As an interdisciplinary student, I have to switch gears all the time, so I am still listening to the strains of Ensemble Galilei, but now in a different time zone. I’ve been accepted to a creative writing workshop for the next two weeks at the Dylan Thomas International Summer School–studying the importance of landscape/place. I’m also researching some eighteenth century ballad collectors in Scotland and Wales. Each day for the next 12 days, I will post something having to do with either the writing or the research process. Today was mostly a flight sandwiched between 2 older Midwestern friends who obsessed over the SkyMall catalog and whether or not to order canned gin and tonic, followed by long van drive from London. If I were to tell you about landscape/place today, I would have to come to you live from a mini Marks & Spencer at a rest stop.
So some brief book reporting will go first and then I’m including my pre-writing assignment we were asked to complete before we came–our pre-impressions of Wales. As in the other blogs in the Interruption series, I will make sure to include music I am listening to. God bless wi-fi, outlet converters and this tucked away room in which to think and compose. I am taking great comfort in listening to Ensemble Galilei at the moment, a song called Following the Moon, but now that I’m editing, and in honor of all the livestock about the place, Ryan–check this one out (and I’ll be sure to send you pictures of sheep, cows and horses tomorrow).
That’s the new add-on, I suppose, now that I am light years away, to talk to my children directly through this blog. (Ryan is my kid. Zoe is my kid.) Zoe–I have seen not a single Starbucks, you would be sorely disappointed. However, the people here in Lampeter name their houses, and one of the houses is named Merlin. What do you want to name our house? (Don’t let your brother name it–it will have something to do with a toilet.)
The two books I am reading side by side are: Some Sex and a Hill, or How to Learn Welsh in 3 Easy Pints and Gerald of Wales: The Journey Through Wales and The Description of Wales.
The first book is about a Welsh language learner’s experiences in a language intensive summer course. The students in the course are from different parts of the world and a significant part of their learning comes from telling stories together. Outside their classroom, they live amid a culture that loudly insists that Welsh is dying in order to drown out the significant population of native Welsh speakers who are trying to get a word in. It’s manic and funny, and all about what it does to the brain to be bilingual.
Gerald of Wales was a twelfth century cleric who traveled through Wales with Baldwin, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to convince all and sundry to join the Third Crusade against Saladin and his forces (1187). Interestingly, though Gerald was Welsh (in case the “of Wales” part of his name didn’t tip you off), there is no real hint that he speaks Welsh on this journey: the holy men, as a rule, tend to speak to Welsh potential enlisters through interpreters. Language erasure has very long shadows. Gerald goes to Glastonbury Abbey at one point to see the remains of Arthur and Guinevere–if you dig that kind of thing, you would really dig that section. Or maybe don’t actually dig the section…I’m so tired.
Before I toss and turn with both books again tonight, I’ll share a catch from each:
From 1187, we hear: “Who nowadays in his writings, whether they be poetry or history, can hope to add new lustre to the art of letters?…In earlier times the man of letters stood on the topmost step in the hall of fame. now those who devote themselves to study, which is toppled deep in ruin, or so it seems, and sunk into disrepute, are no longer there to be emulated, they earn no respect, on the contrary they are disliked and despised.” (Journey Through Wales, 64) Thanks, Gerald.
From 2015: “Most of what we were doing was…stories…essentially telling stories, and this was where Giles began to come to the fore…it became evident very early on that he was incapable of adding a single paragraph to any of our collective stories without including something about a gorilla.” (Some Sex and a Hill, 33)
So a belated toast of tea…to myself…in a slowly darkening room–here’s to a tomorrow of perhaps little respect and looming gorillas, or perhaps the rhetoric of both men from different times, on the spot in different embodied experiences, will inspire a new level of courage.
And now my actual first writing assignment. We were asked to write from what old Gerald calls “imagined verisimilitude:”
My schedule this year has been a little unbearable. Four months ago, I took to carrying a large wall calendar with me. Each day’s space is full of cramped and tiny writing—it was the only way I could get it all in and actually show up to things. The next two weeks are white boxes, empty. There is very little in my imagination—a blank slate, although there are referents.
The closest I’ve ever been to Wales are Cambridge, London, Stratford-on-Avon, Bury-St.-Edmonds. Not close, but not as far away as I am now. Imaginatively, my pictures of Wales are from The Grey King by Susan Cooper….
or academic articles and eighteenth- century texts dealing with people and systems of two hundred+ years ago.
Those pieces of paper are windows into networks of food and medicine distribution, correspondence of alcoholic/academic/ballad collector Evan Evans, traditions of Romish-Celtic festival- winning musicians, innovations of Iolo Morganwg. I’m reading Gerald of Wales on the plane tonight—he was a twelfth century missionary who toured Wales and wrote about the mundane and miraculous along the way. I will see through his eyes for a few hours and then I will be able to make my own comparisons.
The one other class I’ve taken abroad was in Greece, and I followed in the footsteps of Robert Wood, who did his own on the spot tour of all of the actual places mentioned in The Odyssey—the goal being to stand where Homer really stood. This was in the eighteenth century: Homer was one man; it was sacrilege to say that Homer couldn’t write. But Wood believed this blind poet was uber aware through his other senses—Wood looked at how wind patterns and the movement of water coursed through the lines of ancient poetry; he measured authenticity while measuring rock, worked with a sketch artist to map out ruins. I got to stand where Wood had stood, reading what he wrote about Homer and his travels. Thus began my intentional journey of place-based-learning.
I’m interested in Celtic ballads, folklore and origin stories and what was happening with those traditions in the eighteenth century. I have been focusing almost exclusively on Scotland and the twisted efforts of James Macpherson to use old stories to express new ideas of otherness, Britishness, and place. So the idea in coming to Wales is to experience a different set of Celtic stories and landscapes in action—without all of the preconceived notions or years of research. I look forward to listening in totally different languages: Welsh, wind, water.
I was a theater teacher when I declaimed Oedipus Rex at Epidorus (yes, I totally did that). Embodied knowledge was all I had, but I didn’t call it that—the academy is full of that language, but in my classroom it was about how to engage a listener and make people feel, how to manipulate all of the tools of the craft: pace, proximity, inflection, gesture, style, breath, stillness, memory, reaction. All of these tools transfer to place-based-learning, being fully present in the body, being where you are. And the space itself does change things.
I’ve been following a Celtic music group this spring–
— they accepted me into their rehearsal, allowed me to interview them and wrote furiously at intermission of one of their performances—I didn’t want to miss anything, but I wasn’t entirely sure what I was looking for. They talked about how each place they performed in completely changed the stories of US veterans returning from the battlefield to Walter Reed hospital, of Highland mourning, of fierce pride of place. Those spaces were concert halls and churches, the nineteenth century converted barn that they rehearsed in—sirens in the distance during a war ballad for a wounded soldier. Their music evoked mist and mountains, synthesized places and times as audiences shouted and tapped their feet.
How will Wales look, smell, feel? I imagine:
the smell of spices in Welch apothecary shops
the feel of linen paper of Evan Evans’ letters to a network of collectors
the taste of fog and damp—so different than the heat of Baltimore City
the sounds of harp, viola de gamba, drum, violin and uillian pipe
the Arthurian “on the day of the dead when the year too dies must the youngest open the oldest hills” reverberates in my neural networks from 20 years’ repeated reading
-I see…a blank void-
My eyes are waiting.