Hello again and welcome back to my series of profiles of our talented bards. Last time Alianora Bronhulle took the stage. This time, I’m sharing the words and thoughts of THL Morien MacBain, fighter, poet, and SCAdian par excellence. Morien received a well-deserved Sycamore at War Practice, so what better time to highlight his work? Congratulations to His Lordship! – Gwen
What attracted you to the bardic arts?
I remember all the wonderful bardic circles we had at every event back in the 80’s when I started. It was mostly SF con-suite filk (Star Wars/Star Trek/ Darkover/Dorsai/etc.) and the SCA originals (Catalan Vengeance, Song of the Shield Wall) and Rudyard Kipling by way of Leslie Fish (Cold Iron, and so on), and tall tales about drinking, woods battles, and drunken woods battles. Boy, those were great nights around the fire! Plus, I was an English major and later an English/History grad student, so I was swimming in poetry all the time, so when I started producing my own poetry, I had a good working knowledge of lots of period forms and examples to draw on.
How long have you considered yourself a bard / scop / scyld / minstrel / term-of-choice?
I’m not sure any of the really cool labels really fit me. I’m a poet and storyteller, I suppose. I don’t recite epics from memory, or play an instrument, and I’d say my singing voice is a decent baritone, but nothing to get worked up about. I suppose I started singing fairly early on my Scadian career, probably around ’88. I started writing poetry in a period vein around ’95, and most of the stories, songs, and poems I’m really proud of I wrote between ’98 and 2002, which is a bit sad, now that I think about it. That being said, my production has really picked up lately after that long dry spell, and I wrote my first decent sestinas just a year or so ago, so I’m happy about that.
What’s your primary form (singer, storyteller, poet, etc.)? Do you play any instruments, and if so, which?
I used to play piano, keyboard bass, saxophone, lap dulcimer, and I made a stab at learning to play the Celtic harp, but I was mediocre or worse with all of them. I can usually trust my voice, so I stick to that. I’d say most of my work these days is as a poet, but I usually perform as a singer/storyteller. I don’t like bardic contests, though, and tend to avoid them. I like to complete, but I like to do it with weapons. I don’t like competing against someone else’s art.
Where can we find your work?
I tend to post my poetry on Facebook. I suppose I really should start a blog and post it there, so it will all be in one place. I was very pleased a couple years ago to hear one of my stories being told around the campfire at Pennsic (in first person, as though the events had happened to the teller and not to me), and later one of my songs. I’ve entered the folk tradition! I just stood there in the road outside the circle of the fire, and felt kind of immortal, and part of Pennsic on a new level.
What sorts of pieces do you enjoy producing? What attracts you to that style?
I enjoy writing marching songs. Even when I set out to write or re-write a ballad, it tends to get those boots in there. There was a lot I didn’t enjoy about army basic training, but singing on the move every day was great, and I suppose that stayed with me. As far as poetry, I mostly work in English sonnets, ottava rima, rhyme royal, Chaucerian couplets, and ballads (so mostly English language forms from the 14th to 16th Centuries), with occasional forays into ghazals, troubadour poetry, acrostics, alliterative verse, shaped verse, and novelties. I tend to stick to forms that are tightly structured, although I intend to write a play in blank verse at some point, just to see how it feels.
Describe a favorite performance of your own in the SCA. What makes it a highlight for you?
I really love singing “The Green Fields of Pennsic”, especially around the fire somewhere, usually after a couple beers, and people get their feet stomping, and their faces are glowing in the orange light. I wrote it many years ago, and it still seems fresh to me. It’s right in the center of my vocal range, naturally, as wrote it to sing myself.
Describe a performance by someone else that inspired you in the bardic arts. How did that performance guide you to improve your own art? What did it prompt you to do?
The late Lord Morgan Caer Graeme was a huge influence on me. He was at the first day event I ever went to, and he played his guitar and sang there after the fighting was over, so he was the very first Scadian bard I heard. Eventually, I joined in and sang too, taking my turn. Over the years, I learned a lot about confidence, breath control, song selection, projecting your persona, and the joy of the thing from watching him. It saddens me to think I’ll never hear him again.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m getting very interested in Spanish verse forms lately. I did a bicycling pilgrimage across Spain in 2011, and that sort of sparked it. We visited the site of a famous chivalric deed of arms in Ospital de Orbigo (on the Camino de Santiago, near Leon). There’s a period account of it entitled El Libro del Passo Honoso por Suero de Quinones. As far as I can tell, there’s never been a published translation of the book into English, so I’m going to try that. Once it’s done, I’ll get people with actual Spanish skills to authenticate what I’ve done, and then I plan to try to write a version in verse (in English, but using period Spanish poetic forms). I’m also looking at doing work in an ancient Arabic form called the Ghazal. It’s all about longing, distance, the ways in which physical love and spiritual love get tangled together, and an elusive beloved who might be a beautiful woman, or God, or in some way both at once. I’ve tried it in the “freer” modern form, but I have high hopes for doing something worthwhile in a more strict period version.
Who are some of your favorite influences, either for your own research and composition, or for performing within the SCA?
I find the following works to be immensely useful in my work: The Compleat Anachronist #44, The Troubadours, by Sylvan Glen’s own Mistress Lia, and #67 Ars Poetica Societatis, edited by Elizabeth Morris and Terry Sheehan. I suggest picking up the cheap Dover editions of The Cavalier Poets, Haiku, Selected Poems of Rumi, The Garden of Heaven: Poems of Hafiz, and all their one-dollar specials Dover does of Kipling and Yeats. Find a recording of Leslie Fish’s Cold Iron album if you possibly can. Also, go on Amazon and score copies of Through the Glass Window Shines the Sun: An Anthology of Medieval Poetry and Prose and Come Live With Me and Be My Love: A Pageant of Renaissance Poetry and Painting, both edited by Pamela Norris. While you’re on there, bag a used CD of Sting’s Songs from the Labyrinth (not David Bowie’s songs from Labyrinth, which are totally cool, but not the same). If you’d like something with a little more academic heft, try English Lyrics Before 1500, edited by Theodore Silverstein. For extra credit, grab The Service of Ladies by Ulrich Von Liechtenstein (Yes, the guy in the movie, but not really.), edited by Kelly DeVries, and the Penguin Classics version of Li Po and Tu Fu. Amazing stuff!
What other types of performance do you particularly love to see / hear?
I love campfire bardics, Middle Eastern dance, Spanish guitar, and flamenco. I also camp near the Chalk Man pub, so several nights each war I get to hear their house band (which keeps changing its name, but will always be Revelwood to me). It’s glorious stuff!
What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a bard?
Read a great deal, and listen to great poetry read aloud, both in its original language and in translation. Give yourself permission to write garbage. Caffeine for composition, preferably late at night. Sing along with the radio in your car, and be honest about what you can sing, and what you can’t. Don’t make yourself crazy when it comes to alternating stressed an unstressed syllables in iambic verse. Get the syllable count within one of your target (one syllable the more or one the less), speak it with confidence, and let in the innate iambic bounce of English to carry you through! It worked for Shakespeare. Also, fake being more drunk than you are; it helps.
Is there anything you want to add?
Yep. In my opinion, a good SCA song is like a good punk song. Four verses, two minutes, two and a half tops. If people like it, you can do another one. If they don’t like it, they only have to tough it out for four verses!
Also, don’t be offended if everyone doesn’t immediately hush for your performance. Sometimes they will, but not always. The Mandarin word for this background interaction that frames your performance is renao. Don’t get worked up over it.
A sample of Morien’s poetry:
The Silver Stag
(heroic couplets in the manner of Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, written for the Siege of Glengary)
Æthelmearc’s colours blaze from ev’ry hill,
But still her children travel with a will,
To seek a beast of glory and of grace;
No noble heart can curb from such a chase,
But warlike hunters range for worthy prey,
That never blade nor bow can hope to slay,
But thrives amidst the fury of the lists,
And renders flanks as white as any mists
That deeds of merit may thereon by writ,
And feeds alone all those who seek for it
With courtesie, prowess, and fortitude.
In fatal field must man seek honor’s food;
No fox, no fowl, nor any course leman
Yields up such meat to feast the soul upon.
This creature does the soldier sore entice,
And make of Æthelmearc a Paradise.
One realm alone can such a glory own,
It’s Sylvan Glen our Silver Stag calls home.