Archive for ‘writing’


“I can’t be left to my imagination…”

Sometimes, during the busiest weeks, we need to find time to slow down. I did—and in two blog posts about current approaches to art I noticed, and cheered for, implicit heresies.

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First, via Cynthia Haven, comes video of California poet laureate Dana Gioia at the first annual Sierra Poetry Festival in April 2017. I’ve long been a fan of Gioia, but the first seven or eight minutes of his casual talk sum up every simple, contrarian impulse I enjoy in 21st-century poetry, which is as much of a niche pursuit as any can be. Gioia addresses a fellowship he describes as having “dedicated significant part of our lives, in a broader sense, to something our society doesn’t much value. We are people at odds with the values that are trumpeted around us in the media,” adding that poets aspire to exchange money, power, and social status for beauty, truth, and goodness. If your first impulse is to laugh at that, please think again: Almost nobody makes money with poetry, and doing something you love for its own rewards is actually a lot more normal than hoping your beloved hobby will turn a profit, earn you “likes,” or make you “YouTube Famous.”

The statement that struck me the strongest was this: “We don’t lead global lives.” Heresy! For all we learn from other perspectives and wider views, we can’t escape our own terroir, though many try. At a time when we’re supposed to aspire to be “global citizens,” whatever that is, Gioia preaches diversity of place, of values, of expression. I’m glad he does; those offer something true for all of us.

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And then there’s this from the website Artsy: “Why the Rise of Workout Classes in Museums Should Worry Art Lovers.” Do we really need an “explainer” on this? I understand that some museums have grave financial problems, and I attended several museum conferences a few years ago where older administrators were openly terrified by their inability to attract a younger audience with the attention span of a capsized stinkbug. Turning art spaces into noisy, oniony locker rooms is not the answer. Museums have tried these stunts for a while; symphonies have also tried to cash in with gimmicks like crowd-pleasing concerts of orchestral versions of video-game tunes. In the long run, do these things attract more patrons than they repel? No one has said.

In my 21 years in D.C., I learned to laugh at Capitol Hill workaholics who pretended that a few hours of weekly yoga balanced out their frantic attempts to get noticed after working until dawn on those brilliantly persuasive bar graphs in a sorghum-subsidies report for the assistant to Senator Bedfellow. Learning to be alone to exhume your own thoughts is (to use the language of the stressed) a lifestyle choice—no piped-in soundtrack to every meal, no CNN or Fox News blaring overhead as you try to read a book or reconnect with a friend, no checking your phone every six minutes for nonsense.

I like music. I like video games. Yoga is good for you. I value my smartphone. But I’m zealous about there being one secular place left in our culture that isn’t about bodies rather than minds, or doing rather than thinking, or noise rather than silence, or therapeutic self-improvement rather than grappling with the difficult thinking of older, wiser minds. I suppose that’s my heresy. I support it with my wallet, but for now I’ll continue to live in the woods.

“…with my eyes turned to a different time or hour…”

After translating a poem, I’m always left with a troubling handful of brackets and screws. The bookshelf sure looks like it stands on its own, but anyone peering at it closely, comparing the finished product with the instruction sheet, might spot the small, vital pieces I had to leave out. That’s the frustrating trade-off of this sort of writing, but I like to believe I’m getting better at it—and I’m pleased that one of my poems made it into the summer translation issue of Able Muse.

It’s a fine issue, too, with translations from Catullus, Martial, Victor Hugo, Christine de Pizan, Cavafy, Rilke, Rimbaud, Lope de Vega, and many more. My contribution is modest—ten lines of Latin, an epitaph for Charlemagne’s baby daughter Hildegard translated into alliterative, metrical English—but I’m among poets whose work I admire, including medievalist Maryann Corbett, classicist A.E. Stallings, and X.J. “Nude Descending a Staircase” Kennedy.

Last year, I let my subscription to Poetry lapse after realizing that I rarely found one memorable poem per issue. I put that money toward the biannual Able Muse instead, and it’s proven to be a far more satisfying read. Mirabile lectu, its editors are supportive of poems composed in recognizable forms, but they’re also open to good free verse, prose poems, essays about literature, and even the occasional visual-art portfolio. The 2010 Able Muse Anthology, which collects the best of their first decade, is a worthy introduction to their style and approach. Rather than serve as a one-way repository for CV enhancement, Able Muse feels like a journal its craft-conscious contributors actually read.

I’m busily working on a pile of new translations—and on this sun-baked afternoon, I’m happy to dredge up old “Quid Plura?” posts about this very subject:

“It’s all a patchwork from above…”

CHRISTMAS SHOPPING, FELLS POINT
(1622 THAMES STREET)

The year is low; the yesterdays you spent
Fall numbly, like the numbers on your list.
The least is hope, the promise you invent
In fear.
            Not here. Let everything exist:
In shoes and lanterns, crosses, grout, and brass,
A coin-encrusted sink, a biding throne
Of sundered mirrors, bling, and spackled glass,
Your beaming brings a whirl of scrap and stone
To life in light: the weary walls rejoice.
A greater gift can scarcely be conceived
But one that mends our shards and gives them voice:
Be merry, yes, but better, be relieved,
And rise, and laugh, and listen, lest you miss
Tomorrows no unlikelier than this.

 

“We walked around in circles, singing…”

Ars longa, vita brevis! Although I’m holding down two jobs and working on two new books, I do have several posts in the queue about matters medieval—but until they get done, please indulge me in something atypical for this blog: blatant promotion. If any of these medieval-minded books should strike your fancy, I’d be delighted—and grateful.

When Becoming Charlemagne came out in 2006, I saw it as (among other things) a story about how swiftly time overtakes us. Little did I know that its elegiac mood would soon apply to the many defunct bookstores where it made its debut.

The book tells the story of Charlemagne’s imperial coronation in the year 800—one of the most important events in European history—by showing the early medieval world from the perspectives of people great and small: Frankish peasants, Jewish farmers, the monks of Tours, the caliph of Baghdad, a sneering empress in Constantinople, and world-weary locals in Rome. It’s a five-year slice of history that reads, I hope, like a brisk little novel.

Becoming Charlemagne is available as a paperback or an e-book. (You can also settle in with some popcorn and watch me gab about the book on C-Span in 2007.)

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In the 15th century, an anonymous poet composed “The Tale of Ralph the Collier,” a 972-line Middle Scots romance about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier. Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

This translation, which reproduces the rhyme and alliteration of the poem’s difficult 13-line stanzas, is available in a $9 paperback and a version specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages, or check out the original Middle Scots to see what I was up against.)

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From 2009 to 2012, I posted the first drafts of 51 poems on this blog, each one inspired by a gargoyle or grotesque at Washington National Cathedral. What started as a lark turned serious when the cathedral granted me permission to show their typically camera-shy gargoyles in a compilation of the poems. In return, I’m donating 75 percent of the net profits to them to help repair damage from the 2011 earthquake.

Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles collects the final versions of these poems, plus two that are exclusive to the book. (You can browse a clickable list of the first drafts here.) The book is on sale at the cathedral gift shop and at the usual venues like Amazon, but you’d really be helping this project reach profitability much faster if you bought directly from me, whether using Google Checkout on this page or popping me a payment via Paypal. (Or heck, just send me a check. Questions? jeffsypeck -at- gmail – dot – com.)

“You’ve been in the pipeline, filling in time…”

No medievalism this week. Just some links and comments about the humanities, all of them hanging by a common thread.

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From Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick, 1968:

“You androids,” Rick said, “don’t exactly cover for each other in times of stress.”

Garland snapped. “I think you’re right: it would seem we lack a specific talent you humans possess. I believe it’s called empathy.”

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From a Chronicle of Higher Education story about Google Glass:

[Assistant professor of journalism and communication] Mr. Littau said he hoped to see further application of Glass in the classroom, although he could not say for certain what else it could be used for.

“It’s a device made for the liberal arts,” he said. “The whole device is about putting you in the shoes of the wearer to experience the world through their eyes. An auto-ethnography in history could be an interesting thing to experience.”

Only in a visually obsessed age would we believe that literally seeing someone else’s point of view qualifies as an experience. If that’s true, We Are All Cops Cameramen Now.

What’s it like to view a work of art through filters other than your own? How does someone with a trained ear experience classical music? How does someone feel, from his forehead to his gut, when his daughter is born, his candidate loses an election, or his childhood home is torn down? God help liberal-arts faculty who need Google Glass to develop empathy. To make that imaginative leap, just find time for reading and thinking—which are analog, and not recent inventions.

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Here’s a more delightful melding of tech and the humanities: Last week, I found a pocket universe of clever people composing poetry in programming languages.

Experiments with computer-generated poetry aren’t new, but for creative works wrought from the human mind, Perl has apparently been the language of choice. You’ll find poems written about Perl, poetry generators for Perl, Perl poems as April Fool’s jokes, and translations such as “Jabberwocky” rendered in (non-functional) Perl. The go-to text in the field is writer and software tester Sharon Hopkins’ 1992 conference paper and mini-anthology “Camels and Needles: Computer Poetry Meets the Perl Programming Language.”

A Spanish engineer and software developer also put out a call in 2012 for contributors to code {poems}, an anthology of verse in such languages as C++, Python, DOS, Ruby, and HTML. The poems couldn’t just be goofs, though; they had to run or compile. An April 2013 Wired story showcases one of the entries: “Creation?”, a poem in Python by Kenny Brown.

I love this. There’s great creativity here—and a reminder that computers speak only the languages we give them.

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In “Cryptogams and the NSA,” which I’m assuming is not fiction, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch recounts how he was indicted in 2011 after he tweaked the NSA by emailing himself snippets of James Joyce and Gerard Manley Hopkins from a proxy server in Peshawar:

“There are a lot of references to mushrooms and yeast in Joyce,” I said. My attorney touched my arm lightly, but I ran on.

“Look—” I took the book up, “There’s a part late in the book. . . Here, page 613. Halfway down the page.” I pushed it across to Fitzgerald:

A spathe of calyptrous glume involucrumines the perinanthean Amenta: fungoalgaceous muscafilicial graminopalmular planteon; of increasing, livivorous, feelful thinkamalinks; luxuriotiating everywhencewhithersoever among skullhullows and charnelcysts of a weedwastewoldwevild. . . 

“See? Fungoalgaceous muscafilicial,” I said. “It’s a portmanteau of different types of cryptogams.”

The stenographer interrupted here, her north Baltimore accent like a knitting needle stuck in my ear. “Are those words in that book?” she asked, “Because – otherwise you’re going to have to spell them.”

She was waved off by one of the US attorneys.

Fitzgerald read the text, or looked at the letters anyway, and then he looked at me again. A kind, blank, innocent look. Unaware of the fear he was instilling in me, not knowing what he was doing, he suddenly twisted the knife.

“And why would someone write like this?”

My silence now. “Why?” I repeated, meekly. I was devastated.

“Just your opinion. A short explanation.” Absolute innocence in asking the question.

My hands began trembling. One of his assistants looked at the clock.

“I don’t know, sir – honestly I don’t.”

“And why would someone write like this?” Because it’s fun; because it’s artful; because government exists not to perpetuate itself, but to protect these odd, wonderful flourishes of civilization. And because it helps us know who the androids are.

“…und auch das größte Wunder geht vorbei…”

Poems, novels, short stories—we expect creative works to be labors of love, but it’s easy to forget how personal a work of scholarship can be to its creator, and how much is riding on the most arcane and specialized tomes. In an atypically personal blog post, Anglo-Saxonist and Tolkien scholar Michael Drout remembers the low point in his career, when his love for his work was fizzling out:

In 2001 I had been stuck. The success of Beowulf and the Critics was combining with the difficulty I was having in putting together my first monograph on Anglo-Saxon to pull me away from the field. Kalamazoo that year had been a big, depressing disappointment. What other people seemed to find exciting did nothing for me, and the terrible job market had caused a number of my friends to leave academia altogether. The intellectual spark had gone out.  Anglo-Saxon studies was following a path that led only to insignificant but all-consuming quibbling. The field was entangled in miserable thickets of personal and institutional politics, and those who–through the positions they occupied, if not the work they were no longer doing–should have led were instead dissipating the hard-won intellectual inheritance of our titanic forebears (not on debauchery, more’s the pity, but on orthodoxy, groveling, scheming). It was just a radical change from my feelings of immense excitement at ISAS ’95 at Stanford or ’97 at Palermo or ’99 at Notre Dame. I wanted out, to be away from this whole field that I had loved so much.

I clearly remember sitting on the floor of O’Hare airport at 6:30 a.m. on Sunday morning exhausted (having gone to bed at 3:00 and gotten up at 4:30), bored, and with a five-hour wait ahead of me, thinking that this was going to be my last Kalamazoo. I would focus on Tolkien, get my tenure in a couple years, and spend my energies on my 1-year-old daughter.

What changed Drout’s life and restored his faith in his field? A book about what he calls “[p]ossibly the most boring set of ‘texts’ in the history of earth.” Whether you’re a scholar, an academic refugee, or a writer itching with doubt, check out Drout’s tribute to a scholar whose meticulous research and logical arguments gave his own work new direction—and “brought the dead to life.”

“Quoting God as you discuss what is right or wrong for us…”

In 1993, a clownish remnant of the Klan marched down Main Street in my college town. The authorities bussed the marchers across state lines and kept them safe from attacks. Jeering locals lined the street, and community groups held a more positive party a few blocks away. The march was pathetic, but it was heartening to see liberal American ideals put into action. No one believed that a few scruffy losers said anything worth hearing, but everyone made sure they were able to speak their minds.

“Quid Plura?” is not a blog about current affairs. It chronicles medievalism in the modern world, and occasionally there are posts about books, photos of pseudo-medieval places, and a little light, gargoyle-inspired verse. I don’t write about politics. I don’t care how you vote. I don’t light my torch and wave it for the new moon on Monday. I’m John Denver at the PMRC hearings. For cripes’ sake, unless it’s in a quotation, you won’t even find profanity on this blog.

However, I wrote a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion—so even when the spotlight is on some inept, ne’er-do-well “filmmaker” and a loony pastor, I don’t find it hard to imagine myself in their shoes. As I wrote in 2010: “If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?”

Should that happen, I hope I won’t be condemned by diplomats, denounced by the Secretary of State, investigated by the Department of Justice, or blamed by the White House. I hope the government won’t ask publishers and distributors of my work to consider shutting me down. I hope my supporters won’t get phone calls from generals. I hope I won’t be encouraged to hide. I hope artists, writers, and scholars will realize it could be them next.

After the 1993 Klan march, everyone wondered whether the government had provided too much protection. That’s a debate I wish we were having now. As it stands, the message I’m hearing is this: If you say, write, or draw something that riles up the wrong people, you’re on your own. That’s disturbing, but I guess it’s useful to know.

“And in this town of disco heat, the dancing of a thousand feet…”

When I was in fourth grade, I wrote to Lloyd Alexander’s publisher as part of some long-forgotten school assignment. Weeks later, the mailman dropped off a few brochures clipped to a generic cover letter. The impersonality didn’t faze me; simply receiving something from a publisher—someone who understood all that cryptic stuff on the opening pages of books—was a treat, not because I was enamored with the arcana of the industry, but because holding that packet was like receiving a transmission from the Mushroom Planet: These people, I marveled, really exist?

As a kid, I didn’t know any authors. I didn’t know any for much of my adult life, either—but I know a few now, and I’m happy to praise them, plug them, and let “QP?” readers know they exist.

Thanks to this blog, I’ve chatted with Alexis Fajardo, a cartoonist at the Charles M. Schulz Studio and the author of Kid Beowulf, a series of charming, all-ages graphic novels. The most recent volume, Kid Beowulf and the Song of Roland, is Lex’s humorous take on the Charlemagne legend; it combines his passion for world epics with a cartoonish style reminiscent of Jeff Smith or Albert Uderzo. Chat up Lex at comic cons, especially if you want to bring something home for your kids.

“Jeff,” I hear yon straw man cry, “you don’t seem like the ideal reader for a gay military romance set in ancient Rome.” No, I’m not, but The Soldier of Raetia by my pal Heather Domin is a sharp, engaging read. Knowing her book didn’t easily slot into existing genres, Heather opted out of the publishing industry snake-dance and instead went with Lulu—but hers is the rare self-published novel that’s as solid as anything on the bookstore shelves. Historical Novels Review liked it, too.

Steven Hart and I have yet to meet, but we keep finding people and places in common. He now owns a bookstore near my childhood home, and his 2007 book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway is a perhaps the world’s only page-turner about transportation infrastructure. On the surface, it’s the story of the Pulaski Skyway, but you’ll also learn how America built bridges and tunnels in a far less politically genteel era. (At 224 tightly-written pages, The Last Three Miles is also the perfect length; you don’t have to commit to a 600-page tome.)

While wandering Iceland in 1998, I met William Short, an award-winning acoustic engineer who documented his ten-year study of medieval martial arts in the excellent Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques (which I wrote about here.) An increasingly familiar face to Icelandic scholars and reenactors alike, Bill has written a second book, Icelanders in the Viking Age: The People of the Sagas, a terrific introduction for would-be saga readers who haven’t been sure where to start.

A few years ago, Neville Tencer of British Columbia wrote to me from out of the blue to see what I knew about the Via Francigena, the old Frankish pilgrimage route to Rome. (Alas, I knew little.) Neville and his partner, Julie Burk, laced up their boots and hoofed it through the Alps, documenting their travels in An Italian Odyssey: One Couple’s Culinary and Cultural Pilgrimage. This news video about their journey makes me want to follow in their footsteps, undaunted by the reviewer who praised the book for telling “the grubby truth about pilgrimage.”

I’ve never met Bill Peschel, but I do read his blog, and I suspect he’s too modest to hype the fact that his book Writers Gone Wild: The Feuds, Frolics, and Follies of Literature’s Great Adventurers, Drunkards, Lovers, Iconoclasts, and Misanthropes went on sale this week. The book looks like a fun peek into the libertine side of literary history, and I love that Bill has posted the book’s ideal soundtrack on the New York Times “Paper Cuts” blog. Black 47, Lou Reed, and Peter Gabriel—what’s not to like?

“It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear…”

Mirabile visu: Modern technology comes to “Quid Plura”!

You can now use a spiffy pulldown menu to buy a paperback copy of The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (here or on the original post) with either your credit card or your Paypal account.

It’s so easy, a Lombard could do it.

Just specify your location, hit “Buy Now,” and order a copy of what Charlemagne surely would have called “an engaging translation of the only chivalric romance where I totally get slapped in the face,” had the Frankish king spoken colloquial modern English and not been above providing marginally humiliating book endorsements.

Select a shipping option:


This translation, which mingles folklore, chivalry, and burlesque humor in a riot of alliteration and rhyme, should appeal to fans of medieval literature, readers who get a kick out of formal narrative poetry, and those of you who come here for the gargoyles. By buying a copy of this literary oddity, you’ll be helping keep “Quid Plura?” afloat while also letting me know there’s a readership for future translations of lesser-known medieval tales.

For more information about The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier (including a PDF preview), check out the original post from January. To order a Kindle copy, proceed post-haste to Amazon. And thanks, as always, for your eyeballs, which make this whole medievalist undertaking entirely worthwhile.

“So I associated myself with fossilized figures…”

Memes come, memes go, and I rarely inflict personal stuff on readers of this blog. However, this meme is fun: list the ten books that most influenced you. Forget the books you love, or the books you think you need to say you’ve read; instead, list the books that answer the question, “Who are you, and how did you get that way?”

Anne Terry White, The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends (1960).
They’re all here: Theseus, Narcissus, the Volsungs, Beowulf and Grendel, Charlemagne, Tristan and Iseult, all strikingly illustrated by Alice and Martin Provensen. Finding this book in my elementary school library was like falling into a whole new universe, one I haven’t quite climbed out of yet.

Literature I: The Oregon Curriculum (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968).
When my fifth-grade teacher saw me reading The Golden Treasury of Myths and Legends, he decided I was ready for this more advanced textbook. He marked the Greek myths with a paperclip, but I soon moved on to the Norse myths, literary ballads, fables, folktales, and short stories, not knowing I was reading Aesop, Goethe, Kipling, Poe, William Morris, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Graves. Thirty years later, I’m amazed by the breadth of this book’s gorgeous color illustrations: ancient and medieval art from India, China, and Scandinavia, colonial American folk art, and paintings by Breughel, Rembrandt, Chagall, Grandma Moses, Calder, Warhol, Dürer, and Klee. Could we even publish such a sophisticated textbook today?

All of those hardcover Dungeons & Dragons rulebooks from the early 1980s.
Judge me if you must, but I stand by what I wrote in my appreciation of Gary Gygax: “[f]or those of us who were raised outside of an academic milieu, D&D also offered a valuable experience that later served us well: the game offered a preview of the systems, organization, and culture of a worldwide scholarly community.”

Commodore 64 Programmer’s Reference Guide. (Commodore Business Machines, Inc., 1982).
We humanities types blather on about “critical thinking skills,” but if you really want to create English majors who can ace an upper-level college course on symbolic logic, make them program a computer.

Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Basic Books, 1980).
I bought this book in high school on the recommendation of a friend who went on to become an engineer. I didn’t entirely get it, I don’t think I finished it, and I doubt I’ll ever return to it, but the lesson was useful: The world is full of people who are much smarter than you are, and you sound like a fool when you call their work “weird” or “esoteric” just because you don’t understand it.

J.D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953).
It’s exciting to be 17, and to be charmed by a book, and to think, “I want to write like that.” Only when the author kicks the bucket 20 years later do you realize what his book was trying to tell you: “This isn’t the sort of thing you’re meant to write.”

Ben T. Clark, Russian: Third Edition (Harper and Row, 1983).
It’s 9 o’clock in the morning on your first day of college, no one can yet imagine a world in which the Berlin Wall falls and “Winds of Change” is the #4 song in America, and you’ve never seriously studied another language—but within minutes, you’re learning a new alphabet, holding rudimentary conversations, and absorbing terms and concepts that will help you dabble in languages for years to come. Спасибо, Ben T. Clark.

Henry Treece, The Crusades (1964).
I still have my crummy paperback copy of this lurid pop-history, which introduced me to all sorts of wild medieval nutjobs, including Pope Urban, Peter the Hermit, Peter Bartholomew, and Henry Dandolo. Wanting to understand why angry mobs would tear people apart for the sake of relics, I became a medievalist—and as a result, here you are, reading this blog.

Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson, A Guide to Old English, Fifth Edition (Blackwell, 1992).
So maybe you don’t grow up to become an Anglo-Saxonist. So what? Spend a semester working through this tome and you ought to agree with C.S. Lewis: “The taproot, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students.”

A.S. Byatt, Possession (1990).
Few novels matter, so it’s nice when a work of fiction speaks to you, offering assurances that leaving grad school is okay—and that trying your hand at writing might be more fun than making a career out of studying the works of others.