Odd thoughts about epic poetry and my life

I love narrative poetry. I think my first epic to fall in love with was Homer’s Odyssey, but it could well have been Beowulf. The recent translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley is delightful, I am often reading it out loud, laughing at the joy of the poetry. In her care, Beowulf sings again, like it sang for those who first heard it ages ago.

Only one other translation has brought me this much joy, and that is of another poem. Barbara Reynolds’ translation of Orlando Furioso is equally delightful – after reading this for the first time I found myself talking and writing in rhyming couplets – she’d so inspired me.

I long for a good translation of Gilgamesh. The ones I have are so academic and correct.

Narrative poems I’ve read include:

The Elder Edda,

Beowulf

Gilgamesh

The Iliad

The Odyssey

The Metamorphosis

Tristan

The Romance of the Rose

Parzival

El Cid

The Song of Roland

The Ring of the Nieblungun

Inferno

Purgatory

Paradise

Shilappadikaram

Ramayana

Mahabharata

Manimekhalai

Fairie Queen

Orlando Furioso

Eric and Enide

The Women of the Garden at the Roof of the World, a sestina.

Some time ago, Barbara Chepaitis challenged me to write a Sestina. If you are unfamiliar with the form, you can read about it here: https://poets.org/glossary/sestina


As the form was created by medieval French troubadours, and my novel, The Garden at the Roof of the World is heavily inspired by poetry written by women troubadours, I have written one that reflects on the six women that risk their lives to travel across the heavily conflicted lands of the mid 13th century in the hope of saving the life of the unicorn that walked with Eve in paradise.


The Women of the Garden at the Roof of the World


Gwenaella, to save her brother, swore to the sorceress she’d save the Unicorn

Eldest and ancient, precious to Numüe and to the first of Women

Though heartbroken at her beloved’s death she knew her deed Holy

Despite the sorceress, for she had great Faith

And while not strong willed she was mighty of Virtue

The strangest thing she would find in her holy journey was Love

Adelie the unwanted bastard daughter of power and her mother’s Love

Now orphaned and hunted for her birth’s secret is called to help a Unicorn

Street wise and a fighter, raised by a woman without understood Virtue

She knew self-worth from her mother’s hidden true love, noble of Women

Raised in the shadow of others wrong judgment and their empty Faith

She found strength in strife, joy in being, and a broken life as Holy

Galiana, the refugee turned whore to survive had no clue she was Holy

The greatest illusions were a caring God and the existence of Love

Every day a scheme built on increasing despair without a foundation of Faith

All a lie, her existence a crime her life devoid until she saw the Unicorn

Understanding that love and beauty exists, and sin not the fault of Women

Reborn she would become what she thought just a bitter lie, Virtue

Garcenda, the faithful servant, patient with a spoiled mistress in whom she saw every Virtue though it is she who was called to aid the unicorns because it is she who is Holy

She let her mistress claim that errand for herself as they joined the Women

On their errand to see what cannot be found without sincere prayer and Love

She gave everything to her mistress except her life, which she gave for the Unicorn

Her death shattered her mistresses’ heart and broke her simple Faith

Kavundi called to be sannyasi, learning the Vedas and Bhakti Yoga of her Faith

Knowing the woman who sent her to be a warrior monk was a goddess of the highest Virtue

She would rise to deeper call to come to the aid of the first woman and the Unicorn

Striving in all that she knew and believed for the preservation of all that is Holy

Only to be destroyed by the most holy thing of all, the discovery that she’d fallen in Love

To be and to becoming in the eternal cycle the one thing she never expected, a Woman

Élise lost her mother and learned from her aunt too young what it was to be a Woman

But her foundation was set in the music and poetry in which she put all her Faith

Taught to seek affection and that sex and romance was all there was to Love

Where having many lovers who fight for her attention was the highest Virtue

Accidentally encountering truth and beauty and what love really is and all that is Holy

She put aside all she knew and was taught to be to die to save the life of a Unicorn

It was more than their Virtue that would be tested on their Holy errand

To save a Unicorn, they must reconcile the first wife with the first Woman

To repair the unity of bitterly divided Faith and walk the hidden paths with Love

Writing non-fiction vs writing fiction

Obviously this is my perspective and your own experience may differ wildly, but I find I need different motivations to get seat in chair and write fiction vs. non-fiction.

First, by the end of next year, I’ll have 3 non-fiction titles in print to my one novel in print, but I don’t consider myself more successful as a non-fiction author than that as an author of fiction, just luckier I suppose. I had the right book at the right time for that market. (I do have two completed novels I’m shopping with agents and publishers – so hopefully this will change soon)

To write fiction, you have to be interested in the character, their journey their motivations and how they get past their challenges. It sometimes helps to know how this will all work out, sometimes it helps to discover this as you go. If you know too much, you can get bored in the writing, if you know too little, you can flail around for ideas on what does the character do next.

To write non-fiction you have to know what you are writing in advance. The work has to be clearly laid out and organized so that others can follow you. While in fiction you may wish to mislead your readers (such as in a mystery where you don’t want the reader to see the ending too clearly) and you can use unreliable narrators to help you achieve this, in non-fiction you have to be amazingly transparent and work hard to ensure that anyone who reads your work understands what is going on. Outlines are a must.

To write non-fiction, you must be exited about your subject matter. If you’re writing for adults, the books are often long. A book of 300 pages takes a long time to write, and if you are not exited about the subject, that will become an unwanted chore quickly.

I’m the kind of non-fiction author who wants to get my points down and then fill in the foot notes as I edit. I don’t recommend this, but it can help you focus on the production of text on the page. It helps me, but the review of the text looking for each place where I need to place in foot notes should be a separate edit than the read to ensure it makes sense, and read for typographical errors. This means you’ll want to leave yourself with enough time for at least three edits before you send it to your publisher.

The lion who dwells within

Without pride, the lion who dwells within
Sought to follow the Buddha
Walking alone, like the unicorn
Until moonlight broke the neon glare of Times Square
And in taking my hand, gave me a pride
And walked with me and I sought no more
But for my pride, I find myself hunting for unicorns
An endless journey through moonlit forests
Like a knight in service to the Fisher King
My grail a unicorn who will walk with a lion in peace

Behind the Sonnet

Captain Phil (Phil Merkel) invited me to his radio show recently to discuss my sonnet.  If you were unable to listen in, here is the full text:

HI, my name is Walt Williams, though I write as W. B. J. Williams to keep myself from getting confused with other authors of the same name.  I have a novel in print, The Garden at the Roof of the World, which is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and other fine book sellers.  I also have a short story with Abyss and Apex magazine.

Phil and I have been friends since I was sixteen.  When he learned that I’d written a sonnet for my wife on our 29th wedding anniversary, he asked me to share it with you, and to tell you a bit about it.  I jumped at the chance.

First, let me share with you the sonnet itself, and then I’ll talk about it.

Would you walk with me in the soft moonlight

Star strewn sky glimmering, hope in the night

in the shadows we stroll, your hand in mine

hearts dancing to crickets, music divine

Would you walk with me under the hot sun

Sweat clad hands held, over the sand we run

Seeking quiet shady groves and solitude

A fragrant breeze, an echo of quietude

Would you walk with me in the driving rain

Or in the snow like we did so long ago

Memories delighting, ignoring pain

Hand in hand through puddles and hills of snow

We approached the huppah, you took my hand

Our delight worn daily, our wedding bands

 

The poem was inspired while watching twelfth night with my beloved wife of 29 years.  I am always inspired by Shakespeare’s delightful iambic pentameter.  I’ve written Margo poetry for over a third of a century, giving her new poems on valentines day, her birthday, and of course our anniversary.  Finding new motifs and new themes is always a challenge, especially as the core message is I love you and I love that you’re in my life.

I’d never tried a sonnet before, but knew the different versions and how a sonnet is meant to be a discourse that is resolved in the final couplet.  There was no argument or issue I meant to resolve in my poem, so in that lack, the poem fails as a sonnet.  I chose to go with a form popularized by Spensor, as I delight in rhyming couplets.  I once spent two weeks straight talking and writing in rhyming couplets, after reading Orlando Furioso.  I only stopped after Margo threatening divorce if I didn’t stop.  This is why in the sonnet, I break the rhyme scheme in the third verse.

Because the idea of writing a sonnet for her came from Shakespeare, I went to his rhyming scheme for the third stanza, rather than doing homage to the older Italian rhyming schemes, or the more modern ones.  Again, a very subtle reference but one I expected she’d get.

The poem is filled with references to events Margo and I have shared in our courtship and marriage, and even refers back to another poem I wrote about Margo in the Chinese Moon Garden in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  This garden has two names given to it by the Chinese artists who created it.  In translation, these names are “In Search of Quietude”, and “In elegant repose”.   Some of the events are from our courtship, like the beach, others from our life as a married couple, such as the hills of snow, recent – ignoring pain in the rain, to a long time ago, our first walk together at night in New York City on our first date to see Moonstruck.

As the poem didn’t have an argument needing resolution, I resolved the past and the present in our walk to the huppah and in my wearing her ring.

When I presented her the poem, I explained how I broke the rhyme scheme twice, once with a bad rhyme, once with breaking the rhyming couplets.  She asked me to see if it worked better if I tried it formally.  I reworked it, and we both agree, the broken version is better.  Our lives are more beautiful because though lived brokenly, they are lived together.

A sonnet, on the occasion of my 29th wedding anniversary

I have written my first ever sonnet. I cheated a tad on the final line, as I could have made it a better rhyme by focusing on just me, but I wanted it on us.
There are a number of references to events in our lives together in this poem, moments we treasure, so it doesn’t have the structure of this and that but this other thing to then bring it together that you get in a Shakespearean sonnet. I also altered the rhyming scheme of the third stanza, so this would likely get points off in a poetry class. Yes, I could have swapped the lines to keep the form of the rhyme scheme, but in my opinion, this is better.
 
Slightly proud of this.
 
Would you walk with me in the soft moonlight
Star strewn sky glimmering, hope in the night
in the shadows we stroll, your hand in mine
hearts dancing to crickets, music divine
 
Would you walk with me under the hot sun
Sweat clad hands held, over the sand we run
Seeking quiet shady groves and solitude
A fragrant breeze, an echo of quietude
 
Would you walk with me in the driving rain
Or in the snow like we did so long ago
Memories delighting, ignoring pain
Hand in hand through puddles and hills of snow
 
We approached the huppah, you took my hand
Our delight worn daily, our wedding bands

The missing

After an afternoon of art and poetry, I stepped out of the SF MOMA to encounter a performance art piece in protest of a social justice issue: the unexplained and unresolved disappearance of so many women of the indigenous peoples of North America over the last year.

I took some photographs, spoke with the organizer, and wrote a poem about what they are trying to communicate:

United they hold the line
Diverse in
Color
Size
Gender
Unified in message
A plea
(Which looks more hopefully on the past than I do)
But together
They call out to us
To set hope
For the future
Find the missing women
Of the indigenous peoples

I wish them well.

I dearly hope that their art, and my poem in reflection on their art, helps bring attention to the problem, and some sort of hopeful resolution.

Books for authors

On one of the panels at Arisia 2020, we discussed what books new authors can turn to to master the craft.

Here are some of my suggestions:

Must read books

A Farewell to Arms ( how to break the reader’s heart with as few words as possible)
The Sun also Rises (complex and deep characters in as few words as possible)
Lolita (how to make someone who is revolting compelling)
Ada or Ardor (how to write an idea – relativity)
Pride and Prejudice (how to be critical of your society and make them love it)
Our Mutual Friend (how to reinvent your story in the middle (he needed an editor, but he published as a serial)
The Crying of Lot 49 (how to get the reader to turn the page)
The Tropic of Cancer (how to write ecstatically)
Henry and June (how to write people you know so compellingly they become legends)
Kafka on the Shore (excellent surreal narrative)
19Q4 (there are chapters where nothing happens and you care deeply about that nothing)
Beloved (how to write about regret, grief, and love)
The Maltese Falcon (an actual mystery in a detective story and some of the tightest prose ever with brilliant first person narrative)
Frankenstein (launched a genre or two)

Narrative poems still worth reading

Orlando Furioso
Iliad
Odyssey
Ramayana
The Dream of the Red Chamber
Gilgamesh
Beowulf

II. Genera specific books

Lord of the Rings
Foundation (all the books)
Ringworld
Dune
Left Hand of Darkness
Wizard of Earth Sea
The Compleate Complete Enchanter (all the stories in all the books)
Book of Atrix Wolfe
Forgotten Beasts of Eld
The Bridge of Birds
Neuromancer
Cryptonomicon
Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser (all the stories in all the books)

World building
Wonderbook
A writer’s guide to weapons

III. Poetry books
Books on writing poetry

A poet’s guide to poetry, Mary Kinzie
The making of a poem, Mark Strand & Eavan Boland
Types of Poetry, Howard Hall
An Introduction to Poetry, X.J. Kennedy
Rhyme’s Reason, Joh Hollander
What is Poetry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Narrative Poems, C.S. Lewis
Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Paul Fussell
The Ode Less Travelled, Stephen Fry

IV. Plot books
Books which mainly focus on plot

Meander, Spiral, Explode, Jane Alison
Beginnings, Middles, & Ends, Nancy Kress

V. Character books
Books that mostly focus on character creation or development.

Take your characters to dinner, Laurel Yourke
Writing the Other, Nisi Shawl & Cynthia Ward

V. Grammar books
Books which mainly focus on grammar and punctuation

The New Well-Tempered Sentence, Karen Gordon
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire, Karen Gordon

VI. Revision books
Books that focus mainly on drafting and editing

Steering the Craft, Ursula Le Guin (make certain you get the Eighth Mountain Press edition)
Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Mass