the joys of mythology

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It happened the summer my family moved to Paris; I read The Hobbit and then The Lord of the Rings (which I received for my 14th birthday). To call the experience a milestone is definitely an understatement. Tolkien was a master prose stylist (and poet) and all these years later I can still quote lines and passages by heart. But as gorgeous as his literary voice is, Tolkien’s lasting contribution to my life, even more important than the choice I made to become a writer as a result of reading his work, was to set me to the study of mythology, at least on a part-time basis.

No writer worth his or her salt can afford to be ignorant of mythology, which establishes the boundaries of a culture’s imagination. And cultures come in layers. For instance, in the United States, there is the American layer, which consists of childhood experiences, TV, comics and graphic novels; underneath this layer is the European layer, consisting of Christianity (mainly), various European “home country” customs, memories, and languages, and traditional art and music. Then there is the Classical layer, consisting of Roman and Greek mythology, history, and art.

Finally, there is the “deep layer,” the basement of the mind, where the scattered rubble of ancient life and religion lies buried. Gilgamesh belongs somewhere between this layer and the Classical. So do Native American creation stories.

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So there is a political component, an element of urgency, in even the oldest stories (and sometimes especially in them) that makes them worth reading and studying. Those who read down through the ruin mound of the imagination are almost certain to catch the pulse of the times in a way that holiday treasure searchers aren’t. The treasures are precisely what most people are likely to miss–they’re smashed, incorporated in some large (and dull) monument, or casually left on the shelves where they were stored.

And now for something a little unexpected. Here is a list of mythological books that ought to be in every storyteller’s kit:

1. The Greek Myths. Robert Graves. The notes alone are worth the price of admission, and this exhaustive compilation of the major threads of Greek myths, along with variants, was my initiation into the mysteries of complex story. I still have the set I bought in college.

2. Cúchulainn of Muirthemne. Lady Gregory. With an introduction by W.B. Yeats, and written in an English that reflects the local community’s Irish dialect, this book will build your command of English even as it takes you through the rich threads of Irish myth. Apart from their storytelling, these myths preserve ancient Indo-European mythological themes. Sometimes amazing, always inspiring, absolutely worth buying and wading through.

3. The Well of the Unicorn. Fletcher Pratt. Very possibly the second-best fantasy novel of the 20th century. Deeply grounded in Pratt’s study of northern history and culture, and with a sense of style and panache rare in any genre. A great read.

4. The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales. J.R.R. Tolkien. As hard as it  might be to believe, tLotR is the closing episode of a created mythology stretching back to the world’s creation. Written in a poetic style that reflects such antecedents as William Morris and John Ruskin, these books contain stories every bit as gripping as the struggle over the Ring of Power. Here we have roots that reflect the author’s wide reading and deepest beliefs.

5.  News from Nowhere. William Morris. This may be the most boring book you ever read; by all means, work your way through to the end. This is Morris’s account of the socialist utopia he hoped to create (and as he remarks at the book’s beginning, everyone has their own idea of what Utopia is). The problem, or miracle, here is that nothing is going on. People have entered the worldly paradise, and all obsessions and compulsions have vanished. Everyone has obtained the enlightenment that lets them see that all competition and self-aggrandizement is worthless. Morris is a scandalously neglected writer and poet. NfN is a fine introduction to his vision .

6. Save the Khan! B. Bartos-Hoppner. A story of the end of the Khanate of the Golden Horde. Just who were the Mongols? How did their rule affect the early Russians? Historical fiction with the power of myth.

7.  The Other Bible. Willis Barnstone, ed. This book will take you right over the edge. Who were the Gnostics, the Samaritans, the Marcionites? This hefty volume compiles what is known (plus excerpts from surviving scriptures) of just about every one of the many early competitors with Judaism and Christianity. Powerful stories and visions, excellent introductory materials and notes.

Happy Reading!   AP

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Image: The Last Centaur. B. Artzybasheff. 1922. WikiCmns. Public Domain.

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The Dragons of Grammar

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Shortly after I started my primary blog, The Rag Tree, Margo Roby (whose blog, Wordgathering, is definitely worth a visit) ran across it and was impressed; thus began a friendship that  has been of benefit to us both. Chief, perhaps, of these benefits, from my perspective, has been Margo’s suggestion (back in November 2010, or thereabouts) that I post about grammar, a sorely neglected field, with the goal of making it a little less intimidating to those who might be interested in learning more. Thus was born the Dragons of Grammar, a thread in the RT’s posts that has attracted much attention and comment over the months.

It was also Margo who blithely suggested that she would be more than happy to buy a copy of any book based on the thread. And so, if for no other reason than to follow up on another of Margo’s helpful suggestions, I have been planning to issue The Dragons of Grammar in print. TDoG will probably be out sometime next year, when some time opens up after parts 1 Gilgamesh and A Daughter’s Song and Dance have come out.

Here is a sample of titles/topics: Build Me a Wing: the Ascent of Syntax; The Mystery of Vowels; Varmints! What to Do with Squigglies and Squeekies; and Words that Abduct Your Audience. Check out the essays on the Rag Tree. I guarantee a chuckle or two along the way…     AP

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A Daughter’s Song and Dance

It started with a manuscript my mother put together on a word processor back in the early 90s.  During her lunch hours, she tapped away at the keyboard, telling the story of her childhood. When she was a few months old, she had been adopted by a wealthy single lady who gave her an amazing, and at times quite demanding, early life.

The manuscript bounced around for a while, finally ending up in a box in my apartment. I read through the 100-page document and was astounded. The year was 2010.

Since then mom and I have been working to get her story published. Now we are nearly ready to get the first eight chapters in print. The effort has balanced out my obsession with Gilgamesh and been a revelation in itself.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I will take away from ADS&D is how quickly life changes. Though the broad outlines of life in America have remained intact, we have lived through several revolutions since the 1930s and 40s. And that is to say nothing of the life of my grandfather (he’s the handsome devil in white tie at left)–born in 1891, he decided at 6 to become an actor and then actually *did* it, performing on Broadway for several years in the 1920s. People back then lived their lives flat-out, and my grandfather was no exception. It is basically impossible for anyone today to live the way his generation did.

And then there are the practical benefits of doing this kind of research and writing. Self-discovery may be the most important of these, but so was the discovery of my grandfather’s photo, about a year ago, taken when he was 24. This is not the first photo we’ve found of him, but I think it is the best. And my mother, at 83, now carries it around with her in her wallet. That is a milestone, a very satisfying one.

Memoirs are important, and not just to a family. They tell the past in a way that few other genres can.    AP

Amassunu–Ampersand Press’s First Offering

Fact is, Ampersand Press already has one book under its belt: its publisher’s chapbook, Amassunu. Way back in November of 2010, this short but swell book emerged as AP’s first offering.  Sales have been modest, but then marketing has been nil (but work is in progress to correct the oversight).

And so this gentle reminder to readers.

Reviewing my own book would be cheating, so AP recommends that readers visit this review.  (And come to think of it, The Rag Tree has a whole page on the book; go here to read excerpts from the poetry.) AP will venture that the author was born in Brazil (hence the book’s title), spent more than half of his childhood overseas, and has spent his adult life in the DC/Baltimore region. He is a writer/editor in his professional life.

Trust the book, not the author: the book represents more than a decade of work on the author’s part and most of the pieces have been published elsewhere. The poetry is a mixture of short and long (including an excerpt from AP’s forthcoming Gilgamesh), concrete and abstract, city and country. Translations from Li Po and Wang Wei are included. So is some silliness.

Intrigued? Or just curious? Amassunu is available on this page at Lulu.com.  AP hopes readers will take the plunge, purchase, and savor.

Rollicking, Solemn, Risky, Sexy–The Long Poem

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Interested in spending

years

working on a poem?

After dealing with the likes of Gilgamesh, Ampersand Press is aware of 1) just how much work writing poetry is and 2) just how much *more* work is involved in the long poem (here defined as any narrative poem over 100 lines).

That is probably the reason why we see so little of the modern long poem out on the bookshelves. And yet most of the traditional devices of prosody evolved precisely to help poets telling an extended story. No wonder the turn to shorter forms has been accompanied by an exodus from the burdens of meter, rhyme, and stanza. (Not to mention the risky act of plotting.)

Yet some of the most satisfying poetry has emerged from the longer form–Homer, Shakespeare, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, and The Highwayman offer an idea of the range of effect that can be achieved in traditional poetic lengths.

So AP will be keeping our eyes peeled for appearances of the longer poem–especially when it begins accepting submissions next year. How about the epic of your home town? Any idea what line 1,252 says?

AP

Drawing: Lucius Encounters the Murderous Wife, illustration from The Golden Ass; author: Jean de Bosschere; WikiCmns; Public Domain.

Unexpected, Unheard of, Amazing

You might be wondering why the English-speaking world needs a new small press. Ampersand Press, after all, will be publishing under the same tough economic conditions as all other small presses; the times aren’t propitious for starting a new publication venture.

Or maybe not. Readers may have noticed all the talk about networking, marketing, targeted audiences, profits, associations, conferences, content, and so forth. They might also have wondered what happened to a reader’s best friend: the good story. And what about a well-designed, handsome book, in an easy-to-use format that’s appropriate to the story? Could this be the fabled Shangri-La, an untapped market?

Of course, as William Morris remarked, everyone has a different idea of what Utopia looks like. And certainly there are many fine books that tell a compelling tale. But Ampersand Press has a suspicion that when all is said and done, publishers are paying too much attention to the mechanics of their business. Certainly mechanics are important, as Ansel Adams knew when he was struggling on the side of a dusty road to make the negative that became Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico. And publishers are keeping their eyes on such issues as plagiarism, copyright, libel  and plain old costs with good reason.

What’s really important is the poet scribbling away in a transport of excitement, the novelist thrilled that she’s finally found her novel’s voice, the odd individual designing wallpaper patterns freehand over breakfast. There are some venues for these people, but not enough. Publishing is about community, and until we start seeing more unmarketable talent published, we are failing to get some of the most heartfelt writing in the community into print. And there is a lot of talent out there.

There’s a certain gotterdamerung quality to publishing: we will keep publishing until there *is* no money left. Maybe it has to be this way. Beauty is always a bit shy and tentative; the truth is always a suspect caller at the door. Despite the ocean of published material that is available in our society, Ampersand Press believes that an important part of America’s voice is not being heard. We’re here to do something about that.

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And speaking of mechanics, our next post will have details on submissions and other nuts and bolts.