With me today is a poet of some renown, the inimitable Tallis Steelyard, to talk a bit about poetry and adventure. 🙂
I am, of course, a poet. None the less I am not biased and recognise that there are other fields of artistic endeavour which might even be considered legitimate. That being said I have always had my doubts about novelists.
This reminisce was brought on by reading the obituary of old ‘Truly’ Gicken in last nights ‘Port Naain Intelligencer’. I honestly never knew his given name, everybody called him Truly, even his wife, because of the habit he had of starting his sentences with that word.
But I remember him in his prime. He was the younger brother of Ardwok Gicken, who ran Gicken’s Printers. Ardwok didn’t have an imaginative bone in his body, but no finer printer ever drew breath. Truly was almost the opposite, but in his own way he was touched by genius. It was he who came up with the idea of ‘The Port Naain Annual Poetry Yearbook.’
What he did was canvas all the poets, potential poets, would-be poets and ‘thought they could be poets if only they’d had the chance’ in Port Naain. For a not insignificant sum he would include their poem in the yearbook. Well for me five vintenars is a not insignificant sum, even now. My lady wife and I can still live well for a day on that sort of money. But of course he was selling them a piece of the dream, he was promising them ‘exposure’, making it possible for their genius to be recognised, and of course they fell for it.
Where he showed real genius was that he also approached recognised poets. Every year he’d get a dozen of us to submit something. Obviously we never paid but our very presence gave the work an aura of quality and we got complimentary seats at the dinner which was nice.
Then of course he would have the yearbook printed. This he handed over to Ardwok. Every year Gicken’s would get his three hundred and sixty-five contributions, (indeed there was a waiting list of people wanting to get in, such is the level of cultural affectation in our fair city) and Ardwok would lay them out, one for every day of the year, and each with a blank page facing it. They were very nicely bound, good quality paper that was a real joy to write on and whilst expensive sold well. Almost by definition they sold an absolute minimum of 365, but in reality they sold many more. Contributors would give them as gifts; respectable ladies even used them as diaries. I remember Benor Dorfinngil mentioning that one lady of his acquaintance had seventeen consecutive yearbooks on a shelf in her bedroom; the eighteenth was lying on a bedside table. I would guess they sold perhaps four or five thousand a year of them. They were so popular that the concubines of bandit chieftains lurking in squalid keeps in Uttermost Partann would order one so that they had somewhere nice to record their poison recipes and remind them who they stabbed and on which day.
And then there was the annual yearbook dinner. This was so large it had to be held in the Temple of Aea in her Aspect as the Personification of Chastity. They used to hire the three parallel halls, separated only by lines of columns and they’d seat over a thousand people at twenty-five vintenars a head. Here again Truly showed his wisdom. You booked your place in next years book at the end of the dinner for this year’s book. So by the time they’d fetched their spouses, mistresses or sundry hangers on you soon got a crowd.
This wasn’t Truly’s only enterprise, every year he held four competitions. Writers of all sorts were encouraged to submit a work (with a five vintenar cover charge) and the winner would receive a reward, often a nicely printed certificate produce by Ardwok. Thus did Truly work hard for the literary community and seek to increase their exposure for them.
Only once did I see him lose his deftness of touch. He was starting to get submissions from as far south as Prae Ducis and he decided that he’d run a second yearbook for the towns of Partann. He went on a tour, drumming up business, handing out a few copies of the Port Naain yearbook for the handful of people who hadn’t heard about it and came back quite full of himself. Then the entries started to come in. The problem was that Port Naain is a huge, wealthy and cosmopolitan city. (Ignore the sneers of those who claim it is inward looking and provincial.) In the whole of Partann you’d struggle to find a dozen poets and none of them good. Also, frankly the area isn’t as wealthy as Port Naain. Hence he just wasn’t getting enough entries. So he opened the yearbook to novelists as well. Well this brought its own problems. There was no longer a shortage of material. Novelists are notorious for the verbose way they spew their thoughts across acres of paper. A simple observation that a poet could make in two lines takes the average novelist four score pages.
But, and here was the major problem, there was no way they could afford the sort of money the length of their contribution would cost, done at Ardwok’s normal standard. Truly, his head in the clouds, caught up in the majesty of his idea, ignored this problem and left it to Ardwok to cope with. He returned south to organise and host the meal. Furthermore, to show that poets of genius were supporting him in this he took me.
Looking back at my past there are some things that I’ve done that cause me embarrassment to remember, but very few cause me to feel shame. This is one of them. In my defence, it was my beloved wife Shena who organised it. Truly was so desperate for anybody to accompany him that he dropped round to our barge to invite me. Shena was there, listened to his spiel and said that as it involved me being away for a month she expected to be paid ten alars. Given that one gold alar is worth twenty-five silver vintenars and is considered a weeks wage for a working man, this wasn’t bad money. Truly grumbled, but eventually agreed. Then she demanded it in cash, in advance. I thought he would have a stroke, but he must have been desperate but he agreed. Finally she pointed out that whilst Truly was going to be feeding and housing me when we travelled, I still ought to have five vintenars a day to cover ‘out of pocket’ expenses. He looked at her in horror, whilst I suppose my own expression was of unalloyed devotion to the woman I married. Still he was desperate, needed a poet, and I was apparently the only one willing to prostitute my art for less than four alars a week.
We sailed south for Prae Ducis. The dinner there went very well. The yearbooks hadn’t arrived. They hadn’t been quite ready when we sailed so Ardwok put them on the next boat. Unfortunately it was delayed by the weather. Still Truly was at his expansive best, I feel I gave a fine performance, and the night went well. Everybody left secure in the knowledge that their yearbook would arrive within a couple of days.
The next day we would go to Chatterfield. This is a hard day’s ride from Prae Ducis, but by having a meal there as well, Truly hoped that he’d draw paying artists from a wider area.
We spent two days touring round the area, and got back to Chatterfield with barely an hour to spare before the time of the meal. Truly went to get bathed and changed and I was sent to see if the yearbooks had arrived. The bad news is that they had.
I’m not sure how well connected you are or what you accept as normal. But when visiting the fine house of a patron, if you are, how shall we put it, caught short, you’ll normally be shown to the servants’ netty. Often a wooden shack discreetly tucked away in a quiet corner of the grounds, when seated you’ll find neatly cut squares of newspaper ready for when you need them.
But if you’re somewhat better thought of, then you might be invited to use the indoor privy reserved for family. Here you will often find an almanac, or even two, one marked ‘his’ and the other marked ‘hers’. Ardwok Gicken’s great work was to combine soft absorbent paper, each page tearing easily into four, with print that was large and clear enough to read in a gloomy room. An annual subscription to Gicken’s Almanac is still a sign that you have ‘arrived’ and in many households it remains the secret treasure of the lady of the house.
The problem I faced as I looked at a pile of yearbooks in Chatterfield is that when faced with 365 pages to cover with print and a very limited budget to spend on covering them, Ardwok had fallen back on the only financial model that worked. He had produced ‘The Prae Ducis and Partann Annual Literary Yearbook’ in almanac form.
I hastily pulled up the hood of my cloak and went out to the cart to get the rest of the yearbooks. There, standing in the pouring rain, was an empty cart. The carter who was busy unhitching his ponies and leading them into the stable assured me that they’d all been delivered and distributed. On receiving this news I retired to the nearest bar to restore my shaken nerves with a strong drink.
I walked into the bar to find it was full of cloaked and hooded figures. There was one young woman standing on a table, her hood pulled back and her golden hair cascading down over her shoulders as she harangued the assembly. I cannot remember her exact words over the space of years, but needless to say she was not entirely pleased that her novel was going to be used to wipe the buttocks of the masses and felt that this was an insult too far. Judging by the way the cloaked figures listening to her were cheering her to the echo and waving a selection of staffs, clubs and even edged weapons, it seemed to me that she had caught the spirit of the meeting. At this point I slipped back out again and went to find Truly.
He was in the lobby, talking with the local worthies, explaining to them how he was going to make Chatterfield a centre of literary pilgrimage. I tried to attract his attention but he waved me away. I found a pen on the sideboard and penned him a brief note explaining the situation, folded it, and pushed it into his breast pocket as I passed him on my way out into the night.
Then, cloak wrapped tightly around me I collected a horse, mounted it and rode steadily for Prae Ducis. I arrived just after they opened the gates at dawn and I entered with the stream of peasantry bringing their wares to sell at the town’s market. Once in town it was the work of a few minutes to find a dubious character willing to pay me cash for a horse that was not my own. With this money I purchased passage on Rostaff’s Folly, the first boat sailing north to Port Naain. Once aboard I put my few belongings on the bunk assigned to me and went back up onto the deck. The crew were already casting off and we were edging slowly into the channel when I noticed a commotion on the pier. Truly Gicken had arrived.
I could see him thrusting the reins of his horse into the hand of one man and gesturing to the man’s boat and to Rostaff’s Folly, all the while looking anxiously over his shoulder. Eventually the man handed the reins to somebody else and two of them took Truly down to the boat and pushed away from the pier. They were rowing strongly and it didn’t take a genius to work out they would eventually overhaul us. Then there was further commotion on the pier. Perhaps a score of horsemen arrived and abandoned their horses and took to boats. I even recognised the golden haired maiden at their head. Soon the harbour of Port Ducis was awash with small boats, some very inexpertly rowed, all pursuing us.
I glanced round to see the mate of Rostaff’s Folly standing at the rail next to me. Truly was probably only a couple of boat lengths behind us. The mate turned round and bellowed, “Shake them sails out you idle bastards, let’s get this tub moving.”
Crewmen rushed to do his bidding and the Rostaff’s Folly slowly started to surge forward. Looking back I could see Truly’s boat was now three boat length’s behind us and was slowly losing ground. The mate came back to the rail and I asked, “Are you, perchance, a writer?”
He spat over the rail. “No, but my daughter is a novelist.”
But I confess I have forgotten the time and I’ve trespassed too long on your generosity. Before I make my exit I shall merely mention that a brief volume of my own verses is available for purchase, Lambent Dreams is available for the princely sum of $1.51.
But a slim work, but it is mine own.
I suppose I ought to mention that there are two other volumes out there which recount some of my adventures. Admittedly the hero of them appears to be young Benor, and I suppose his antics are amusing, occasionally edifying, but rarely laudable. Still I feel honour bound to recommend them. Available for a mere $1.48, they are Flotsam or Jetsam and A Much Arranged Marriage.
Should you wish for an image of me to treasure, there is one on my blog, a fair likeness, at https://tallissteelyard.wordpress.com/.
Now Tallis has gone, I might get a word in edgeways. I’m Jim Webster and I suppose I must accept some responsibility for Tallis and others.
I’m the author of four fantasy novels set in the Land of the Three Seas plus a number of longish short stories (20,000 words) or thereabouts.
The novels are available in paperback (and make perfect Christmas presents) as well as in e-book format.
The Land of the Three Seas has its own Facebook page, which seems appropriate. There’s some fun stuff on there.
I’ve been described as “Too old to play computer games and too young to watch daytime television… To make a living I sort of farm, sort of write and sort of help out where I’m wanted. I suppose one day I’ll grow up and do something properly ”
They also say that I’m “probably fifty something, his tastes in music are eclectic, and his dress sense is rarely discussed in polite society. In spite of this he has a wife and three daughters.”
I, too, have a blog.
Stay tuned for a review of A Much Arranged Marriage, coming soon! 🙂
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