Category Archives: Spoken Word

By the Living Voice

Diary of a Viva Ninja: Day 9 

Beard Pullers by June Sheridan

Beard Pullers by June Sheridan

Although the commonly accepted definition of the doctoral rite-of-passage, the ‘Viva Voce’, is an ‘oral examination’, the one that appeals most to me is ‘by the living voice’. As soon as I came across this I suddenly felt a quantum of reassurance – for I have made a lifetime’s study of the performance of bardic skills and development of the bardic tradition (2004; 2006; 2008; 2010; 2012; 2013; 2016; 2018).  The Viva is conducted not within the oral tradition but within an extremely rigorous academic frame, of course, and it is important to understand that it is ‘a new form of high-level communication, [one for which] you need to gain some advanced rhetorical and performance skills’ (Murray, 2015: 2). Nevertheless, there are some interesting overlaps (eg variants of the ‘skills’ Murray mentions), and considering the Viva in this way, reframing it as a bardic endeavour, means I am not sticking my neck out, but drawing upon years of informed creative-practice and research.

Forms of oral examination have been around for a long time, most famously in the Socratic Method of question-and-answer. Here the questioner hopes to catch the recipient out, sometimes by performing a disingenuous ignorance: Socratic Irony. My preference is for the less hierarchical and mutually empowering colloquy one comes across in the Celtic tradition. The finest example of this is known as ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’ in which the young budding bard, Nede, is challenged by a senior bard, Fercheirtne, whose chair he wishes to claim (as the descendent of the previous incumbent, his father). Through an intense series of ritualised questioning, Nede (wearing a mock beard of grass) has to defend his claim to the chair. His examiner ‘pulls his beard’, that is tests his knowledge and the authenticity of his claim. Critically, the questioner’s role here is not necessarily antagonistic. Fercheirtne is questioned in return by Nede and his answers seek to ‘outbard’ the challenger, like some Iron Age rap battle. But in the process, both ‘combatants’ display their skill and their answers encode great wisdom and poetry power for future bards to learn from and even perform (as Williamson memorably does in an epic feat of bardic skill). The outcome of this is for the young bard to become, eventually, an ollamh, a Doctor of Verse – so in it we can see a direct analogy to the Viva. A translation of it by no less than Robin Williamson (Incredible String Band; Honorary Bard of OBOD, etc) graces the end-pages of my Bardic Handbook.  Here is a taster:

The Colloquy of the Two Sages (extract)

A question, o young man of learning, what art do you practise?

to which Nede replied:

not hard to answer
I bring blush to face
and spirit to flesh
I practise fear’s erasure
and tumescence of impudence
metre’s nurture
honour’s venture
and wisdom’s wooing
I shape beauty to human mouths
Give wings to insight
I make naked the word
In small space I have foregathered
The cattle of cognizance
The stream of science
The totality of teaching
The captivation of kings
And the legacy of legends.

And you my elder, what are do you practise?

to which Fercheirtne replied:

 not hard to answer
sifting of streams for gold of wisdom
lulling of hearts from the fires of anger
captaincy of words
excellency of skill
putting feathers in kings’ pillows
I have acquired a thirst that would drain the Boyne
I am a maker of shields and wounds
a slicer of pure air
an architect of thought
I can say much with few words
I can sing the long miles of great heroes’ lives
I am a jeweller of the heart.

(From Irish tradition, translation by Robin Williamson, The Bardic Handbook, 2006).

Apart from the sheer beauty of the poetry, the colloquy teaches us to hone our own powers of communication to their highest level, to love language and debate, and to (hopefully) savour the experience of discussing one’s major research project with highly-skilled and experienced academics. To have such a level of critical attention should be seen as not a painful, compulsory final hurdle but as a privilege. After all, it is what you have worked towards for so long. It is your ‘opening night’, academically. First night nerves are inevitable, but rehearsal and classic performance techniques can help mitigate those nerves.

In performance the more relaxed one becomes in front of an audience, the easier it gets – certainly, the more likely it is for the ‘awen’, (Welsh, f. noun: inspiration) to flow. Nothing can replicate ‘live experience’. In the folk world it is a truism that you need to ‘fail’ in front of a real audience with  new song, then ‘fail better’ next time.

The aim is, through practice, to become habituated to the rarefied climate of high academic discourse, to a sustained critical debate:

‘Students have to understand the components of communicative strategies, customize them for their own examinations and practise them well in advance, to the point where the strategies have become part of their rhetorical repertoire.’ (Murray, 2015: 90)

And so … practise, practise, practise!

Works by Kevan Manwaring on the bardic tradition:

Fire in the Head: creative process in the Celtic diaspora, Awen 2004

The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, Gothic Image, 2006

The Book of the Bardic Chair, RJ Stewart Books 2008

The Way of Awen: journey of a bard, O Books, 2010

Oxfordshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2012

Northamptonshire Folk Tales, The History Press, 2013

Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (ed.), The History Press, 2016

Silver Branch: bardic poems and letters to a young bard, Awen 2018

Other works cited

Murray, R. (2015) How to Survive a Viva: defending a thesis in an oral examination, Open University Press

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Honouring

The friends in our life are a true measure of success – the harvest of a life well-lived.

I am fortunate to know many talented people who I find inspiring and good company to boot. To be around them is a buzz, and their achievements mutually empowering. We raise each other up by stepping into our own power, by not being afraid to shine. I love seeing my friends do well. I praise their successes, cheer them on. Because I know something of their journey, of their struggles and sheer effort. When I am with them I feel more complete, because in some mysterious way they ‘hold’ something for me, an aspect of my own personality that they manifest in full. They are fully themselves, of course, but something in them draws me to them. I sense a kindred spirit. We share common ground – interests, experiences, obsessions, ambitions, sense of humour, wounds, or beliefs. They may just make me smile, make me feel alive, or make me feel more like me. I can be myself around them. The conversation flows. I feel listened to, received, and reciprocated. Seen. Heard. Held. They catch me when I fall, and without a second’s thought I do the same for them. I feel ‘greater than’, instead of ‘less than’, in their presence – not diminished or undermined, but raised up – not in an egotistical sense, but in an ennobled one. In such company I feel somehow things fall into place: a little piece of the universe’s puzzle slots home.

And so I wish to honour these friendships that I feel so honoured by. There are many ways of doing this – by baking a cake, singing a song, writing a letter, handcrafting something, or simply spending quality time with them. Last month I celebrated my 49th birthday in Stroud with ‘A Night of Bards’ – a gathering of storytellers, poets and singers to ‘wet the baby’s head’ of my new book, Silver Branch: bardic poems (published by Awen Publications), launched on that date. It was a special evening, brief but heart-warming and flowing with awen and camaraderie. I took photos, as did my friends, and I’ve used some of these to recreate some of the performances in what I call ‘bardic portraits’, intended to capture not an exact likeness but the energy of the performer, their presence. I incorporate a key phrase from their contribution, and have slowly worked my way through the dozen or so performers over the last month. It has been a nice way to remember the evening, enjoying it again like a fine feast, but in particular, a chance to focus in on each bard’s unique quality and talent. To bring awareness to these remarkable friends and the skein of friendships that we share.

Other friends who weren’t present on the evening but who have performed at other events I’ve organised over the years I may get around to also. They all deserve to be celebrated. Collectively they represent an inspiring microcosm of contemporary bardism. Who knows, maybe my sketches may provide a record for posterity; but more importantly they are intended to honour the subjects while they are here – to give thanks for their being vibrantly alive at this time and place in human history, and for touching my life.

Kevan Manwaring, 23 September 2018

Bardic Portraits from ‘A Night of Bards’ (Stroud, 19 Aug. 2018) by Kevan Manwaring

 

 

Earthwards by Kevan Manwaring

 

Lighting Bríghíd’s Flame

 

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In the Old Chapel, St Briavel’s, Midsummer 2017. Photography by 2017

The inspiration for our new show – Bríghíd’s Flame (we pronounce it ‘breed’) – came when Chantelle and I explored Ireland back in the summer of 2015. Our 2500 mile road trip (much of it on the back of my Triumph Legend motorcycle) took us to many places associated with Irish myths and legends: Croagh-patrick, Tara, Knocknarea, Carrowmore, Uisneach, Newgrange and Kildare. The latter inspired the spark of our show – to visit a site associated with the blacksmith goddess Brighid and the sacred flame of St Brigid was thrilling. As was the extra-ordinary ‘Cave of the Cat’, accessed via a small hole beneath a hawthorn tree, this intense, visceral place is associated with the Morrighan and boasts an ogham inscription in its lintel stone claiming it to be the burial place of the son of Medb, the great queen who haunted WB Yeats and whose mighty mound can be found dominating the coastline of his beloved Sligo. By the time we left Ireland we knew we’d create one of our distinctive ‘ballad and tale’ shows around the sites and their mythos. It would take a couple of years and alot of effort (far more than perhaps some realize), but we finally achieved this dream – on Saturday 24th June, 2017, with the premiere of our show at ‘Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder’, a launch event organised by Inkubus Sukkubus for their new album, Belas Knapp, as the atmospheric setting of St Briavel’s, a haunted Norman castle deep in the Forest of Dean.  We started seriously discussing the show around Samhain, but it was at Yuletide that I came up with the post-apocalyptic framing narrative that would provide the ‘spine’ of the show, with its 4 main tales (Finn and the Salmon of Wisdom; Cuchullain and the Warrior Women; Oisín and Niamh; the Children of Lir – told uniquely in my way, with my words); 5 beautiful new songs and arrangements by Chantelle; new poems by yours truly; and incidental music on harp, bodhran and shruti box (once again by the talented Ms Smith). Both of us really pulled out the stops, creatively. Then there were the rehearsals, the costumes, the poster, the promotional copy … and the logistics of getting bookings and so forth. If it was all for one event it would have been too much really – insanity, even – but we have a small tour lined up and hopefully other dates that will materialize. St Briavel’s was the start – but what a start! It was great to finally share the show – and with such a well-informed, attentive, and appreciative audience. The Old Chapel looked fantastic – low lighting, candles, fairy lights draped from ancient beams … Atmosphere like that does half the work in a performance. But midsummer day was hot and there was no real seating in the hall until I gently insisted on some. Benches were brought in from the banquet room, but still it was standing room only for some. Yet the amazing Inkie audience stuck with us (and perhaps literally to each other)! Afterwards we got lots of great comments – such as ‘utterly amazing’; and ‘thank you – your stories unlocked the symbolism and wisdom for me’ – people had clearly ‘got’ the show and lapped up its magickal imagery, music, narrative and verse. We look forward to bringing Bríghíd’s Flame to more audience this Spring and beyond.

***Thank you to Candia and Tony McKormack of Inkubus Sukkubus & our fellow Fire Springs Anthony Nanson and Kirsty Hartsiotis for providing support & a space to glow***

 

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Chantelle ready for action, St Briavel’s Midsummer 2017. Photo by K. Manwaring 2017

 

BRIGHIDS FLAME POSTER new

Forthcoming dates in 2018:

For updates, see website: http://brighidsflame.co.uk/

 

Wetting the Baby’s Head

A Review of the BALLAD TALES launch showcase, Fri 9 June, Open House, Stroud

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What is the usual format and purpose of a book launch? The author talks a little bit about her latest work, they read a sample extract, maybe answer a few questions, then sits behind a desk to sign purchased copies and exchange a few niceties with the book-buying public and, perhaps if they’re enjoying some success, fans. So far, so banal. The culmination of a couple (or more) years of effort and the collaborative ‘ecosystem’ of writer/s, commissioning editor, copyeditor, designer, illustrator, indexer, etc, is worth celebrating (and valuing – as those who casually ask for freebies should bear in mind).  And yet the book launch should be about more than just merely ‘pushing ink’. Yes, it’s nice to start generating sales, but those who organize such an event with just that in mind are often disappointed. It’s more about wetting the baby’s head – blessing the new endeavour with good vibes – and giving all those involved a collective pat on the back. If this can be made enjoyable to the general public, then they get something out of it as well – otherwise it’s just a mutual ego massage. And the meaning is definitely not the massage! It is about conjuring up some of the ambience of the book, some of the spirit in which it was born – remember that initial flash of inspiration? The excitement as you scribbled down that idea? The adrenalin rush of getting the proposal accepted and seeing it start to come together?

What all that in mind I put together a launch showcase (one of many I’ve done over the years) for Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, published by The History Press. On Friday 9th June I gathered with a dozen of my fellow contributors in what used to be called the ‘British School’, Open House’s hall-for-hire, tucked away behind the arts cafe, Star Anise, the very sanctum sanctorum of Stroudiness. My partner and I, Chantelle Smith, started setting up and were soon joined by other willing hands. The secret of these events is to make it a team effort, to ask for volunteers and not to try and carry it all by yourself. One wants to be able to enjoy the evening after all, and it’s hard to do that if running from pillar to post, sweating buckets, and doing an impression of Roadrunner-meets-Inspector Gadget. Clipboarditis is best avoided. Do your bit and trust everyone else is doing theirs. Try to stop and chat to people, exchange a joke, perhaps have a drink or just simply take a few breaths  – relax and enjoy yourself and others will to.

So, the doors were open and folk started to drift in – in typical tardy Stroud style. Fortunately the room started to fill up, and around half an hour in I began the evening with my introduction. This included the usual housekeeping, which, for some reason, folk found amusing. In such situations I open my mouth and it’s like a trapdoor to my subconscious – all kinds of stuff comes out. I had a ‘plan’ of what I wanted to say (mainly the ‘thank yous’ and toast) but it’s good to be spontaneous and add a bit of levity to the proceedings. The serious stuff is in my written introduction to the anthology for those who want to read it (and maybe they’ll just skip to the stories). Anyway, my intro served to warm the crowd up, and then I went into full MC mode, introducing each of the respective acts as they took their turn.

The showcase got off to a powerful start with Candia and Tony McKormack of Inkubus Sukkubus performing their song ‘Corn King’ from their Heartbeat of the Earth album. Their latest (Belas Knapp, Tales of Witchcraft and Wonder volume 2) is out 24 June, continuing their evocative exploration of ‘Gloucestershire horror folk’. I had invited Candia to write the foreword for the collection after listening to their Barrow Wake album last year. Next up we had Horsley-based storyteller, Fiona Eadie, performing an extract from her iconic version of ‘Tam Lin’. Travelling further north, we then had Chantelle Smith read some of ‘The Storm’s Heart’ followed by her version of ‘The Grey Selkie of Sule Skerry’. Then fellow Fire Spring David Metcalfe performed ‘The Three Ravens’ and ‘The Twa Corbies’ back-to-back, which was fascinating, as the latter seemed to be a satire of the former. Nimue Brown (of Hopeless, Maine fame) offered an impressive blend of story, song and exegesis on her ballad choice ‘Scarborough Fair’ and her prose retelling ‘Shirt for a Shroud’. And Kirsty Hartsiotis (Fire Spring spotting – gotta catch ‘em all) finished the first half with flair, with her spirited 20s retelling of ‘The Famous Flower of Serving Men’, ‘There ain’t no sweet man’. She dressed in Flapper style for the occasion.

After the break, Laura Kinnear continued on the style front, in vintage fashion, as she read out her retelling of ‘The Bristol Bridegroom/The Ship’s Carpenters Love to a Merchant’s Daughter’, ‘The Shop Girl and the Carpenter’, which is set wittily in homefront World War Two.  Then we had Karola Renard’s powerful reimagining of ‘Sovay’, ‘A Testament of Love’ (with the ballad sung magnificently by Chantelle); followed by her husband’s version of ‘Barbaran Allen’, ‘The Grand Gateway’ (with Mark on vocal duties for that).  The final story of the evening was from Anthony Nanson (Fire Spring #5!), who performed an oral version of his ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’, which felt incredibly resonant after that day’s general election results. Indeed each of the stories had impact, felt engaged with the world and the issues that face us (while avoiding any heavy-handed didacticism or proselytizing). As the evening drew to a close I performed a lively duet of ‘The Twa Magicians/The Coal Black Smith’ (one of the two ballads I adapted for the book) with Nimue – the audience spontaneously joining in the chorus. Then I invited Candia and Tony back on stage for one of their powerful pagan anthems to round things off. The evening had been a great success, and I got all the balladeers up on stage for a final photo opportunity – a lovely souvenir of a splendid gathering of talented folk.

One can usually tell if an evening has gone well by the atmosphere in the room afterwards – there was a lovely buzz as folk lingered to chat and make connections. I heard one person say that it was the best book launch they had been too. This confirmed to me that our creative, collective, bardic approach, paid off.

Let the awen flow and good things will result.

BALLAD TALES NEW COVER

The next Ballad Tales event (hosted by David Metcalfe) will be on Monday 19 June – Bath Storytelling Circle, upstairs at The Raven, Bath, from 8pm. All welcome.

http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/ballad-tales/9780750970556/

It Takes a Village to Raise a Story

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Ballad Tales contributors perform at the Launch Showcase, Stroud, 9 June, 2017

The well-known African saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ can be applied — as an extended metaphor — to almost any creative project, for it is through the cross-fertilisation of ideas and grassroots collaboration (rather than neo-liberal competitiveness) that often the most sustainable art is born: art that is not the manifestation of a solitary artist/writer/musician ‘making it’ (picture a tall, spindly and ultimately unstable structure that so often collapses), but the flowering of an ecosystem, with healthy roots and branches that enrich and empower all who are involved. The whole forest benefits.

This is how I conceived ‘Ballad Tales’ — a book that is a showcase that is a community. Ostensibly, it is ‘an anthology of British Ballads retold’, published by The History Press and available from all good bookshops. But in truth it is so much more. Conceived in a flash whilst walking the West Highland Way back in the summer of 2015, the vision that came to me on my solo trek culminated in a book featuring 20 talented artists, writers, storytellers and musicians.  Many more could be involved in future iterations. We celebrated our mutual achievement with a fabulous launch showcase featuring a ‘bardic dozen’ of the contributors (see above) — Tony McKormack, who accompanied Candia, made it up to 13 and their fabulous songs began and ended the evening with a bang.

I believe it is important to celebrate creative labour, to wet the baby’s head, and this we did with a superb revue evening that was so much more than a mere book-signing (‘The best book launch I’ve been to’, said an audience member). The buzz of this — the warm response of a good audience — can help reciprocate a little of the effort involved — and the ‘feelgood factor’ it generates ripples out into the community, inspiring future projects and cultivating a sense of living in a place ennobled and enchanted by artistic activity.

Whether a book, a story (or collection of stories), an album, or an exhibition, art produced with the love of shared endeavour continues to be ‘raised up’ by its village — whether that is a physical community or community of intent — by those who view, buy, read, listen to, discuss, and contribute to its artosphere, for, truly, the story never ends with the last syllable or the song with the last note.

Read next: Nimue Brown’s account of the launch showcase on the Awen Publications blog: awenpublications.wordpress.com

Next Event: Bath Storytelling Circle Ballad Tales special, Monday 19 June, The Raven upstairs, Quiet St, Bath, 8pm, free.

Buy the book: http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/publication/ballad-tales/9780750970556/

Ballad Tales final cover

A BALLAD is a poem or a song that tells a popular story and many traditional British ballads contain fascinating stories – tales of love and jealousy, murder and mystery, the supernatural and the historical. This anthology brings together nineteen original retellings in short story form, written by some of the country’s most accomplished storytellers, singers and wordsmiths. Here you will find tales of cross-dressing heroines, lusty pirates, vengeful fairy queens, mobsters and monsters, mermaids and starmen – stories that dance with the form and flavour of these narrative folk songs in daring and delightful ways. Richly illustrated, these enchanting tales will appeal to lovers of folk music, storytelling and rattling good yarns.

ISBN: 9780750970556

192pp, £9.99

Published by The History Press

 

 

Bard of Hawkwood 2017

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Centre – Madeleine Harwood, Bard of Hawkwood 2017

3 years ago I set up the Bard of Hawkwood contest to promote community creativity. This, along with Stroud Out Loud! – the monthly spoken word showcase I founded – offers a way for budding bards to hone their fledgling talents in an inclusive, supportive way. It is not the only way of doing things but it works here in Stroud and the Five Valleys, where there is a wealth of local talent and traditions of artistic heritage, alternative lifestyles, radical thinking, and grassroots activity. The Bardic Chair tradition and revival is something I have explored in my book, The Bardic Chair: inspiration, invention, innovation (1st published by RJ Stewart Books in 200, a new edition of the book is forthcoming).

RJ Stewart Books, 2008

The revival of English Bardic Chairs is largely down to one man, Tim Sebastian. The Arch-Druid of Wiltshire and the Secular Order of Druids. I had the pleasure to know Tim during my time in the city of Bath. I won the Bardic Chair he set up in 1996 (becoming Bard of Bath in 1998). He died in 2007 and the book is dedicated to him. This book, and the others I have written about the Bardic Tradition (Speak Like Rain: letters to a young bard, Awen, 2004; The Bardic Handbook, Gothic Image 2006; The Way of Awen, O Books 2010), as well as my training and experience in Arts in Community Development, inform my endeavours – providing platforms for creativity that celebrate local distinctiveness, diversity, and transcultural empathy. Now more than ever we need to hear one another’s stories and sing the songs of soil and soul.

 

Here’s the Press Release announcing the new Bard of Hawkwood – feel free to reblog, tweet or share….

The New Bard of Hawkwood Announced

After a gripping contest at the Hawkwood College May Day festival Monday 1st May, the new Bard of Hawkwood has been announced: Madeleine Harwood, who won with her original song, ‘Right Way Up’.

Madeleine said afterwards: ‘I shared the room with some extremely talented individuals and so I am very humbled to have been chosen as this year’s Bard. I look forward to working hard over the coming months to really promote everything the the Bardic Chair stands for.’

The Bard of Hawkwood contest – an annual competition for the best poet, singer or storyteller in the Five Valleys area – was founded in 2014 by Stroud-based writer Kevan Manwaring (a previous winner of the Bard of Bath contest). The theme, chosen by the outgoing bard, Anthony Hentschel, was: Contentment (or Resistance). Each entrant also had to read out a ‘bardic statement’ describing their plans if they were to win. The role lasts for a year and a day.

Madeleine will get to sit in the Bardic Chair of Hawkwood – an original Eisteddfod chair, dating from 1882, kindly loaned by Frampton-based solicitor Richard Maisey, in whose family it has been for generations. It is on permanent display at Hawkwood College. The new bard will get to set the theme for next year’s contest, announced in the winter. Future contestants then have until 23 April to enter an original story, song or poem, and must be able to perform at next year’s Hawkwood May Day Festival.

Kevan says: ‘The Bard of Hawkwood becomes the ambassador for the Bardic Chair, Hawkwood College, and their area. Having been a winner myself I know how empowering it can be – not only for the individual recipient, but also for their respective community. It is about celebrating local distinctiveness, fostering civic pride, and loving where you live.’

***

If you would like to be involved in the Bard of Hawkwood contest, Stroud Out Loud! or creative community in the Stroud area, get in touch.

Walking Between Worlds

Practice-based research in writing Fantasy Fiction

 (presented at Performing Fantastika, 28 April 2017)

 

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‘Roots in two worlds’, Sycamore Gap, Hadrian’s Wall, K. Manwaring 2014

 

Firstly, to qualify the validity of practice-based research as a core methodology in my discipline, creative writing:

‘original creative work is the essence of research in this practice-led subject’  (‘Creative Writing & Research, 4.6 QAA Benchmark Statement, 2015)

‘Research in or through creative practice can provide a way to bridge these two worlds: to result in an output that undeniably adds knowledge, while also producing a satisfying work of literature.’ (Webb, 2015: 20)

My creative practice extends beyond the page but feeds back into it …

Creative Practice

As a storyteller, performance poet, host of spoken word events and fledgling folk-singer, I have used my creative practice to inform my prose fiction, field-testing material to live audiences.  In 2002 I co-created and performed in a commissioned storytelling show for the Bath Literature Festival called ‘Voices of the Past’. In that I performed a monologue as Robert Kirk, the ‘fairy minister’ of Aberfoyle. Little did I know then I was to undertake a PhD with him as a major focus, or that this kind of method-writing was to become a central practice of mine.

An Otter’s Eye View

In his 2005 article on nature writing, ‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane describes the approach of Henry Williamson:

 ‘Williamson’s research was obsessive-compulsive – writing as method acting. He returned repeatedly to the scenes of Tarka’s story as it developed. He crawled on hands and knees, squinting out sightlines, peering at close-up textures, working out what an otter’s-eye view of Weest Gully or Dark Hams Wood or Horsey Marsh would be. So it is that the landscape in Tarka is always seen from a few inches’ height: water bubbles “as large as apples”, the spines of “blackened thistles”, reeds in ice like wire in clear flex. The prose of the book has little interest in panoramas – in the sweeps and long horizons which are given to eyes carried at five feet.’

‘Only Connect’, Robert Macfarlane, 2005

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33

As a keen walker, my experiential research seeks to experience the equivalent of Williamsons’ ‘otter’s-eye view’: to immerse myself in a landscape, to fully experience it in an embodied way that inhabits me and informs my writing and reveals countless telling details in the process.

As part of my ‘way into’ the world of my novel I have walked long-distance footpaths: Hadrian’s Wall (2014), West Highland Way (2015), Offa’s Dyke (2016), Southern Uplands Way (2017) …  walks exploring borders and debatable lands, And I have discovered my enjoyment of singing in the process … While walking WHW solo I started to pick a song each day to keep me going. For the Offa’s Dyke I created a deliberate songbook. These walks gave me an embodied sense of geography, of psychogeography, and plenty of time to think about Borders. Outcomes include a poetry collection, Lost Border; a performance at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, ‘Across the Lost Border’; a ballad and tale show; and of course, the novel itself.

Spoken/Written

In particular the two worlds of the ‘spoken’ and ‘written’ forms have cross-fertilized most of all in my creative practice and published works (a selection of which are seen here). Since I first started to write poetry, back in 1991, I have straddled these worlds – discovering that the performance of my words (initially at ‘open mic’ nights) was just as important as the writing of them, as a way of ‘getting them out there’, connecting with an audience, gleaning a response, starting a discussion. I soon realized that do so successfully required practise and sometimes a tailoring of the text for performance, focusing on its orality/aurality and factoring in mnemonic devices. I have made a study of these aspects and techniques (and the traditions that inform them) ever since. I collected my field-tested research in The Bardic Handbook: the complete manual for the 21st Century bard, published by Gothic Image 2006. In my folk tales collections for The History Press I rendered into prose fiction a mixture of folklore, folktale and ballad – culminating in the anthology I’ve edited, Ballad Tales. These, in turn, have been restored to orality in subsequent launch events – through either straight reading, extempore performance or song. In storytelling, the ‘performative text’ – not a verbatim transcript but the cluster of phrases, gestures, plot points and tropes the performer holds in their memory (Honko, 2002) can result in a different telling each time. There are many paths through the forest of the narrative, modulated by the feedback loop of performance, audience, performance space, regionality and topicality (‘The Gate’, Manwaring; Gersie, 2012).

The Novel

In my novel I have attempted to dramatize the creative process of cross-fertilization that occurs when song- and tale-cultures are taken to new lands, and sometimes back again: ‘diasporic translocation’. The focus of my research at the University of Leicester, (p/t since September 2014) has been: Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians. After extensive time in key research libraries, the Scottish Borders and North Carolina, I have created the following story: Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American musician descended from a long line of gifted but troubled women. She lives near Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave, until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century minister obsessed with Fairy Lore. Assailed by supernatural forces, she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lay to rest the ghost of Kirk and to accept the double-edged gift she has inherited, the gift of Second Sight: the Knowing. Janey, as my performer-protagonist, is the ideal vehicle for exploring notions of world-walking. She is of mixed heritage, being half-Scottish, half-Cherokee – a Meti hybrid, the blood of the Old and New Worlds run in her veins. She is a semi-pro rock musician who becomes, as a result of reconciling herself to her inheritance, a professional folk musician. Her down-to-earth sassiness counterbalances the otherworldly elements she encounters. She is kick-ass but also fallible, gifted but self-sabotaging. A hedonist who needs to learn to reconcile herself to a supernatural reality. Within her she contains the dialectical discourse of my narrative, though if you told her that she’d punch you on the nose.

Digital Performance

Through digital formats, my PhD project explores ways in which the reader ‘performs the text’ in their interaction with hypertextuality. The heteroglossia of my narrative (the voices of Janey’s ancestors, the supporting characters, the antagonist) suggested to me a different way of navigating the text could be more effective than a conventional linear one, and so in creating the ebook version of The Knowing, I tackled the various technical challenges of creating an interactive multi-linear narrative. This involved learning new software and grappling with coding. I created a series of motifs symbolizing the different characters. As metonymic representation was intrinsic to the narrative (the 9 McEttrick Women are connected to through their respective heirloom). Epitomizing the characters with motifs seemed satisfyingly apt and something as an artist I enjoy doing. Embedding these within the text, the reader clicks on the motif if they wish to discover the ‘hidden voice’. Rather than disrupt the flow of the main narrative with these subplots – either through inserted sections, chapters, or footnotes – a small hyperlinked motif enables the reader to choose, thus bestowing upon them the same agency as my protagonists who are all driven by their desire to know in some way. This chimes with the conceptual underpinning of my novel as an epistemological enquiry: what do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge valued above other kinds? Can we ever know another, or even ourselves, fully? Can any knowledge be ‘solid state’ in certainty, or does objective truth disappear into contradictory details the closer it is examined? In a ‘Post-Truth’ age of Trumpian fake news, such questions seem timely (although I suspect they are perennial – such questions have been haunting critical thinkers for a long time). But to return to the notion of reader-performer: any readers ‘performs their text’, in reading of a line, the turning of a page, and the transforming of marks into meaningful narrative, but in an ebook with multiple pathways that performance seems more explicit (though paradoxically less physical). I liked the idea that each of my links is a kind of portal (a digital wardrobe to Narnia or a rabbit hole to Wonderland) taking the reader to another paradigm. The ebook makes the reading experience an acting out of the classic ‘Portal Quest’ Fantasy (Mendelhson 1999), although in truth any book can provide a trapdoor in reality. Recent works such as Iain Pears’ Arcadia (2016) augment those portals with apps and websites, but any reader with sufficient imagination can provide their own – whether through daydreaming, drawing, fan fiction, cos-play, gaming and so on. Initial Reader-Reception of the ebook has so far been encouraging:

 ‘this novel has an appealing plot and uses digital media in a clever way to bring other voices into the main narrative.’ Everyboy’s Reviewing [accessed 25.04.17]

‘Like the Fey and the plot, the e-book itself is full of cunning entanglements.’ Amazon.com review [accessed 25.04.2017]

‘The use of links within the ebook text to jump between narratives gives a real sense of the narratives being separate and ongoing outside what is written, while not detracting from the flow of the novel itself. It’s an interesting use of the technology that works really well in what it sets out to do: to give the reader the choice of reading the initially hidden narratives or to allow them to read the main narrative and then the related narratives afterwards. I feel the choice of the reader mirrors Janey’s choice to read Kirk’s Journal or not; it gives the reader a little taste of what Janey herself faces when she receives her ancestor’s contraband form of communication.’ Good Reads review [accessed 25.04.2017]L

Live Lit

One byproduct of my PhD research has been the ‘ballad and tale’ show called ‘The Bonnie Road’, a one-hour blend of storytelling, song, and poetry co-created with my partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith, which draws directly upon the supernatural Border Ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and my research into Scottish folk traditions. This illustrates how it is possible to turn elements of a novel into a ‘live lit’ experience, one that is co-created with the audience in a slightly different form every single time due to the extempore style of delivery. It has been performed at festivals, small theatres, pubs and gatherings. Bringing alive the characters in the two ballads: (Thomas the Rhymer; Tam Lin; Janet; The Queen of Elfland) in some cases acting them, was an effective way of getting under their skin and finding a ‘way in’. Embodied insights which deepen my understanding of them, nuancing my depiction of them in fiction. This was augmented by a workshop I ran called The Wheel of Transformation in the US and UK in which participants role-played those 4, sometimes swapping roles and genders.

Feeding Back into the Novel

All this ‘research through practice’ has enriched my visualisation of the novel and deepened understanding of the characters. The response from the audience, discussion generated and comments garnered have helped create a fertile feedback loop. Furthermore, my archival research has discovered fascinating details (marginalia in the notebooks; poems; diary entries) which have been directly fed back into the novel – in characterisation and plot, which you can read about on my Bardic Academic blog [eg ‘The Remarkable Notebooks of Robert Kirk’].

Pushing the Boundaries

The Knowing has attempted to push the boundaries of both form and content – finding fertile ground in the creative tension between the Actual and Imaginary, as Nathaniel Hawthorne terms it (‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter). I argue that true Fantastika lies within the negative space of these apparent extremes. I certainly choose to pitch my flag in this liminal zone where the magical and the mundane rub shoulders, finding neither straight realism (so-called mimetic fiction) or high fantasy to my taste. I have dramatized this transitional space as ‘The Rift’ within my novel, a place between the Iron World of humans and the Silver World of the fey – ever-widening after the cataclysm of the Sundering, when the Borders were sealed. Yet in my novel there are irruptions on both sides: characters and contraband slip through; and in the Trickster figure of Sideways Brannelly, a 19th Century Ulster-American who has become a ‘Wayfarer’ – a trader between the worlds – I have someone who acts out the synaptic cross-fire between these hemispheres. He smuggles the lost journal of Robert Kirk out from Elfhame, metaphorically mimicking the production of the actual text itself – the result of my own walking between the worlds. And in my career as a writer-academic I continually straddle the apparent ‘creative-critical’ divide, finding it a place of intense creative generation – a mid-Atlantic ridge for the black fumers of my mind!

Full Circle

My practice-based research continues to inform my writing. And in author events such as book launches (eg Steampunk Market, Chepstow, 22nd April) the ‘performance’ aspect comes full circle, as I sometimes ‘role-play’ characters from my novels (in this case, my Edwardian aviator Isambard Kerne from The Windsmith Elegy) to bring alive the storyworld for the casual browser, enticing future readers to ‘walk between the worlds’.

Notes:

  • Gersie, Alida, et al, Storytelling for a Greener World, Stroud: Hawthorn, 2012
  • Hawthorne, Nathaniel, ‘The Custom House’, introduction to The Scarlet Letter, 1850.
  • Honko, Lauri (ed.) The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, The Kalevala and the World’s Traditional Epics, 2002
  • Macfarlane, Robert, ‘Only Connect’, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/mar/26/featuresreviews.guardianreview33 [accessed 25.04.17]
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Bardic Handbook, Glastonbury: Gothic Image, 2006
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013
  • Manwaring, Kevan, Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, Brimscombe: The History Press, 2017
  • Manwaring, Kevan, The Knowing – A Fantasy, Stroud: Goldendark, 2017
  • Mendlesohn, Farah, Rhetorics of Fantasy, Wesleyan University Press, 2008
  • Pears, Iain, Arcadia, London: Faber, 2016
  • QAA Benchmark Statement (draft) 2015
  • Webb, Jen, Researching Creative Writing, Newmarket: Frontinus, 2015