Tag Archives: bard

At the limits of language

Traditionally speaking, language is the bard’s tool. Even if we aren’t being deliberately bardic, language is a key part of how most humans get most things done. It’s also an incredibly limited tool to use in some ways, especially English which is a terrible language for anyone trying to talk about complex emotions. Just having the one word for love is extremely limiting for a start.

For some purposes, the kind of writing I’m doing in this post is the best way to get things done. I’m aiming for clarity and I’m talking about the kinds of concepts that are pretty easy to talk about. When it comes to spiritual experiences, it can be very hard to find words with enough power to express what’s happened.

I could, with regards to yesterday’s blog post, have written a more coherent description of what happened. But I don’t think I could have done that without sacrificing the impact. The intensity of the experience is at least as important as the events – and without conveying that, none of it makes sense. I can tell you that I’ve had an intense experience, but that probably won’t be enough to make you empathise much – unless something similar has happened to you.

Talking about magic and deity with people who have similar experiences is easier because you can assume they have some idea what you’re talking about. But even in that context, it isn’t easy. Trying to talk to anyone who doesn’t share your frames of reference can be hard.

Poetry doesn’t work for everyone. It requires that you think in a different way to dealing with prose.It’s a side step from everyday language and reality, and sometimes that can really help when trying to express the kinds of things that regular language just can’t handle.

Bard or Performer?

What you think it means to be a bard probably has everything to do with what you think historical bards were. I’ve seen people say that if you’re interested in your own fame and fortune and if there’s any amount of ego in it then you aren’t a bard. I guess these are people who have not considered the implications of being a court bard (Taliesin) or the kind of bombast and self promotion that figures in Welsh and Irish mythology tend to go in for. Scotland’s Thomas the Rhymer is hardly a self-effacing figure, either.

You can of course serve the gods, spirits and whomsoever else you wish to serve with secret, private bardic activity. But for anything involving people, being a bard really does involve being good at grabbing, and keeping people’s attention. 

Being larger than life, charismatic, and compelling are all good qualities to try and develop in yourself as a bard. There is magic in enchanting people, and there’s a lot to be said for having no qualms about putting yourself centre stage and demanding people pay attention. Of course if that’s all you’re doing, people will soon lose interest. Whether a performer intends to be a bard or not, they need to have something going on beyond a desire for attention.

The idea that wanting to be popular necessitates being crappy comes up a lot around ‘literature’ as well as bardic pursuits. To be serious, worthy, high brow one must also (according to some people) be elitist, obscure and write things that aren’t accessible to people who don’t already know all the things you know. I think this is by far the bigger ego issue than the natural human desire for attention. People need good art. There are a lot of people who want good art. Trying to make things for a larger audience doesn’t invalidate it. There is no conflict between trying to do something a lot of people will like, and trying to do something substantial and anyone who says otherwise is either a snob, or trying to justify why their work isn’t much appreciated.

What makes you a bard is that your work is driven by ideas, the need for beauty, principles, vision, inspiration and a desire to make the world a better place. If people pay you for that, you are no less of a bard. If you see creative work as a quick way to earn a lot of money… this is mostly not how anything works anyway. It’s surprisingly hard to have a creative career as a soulless mercenary who only cares about the bottom line.

Bardcraft – covering songs

While writing your own songs is always going to be an attractive choice for a bard, there’s also a lot to be said for singing other people’s material. It’s easier to learn existing songs than to write them. Engaging with existing songs roots you in your tradition and honours your ancestors of musical tradition. Keeping a song alive is a meaningful thing to do and can also be part of keeping culture and tradition alive.

As songwriters, most of us have habits. Few are the performers who can do a whole set of their own material without it starting to sound a bit samey. Throwing in some well chosen covers can help considerably with keeping your own material sounding fresh and interesting.

Covering a song well isn’t straightforward. You need to find a balance between making it your own, and being faithful to the original. You have to work out which aspects of the song are essential to its character, and which you can afford to do without. Traditional British songs tend to be fine if you just take the tune and words – often there are variants of those already in existence. Other cultures have traditional music where the harmonies are intrinsic and you can’t pull a single tune out and have it still work. Contemporary music from numerous genres can depend on the interplay between tune and accompaniment. 

I find it helps to listen to multiple versions of a song before I start trying to find my own way of doing it. With more famous songs, it’s usually possible to find cover versions, which help me explore possible ways of interpreting the music. When the song isn’t so well known, you might be able to find live versions from the songwriter, and these also help. It can also be helpful to find versions recorded much later – James doing ‘Sit Down’ at their final live concert defined my approach to covering the song.

There’s much more to working with existing material than just ‘doing a cover’ implies. As a bard, you’re going to be looking for a deeper relationship with the piece. You have to know it at a level that allows you to bring it to life, and to perform it with sincerity and a sense of meaning. It pays to take time forming a relationship with a song and letting it become part of your life, and part of you, before you try and take it out into the world.

Listening is a bardic art

With bardcraft, there’s an obvious inclination to focus on output. Here I am, writing a blogpost… But, to have the output be good, we need to spend as much time as we can listening to and reading other people. Our own perspectives are inevitably limited, and the more time we spend finding out how things look from other perspectives, the better. 

Listening and reading protects us from using cliches and stereotypes. It is easier to get away from tired pop-culture habits if we know more about a greater array of people. By listening and reading we can hopefully spot our own prejudices and assumptions and learn to do better.

Social media is brilliant for this. You can follow people with first hand experience of pretty much anything, and learn from them without creating any kind of burden. Learning when not to comment, when to stay silent and read/listen is a powerful skill, too. Finding the limits of what we know, and the points at which we aren’t qualified to say anything is valuable self knowledge.

All too often, creators write fantasies about other people’s lived realities. This is enabled by hiding behind the idea that imagination is everything. All too often, the people who get the high profile creative jobs are white, male, cis, straight, affluent, able bodied and comfortable. Popular culture has far more representation of what this demographic thinks other people are like than it does authentic representation of people. Most of the world is not middle class cis straight white men.

I’m entirely in favour of imagination and making stuff up. However, the more we know, the better a job we can do of that. Imaginations are not harmed or limited by exposure to facts and other perspectives. Feeding your brain information will stimulate your imagination, not hurt it. To imagine from a place of insight and understanding is far better than to just recycle whatever dubious ideas you have unconsciously absorbed from whatever is around you. The person who does not undertake research in a deliberate way is more likely to unconsciously repeat cliches and prejudices.

There is honour in being well informed and creating good representation of everyone who isn’t you.

Outrageousness and the bard

I spent the weekend at an excellent Steampunk event, where I got to see a number of extraordinary performers. It got me thinking about the importance of how you invest in your own work as a performer.

If you perform feeling self conscious, awkward, silly or afraid of being laughed at, this will show. If you walk onto a stage and treat what you’re doing like it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s amazing what an audience can be persuaded to go along with. Embracing the preposterous to make it your own is a really powerful choice, allowing you to do, embody, or vocalise things that more cautious people simply can’t.

This is fundamentally about your relationship with your own material. If you believe that people need what you’re doing, then it works very differently from getting out there with material you are suspicious about. People need to laugh, and there’s power in being comfortable with inviting the laughter. It’s good to invite any and all emotions. People also need to be surprised, unsettled and taken out of their everyday perceptions, and there are many ways of doing that. Sometimes people benefit from the comfort of familiarity, but too much of that just becomes banality. 

To be powerful as a bard, you have to be totally invested in whatever you’re doing. You have to be willing to take people with you. There’s a certain kind of magic that’s only available if you’re prepared to throw yourself wholeheartedly into whatever you’re doing.

I was utterly enchanted by Ash Mandrake’s set, he has a lot of youtube content for anyone who is curious, and you can start here for flavour –

Story Compass – a review

Story Compass offers the reader an interesting and original set of tools for self discovery. You could use it as a workbook, or as the basis of a set of retreats, read it flat out and take what suits you, or dip into it.

I think there are several kinds of people who would particularly benefit from this book. It’s very much aimed at the reader who wants to explore themselves in a contemplative way, and who needs tools and maps for this. It assumes that you’ve not done a deep dive into your ancestry, or the water you swim in, and that you have yet to figure out how your culture, background and life experiences have informed you.

It’s designed for people who are not squaring up to massive trauma legacies. If that’s you, then this probably isn’t the ideal book and you’ll need to find something more trauma informed.

I think this book also has ideas to offer to new bards. If you’re starting out on a creative path and figuring yourself out in relation to the work you want to do, there’s a lot here that’s usable. The relationship between self and creation, history and inspiration, how we draw on experience and work with the material of our own lives is all highly relevant.

Taking control of your own story, and being the teller of your own life can be an incredibly powerful and empowering process. The stories we tell define us, and if that is something you have no idea how to engage with, this is a book, and a process, to consider.

The writing style is easy going and enthusiastic. If you like the idea of taking your inner child on an adventure, then you’re going to love this. There’s a playful, open hearted tone to the whole thing – which isn’t for everyone. If you suspect you might find that patronising rather than engaging, you might well not get along with this book.

The work outlined in Story Compass can be approached in a number of ways. You could be fairly pragmatic about it and go for imaginative journaling and creative thinking. You could use it as a guide for visualisations and journey work and really go for that – depending on your needs and preferences. One of the things I liked is how unprescriptive the author is when it comes to these kinds of inner journeys. You’re given the gist of where to go and what to do, but how that plays out is very much down to you. It made me realise how normal it is to see this kind of practice described in a lot more detail, where you are told what spirits or ancestors are going to say to you. I found it refreshing to see such open ended explorations.

I came to this title as a book reviewer interested in working with story. It’s not come to me at a time when I could personally make much use of the contents – although twenty years ago it would have been a divine gift to encounter something like this. It means that a lot of what’s here is not material I’ve felt moved to test – I’ve already done this sort of work, in my own ways so there’s not much for me to delve into and unravel. However, I think the whole approach is useful and fertile, and likely to be worth exploring for anyone who is setting out on a journey of self discovery.

More on the publisher’s website – https://www.johnhuntpublishing.com/moon-books/our-books/story-compass-journey-discovery

Bards and Bardolatry

Karen gave me this title as a prompt, and it’s been interesting to think about. Idolatry is defined as the worship of idols and tends to imply ‘false gods’. What kind of falseness or misplaced faith might trip a bard up? What might a would-be bard do that couldn’t work or that would dishonour them?

Not caring about your audience – be that human or other. Bardic work is about engagement and exchange, if you’re only doing it for the applause and you haven’t even thought about what your audience might need from you, that’s going to fail in all the ways. Getting grumpy because your audience did not respond as you’d assumed is messing up as a bard.

Punching down. Satire should always be about discomforting the overly comfortable. Joking about the suffering of others is seldom actually funny, and never good. Picking on an audience member also isn’t good.

Appropriation. Particularly if you’re misrepresenting and writing over something you barely understood. If you take material because you think it’s cool, but don’t work with it, or its origins well enough, that’s not respectful. Also anyone in the audience who knows the material better than you do will think you’re an arse. If you haven’t delved deeply, the odds are the material is not as unknown as you were assuming, thus increasing your scope for looking preposterous.

Not putting your heart into it. As an experienced audience member I can usually tell if I’m seeing a newbie giving it their all, or someone who didn’t really try. Passion matters. A wholehearted, everything you’ve got performance is always going to be powerful even when you are young in your craft. Even when nerves trip you up. Nervous and struggling looks very different from complacent. Complacence is disrespectful of your material, your tradition and your audience.

Not being a good audience member. It’s not enough to rock up, do your bit, accept the applause and leave. Community is important. Listening to other people and connecting with what they do is important. If you feel like you’re too important to hang around listening, you urgently need to spend more time as an audience member. This is different from needing to prepare for your bit, or needing to recover afterwards.

Feeling entitled.

Sharing things you haven’t really thought about. Especially popular mainstream things. It’s not enough to have a catchy chorus if the messages in a piece are sexist, racist, ableist, or all about consumerism.

There are probably more, but these struck me as being particularly important.

When stories are the battleground

How do you know what’s true? Who do you trust for information? It’s become ever more problematic since the start of the covid crisis, but the war of stories and information is far older than that. Most conspiracy theories are bunk, and a very few turn out to be super-important. How do you decide which stories to share and believe in?

For anyone on the bard path, the power of stories is likely already a consideration. For anyone interested in politics, and world politics, the question of how stories have become weapons is an ongoing issue. It’s not easy, when faced with a story, to decide what to do with it.

I want the stories that help me understand other perspectives. I want the stories that open out possibilities and make more room to include more people. I reject the stories that encourage us to hate each other and mistrust each other. I reject any story that is about how a group of people deserve to suffer for being who they are when they are doing no harm at all.

Any story has the potential to become true. If we adopt a story and live by it, and invest in it we may well make it real. Sometimes asking if something is factually accurate isn’t the key thing. It may be much more useful to ask what a story will do, what it will enable, who it supports and who it crushes. I’m here for the stories that uplift people and crush injustice. 

For some years now, stories have been part of an ideas war being fought across the world. Don’t share the stories you don’t want to see come true – not even to argue with them. If you need to talk about stories you consider problematic, work around them, don’t give them direct attention and don’t send people to the places airing the problem stories. If we don’t invest energy in them, stories wither and die, to be replaced by stories that were better able to engage people. We get a say in how that plays out.

Sitting in Silence

Silence is something we often explore in meditation and for spiritual purposes, as in the practice of silent retreat. Without vocalised interactions, we turn inwards, in theory, listening to the quiet inner voice, finding peace and so forth. While I’ve done plenty of sitting in silent meditation, I’ve never entered extended periods of silence for spiritual purposes.

I’ve recently had tonsillitis, and between the sore throat and the swollen tissues, talking has been really uncomfortable. I’ve been obliged to become mostly silent, and it’s been an interesting experience. 

I am of course still communicating, because not communicating would be unbearable to me. I’m relying a lot more on facial expressions, hand gestures, body language – there is a lot I can get done this way. I’m typing and using devices when I need to share things that I can’t gesture. It turns out that if I have my written ‘voice’ I don’t feel too troubled by the loss of my spoken voice. As being ill has kept me at home, it hasn’t caused any great technical problems to have to type rather than speak.

It raises some interesting thoughts for me around the role of communication in life, and in our spiritual lives. Increasingly I see the bard path as the heart of what I do, and that absolutely revolves around communicating. It can tend to prioritise the ability to make sounds with your face, but I feel very strongly that no one should be excluded on the basis of how they are able to communicate. 

For me, spirituality is a conversation. The silence is for listening, but extended silence isn’t a conversation, and the exchange matters. What I do tends to be fairly people-centric because I communicate best with people, but I listen a lot more widely. 

I can learn in silence, but I don’t find my own  spiritual self there. I find more benefit in sharing, in vocalising, in communicating. I’m more my spiritual self when I make sound, or make words, than I am when I turn inwards for extended periods.

Further Adventures with Ominous Folk

At the weekend, we took The Ominous Folk of Hopeless Maine to Stroud Steampunk weekend, with a show called Wrecked on Hopeless. It’s a mix of storytelling, script and song and gives people an introduction to the fictional island of Hopeless, Maine.

It went so well that we’ve had several further bookings as a consequence, which is really exciting. This has led me to thinking about what we might do next year and what I might write for us. 

My creative life depends on having people to create for. It’s one of the reasons I love being in steampunk spaces because there’s always so much warmth and enthusiasm. Making things for steampunks is a deeply rewarding process. I invariably come out of steampunk events full of ideas and feelings about things I want to create. At the moment, I’m giving a lot of thought to what I will take to the Winter Convivial in Gloucester in November – more of that over here – https://www.facebook.com/SteamPunkFestGloucester

When I initiated as a bard, I pledged to use my creativity for the good of the land, and for the good of my tribe. At this point I recognise that ‘tribe’ isn’t a good word to use but it’s now part of the history I have. So, while I won’t claim that word moving forward, I need to acknowledge it in relation to that specific pledge. 

It remains vitally important to me to think about who my people are, and to think about what good I can do with my creative work.