a poem, a title, and how all this works in publishing

A very quick note on book titles. When I pitched the Los Nefilim series, I wrote a proposal that consisted of the first ten thousand words of the first book, a three-page synopsis (roughly … okay, three and a quarter, so what?), and two very brief proposals, meaning a paragraph each, for the how I envisioned the next two books in the series to play out.

As part of the proposal, I gave titles to all three books. That is because this is usually how proposals are submitted, although I’m sure some authors list Book #2 and Book #3, as well, who knows? I’m just speaking from my own experience.

Ask any author, and they will most often tell you that they hate coming up with a title for their books. It’s serious torture. We’re trying to think of something unique enough to stand out while remaining brief enough for readers to remember. It’s a lot like writing poetry, except you only get to write one line and it can’t be too many words, because it has to fit on the cover of a book, and it also has to essentially capture the essence of your story and SURE THAT’S EASY! NOT!

In my case, the original titles that I proposed for the Los Nefilim novels were: Where Oblivion Dwells; Carved from Stone and Dream; and A Song with Teeth. These are the titles that wound up in the contract, for yea, this is how contracts are written—with titles, because publishers and agents and writers and editors and lawyers love details, because legal and binding and all that.

Of the three titles, I’m only going to talk about the first book for the purposes of this post. I got the title from a poem by Luis Cernuda entitled: “Donde Habite el Olvido.” I’ve seen the title translated to both “Where Oblivion Dwells” and “Where Oblivion Lives,” depending on the translator.

For those who are unfamiliar with Cernuda’s work, the poem is:

I

  Forbidden Pleasures: Luis Cernuda New Selected Poems [1924-1949] , translated by Stephen Kessler. Boston: Black Widow Press, 2015.

Forbidden Pleasures: Luis Cernuda New Selected Poems [1924-1949], translated by Stephen Kessler. Boston: Black Widow Press, 2015.

Where oblivion lives,
In the vast gardens of darkness;
Where I will be no more
Than the memory of a stone lost in spiky weeds
Where the wind goes to escape its insomnia.

Where my name leaves
Its body destined for the arms of the centuries,
Where desire has ceased to exist.

In that great realm where I love, terrible angel,
Doesn’t slip its wing
Into my chest like a knifeblade,
Smiling airily as my torment grows.

Out there where this passion demands a master in its own image,
Submitting its life to another life,
With no more horizon than a face with other eyes.

Where sorrows and joys are nothing more than names,
Native land and sky around a memory;
Where at last I’ll be free without even knowing it,
Mist in the fog, an absence,
A light absence like a child’s flesh.

Out there, far away,
Where oblivion lives.

The imagery and themes Cernuda expressed in this poem simply ignited my imagination and heavily influenced some of the ideas in my novel. Which made this a rare time when choosing a title wasn’t difficult at all.

When I first read the poem, translated by a different individual, it was entitled “Where Oblivion Dwells.” I loved the sound of “dwells” and decided to go with that as my initial title: Where Oblivion Dwells. I did all the due diligence of running the title through Google, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble and I couldn’t find another similarly title novel in their databases. This proposal was submitted to and purchased by Harper Voyager in April of 2017.

MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE, COMPLETELY UNBEKNOWNST TO ME, SOMETHING COMPLETELY SIMILAR WAS GOING ON:

So one fine day, I was busy checking my links and did a quick name search in Google to make sure a certain link was appearing correctly, when low and behold but what did my wondering eyes see: they’d listed me as the co-author of a completely different novel entitled Where Oblivion Dwells by Lorena Franco.

Of course, I’m all: wut?

It seems that Ms. Franco’s novel was originally published in Spanish and it was entitled … wait for it … Donde Habite el Olvido. The novel had recently been translated into English in May 2017 and given the title: Where Oblivion Dwells, about a month after I’d done all of my searches for books with that title.

Google’s algorithms apparently decided that since two women had written a book with and identical title, we must therefore be co-authors, because algorithms without human intervention are notoriously stupid. Out of curiosity, I looked at Franco's book, which is also Gothic and has supernatural elements. That put us in similar categories. However, other than the titles, our themes and stories are very distinct.

This next part of this saga is very important, because at the point I discovered this SNAFU of minor proportions—which was some time in the late summer of 2017, I think—we had put zero work into the cover art for my novel. Timelines in publishing can be tight, and you don’t want to make a title change that is going to affect the work of the cover artist, who has spent effort in coming up with the right design. Not to mention the fact that the title was already beginning to show up in online searches through Amazon, etc. and is probably what caused the initial algorithm co-author issues in Google books. Someone would have to go back and make any changes to those databases.

If we had gone even a month more into the process for my book, we couldn't have done what we did. As it was, we were drawing a tight line and creating more work for people, who are, like everyone else, maxed out to the max in their jobs, too.

Knowing this, I emailed my editor and agent and outlined my thoughts. I wanted to see if was too late to change the title to eliminate confusion. Fortunately, David was fine with it. We decided to go with Where Oblivion LIVES, as this would cause the least disruption to the title change, and which spellcheck sometimes calls Where Oblivion LIES just for shits and giggles, I guess—I don’t know; I’ve just learned to roll with these things.

So the thing with titles and the sheer number of books being published means there will be some, nay, maybe a lot of crossover in book titles. No matter how diligently you search for your novel’s title or series, someone else may be rolling in with the exact same title within days, months, or years of one another.

And it’s okay. The people who are going to buy Franco’s novel, are going to buy her books. Likewise, the people who are looking for Los Nefilim stories know where to find me. Neither of us are taking anything from the other.

As a matter of fact, if someone buys Franco’s novel, thinking that it’s mine, they might find themselves turned on to a new author they otherwise wouldn’t have noticed. I think that’s a win a for all of us.

Andalusian poems

When I'm writing historical fiction, I've found that research can be a chain of discoveries, and not all of them are linear. Understanding current events often requires going back in time, sometimes as much as hundreds or even thousands of years. Research about the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca led me, not forwards, but sideways and backwards to Emilio García Gómez, a Spanish Arabist, whose talent as a poet brought Andalusian poetry to life.

His translations heavily influenced Lorca, who was a member of Spain's Generation of '27, a group of young poets who arose in Spanish literary circles from 1923-1927. Lorca, one of the group's more prominent members, was murdered in the beginning days of the Spanish Civil War and his works were banned by Franco's regime until 1953. At the date of this writing, his body has not yet been found. García Gómez, on the other hand, survived the war and, after a long and illustrious career, died in 1995.

While doing research for the Los Nefilim novels, I wanted to read Spanish poetry, because I feel that one of the best ways to experience other cultures is through literature, both stories and poems. Since García Gómez's works are in Spanish, I wanted to find a good English translation. While my Spanish is passable, it's not collegiate level by any stretch of the imagination.

The search for an English translation of García Gómez's works eventually led me to Andalusian Poems. Christopher Middleton and Leticia Garza-Falcón used García Gómez's Poemas arabigoandaluces (Espasa/Calpe, 1984), Àrabe en endecasílbos (Revista de Occidente, 1976), El mejor Ben Quzman (Alianza Editorial, 1981), and Ibn Zamrak: el poeta de la Alhambra (Patronato de la Alhambra, 1975) as the basis for the selections in their translation.

Figuring this was as close as I was to come to García Gómez's work, I engaged in an arduous online search, and finally managed to land a used copy of Andalusian Poems. The slim volume was well worth the time and effort to locate.

Middleton and Garza-Falcón spend a great deal of their introduction explaining how they arrived at their translation. It is work well done. Their combined efforts have avoided the pitfalls of a dry, academic translation to deliver a work of beauty. 

As I read the poems, I found shades of my nefilim in time, especially Diago, who has hailed from various parts of Andalusia from one incarnation to another. Here are three of my favorites from the collection:

Four Poems to Ibn Zaydun

Wait for me whenever darkness falls,
For night I see contains a secret best.
If the heavens felt this love I feel for you,
The sun would not shine, nor the moon rise,
Nor would the stars launch out upon their journey.
Wallada (Cordova, 1010?-1091?)

The next poem might seem a bit creepy by today's standards, but it's one of my favorites nonetheless, or maybe it's one of my favorites because it is a little on the creepy side. Either way, "With a Knife" inspired one of my favorite lines in Where Oblivion Dwells when Miquel tells Diago: Because if you die, you will take my heart with you, and if you take my heart, how will I live?

With a Knife
Is there no way I might
Open my heart with a knife
I could slip you in
And close the cut again

Till the end of time
Till the resurrection
You'd be inside
No heart but mine

In the webbing of my heart
You'd live my lifetime
In the tomb's twilight
You'd die when I did
Ibn Hazm (Cordova, 994-1063)

And then finally, my favorite, because it makes me think of my nefilim as they move between incarnations and search for one another again:

Absence

I search the sky
What if by chance
I find up there
A star you see

Travelers pass
What if I ask
If one of them
Inhaled your fragrance

Wind on my face
I feel what if
By chance it might
Bring news of you

On roads I drift
Hearing song on song
What if by chance
One breathed your name

Face after face I meet
Only to look away
What if in one I see
Your beauty's trace
At-Turtushi (Eastern Andalusia, 1059-1126)

______
All poems were taken from Andalusian Poems, translated by Christopher Middleton & Leticia Garza-Falcón from Spanish versions of the original Arabic. Boston: David R. Godine, 1993.

Off the Grid: Gwendolyn MacEwen

Do not hate me / Because I peeled the veil from from your eyes and tore your world to shreds, and brought / The darkness down upon your head. Here is a book of tongues, / Take it. (Dark leaves invade the air.) / Beware! Now I know a language so beautiful and lethal / My mouth bleeds when I speak it. --But

Welcome to the inaugural post of Off the Grid. I was very torn about what to talk about on this first post. I wanted something spectacular--something that would make you come back again and again to discover new things. I considered graphic novels--ones that I will probably still talk about later--and short stories and novellas.

I rolled through my usual angst: what if no one likes the post? Which essentially translated to: what if no one likes what I like?

We're all searching for commonalities, even me. 

But the more I thought about those questions, the more I realized that's kind of the whole point behind Off the Grid. The series is meant to express our love for the artists or a particular work which we passionately want to champion, but we don't see others discussing. The series isn't about selling new books, but about finding new authors and stories that inspire us for various reasons. 

I didn't realize I was passionate about Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry until I read a portion of the poem "But" and couldn't get it out of my head. I went around for days with "... a language so beautiful and lethal / My mouth bleeds when I speak it"  rolling through my head. So I went online and found one other quote on Goodreads:

But it is never over; nothing ends until we want it to. / Look, in shattered midnights, / On black ice under silver trees, we are still dancing, dancing. --Late Song

Now my days were filled with shattered midnights and black ice to accompany a language so beautiful and lethal, and I knew why her mouth bled. Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987) was a fearless Canadian author, who lived in Toronto. As a matter of fact, she and Margaret Atwood met at the Bohemian Embassy in 1960 and became friends. Atwood even wrote the short story "Isis in Darkness" as a fictional tribute to MacEwen.

MacEwen had a thirst for knowledge that led her to travel alone to Israel while she was in her early twenties. She studied gnosis, Hebrew, and Egyptian culture. After dropping out of high school, she attended Congregation Knesseth Israel synagogue so she could learn Hebrew. She decided that if she was to read the Bible, she would read it in the language in which it was written. Her life is as fascinating as her written works.

Her gift for language is embodied in her poetry, and her poetry is in her stories, and her stories are powerful juxtapositions of darkness and light. She believed in magic, and in stripping away  the "glass barrier between" herself and the unknown. She called poets "magicians without quick wrists."

And MacEwen cast her spells with beautiful, lethal language in both her poetry and her stories--flash fiction written long before the Internet gave it a name--with stark eloquence. In "Letters to Josef in Jerusalem," she shows the city of Jerusalem as only someone intimate with the city's geography and people can:

Josef, twenty years have passed since we sat in the cemetery close to No Man's Land, on somebody's gravestone, in a garden of death in Jerusalem, and the ancient night contained our youth. Though we were younger and older than death, and wise as the night was. All wars, we said, are born here in the City of Peace, and Jerusalem is not a city but a whore; thousands have taken her but she has only changed hands.

Do you remember

How the moonlight slayed us, its light a knife between our ribs, and our knees and elbows gathered silver as we bowed down. Yet we would not kneel in that most unholy of cities; we sat on the eloquent stone watching the cats pass, apolitical, into No Man's Land. Only they ignored the borders, only for them had the city never been divided. The washing which had hung for centuries on the clotheslines was still not dry, and

The Hebrew God was a string of names in the night ...

--Letters to Josef in Jerusalem

Her one novel, Julian the Magician, is still available from Insomniac Press. I haven't read it yet, but I understand it evokes a world similar to Bergman's in The Seventh Seal, one of my favorite movies.

I was fortunate enough to snag a book of her poetry and stories, The Selected Gwendolyn MacEwen [edited by Meaghan Strimas]. Among the poems are pieces of flash fiction, including "The Man with Three Violins," which is the story of a man who travels along Bloor Street, carrying three black cases. His eyes are "full of lonely, an archive of nothing."

"The Transparent Womb" is a litany of the mistreated children MacEwen sees why all the world's children are really ours:

... and at Halloween the poor kids come shelling out and one boy wears a garbage bag over his head with holes cut out for eyes and says does it matter what he's supposed to be, and his sister wears the same oversize dress she wears every day because it's already a funny, horrible costume, hem flopping around her ankles, the eternal hand-me-down haute mode of the poor, because

They wander into my house all the time asking "got any fruit?" because their parents spend their welfare cheques on beer and pork and beans and Kraft Dinner and more beer, they won't eat vegetables with funny names like the Greeks and the Wops, so the kids are fat, poor fat, fat with starch and sugar, toy food, because

The kids in Belfast in that news photo were trying to pull a gun away from a British soldier in a terrible tug of war where nobody won, and ...

--The Transparent Womb

Remember, she asked that you not hate her for peeling the veil from your eyes. Throughout all of her works, her use of language and form is both sublime and brutal.

I'm sorry that so few of her books are available now. The copy I purchased is used and all the more valuable to me, because it isn't in print anymore. If you can find one of her books of poetry, I suggest you try it. I hope that if enough people begin to talk about her work again, her poems will be published outside of academic texts.

I always recommend reading poetry to sharpen writing skills, because poetry teaches the economical use of words and imagery that is easily translated into prose. Poetry teaches rhythm and cadence, and shows us how to take a moment and stretch it into a memory.

I have several poets whose works I enjoy, and sometimes read poems before I go to sleep at night. Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca are two favorites.

Now I take Gwendolyn MacEwen's beautiful, lethal language down into my dreams.