Epic (Fantasy) (Fan) Poet: Or What I Did During that Nine Feet of Snow Last Winter

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So every few days or so, I spend time reading other folks’ blogs and getting a kick out of the vastly different kinds of things that people find their passion in, whether it is cooking sous vide, or geeking out about TV shows, or the joys of shoveling snow. And I discovered D. L. Perching’s website for t-shirts for writers of All Kinds of Genres. She had Fantasy Writers and Fan Fiction Writers and so, naturally, I asked if she could make an Epic Fantasy Fan Poetry Writer t-shirt for me, to commemorate the four months I spent back in Spring Semester (read, New England Winter: nine f@#&ing feet of snow, errgh), writing about 250 pages of poetry about Xena: Warrior Princess.

She said yes. Reader, I bought one. In honor of the up-and-coming anniversary of the start of that project, I am going to be posting some of the poems that I wrote, with some of the thoughts I had about the problems of the show I was trying to address. Here is the first, for starters, which is about the events of the pilot episode from the point of view of Gabrielle, when slavers try to take all the women in her village, and Xena, who in dark despair has decided to give up being a warrior (and possibly living–it’s not clear). She then takes up arms again to save them, leading later to Gabrielle following her on her road and then joining her on it.

 

The Slavers Reach Potidaea

 

When you wake on the day that changes

Your life forever, you have no idea, you

Think it’s just another blue, green and

Ordinary day, perhaps a good day

For bringing in sheaves or beating out

The laundry against rocks by the river.

 

On the day that changes your life for

Good, you think your life will never change

From the round of hard work, festival,

Hard work, but that is just because you don’t

Know how to recognize a day like

The one that changes your life forever.

 

Change rarely happens here. When you wake

You know what’s coming: the same old thing.

Then one day, that change. Everything

Changes. Slavers, sweaty and leering,

Sweep through the village like a reaping

Leaving the men bleeding, taking just

 

Young women, the strong or beautiful,

Those who can do the kinds of work that

Such men deem the work of womenfolk.

Terror. Screaming. Chaos and that acrid

Sweat of fear, of the knowledge of what

May be—is—coming. The heart beats too

 

Fast. Even when the unexpectable

Happens: a war cry, sudden salvation—

Your heart still gropes in darkness. And

The next day, when you wake, after that

Night when you relived those horrors, oh,

After that day that has changed your life

 

Forever, you too are changed, like dough

That, when introduced to extreme heat,

Becomes bread, nourishment, food for your

Journey. Sometimes fire destroys, even

Annihilates. But, sometimes, it anneals,

Leaving you stronger even than you were before.

Elevating Experience avec Tous Les Mots Justes

I just had half a discussion about why we read poetry and I am thinking at the same time about why I write poetry. I think during the Teenage Angst Years, I wrote for the same reasons a lot of kids write: to Express My Inner Turmoil. This is not a bad reason for writing, and if you can also make money off it (which some novelists and pop singers do manage to do), that’s even better.

Sometimes I write to experiment with sound, as I did when I wrote a dozen poems about Jack of the Beanstalk with tons of internal rhyme to get a bit more of a constant rhythm going, or when I wrote twice that many about flamenco, using staccato short lines to try to convey the percussion’s feeling.

Sometimes I write to tell stories, as I do when I unpack what I think is going on in a Japanese woodblock. Sometimes I write to take a story that already is out there—Jack of the B, Xena Warrior Princess, the Wright brothers—and go deeper into it, looking at it from a few sides.

But sometimes it seems just a matter of elevating experience, giving dignity to our joys and sorrows as Marge Piercy might say, through finding all the exactly right words to make Truth happen.

Liebster Award!

I am honored to have been nominated for the blogging Liebster Award by Nicole from How to Fangirl for Adults. Go check out her blog! The Liebster Award is an award by bloggers for bloggers that is passed forward, and it has some other cool bells and whistles too!

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The Rules:

  • Thank the person who nominated you and post a link to their blog on your blog
  • Display the award on your blog–by including it in your post and/or displaying it using a “widget” or a “gadget”. (Note: The best way to do this is to save the image to your own computer and then uploading it to your blog post)
  • Answer 11 questions about yourself, which will be provided to you by the person who nominated you.
  • Provide 11 random facts about yourself
  • Nominate 5 – 11 blogs that you feel deserve the award, who have less than 1,000 followers (Note: You can always ask the blog owner this since not all blogs display a widget that lets the readers know this information!)
  • Create a new list of questions for the bloggers to answer
  • List these rules in  your post (You can copy and paste from here).
  • Once you have written and published it, you have to inform the people/blog that you nominated that they have been nominated for the Liebster award and provide a link for them to your post so that they can learn about it (they might not have ever heard of it!)

Nicole’s Questions

  1. If you had unlimited resources and time, what would be your dream cosplay or costume? Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d have said Xena: Warrior Princess but I am way to short to carry it off.
  2. Your current favorite song? “On the Road of Experience”
  3. Do you have any pets? If not, what kind of pet would you like to have? Yes, a tuxedo cat named Musashi.
  4. What is a movie everyone needs to have seen in their life? The Princess Bride. Crazy quotes for ever occasion.
  5. When did you write your very first blog post? Late last November.
  6. Do you write outside of blogging? If so, what do you write? If not, what do you like to do outside of blogging? Mostly poetry these days.
  7. Where is your favorite place to write? Coffee shops.
  8. What is your guilty pleasure TV show? Like that really bad reality TV and TLC type of stuff? Xena: Warrior Princess and anything Joss Whedon does.
  9. What is your number one fandom? (yes, you have to pick one) Xena, but I really want to BE Agent Carter.
  10. In one word how would you describe your blog? Diverse.
  11. What is the absolute best type of ice cream out there? Starbucks coffee almond.

11 Facts about Myself

  1. I lived in Japan for two and a half years, teaching English and studying kendo.
  2. On a good day I can write a sestina in one sitting.
  3. I have a mini Stonehenge in my office at MIT.
  4. I never know what to do with Kale.
  5. I still have a dumb phone.
  6. I went on Pottermore and got put into Ravenclaw.
  7. I alternate months of ridiculously productive writing with months like a vast Desert of No Writing Ideas.
  8. I have almost four octaves when I sing.
  9. I have never owned a car.
  10. I have never had a cavity.
  11. I looooooooves Boston.

My Questions

  1. What is your favorite book to reread?
  2. If you could be any hero, who would you be?
  3. What is the hardest part of writing for you?
  4. How do you avoid writer’s block?
  5. What movie would you watch if you were feeling down?
  6. Do you speak/read a second language? Which one?
  7. What do you like best about blogging?
  8. Spartans or Ninjas? Why?
  9. Captain America or Ironman?
  10. What is your favorite summer drink?
  11. What weird writing rituals do you have, if any?

My Nominations

  1. The Insightful Panda
  2. Bookminded
  3. Pop Cultured Randoms
  4. Pop Cult HQ
  5. Like Mercury Colliding

My Apparent Thing for Rhetorical Questions in Poetry

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So I am still working on my epic poetry about Xena: Warrior Princess, and I have started to notice some patterns, which I have noticed in my work before, but since this is (so far) a 260+ page project on a single subject, I am noticing them more now. One of these patterns is the use of rhetorical questions, which I think I use to show how the character of the speaker of a particular poem is either wrestling with a problem or coming to a solution, or just my capturing their voices. These I took just from the (so far) 54 pages I have written about Season 5.

.

Eli (Read: Jesus/Gandhi)

You let me heal the broken,

But what good is that gift if I cannot stop them from being

Broken in the first place? How does fixing the problem

Afterwards solve the problem? Why did you give me this

Troubling gift and what do you expect me to do?

.

Gabrielle

How can we live in a world in which

Fear is stronger than love? But how can we protect love

Without fighting for it?… She says, “Why don’t we all

Just walk away?” But is that even an option anymore?

.

Ares

Remind you of any particular Roman warlord? Yes, I do use this

Line on all my warlords, but it’s true I used it on you first.

.

Talia

Why are we never prepared for the surprise,

For the consequences of dalliance or domination?

Why are we never prepared for love and its confusion?

.

Xena

Her easy smile, her trust, how will I win those back?

.

Xena

I could pretend to be humble, but

What purpose would that serve?

.

Xena

What is it about rabbits?

What is it about her and these young men?

.

Gabrielle

You don’t think after four years as her sidekick

I would not recognize the heroic moment when it comes?

How many times now has her soul left her body?

How many times have I had to fight to keep her safe?

.

Athena

But how could a single god take care of all your needs?

How can a god that preaches love manage a world

At war? How can a foreign god come to our Greek soil

And reign over our people?

.

Ares

Mongolia? The Battle of Corinth?

I was always a fan.

.

Athena

Hestia, as always, focuses on the wrong

Thing, muttering in despair, “Isn’t anybody a virgin?”

And the family, as always, ignores her.

.

Xena

Why not fruit? Why not my body?

Why can’t I use both as weapons of opportunity?

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So talk to me, peoples, how do you feel about rhetorical questions in poetry? And also, this, because it’s one of Lucy Lawless’s cuter expressions.

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That a Woman Can Stand Up

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In Ester Forbes’ classic young adult novel, Johnny Tremain, the protagonist, Johnny overhears a meeting of the Sons of Liberty in 1773, where James Otis says, “We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills . . . we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.” Though I read that book for the first time maybe 35 years ago, that line has stayed in my head ever since. I thought about it recently, when I read the two blogs I reposted about Agent Peggy Carter.

I have been lucky not to have to deal with much overt sexism throughout my life. I recognize that as an overeducated middle class white woman doing a relatively “female” job (teaching English), I may have an advantage that other women don’t have. As we have seen with the recent tale of the Nobel Prize-winning sexist idiot who called women in the lab “distractions,” sexism hasn’t gone away and probably won’t any time soon. But it is another reason why we need shows like Agent Carter, to remind us of the time when women had to put up with that kind of bullshit all the time. We remember what our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc. fought for and we sign on for the fight too.

Because it isn’t only sexism. It’s racism, classism, homophobia, me-first politics and religion, and all the other intersecting forms of institutional oppression. And the people most hurt by each of these problems, and that may well include us too, need us to stand up and fight so that others may stand up. But how do we do that? Well, when I went to seminary the first class we took was on anti-oppression, and it required us to face our own isms and untangle them, admit to them, and start habits that would help us stop doing some of the things, having some of the thoughts, that lead us into participating in the oppressions. It’s hard work. You will disappoint yourself more often than not.

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So how do we find the strength to fight this battle? Well people like King and Gandhi found religion/God helpful. That can be good for some, although for others sometimes religion has only taught them to be ashamed of themselves, not to respect themselves. So I also like how popular culture heroes, and the writers behind them, offer us a line here or there that is just jam-packed with wisdom. In the last episode of the first season of Agent Carter, we see Peggy jump all the hurdles with her many skills: hand-to-hand fighting, code-breaking, shooting, parachute jumping, and most of all a crack brain and a big heart.

At the end, when one of her so-called “superiors” at work takes all the credit for Peggy’s efforts, another colleague asks her, “How can you just sit here and take that?”

She says, “I don’t need a congressional honor. I don’t need Jack Thompson’s approval or the president’s. I know my value. Anyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter.”

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And that could just be a single line in a single episode in a single season of a single show. But it is going beyond that. Because when Hayley Atwell goes to ComiCon and other nerd-fest conventions and people ask her for advice on being strong, facing sexism and other oppressions, she tells them, “Know your own value.” And I just bought a T-shirt with her image on it and the phrase, I know my value, because although I do often know my value (thank you, many years of therapy), I also often forget and need a reminder. And this is what characters like Xena, Buffy, and Agent Carter fight for, inside the stories that transfer from TV to our heads: that a woman also can stand up.

Negative Traits, Or, Is That What I Was Doing with That Character?

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So I was just reading Author Matt Bowes and the Dogs Breakfast blog (and I still have not figured out how the dog comes into the picture) and lately he has been talking about how you make characters more well rounded by, duh, giving them negative traits. This is an aspect I have never really given much thought to because I just find my characters fully formed in my head most of the time, so if they have those traits I run with it and often they do not and are unconvincing, but when you are writing fantasy, as I did for many years, we expect characters to be a bit larger than life, so you can get away with it.

But now that I am writing about Not My characters, e.g., Xena Warrior Princess, the negative traits come with the fully formed character. The thing I have been noticing is that it is the other characters who discuss the negative traits. Face it, especially during the first season, Xena is dismissive of anybody who is not an actual warrior. And throughout the first few seasons she has, as the characters in the Buffyverse would say, really honed her brooding skills. She often speaks in monosyllables and pretends the emotional things do not matter.

So my job is to somehow highlight those traits, which are for the most part lacks or absences with the possibly more positive traits of talkativeness and emotional availability/frustration in the other characters and, by contrasting those things, show the whole relationship. The cool part about poetry rather than fiction is you get to write lines like these from Gabrielle:

Life on the road is better. Even when

Whole days go by without her talking,

More is said than in weeks of talk back home.

Versus this from Xena:

And after, it was hard for us to speak

Of any of it. The silence between you and me

Crashed through the trees behind us like a kite.

Because, oh, the glory of the metaphor and abstraction to describe the bone deep emotions we all feel when the relationship is a struggle.

The Stories We Tell and Live Into

As a writer who is also a Christian, I find I think about Passover and Easter as being about the Story. We tell the stories of Exodus and the Passion of Christ at this sacred time of year to remind ourselves of who we are. That is what ritual is for: we eat specific food and tell specific stories and sing specific songs and we know ourselves as a people descended from the people who chose those foods, stories and songs, gathered or invented them and gave them meaning.

I think of this in the context of the popular cultural narratives that have been occupying my thoughts these last few weeks, in particular, the two separate and very different first century CE localities of ancient Greece and Rome, brought to us by Renaissance Pictures, Rob Tapert and Lucy Lawless, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Xena: Warrior Princess. The more recent Spartacus (2010 to 2013) was about men (and women) bound to the gladiatorial arena. It was about despair and meaningless death. In contrast, the earlier XWP (1995 to 2001) was about changing one’s way and rising from death into something better.

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I have binge watched XWP more than once. I rented the DVDs of Spartacus once; while the half naked gladiators were nice, there is no way I would watch those shows again. They are too much like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, in that when blood sprayed across my computer screen, I automatically found myself throwing up my arms to keep the blood from splashing across my face.

Yep. That bad.

I think about all this now because of the two major interpretations of Christ’s death and resurrection. There are people who talk about Christ’s dying for our sins, as if God was so pissed off with humans that he (it is always he in these readings) needed to kill his own Son to make up for our sin. Weird shit, that. In contrast, a more liberal reading says that humans killed Jesus, but God the Father/Creator/Mother resurrected him to prove to us lame humans that death is not the end, that God can overcome this enormous problem.

So when I look at the stories I use to constitute my identity, I often choose the ones that are not about characters trying to see how much they can get away with but about characters engaged in rescue and redemption, rather like the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, the repair of the world. It is an ongoing project, a battle that never is entirely won. All you can do is stay on the road, take good friends with you for the journey, and keep telling yourselves the stories that remind you who you are, and how strong you can actually be.

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