Poetry Wednesday: The Dimensions of Robert W. Service

One of my favorite books is Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions by A. Square.* It blew my math-resistant mind when I read it in high school, and I even ended up doing a report on it for my geometry class, using a Styrofoam ball with a fake eyeball stuck inside it to illustrate the first dimension.

I still have that eyeball somewhere . . .

The reason I’m bring up mathematical literature on a Wednesday, or at all, is that a friend of mine (Hi, Evie!) and I started talking about the book last week—don’t ask me why—and a few hours later, this appeared in my inbox:

(Robert W. Service)

There once was a Square, such a square little Square,
And he loved a trim Triangle;
But she was a flirt and around her skirt
Vainly she made him dangle.
Oh he wanted to wed and he had no dread
Of domestic woes and wrangles;
PyramidFor he thought that his fate was to procreate
Cute little Squares and Triangles.

Now it happened one day on that geometric way
There swaggered a big bold Cube,
With a haughty stare and he made that Square
Have the air of a perfect boob;
To his solid spell the Triangle fell,
And she thrilled with love’s sweet sickness,
For she took delight in his breadth and height—
But how she adored his thickness!

So that poor little Square just died of despair,
For his love he could not strangle;
While the bold Cube led to the bridal bed
That cute and acute Triangle.
The Square’s sad lot she has long forgot,
And his passionate pretensions …
For she dotes on her kids—Oh such cute Pyramids
In a world of three dimensions.

I loved it and went looking for more stuff from this guy.

English: Poet and author Robert W. Service, so...

This guy, as it turns out, is one of Canada’s most famous poets, the “Bard of the Yukon,” which makes me feel ever so slightly ashamed of myself for not knowing about him.**

But now I do, thanks to Evie and a pretty good biography I had to find online, since my library, surprise, doesn’t have much on him.

Most sources seem to think that “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” is his best poem, but while it’s probably his best known poem, for good reason—it’s a tense scene portrayed in grit and rhyme—but I prefer, again surprise, the ones that show off his sharp wit and sense of cynical humor.

I Believe
(Robert W. Service)

It’s my belief that every man
Should do his share of work,
And in our economic plan
No citizen should shirk.
That in return each one should get
His meed of fold and food,
And feel that all his toil and sweat
Is for the common good.

It’s my belief that every chap
Should have an equal start,
And there should be no handicap
To hinder his depart;
That there be fairness in the fight,scales
And justice in the race,
And every lad should have the right
To win his proper place.

It’s my belief that people should
Be neither rich nor poor;
That none should suffer servitude,
And all should be secure.
That wealth is loot, and rank is rot,
And foul is class and clan;
That to succeed a man may not
Exploit his brother man.

It’s my belief that heritage
And usury are wrong;
That each should win a worthy wage
And sing an honest song ….
Not one like this — for though I rue
The wrong of life, I flout it.
Alas! I’m not prepared to do
A goddam thing about it.


I also have a soft spot for poems about writing, because misery loves company. Mr. Service’s version is a bit darker than I normally like, but the anxiety is so horribly familiar, I can’t help but applaud.

It Is Later Than You Think
(Robert W. Service)

Lone amid the café’s cheer,
Sad of heart am I to-night;
Dolefully I drink my beer,
But no single line I write.
There’s the wretched rent to pay,
Yet I glower at pen and ink:
Oh, inspire me, Muse, I pray,
It is later than you think!

Hello! there’s a pregnant phrase.
Bravo! let me write it down;
Hold it with a hopeful gaze,
Gauge it with a fretful frown;
Tune it to my lyric lyre …
Ah! upon starvation’s brink,
How the words are dark and dire:Broken Pencil
It is later than you think.

Weigh them well …. Behold yon band,
Students drinking by the door,
Madly merry, bock in hand,
Saucers stacked to mark their score.
Get you gone, you jolly scamps;
Let your parting glasses clink;
Seek your long neglected lamps:
It is later than you think.

Look again: yon dainty blonde,
All allure and golden grace,
Oh so willing to respond
Should you turn a smiling face.
Play your part, poor pretty doll;
Feast and frolic, pose and prink;
There’s the Morgue to end it all,
And it’s later than you think.

Yon’s a playwright — mark his face,
Puffed and purple, tense and tired;
Pasha-like he holds his place,
Hated, envied and admired.
How you gobble life, my friend;
Wine, and woman soft and pink!
Well, each tether has its end:
Sir, it’s later than you think.

See yon living scarecrow pass
With a wild and wolfish stare
At each empty absinthe glass,
As if he saw Heaven there.
Poor damned wretch, to end your pain
There is still the Greater Drink.
Yonder waits the sanguine Seine …
It is later than you think.

Lastly, you who read; aye, you
Who this very line may scan:
Think of all you planned to do …
Have you done the best you can?
See! the tavern lights are low;
Black’s the night, and how you shrink!
God! and is it time to go?
Ah! the clock is always slow;
It is later than you think;
Sadly later than you think;
Far, far later than you think.

But I have to admit that Mr. Service is a consummate storyteller.  Unlike “Dan McGrew, this one is recommended by the Poetry Foundation as a child-friendly poem, which seemed unlikely to me until I read it.

The Cremation of Sam McGee
(Robert W. Service)

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam ’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that “he’d sooner live in hell.”

On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper was Sam McGee.

And that very night, as we lay packed tight in our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my last request.”

Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no; then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead—it’s my awful dread of the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll cremate my last remains.”

A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was left of Sam McGee.

There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say: “You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to cremate those last remains.”

Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb, in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows— O God! how I loathed the thing.

And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it hearkened with a grin.

Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is my cre-ma-tor-eum.”

Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and I stuffed in Sam McGee.

Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him sizzle so;
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went streaking down the sky.

I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; … then the door I opened wide.

And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in the cold and storm—
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s the first time I’ve been warm.”

There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.

I still say it depends on the child, but my my mother-in-law, who was born in Tennessee, thought it was perfect.

And so do I.

*Or Edwin A. Abbott, as he’s known in our dimension.

**Americans have a weird blind spot about 3,850,000 miles square, which is populated by approximately thirty-three and a half million people, most of whom appear to be insanely talented.  Part of this embarrassing ignorance is based on the differences in media accessibility—I have to get my Canadian Radio fix online—but most of it appears to be the blatant arrogance of a brash, ADD extrovert who can’t understand why an accomplished, if more reserved, sibling decided to stay and take care of Mum. But I digress . . .


Silver Linings on a Slapstick Day

This morning has been one long slapstick routine.

First thing I did—well, third, but the less about that, the better—was go twenty rounds* with my e-mail system, which does not understand why I might want margins and line breaks in the writing samples I need to send out.  I finally registered with a format-friendlier new e-mail provider and went ten more rounds with it before realizing that if I sent the samples to someone using the same provider, I didn’t need to use any of my usual fixes.

It was about this time that I decided to nudge “caffeine” and “waking up” a tad higher on my daily To Do list.

But it all worked out just before I had to turf the kids out of bed.  My beloved offspring responded to my cheerful order to rise and shine—or at least rise, I’m not a total despot—by  leaping into action like slugs after a molasses binge.** I bribed them to breakfast with their choice of poison from a cereal multi-pack and told them, repeatedly, that I was leaving at quarter after.  Big hand on the 3.

Does everyone understand?  I am not waiting for you this morning.  Lucky charm

Yes, Mommy.

It’s my first day back after a week away and I have to be on time.  If you aren’t ready, I’m leaving without you.

Okay, Mommy.  Oooo, look—a marshmallow rainbow!

When we finally left the house, fed, brushed, and shod, the big hand was on the six and the big vein was pulsing on the forehead.

And it was raining.

But I was armed with extra coffee in a travel mug and an umbrella,  and both kids gave me big hugs at the entrance to their day camp—even Janie, who is starting to exhibit public sensitivity to parental cooties —before they ran one way and I ran the other.

I parked in the library lot only ten minutes behind my planned schedule, opened my umbrella with a smug flair, and walked with professional purpose across the street to the staff entrance . . . just as I remembered  my coffee.  I went back to my car, retrieved my travel mug and spent some time juggling it, my bag, my keys, and the umbrella, until I finally figured out how to work the lock without dropping anything.  Much.

As I was braving the cross traffic for the third time, a small gust of wind hit the umbrella, which promptly exploded into bare spines and flapping cloth, leaving me holding aloft what looked like the red and white foot of an enormous dead duck, but was far less useful for keeping off the sudden torrential downpour.***

I couldn’t just leave it there—there were witnesses, laughing as they drove by—so I carried it to the library and abandoned it in the small airlock space because there’s a security camera there and beating it to shreds against the floor wouldn’t look good to admin, which tries to maintain a sort of mutually beneficial DODT when it comes to staff sanity.

When I reached my work area, I found that my coworkers had considerately filled it with newspapers and books and magazines so that I wouldn’t feel as though I wasn’t needed.

I set my travel mug carefully next to a stack of newspapers so I could unbury my chair.

My phone rang, and without thinking, I picked up the receiver.^

Which pulled the cord.

Which was under the newspapers.

Next to my mug.


Luckily, from a preservationist’s view, the coffee missed the papers and the books.  And my shirt was wet from the rain, anyway.

There are worse things to smell like than vanilla hazelnut.  And brown goes with green, right?

Plus, I got a blog post out of it.

Silver linings, guys.  Silver linings.

So . . . How is your Monday Tuesday going?


*round (\rau̇nd\) : sending an email containing writing samples to one’s own e-mail account to make sure they will arrive with the intended formatting instead of extra line breaks, spaces, weird fonts/colors/sizes, graffiti from random cybergremlins, and, eventually, the swearwords inadvisably added during round seven.

** While prying Sunny out of bed, I found a book under her pillow.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Mom, I know you’re snickering—stop it.

***Not that I’ve ever tried using a duck foot to keep dry, but anything—a flyswatter, a colander, a water balloon—would have worked better at that point.

^It was our maintenance guy, wondering if that was my dead umbrella at the staff entrance.  “Yes,” I said.  “ . . . Again?” he said.

“Calm Down. Write a Book.” : What I Learned at the 2013 Midwest Writer’s Workshop

mww-logo-40Three days.

One six-hour intensive course on writing commercial fiction.

Ten possible, diverse sessions on everything from storytelling to dialog, e-formatting to tax considerations.

Three panels and a Buttonhole the Expert Event.

A query critique, a manuscript evaluation, two agent pitches.

Several hundred talented writers, five agents, a sprinkling of publishers and editors, terrific instructors, energetic and knowledgeable staff, and a group of kick-ass interns.

And, of course, one amazing roommate.

The Midwest Writer’s Workshop was overwhelming, informative, encouraging, exhausting,  and something of a personal wake-up call—in a good way.


Which is where the amazing roommate came in.

Honestly, if you’re going to go to next year’s MWW—and you should—try your best to room with, or next to, Sherry Stanfa-Stanley.  She brings beer, diet Coke, and snacks and shares.  She hauls you off-site for food when you’re about to drop from a combination of self-doubt and low blood sugar, and tells you that you can too write, so knock it off (I’m paraphrasing).  She throws various objects at the automatic light sensors* when your room is once again plunged into darkness—literally and metaphorically.  She assures you multiple times a day, with remarkable patience, that your hair and makeup look fine (but get those bangs out of your eyes).  She listens to your pitch so many times, she can recite it better than you can, and figures out how to convey that one bit of vital information you can’t quite parse.  She teaches you that half a packet of hot cocoa mix makes even slightly burnt, stale coffee into the drink of the gods.  And even her snores are quiet, melodic, and restful.**

She was the one who told me about the MWW in the first place, and I owe her a lot more than my half of the room payment (the check will be in the mail as soon as I can find a stamp, Sherry!).

As usual, I’ve put together, some favorite (mis)quotes*** and moments from the Workshop, as taken from my notes and memory.

Book Explosion

John Gilstrap, ^who ran an intensive workshop called “Adrenaline Rush: how to write commercial fiction”:

—You gotta write crap and make it less crappy.

—THERE ARE NO RULES (there are, however, some really reliable suggestions)

—This is not a sprint for a goal—this is a marathon for a goal

—We make movies for the reader to read.

—The beginning of the book isn’t necessarily the beginning of the story.

(Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code starts with Robert Langdon waking up in a hotel bedroom and getting a mysterious visitor who starts Dr. Langdon’s journey.  But the story begins with Leonardo putting all this stuff in his artwork and why)

—A storyteller’s greatest sin is to waste drama.

—“No, I don’t think [your book] sucks.”

Book Explosion

Roxane Gay, on getting published:

—If you’re patient and persevere, good things will come.

—Calm down.  Write a book.^^^

Book Explosion

Matthew Clemens, author, instructor, Sarcasm Master:

—Dialog, communication, isn’t just verbal.

—I’m a big believer in “said.”  That’s really all you need.  My characters don’t declare, articulate, pronounce, or exclaim. And they never ejaculate.  Bet you didn’t know that F. Scott Fitzgerald had Gatsby ejaculating.  Right there on the page.

—Bad guys don’t start out bad . . . something broke somewhere.

—“Hey, a guy who has books on the bestseller list thinks your book doesn’t suck.  That’s a major victory!”

Book Explosion

Hank Phillippi Ryan:

—Write what you love.  Write what you want to read.

—It’s not how the MC works on the situation, it’s the way the situation works on the MC.

—Setting is important.  [A thriller about stopping a nuclear disaster] couldn’t really happen in Pickatown, Kansas.

Book Explosion

I learned so much that I’ll be processing it all for weeks, but here are a few general things I grasped:

—Talk to everyone.  With maybe one or two exceptions, a simple remark will start up an interesting conversation and earn you a business card^ and maybe a new friend.  And if they can help, they will:   people who see you pacing and sweating before your agent appointments will tell you that you’ll be fine and ask you later how it went.

—Bring snacks.  It’s a long time between lunch and dinner, especially if you hail from another time zone and tend to skip breakfast.

—Pitching an agent for the first time is scary, yes, but survivable.  Pitching an agent for the second time is less scary, even if he’s waiting in the buffet line and other people are listening.

—When an agent or editor teaches you how to write a query letter, you’re actually learning about that agent or editor’s specific preferences for the queries s/he receives.  But if you take notes on what three or four agents and editors would like to see and merge those lists, you can get a good idea of what absolutely needs to go in a query.  And also what absolutely shouldn’t.

—Children do not think that the sturdy paper sacks marked “Turkey” that you saved from your lunches are good souvenirs.

MWW bag—Anyone who has read this far and leaves a comment will get the chance to win the extra swag bag I nabbed on the way out.  It includes a nice-sized blue bag, a February copy of Writer’s Digest Magazine,  a copy of Hank Nuwer’s Freelance Writer’s Desktop Companion, a pack of generically-gendered Bic pens, and a pack of Ball State sticky notes.

—Always take the day after the conference off, so you can recover and write an insanely long blog post . . .  


*The hotel we were staying in had just installed these sensors, which  are meant to turn off the lights if they don’t  sense movement for about ten minutes.  This is a great energy/money saver, but there were a few problems:

—the sensors for the main lights in the room were next to the door, pointed at the closet-nook, around the corner  from where any activity was going to be.  Sherry and I could have been doing the can-can on our beds and the sensor wouldn’t have seen us.

—And even if the sensors had been placed into the room, Sherry and I are writers—and writers don’t move much when they’re writing.  Heck, some of us—by which I mean me—don’t move much regardless.

—the main sensors also ran all the easily accessible outlets around the room, so we had to unplug the clock, the bedside lamps, and the TV to charge our laptops and phones, via cords that weren’t always long enough for the job.  Furniture may have been moved.

—the main sensors did detect when the bathroom sensors kicked in—vibrations from the fan, maybe—so whenever one of us tiptoed into the bathroom after midnight, there was a possibility that the whole room would suddenly light up.

**And she put up with me for four days and three nights, which should earn that woman a purple heart for my snores  alone, which were neither melodic nor quiet.  I’m surprised the main light sensors didn’t pick ’em up.

*** Please for to remember that all this is all filtered through my (overloaded and severely overcaffeinated) brain and I scribbled down what I heard, which isn’t necessarily word-for-word what was said.

^If you get a chance to take one of his workshops or attend a panel with him or have him assess a few pages of your manuscript, do it.  He’s funny, patient, and a good instructor, which isn’t always true of good writers.   And if you haven’t read his books, you’re missing out, because damn, but he’s good.

^^Watson and Jane helped me run some up the night before—so much easier than scribbling the information down on little scraps of paper:

Business Card Sample

^^^I’m cross-stitching this one and sticking it up by my desk.  I have such a braincrush on this woman, I can’t tell you, and I covet her tattoos.

Weekend Writing Warriors: Pigeons (Toke your Dealer)

We WriWa bannerHave a WIP, an EIP, an MS, or a published work you want to share on your blog, eight sentences at a time?

Want to sample other people’s WIPs, EIPs, MSs, or published works, eight sentences at a time?

Be a Weekend Writing Warrior!

Rules are here!

List of participants is here!


I had amazing  time at the Midwest Writing Workshop, which I’ll be describing tomorrow, because I’ll be driving home all day, today.

Which means I’ll be late doing the rounds of both Snippet Sunday and wewriwa, but I will  get there, I promise.

Meanwhile, McRae, semi-reformed grifter extraordinare, has entered the casino looking for Rhonda Herr, as Rhonda may be related to McRae’s boss, who is in desperate need of a bone marrow transplant.  McRae is hoping that Blaine’s family can provide a donor match, but Blaine, an ex-con himself, hasn’t been forthcoming with any information about his origins . . .

It might be helpful to know—since I skipped over the explanation a few chapters back—that everyone on the team is communicating through comms packs tiny earpieces.  McRae is the POV character, so anything said to him over the comms in this scene are in italics.  ‘Cause that’s how I roll.

English: Poker Chips

“Miss Herr is tending the center black jack station,” Konrad said, with an odd echo. McRae opened his mouth to ask for a comms check before realizing that the other man was two feet away, sitting at one of the Elysian quarter slots. “She’s been pocketing her tips for the last forty minutes.”

“Dumb,” Cassie said.

“And yet you said you’d try it.”

“That’s because I’m good. If you can see her doing it, she’s not.”

“No, she’s not,” McRae said, watching the thin woman in the lightning bolt vest with some interest.

A Quick, Random, Placeholder Clip

I’m at the Midwest Writers Workshop today and will be through Saturday, and while I’m planning on sharing daily highlights, today isn’t over, yet.

So instead of the usual Thursday Post o’ Randomness, here’s a placeholder clip of my new hero, Mary, who walked into a music shop, sat down, and showed ’em how it’s done: