Tag Archives: Bards

Gorgeous Things

A shoutout for a few folk I know who have been doing cool stuff recently.

Haven Jean has made an album. It is a splendid thing and you can listen over here –


It’s not overtly Druid content, but there’s a lot of powerful stuff shared, and humour, and charm and that’s all good Bard stuff.

There is background info for the album on Haven’s blog –

River has posted two beautiful poems on The River Crow blog –

Intense and lovely and powerful poems from Meredith Debonnaire

Show and Tell for Bards

The wisdom in the realms of written fiction is show, don’t tell. I’ve always had a problem with this and I’ve struggled to figure out why. Reading this article –  https://scroll.in/article/999215/decolonising-creative-writing-its-about-not-conforming-to-techniques-of-the-western-canon brought the issue into focus for me. It’s worth a few minutes of your time if writing and storytelling are areas of interest for you.

If you’re on the bard path, you’ll likely already know that myths, legends and folklore tend to be told. Partly this is to do with expectations about how much story you are going to deliver in how much time – which is often a consideration around storytelling. 

What the article I’ve pointed at makes explicit is that you can’t show people things unless they share your frames of reference. How people express and experience emotions is culturally informed. ‘Show’ approaches work for people in the mainstream talking about their mainstream experiences to other people who can be expected to know what that’s like. For anyone at the margins, things have to be explained and you can’t assume others will recognise or understand what you show them.

This is also true around magical and spiritual experiences. You can’t show that kind of experience to someone who hasn’t had it. You can do a lot more to help them by telling them about it. The ‘tell’ approach does more to encourage empathy as well because when we tell, we create a framework in which someone could try and understand something that isn’t familiar to them.

If we uphold and defend the validity of telling a story rather than showing it, we make more room for more people. It’s one way, as a bard, that you can make a contribution to justice and help lift and support others. Let people tell their stories on their own terms. Let people tell it like it is for them. We can call into question these cultural assumptions about what good and bad stories, and writing look like.

Stories to Light the Night – a review

Susan Perrow is a well established international expert in the field of healing stories. I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in exploring stories (or for that matter any other creative writing) as a healing tool. For anyone following the bard path, this could be a vital part of your tool kit. While this book is focused on creating stories to help children process grief, there are wider implications and the content will certainly benefit older readers/listeners as well.

Stories to Light The Night lays out what it takes to write a healing story. This is invaluable information for anyone considering such work. The majority of the book is taken up with stories. The book is themed around healing from grief, and the topics covered are – the loss of a loved one, the loss of a family connection, the loss of a pet, the loss of health and wellbeing, the loss of place, environmental grief and loss, cycles of life and change, and a chapter that covers an array of other losses.

The stories themselves are mostly written by Susan Perrow, but a fair few come from other therapeutic authors working in different contexts around the world. As a consequence, there’s a diversity of perspective and experience, which I found really helpful and interesting.

All of the stories are presented with a piece about the context in which they were written. Most of them fall into one of two categories – either that they were written by someone as a way of working with their own grief and then offered to others to help, or they were written for a specific family, child, or community. It means that with most stories, there is also a story about what had happened. Many of them were heartbreaking. I cried over pretty much every story in the loss of a loved one section. They are poignant and not easy, even though these stories are short and accessible. They help you face up to grief and to better understand it.

If you have unprocessed grief, this book is going to do things to you. The work of dealing with grief is important, but make sure you don’t get caught off-guard by this. If you are looking for help with your own grief, this book might aid you, but give yourself plenty of time to digest, process and whimper. I did not realise how much unprocessed grief I was carrying when I started reading, and I was caught out by that. Which is fine – books do that sometimes.

The stories here could be used directly by reading them to people who might be helped by them. If you’re interested in using stories as a therapeutic tool in a healing context, this book is a really interesting introduction to the subject. If you are interested in how to bring healing work into your own writing and storytelling, this book has a great deal to offer.

Find out more about the book here – https://www.hawthornpress.com/books/family/bereavement/stories-to-light-the-night/

The Pie Song

Please be advised that if anything in this post seems smutty, it is entirely your own fault!

About ten days ago I was making a pumpkin pie for my bloke (he’s not from round here!) As I was working on the pastry, it occurred to me that I couldn’t think of any kind of songs that leant themselves to pie making. It’s December, so all the seasonal stuff has a bias towards that other festival. What to sing while making a pie?

I come from a folk background. It is worth noting that, in folk, anything can be a euphemism. Playing the violin, games of cards, fairground attractions, going for a walk, listening to nightingales… its remarkable the number of apparently innocent practices that, in a folk song, will lead to pregnancy and/or hasty marriage!

The last threads in this peculiar history, are that yesterday I was out with Druids and others, doing things to mistletoe (no, that’s not a euphemism….). I was expecting my old friend Dave, from Bards of the Lost Forest to be there, and he wasn’t, because he was being ill. There’s a man who’d appreciate a good pie, I had thought. There is also my good friend Edrie, who has been poked by medics over the weekend (not in the fun way, so much) and she’s the sort to enjoy a good pie, too.

And so I’ve recorded it. This one’s for you, recovering people, Dave, Edrie hope you feel better soon!

The Pie Song

(oh, and this is just a thrown together, recorded at home sort of thing so please forgive the imperfections.)

What makes a bard?

How is a bard different from any other creative person? For me, it has always been about a spiritual dedication which is intrinsic to the work. A regular creative person may have all kinds of reasons for doing what they do. For a bard, creativity will, to a significant degree, be an act of spiritual dedication and expression. The creative work is not simply about making money, achieving fame or getting to ponce about in public whilst wearing a nice dress, either. Part of the point of the work is to serve the community, and part of the point is to serve the land.

So, how do we serve? By bringing magic into the world. Inspiring and uplifting people. Expressing the numinous. Offering insight into what it means to be human. Expressing our relationship with the land. Sharing history of place and tribe to ground people. Keeping traditional forms of creativity alive, holding threads that connect past to future. Giving voice to that which cannot speak and yet needs to be heard. Making sense of human experiences. Celebrating, remembering, imagining, exploring, honouring, satirising, offering alternatives, creating perspectives….

The most traditional methods revolve around the voiced word – poetry, story telling, and song. I think these three threads are vital, and it is important to acknowledge that traditionally, these were at the heart of what it meant to be a bard.  However, if you are able to do the work in other forms, if you tell stories in images or sound, if you share the voice of hill and forest with you dancing, if you make tunes that evoke the ancestors or pots that embody sensuality…. Or whatever it is that you do with your whole heart and soul, for your land and tribe… you’re a fellow traveller.

Not everyone will apply the term ‘bard’ in exactly the same way (and rightly so!) but for me it’s all about the giving, the sharing and expressing the work made of soul, passion and vision. There are a number of people who particularly inspire me with the work they do, and I think I will be doing other little showcases and shout-outs along the way, because I am a firm believer in sharing the good stuff.

Today I’d like to sing the praises of Lorna Smithers, a bard from the north of England, sharing poetry most days through her blog. The beauty of her word craft, the clarity of her insight, the power of her intent and her capacity to capture glimpses of otherworldly wonder make her a remarkable writer. http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com If you subscribe by email, her words will flow into your inbox, which I can heartily recommend as a thing to add to your day. There’s an explanation of what she does and why, here http://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/about-from-peneverdant/ . Lorna is also Bardic Co-ordinator for the Druid network, and is a resident poet on the Moon Books blog… http://moon-books.net/blogs/moonbooks/category/poetry/

Bardic contests and other competitions

I should start by saying that I have never won anything in my entire life (although I’ve entered plenty) and that it might therefore be fair to assume I’m a wee bit jaded and cynical as a consequence.

There are contests and prizes in just about every field of human endeavour. The bardic chair, and bardic sparring being the resident Druid option. We also have the Mount Haemus awards for scholarship. Every year the ebook world gets excited about the Predators and Editors poll. One of the authors I edit for dreams of a Pulitzer – who wouldn’t? Of course we all want the recognition of a win, and whatever we say about the value of taking part, that’s not what drives people. The hunger to achieve and be recognised is there in all creative people in all fields, so far as I know. But of course most, like me, won’t even make second or third place. And then what? The sense of failure and inadequacy.

Losing is that bit worse if it feels underserved. Many online contests are in essence, popularity contests. The person who can round up the most friends, wins. In such a scenario, someone new, talented and unheard of never gets a look in. It can often seem that in contests of skill or talent, physical beauty and youth can be what wins the day. I once saw a bardic contest won by a young, slender, pretty creature who did not know her song, lost her word sheet several time and had to pause and restart, while slick and well rehearsed efforts from older, rounder and less pretty people went unregarded. And quite frankly, that kind of thing makes me really frustrated. Losing to the better person is no shame at all. Losing because your face doesn’t fit, or you haven’t done enough ass licking, is not funny.

When it comes to sports, it’s usually fairly easy to ascertain who the winner is. They lifted most, jumped highest, ran furthest, fastest and you can measure that. Where the nature of the activity does not automatically define winners and losers (ie writing poetry) there enters in a subjective element. An element of judgement. A matter of preference. Someone decides, based on whatever they like, who was best.

A couple of years ago I found myself in the strange situation of judging in a poetry contest (they picked random people from the audience). I was not popular as a judge, I got booed a lot by the audience because I did not give high marks to the contestants who were simply working to shock, or to induce emotional responses without having any meaning or wordcraft in the mix. I’m sure there were people that night who felt cheated by how I had judged them. But, I set my own criteria, as required and it being poetry, I put wordcraft before stagecraft, and depth before shiny surface and paid no attention at all to how pretty any of them were. Or how many cheering friends they had brought along. I learned along the way that I prefer not to get into competitive things. I have no problem with anyone else doing it. If I am going to compete, I would rather play chess (at which I am rubbish) than get into something painfully subjective, like a poetry slam, or one of those publically humiliating popularity votes. Because I’m not popular or pretty enough for either. Or perhaps it’s easier for me to see it that way rather than risk pitching my limited talents against the greater skills of others. See, told you I was cynical and jaded!

However, if that sort of thing does float your boat… my lovely man, who is much braver than me, is currently taking part in a contest to pick cover art for the next Professor Elemental CD. http://www.professorelemental.com/fr_home.cfm You might want to wander over and consider which, in your subjective opinion is the best bit of art, by whatever criteria appeal to you. And of course this might not be about the art at all, it might be one of those ‘bring a friend’ scenarios where the person with the most chums, or in some cases, email addresses to deploy, wins. I’ve seen that done, too. Plenty of fairish voting systems can be beaten by a couple of people with a lot of email addresses. Fortunately this poll will recognise your computer, so you can only vote once a day. In the meantime, enjoy the art!

Bards to sing their praises

One of the functions of historical bards was to sing the praises of heroes, great leaders and other worthy figures. To be ennobled in verse by a bard was to have a place in history, and when you’ve got a culture that doesn’t leave a written record, being part of the oral tradition is the only way of being remembered.

However, praise does not have to be the just the business of epic poetry, and doesn’t have to just be about war heroes. It’s something that any of us can choose as an aspect of daily practice. It’s a way of integrating your Druidry into ‘normal’ life, you can see it as part of your service, and it has a lot of powerful effects.

From an individual perspective, the giving of praise is currently seen as a way of developing your self-assertive skills and therefore can help raise self esteem. Giving praise is one of the easiest kinds of opinion to offer – let’s face it, very few people are going to reject praise or give you a hard time for praising them, so if self assertion is a difficult issue for you, praise is a safe way in. There’s also the fact that it feels good. We don’t have a culture that praises, so it may feel a bit odd at first, but it’s such an inherently lovely thing to be doing.

Having work recognised is the most tremendous morale boost. That’s as true for artists as it is for the person who just washed the kitchen floor. Recognition gives a sense of self worth, a feel-good reward for the effort made. Knowing the work had a value to someone else makes it easier to keep working. Knowing your efforts are recognised saves you from feeling taking for granted. It’s all good. While money is frequently an issue for people who live by their creativity, it’s not the be all and end all. A few words of encouragement, a round of applause, helps keep a person going. If you can’t pay your bard for their efforts, let them know you enjoyed what they did.

It’s easy to take things, and people for granted. Why thank the person who was just doing the job they were paid for? Why honour the person who was doing what any decent person should be expected to do, in the circumstances? Because it isn’t always as easy as it may look from the outside. Just because there is money doesn’t mean recognising the value doesn’t matter. A word of thanks, praise or appreciation can turn drudgery into something meaningful.

When it comes to children, there are learning implications around praise. The child who is only ever told off and criticised will have low self esteem, little confidence in their abilities and may come to think there’s no point even trying. The child who is praised for their efforts and progress feels good about learning, is motivated to learn, consolidates their successes and is likely to do better. More carrot, less stick.

There are also implications for relationships. Giving praise to those around you is a simple way of reinforcing bonds, be those of family, community, work colleagues, or amorous in nature. Praise shows appreciation, it shows that you value and enjoy those around you. This in turn improves their sense of self, their morale, their enjoyment of life, and probably increases their positive feelings towards you. Once a culture of praise is established, you are more likely to receive praise in return, which is a bonus.

There are many things it’s easy to be stingy with, without even noticing it. Praise is one of those. Being generous with praise is incredibly powerful though. Voice your gratitude. Honour those who take care of you. In praising what is good, you shift your focus towards the good things and away from the less good things. It’s win all round.

I’d like to round off this blog by praising a few people publically. Dalia Craig, my editor, who goes far above and beyond the call of duty on a regular basis, makes words look beautiful on the page, and is endlessly patient with my foibles. I would like to praise Robin Herne, running this weekend’s Pooka’s Pageant (to raise money for a Hare charity) and kindly giving me some performance space as I come out of hermitdom. Running events is hard work, takes considerable skill, a lot of nerve and vision. Wendy Stokes running the Lightworker’s Hub, always supportive, nurturing, generous with her experience and wisdom.

There are many more who deserve public acts of gratitude. I shall catch up with them where opportunities permit.

And thank you, to all of you who leave insightful, inspiring, challenging, provocative and enlightening comments here (especially Alex, who hardly misses a day). Much appreciated.

The importance of messing it up

Success is not a great teacher. Oh, it’s very pleasing when everything goes smoothly and well. It can be a great sop to self esteem. The ritual that runs perfectly. The project that finishes without hiccup or error. That kind of success can encourage us to feel perhaps more competent and knowledgeable than we really are. Mostly that’s not a problem, although it can mean when we get into trouble, we’re even less prepared for it. It’s not always obvious with success as to why, exactly, it went right. Often, we take success at face value, not analysing why we got it. Failures tend to make us think more. It’s important to consider both.

Mistakes invite consideration. We tend to want to know where it went wrong or why it fell over, and from this, we learn. We also learn about what matters to us. It’s very hard to do anything if you aren’t prepared to risk error. If you don’t have the space to mess up now and then, how can you move out of you comfort zone? If you aren’t allowed, by yourself or others, to be wrong once in a while, or to make mistakes, then where is the scope for growth? I think culturally we push too hard, we don’t give people enough learning spaces, we don’t accept fallibility enough. It’s not just human to make mistakes, it is necessary.

I gather from what psychology I’ve studied that we have a locus of responsibility that we attribute things to in any given situation. Some people view themselves as all powerful, some as entirely powerless. An event happens, and we see the win as entirely of our making, or as pure luck. We get knocked down by life, and we see it as our fault, or as inexplicable misfortune. Of course you can pick and mix. The person able to see every success as proof of their own skill, genius and entitlement, and every setback as pure fluke, will be very happy in themselves, although not well connected to the rest of reality. The person who sees every success as just luck and every failure as deserved will spend their days miserable, and also will be out of touch with reality. In practice all that comes to us, for good and ill, will be a mix of things of our making, and not of our making. Anyone who wants a meaningful relationship with reality needs a nuanced approach to this, not an assumption.

How we understand our mistakes is just as important as what we do with them. If it’s never your fault, then you will never bother to learn or try to change. If you are unassailably perfect, then you have to look for reasons outside, the external locus of responsibility an essential to maintaining your illusions. And equally, if you don’t think you are capable of being better, or getting it right, or you believe the gods are going to punish you no matter what you do then there’s still no reason to bother. Failure does not have to be viewed as punishment or divine judgement. It doesn’t have to be viewed as a one shot deal, either. Most mistakes can be done over. So long as nobody died, it’s usually not insurmountable. Messing up once does not mean it’s pointless to try again. It takes courage to try again, to risk further humiliations, further hard lessons about the limits of our understanding and ability. The person who doesn’t risk those blows will never be more than they currently are. They won’t let themselves.

In Druidry this matters a great deal. Those new to ritual need the opportunity to make mistakes, to fluff lines, forget running orders and make all the errors of learners. If there’s no humiliation, no punishment, just encouragement, then there is room to grow. And for anyone leading, there needs to be a sense that perfection is not called for. Perfection in ritual is not possible, the person who has to guard against mistakes will never be as open to the awen, or the flow of the ritual. Fear of failure cuts you off from so many things. In the Bard path, room to mess up is vital. That first, nervous public performance will not be as good as you wanted it to be. They never are. Voices wobble, sweating fingers slide on strings, chords are stumbled over, words forgotten. The two seconds of pause between verses will be an eternity of hell your audience probably doesn’t even notice. But if at this point you say ‘I am a failure’ you’ll not do it again. All the great bards who share their skills at rituals started out the same way, and all of them, at some point, will have messed up in public. It is an unavoidable, and necessary part of the path.

Messing up keeps us human. It keeps us realistic about our less than godlike natures. The fear of messing up keeps us working, practicing, striving. The willingness to mess up keeps us experimenting, creating, and testing the boundaries.

Learning by heart

I’ll start by saying that I detest rote learning, the kind of learning where you are just forcing facts into your brain, usually with a view to regurgitating them in an exam and then forgetting the lot. That kind of learning does not generate wisdom or feed inspiration very often.

However, dedicating a lot of material to memory was very much the work of the ancient Druids and Bards, as far as we know. They didn’t write anything down, it was all oral transmission and memory. Most of us don’t go in for that kind of learning at all, but it’s very different from being able to recite a multiplication table. Being a bard is about making the carefully learned words come alive, in the moment.

Yesterday I watched a group of children put on a show. There was about an hour and a quarter’s worth of material there – songs and dialogue The oldest children were 11, the youngest, I think 7. That’s a lot of material to have got to grips with, in a matter of a few months. A great deal of work, dedication and repetition went in to getting them there, and the result was stunning. It’s amazing what can be done when there’s a will to make it happen. But if you suggested that kids ought to have an hour’s worth of learned material in their heads, complete with actions, I don’t think many people would see that as a good use of the child’s time.

I recall being at a druid event some years ago, with no formal entertainment, and people, less than perfectly sober people, trying to amuse themselves with songs – frequently half remembered ones at that. I have enough performance level material in my head to run for a good four hours flat out – tunes, songs, poems and stories. In practice, my voice is not up to more than 2 hours of uninterrupted performance. Probably less these days as I haven’t done the epic busking stints in a while. It’s long been natural to me to have a reservoir of learned material I could draw on, and this event made it apparent to me that for many people, that pool of bardic lore isn’t there. Which is a shame.

There’s something magical about dedicating yourself to a piece of art – be that a dance, a tune, a song, poem or story. Giving yourself to it so that you can learn it, means that it in turn becomes a part of you. There’s time taken to understand the relationships between each note, each nuance of the words, how an arrangement might shift it and make something new of it. Learning the song, or the story is all about understanding it and having a real relationship with it. It tangles into your soul. The stories we tell, the songs we sing become a part of who we are. They enrich. And when the power goes off, we have some way of passing the time.

Community music, dancing with people, and all these kinds of sharing are really bonding activities. You can’t forge those kinds of bonds by sitting around and watching a television program together. You can’t do it on facebook, either. The immediacy of something shared is powerful. The offering of song or words is one of the best things I think anyone can bring to a ritual.

It does take discipline and effort, but that’s no bad thing. What it gives us in return, is far more than the cost. A gem inside your head is with you for life. Sharing it enables you to give something beautiful to others over and over again.

And the more you learn, the easier it gets to learn.

Irony and Druids

I read a lovely piece in the Guardian this week – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/30/enough-irony-art-eurovision?INTCMP=SRCH  talking about the horrors of modern irony. As a culture, we embrace the idea of things that are ‘so bad they’re good’. Starting from hideous incompetence, painful mediocrity and other such shortcomings, we can make a TV program by mocking the afflicted and having a laugh at their expense. What it gets us is a hollow sort of thing, joyless, destructive, and facilitating the use of worthless rubbish as ‘entertainment’. The writer concluded by saying that the most subversive thing a person can do in this climate, is really care about something.

To my mind, the old fashioned, Druidic image of satire and irony is a good one. It should be there to bring down the pompous, not to bolster them up. Irony should be used on politicians, journalists, anyone whose trade involves too much power and not enough value. Irony and the laughter it draws are the weapons of the powerless against tyrants and fools. This is important work. But when the reality is that we are spoon-fed rubbish and told to feel smugly superior in face on it, that’s not proper irony. It’s just allowing people to sell us facile nonsense. And of course the person who does not get the joke, the person who goes ‘that is a crock of shit’ can be knocked down for not being cool enough. The Emperor has no clothes on.

I am not cool. I am not even slightly interested in being cool, or having people think me cool. I want funny things to laugh at, and soulful things to be moved by. I want to care, not only about my real(ish) life, but also about the unreal things that are offered to me for my amusement. I’ve been accused of being a snob plenty of times mind – for not liking computer games, or predictable genre fiction, for not being tolerant enough of other people’s innocent pleasures. Part of the problem is, I don’t see the innocence. Hours spent killing imaginary people in computer games does not seem innocent to me. It seems like a way of desensitising a person to violence. I am never going to be persuaded that violence is fun. Nor do I think that the five minute celebrity cult of reality TV is innocent. The less said about manufactured pop-disasters massacring old songs in the pop charts, the better. This whole approach to entertainment stifles creativity. You can’t feed off the old stuff forever, but X-factor and its conies make it harder for real artists and creators to get a look in. How do you compete with someone who gets that much screen time?

So you won’t catch me celebrating much as being ‘so bad, it’s good’. It’s such an easy way of justifying rubbish. It’s lazy. I’m much more interested in the idea of things that are inherently good. So many people don’t seem to believe in that ideal any more. I’d like something so good, it’s great. Something so good in makes me laugh until I worry about wetting myself, or cry until snot comes out of my nose. I want something so good that the awe of it literally knocks the breath out of my body.

When I saw the painting ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’ for the first time, in Bristol, I was reduced to tears. I don’t want to be cool, I want to be overwhelmed with emotion, inspired to new heights of passion and sensitivity. I care, and I care about a lot of things. Crap irritates me. Dull, predictable, low quality things irritate me. Give me something unpolished and heartfelt any day. I’ll listen to a middle aged man singing the folk song he loves any day in preference to some bling laden girl prancing on the TV mangling  some variation on a theme of ‘ooh, ahh, baby, yeah’. It doesn’t have to be shiny, to be good. It needs to be cared about. Enough of the unsatisfying surfaces, I want something real.

That’s why you’ll find me hanging about with pagans and steampunks, with artists, bards, musicians, people who dare to care about what they do. The good stuff is out there, it just takes a bit of finding.