is that disenfranchised utopia?
  7. Glass tables; everyone has them because they can fall through them. Yep, you would not believe the number of times someone has tossed someone through a glass table on Smallville. They love it and it happens about every three episodes (I’m just guessing) because well, it looks so good and makes great crashing sounds (done afterwards in the foley studio but who the heck cares).

I’ve already talked about the brainiac glasses cliché where every egghead computer user sports them. But I’ m sure I’ll be able to add more to this list in the future.

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Movie Review: District 9

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In a nice twist, the aliens haven’t invaded and just want to go home.

And this is your spoiler alert. I’m going to dissect the movie so move on if you don’t want to know what happens in some of it.

There’s been a lot of hype about District 9. It was discussed some on my writers group list and people have seen all the bus ads and trailers. My neighbor said, “Oh that’s supposed to be one of the best movies of the year.” It’s produced by Peter Jackson of  LOTR fame and director Neill Blomkamp. And while I found the movie good, it wasn’t great.

What works for it are quite a few things. This movie would not have worked with name brand actors like Pitt or Depp. It supposed to take on a realistic feel of our world today, with a mockumentary beginning, film clips of news reels, interviews with various academics and psychologists. These people are warty and blemished, tired and unkempt, everything that says it’s not all smoothed over Hollywood makeup.

If we saw Will Smith pop onto the screen, we’d know it’s another action packed movie where the US saves the day again and again and again. This movie begins with film clips (which I actually thought there were too many of and somewhat boring but does set the time and place) where we find that the alien ship came to rest somewhere over Johannesburg. The narrator quips that it wasn’t New York or Chicago or London. And when they looked inside the ship there were malnourished and starving aliens.

Aliens that are buggy or insectoid in appearance. At least they’re not Star Trek aliens, which tend to be humanoid with odd noses.

District 9, apartheid, segregation, movies, film, aliens

District 9 is a thinly veiled commentary about segregation and xenophobia.

But how do you make an insectile creature sympathetic? With the alien in Alien, the antagonist, it was black and large, with no eyes and a very scary double set of very sharp teeth (interestingly enough this is the type of maw that eels have). The prawns, as they’re called in District 9, have antenna and instead of teeth, mouths that have tendrils like a carp’s. They can eat cans and tires and have a penchant for cat food. And the best way to get the audience to relate to the prawns is to give them big humanoid eyes.

That and to give them cute children, little miniatures. The main alien has a son, really the only child we see in the alien ghetto. Now it’s interesting that there is this attachment to offspring when it’s shown that they’re raised as eggs in a central feeding incubator. But then the aliens are intelligent so perhaps they know which egg is theirs. The only other alien creature shown is some creature used in illegal (equivalent of) cockfighting rings. The creatures are like giant shrimp, maybe a couple of feet long, with very sharp stingers, like long needles. They’re pitted against each other to death. So are they some sort of alien vermin, or prepubescent aliens (that have no faces) though stingers are not evident on the adults?

Eventually we get to some amateur filming of middle management and somewhat dweeby Wikus (pronounced Vikus) van der Merwe who is in charge of relocating 1.8 million aliens. The aliens are segregated in a slum, for 20 years, but protests have grown against them. Here we’re introduced to a host of smaller characters and your basic fodder for the carnage to come, as well as the guy in charge of the military end of the relocation, Kobus Venter. He’s brusque, aggressive and physically pushes Wikus in the beginning, setting up for further confrontation. So here we have the antagonist, the army.

This is in no way new to many films. What’s nice about this movie is that the aliens aren’t invading and really are downtrodden to begin with. But it’s cliche to have the bad army dudes who are shoot-first-ask-questions-later kind of mentalities. The main guy is of course crafty and wily and vicious. And then there’s Wikus’s father-in-law who puts Wikus in charge and is all too happy to sacrifice his son-in-law without so much as a moment’s remorse when it turns out they can harvest him for alien biotech once he was infected by an alien device.

And here is the biggest cliche of all. The scientists/doctors who want to harvest him will of course want the heart first but don’t even anesthitize him. (Well, Jame Bond, let me tell you about my evil plan to take over the world while you dangle over a pit of sharks/fire/blades.) He can’t get away, you see, if he’s knocked out which any scientist would do, even to a lab experiment. Even if you don’t have a humane bone in your body, you don’t want your specimen jerking about and ruining the harvest (and they want DNA so why the hell do they need the heart?)

That alien device that caused Wikus’s predicament is the pivotal part of the movie. The aliens need it to get off of the Earth and it’s taken 20 years to gather enough fluid to make it work. Why is there enough alien junk on the ground for them explore is a mystery. Why no one really seems to be able to communicate with the prawns or try to understand them (where are the xenobiologists and xenobotanists, etc. in all of this?) is never explained. Only Wikus as he’s metamorphosing, from a squirt of the device’s fluids, understands the prawn and the prawns of course understand the humans easily. Earth doesn’t want them but won’t let them go. I didn’t quite understand this.

Nor did I understand that all of the aliens except for three (the dad, the son and the faithful friend who sacrifices him/herself) seem to be brawling and base, little better than animals, and no one remembers how the ship worked it seems. But then they were probably all just passengers and the crew was small. I guess I could accept that there is only one commander who knows how to run the ship. Doesn’t seem like a great failsafe though to have no other crew.

Except for their carapaces these aliens are pretty human in their emotions and lives. It’s a hard thing to do, to make an alien and make it sympathetic to humans, hence the big eyes, the kid and the emotions. They eat differently but they fight back, or they make bargains with the Nigerians who are known for their scams (yes, this is a little tongue in cheek joke). Why it’s Nigerians in South Africa is not clear and the major crimelord is in a wheelchair, therefore wants to eat parts of the aliens to give him power. A little convoluted since these aliens are living in the slums and have no power.

What really doesn’t make sense is that the aliens  do have power but don’t seem to ever use it. They are stronger than humans and can rip them apart with their bare claws. They also have loads of weapons that they sell to the Nigerians for cat food. How they got these items off of the mothership is unclear since all of the prawns were ferried 20 years ago by humans and they have no transport of their own to the ship. Yet these weapons are mondo in all sense of the word. They’re bigger (because it’s better) than our weapons and their power is decimating, yet the aliens never use them but live as subjugated second citizens.

So are there flaws in this movie? Yes, plenty. Are there cliches? Unfortunately enough to keep it from being a great movie. It’s obviously a movie about segregation and subjugation, about insensitivity to otherness and racism. Wikus is the reluctant hero who is almost brought down by the nearly invincible Venter. The actor Sharlto Copley does a good job and the effects are well done. But the problems with the plot and the cliches worked against the story and the great effects. Overall, I’d give it 3.5 stars out of five. Maybe four for the effects but there’s room to grow.

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