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Bob's Blague

Recent Developments

I've removed the Sophocles play excerpts from the site's Translations page, now that HarperCollins plans to publish the versions Jim Scully and I have made of Sophocles' seven plays in August 2011. Some of this material may eventually be restored to this and our sister site, www.staginggreekdrama.com

I'm also one-third of the way through my critical biography of Richard Wilbur––including his fascinating and largely unknown combat service in WWII––and expect to finish the entire project by December, 2011. For Wilbur fans out there, his latest book, Anterooms, will appear in November 2010.  Read More 
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Review of HORSEGOD

Horsegod: Collected Poems by Robert Bagg

October 26, 2009
by Patrick Gillespie

• In exchange for a complimentary copy, I expressed interest in reviewing poetry by poets “in exile” – the self-published. Specifically, I was looking for poets who trade in meter or rhyme, the disciplines of traditional poetry. This book, Horsegod: Collected Poems, by Robert Bagg, was the first book I received. What a great way to start.

Me? A reviewer?

And in addition to this book, I have two more books to review. I ask myself: What if it were my own poetry? No poet wants a comment that discourages readers from reading their work.

I favor criticism that analyzes poetry on its own terms rather than according to the tastes of the reviewer. For an idea of what I mean, check out my post on Marjorie Perloff’s criticism. (What poet wants to read that his or her rhymes are too simplistic when that is precisely the kind of rhymes they are pursuing.) Poets make aesthetic choices, and my own philosophy is not to criticize them for that – but to observe. Let’s see how I do.

About Robert Bagg

Just a couple words, because there’s a perfectly good biography of Bagg at his own website. The thing worth noting (and to my profound envy) is that he met and studied with  Read More 
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THE BAKKHAI in Salt Lake City

I'm just back from a visit to Salt Lake City to attend a performance of my translation (University of Massachusetts Press, 1978) of THE BAKKHAI by the University of Utah's Theatre Department. I was persuaded to fly out after listening to some of the production numbers (set by composer Joe Payne) posted on the internet and by news that a performance scheduled at Bingham Young University on September 21st (my birthday!) had been cancelled by the BYU Theatre Dept Chair as unsuitable for BYU undergrads. (Apparently it was some same-sex kissing, the maenads' décolletage, Read More 
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"Why Perish? Self Publish"

Self-publishing has long been synonymous with vanity publishing of books that can’t pass commercial or literary muster. Most established authors recoil from going that route, though many will also have an unpublished, but cherished, manuscript on their hard drive or in a drawer. While it may never completely shake its historic stigma, self-publishing  Read More 
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Kirkus Discoveries Advance Review of HORSEGOD

HORSEGOD is moving steadily through the fairly elaborate editing and publication process at iUniverse. So far, I've been impressed by the expert attention my manuscript has received––at least as good as that provided by my trade and university press editors. The initial evaluator was extremely helpful. I accepted virtually all of his/her tough-minded suggestions and strictures, one of which led me to rewrite almost completely my early long poem in 29 Spenserian stanzas, "The Tandem Ride." Curious readers may read it now in its updated version on the Poetry page of this site. iUniverse has also made HORSEGOD an Editor's Choice, which means they'll promote it a bit. It will also be available to bookstores on a free return shipping basis. I'm not sure if that will entice bookstores to stock it, since many are wary of contemporary poetry, except by the Billy Collinses of the genre. But we'll see.

Kirkus Discoveries has issued an the following pre-publication review:

A gorgeous collection that tells the author’s life story in exquisite verse. Bagg writes that he follows Ezra Pound’s dictum, that “poetry should be as well written as prose.” This is curious advice from the Modernist master, since many believe poetry to be the more scrupulous mode—or at least one that requires more careful attention to writing. But after reading a few of Bagg’s poems, readers begin to understand how well written he expects prose to be—and how deeply that expectation has infused his work. In all his verse, the author brings the comprehensibility of prose together with the accuracy of poetry, and accomplishes a near-miracle. Many of his works recall the easy expertise of John Ashbery, another experimenter with prose poems. Listen to the unadorned, unpretentious force with which he announces his mother’s death in the collection’s opening, and perhaps strongest piece, “Ostrakoi”: “The morning Mother died, Dad walked me / through her roses: ‘It’s so unfair … Mom dying / at sixty-two.’” Such economy of language allows for the communication of complex emotion without the embarrassment of showy melodrama. (Another highlight is “The Closest Thing,” the author’s account of his brief brushes with Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, a delicious treat for lovers of 20th-century literature.) Like a well-made shoe, Bagg’s writing is comfortable, durable and put together with meticulous care. But the author is a bit of a cobbler himself, filling his works with myriad allusions to topics from Greek myth to Roman architecture to Dantean tragedy. In the curious “Notes,” the author explains some of his references, but perhaps they are the book’s only real weakness. Bagg seems desperate at times to make sure readers understand his encyclopedic mind, but readers will surely make the effort on their own.

Superb poetry from an established talent.

I agree (in part) with this reviewer's questioning of my 20 pages of notes and have dropped the ones that most poetry fans will not need.

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HORSEGOD, Euripides III, Sophocles' Outcasts, Exception Taken

I'll be publishing HORSEGOD: Collected Poems this summer through iUniverse. I submitted the manuscript this past Fall to about 15 contests and poetry publishing houses, but none accepted it, though many editors sent encouraging remarks. Every rejection letter cites the ferocious competition in the current publishing scene: 400 to 1000 entries; one or two slots for the winners. I suspect––though I can't be certain about this because, of course, I haven't had access to all the thousands of entries and the deliberations of the judges––that there is a generation gap here, or an aesthetic gap. Like most poets my age the poets whom I value and follow did not shy from making prose sense; they enhanced it, they set it to their personal rhythms and music and vision of what matters. I'm thinking of Frost, Eliot, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Moore, Merrill, Wilbur and many others.

These days there seems to prevail a reflexive prejudice against coherence; a tilt toward various forms of deliberate nonsequitor; a gravitation toward the seemingly inconsequential that invites its readers to discern in the offhand something unexpectedly momentous. There are plenty of impressive exceptions to my irritated generalization, but you catch my drift. So it seemed sensible for me to stop paying contest entry fees and use the money saved to self-publish my new manuscript.

The current contest system that publishes so many literary books these days is a kind of self-financing operation that works like a lottery: the hundreds of $25 entry fees pay for the judge, the grad student screeners, the printing costs and the 1K or 2K prizes to the winners. At least when you play poker or roulette you get to look your opponents and the croupier in the eye.

I realize that self-published books aren't reviewed, but then very few poetry books are widely and expertly reviewed these days. What any writer wants, anyway, at least as much as good reviews are, as Byron said, "gentle readers and still gentler purchasers." If a poet or a sampling of a book interests people they'll find it and buy it. To self-publish these days is simply to bet on one's self.

Not that I've renounced main stream publishing altogether. Translations of the Greeks remain popular (and who wouldn't want to team up with Homer, Sappho, Sophocles or Euripides?). Oxford UP is bringing out this year its now complete (after 37 years!) Greek Tragedies in New Translations series in multi-play volumes. So "Euripides III: Hippolytos and Other Plays" will be out in October and have the revised version of my version of "Hippolytos" in it, the one performed last October at Barnard and described in the post below.

"Sophocles' Outcasts: Aias, Philoktetes, Elektra & Women of Trakhis", co-authored by James Scully, Mary Bagg and me, is under active consideration by another publisher and we hope it will be issued in 2010.

I've also found a site, Gently Read Lit, self-confident enough to publish my piece on James Scully's poetry, "Exception Taken." It's posted on this site as well, but it now should reach a larger audience.  Read More 
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Bob's Blague

The translation of Euripides' HIPPOLYTOS staged by the Barnard Theatre Department at 8 PM on October 23rd, 24th and 25th at the Minor Latham Playhouse was reviewed as follows in the Barnard Bulletin:

Minor Latham Madness: Hippolytos Opens The Theater Season

by Sophia Mossberg

For those lucky enough to catch October’s Hippolytos at Barnard and Columbia’s undergraduate performance space, Minor Latham Playhouse, the show offered a passionate and fitting introduction to this season of Barnard-Columbia theatre, as well as the theatre department in general. While a trend in college and regional productions is to interpret classic plays in a modern context or even produce modern text based on the original narrative, Director Sharon Fogarty, a visiting guest artist who is Co-Artistic Director of Mabou Mines Theatre Company, presented Euripides’ Greek tragedy in a classical interpretation as translated by Robert Bagg. In doing so and by allowing the power of the text to transport the viewer into ancient times with its lyrical chorus laments and poetic language, the play still does not feel dated or inaccessible. Opening with only movement backed by an original choral score recorded by members of the company, flowing and intricate costumes twirled and spun as the actors took to the stage. The cast of 14 demonstrated passionate commitment to a story fraught with the perils of lust and the injustice of the gods’ mandate. Hippolytos tells the story of the downfall of a whole community as the result of Aphrodite’s vengeance for Hippolytos, who is chaste and chooses to revere Artemis instead of her. Aphrodite causes Phaidra, his stepmother, to fall in love with her stepson, therefore compromising Phaidra’s honor and sending her into a lustful and agonizing frenzy. When one of Phaidra’s nurses tells Hippolytos of her secret love for him, Phaidra believes she is a ruined woman and hangs herself. However, upon finding her body and a note from Phaidra, it becomes clear to her husband Theseus that she unjustly blamed Hippolytos for her death. Theseus exiles his son, who is killed en route while leaving, yet not before Artemis frees him of the blame and Theseus acknowledges his vindication.

An engaged and appropriately enthusiastic or lamenting chorus was joined by the charming and evil goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis, each played by three women: Cecilia Watt, SEAS’12, Eloise Eonnet, BC’11, and Tatiana Hullender, CC’10, as Aphrodite, and Khadeejah Anne Gray, BC’12, Judy Butterfield, BC’12, and Amanda Rodhe BC’10 as Artemis. Emerald Mitchell, BC’12, and Natalie Glick, BC’09, were strong as Phaidra’s nurses, and often provided comic relief to scenes bursting with fervor and emotion. Much of this fervor and frenzied emotion lay in Lily Feinn’s, BC’10, portrayal of Phaidra. Feinn’s eloquent handle on language and expressive range was among the show’s best aspects, as she physically contorted her body and gave passages with fiery delivery. Jacob Lasser , CC’12, who played Hippolytos with conviction, and Thadeus Harvey, GS, as a comic and commanding Theseus rounded out the leads. Lighting by Lucrecia Briceno was complementary of a simple and beautiful set designed by Meganne George, and provided smooth transitions that supported the shows’ relatively quick pacing. Audience member Natasha Gordon, BC’12, appreciated the use of “chanting, dance, and classic narration to bring the play to life.”

The theatre department characterizes the work its students do as a creative process that “develops in a dialogue with critical inquiry into the literature, history, culture, and theory of western and nonwestern performance, typically combining coursework in Theatre with study in other fields, such as anthropology, architecture, art history, classics, dance, film, languages, literature, music, and philosophy,” therefore indicating its combinatory nature to be incredibly versatile for a major that is thought to be so specialized. The department’s multifaceted nature rejects the notion that it is an intensely specialized major, opening it to students of all disciplines. The Barnard-Columbia theatre department has a repertoire of historically important and profound plays, and this year is no exception. Past productions include Twelfth Night and Proof, in addition to works by Gertrude Stein and Tennessee Williams. After this production, the season will continue with the staging of the Advanced Directing Class Final Scenes. These scenes will showcase Barnard and Columbia undergraduate individual works. They open at Minor Latham Playhouse on December 8 at 8 p.m., free of charge, and present the opportunity to see student directed work. Also upcoming at Minor Latham Playhouse is Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s As Five Years Pass, a surrealist piece about love and loss. The show will play from November 20-22 at 8pm.

Most students know of the staged productions that are featured during the year, and yet there is much more happening behind the scenes as creative students engage with other aspects of the department. In addition to performance, students participate in a multitude of theatre-related activities such as playwriting, directing, the study of drama, and theatre history. For the visually inclined, the department offers courses focusing on costume and mask design; these topics are just a few of many that are relative to other disciplines. . Though there are only about 15 thesis majors this year, around 500 hundred students are involved with the theater department annually. Luckily, if you are interested, there is ample time this spring and next fall to participate in theatre productions. There are plenty of ways to get involved in theatre at Barnard, even if your knees shake just speaking in class or if your schedule cannot possibly include another course elective: join the technical crew, or simply become an usher and take in the night’s show. Classes for the spring are up on the catalogue, and auditions for next year’s season will begin in the fall.  Read More 
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