All posts by Joshua Prentice

Writing at Home, Writing in Nature

I have always wanted to go to a poetry retreat center of some kind, and write in the mountains. For years I wrote during my commute to and from work, on the DC metro. But of course I don’t do that anymore. I would hear of other writers who had a dedicated place to write — an outdoor shed turned into a writing studio for example. I wanted that. I wanted some place with a window to mountains and nature, some place to milk the Muse juice from my head.

Coming here, I finally have my wish. In case you missed my previous post, nature surrounds me. Monkeys and bison galore. Mountains and fog and beautiful flora. Scattered Eucalyptus bark.

This past weekend my family took a trip to Munnar in the state of Kerala. As we drove away, I was very happy to know I was coming back. The Western Ghats are so beautiful. And as we drove down the mountain, I realized that aside from living close to family, this was the first and only time I have ever gone on vacation — or left home home to go anywhere — and feeling like I had to come back. Never before has “home” been a place of necessary return.

 We passed so many tea farms, hundreds of thousands of tea plants. I can also identify a coffee plant for the first time in my life. After we arrived, Ketaki and I left the boys at the hotel in search for tea, and just happened to find it at a tea stall outside of town. If we hadn’t stopped there, we would have missed the best view we had the entire trip and we would never have taken this awesome video.

Yes, I feel like the world I now call my home is that peaceful gorgeous place I have longed for, that place where I can write and not feel jealous of other writers and their writing places. It is a place where the full potential of art can be realized.

Writers and artists reading this, why is place so important to create?

Nature and its animals

We have monkeys here, and a few wild horses. We can hear birds with strange calls in the morning, including one that sounds like an alarm clock. At least to me.

And of course, the cows are everywhere.

But the most interesting and fun animal to see might be the bison. They are gigantic beasts, and while they look slothful, they are quite fast, can charge, and have been known to seriously injure people. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should be afraid of them. If you run away, you are at risk of being charged. If you walk away, they won’t harm you. If you watch them, they will watch back. If you tease them or annoy them, you are putting yourself at risk.

A couple days ago I walked right up to one, not knowing it was there until my younger son pointed it out. He must not have been more than fifteen feet away from me. I just turned around and we went to town using a different route. The other morning while I slept my wife woke up to one in our front yard eating breakfast. Again, no more than fifteen feet away.

She took this video:

The best analogy I can make for folks back in the States is deer — they live in the woods around you, but you don’t see them as much as you do, say, squirrels, so it is a bit fascinating when you do.

My son Noah and I saw a family of five walk right by our front door this morning as well.

While we love the animals that come our way, sometimes we have to go their way when we want to see a view. Our view isn’t bad. Ketaki and I wake up in the early morning and have tea on our front porch. There is a near mountain we look at as we sip, and I wonder whether the distant mountain beside it is hidden by early morning fog, pollution, or a mix of both. We say a word here or there, but otherwise listen to the still morning.

And tell our loquacious children to go back inside.

What I have noticed during monsoon season is that, while it differs day-to-day, the general weather is clear skies in the morning, then the fog rolls in around 10-11, then it rolls out again a few hours later, giving way to rain.

So to see a view this time of year the best time to go is morning. This past Sunday we went to the vegetable market first, then went to this place called Dolphin’s Nose. It is a steep climb down rocks and large tree roots to get there, so it’s less like climbing down a dolphin head and more like climbing down Chewbacca’s forehead as he deals with a skin infection.

So by the time you get halfway down, immersed in fog (or up here, is it clouds?) your knees feel like they are about to give out.

And the way down offers an immediate difference between a hike in India and America: there is no government keeping nature free of capitalization and enterprise, so there are tea stalls at every turn with someone trying to get you to buy something. This can be nice — I don’t really enjoy packing peanut butter sandwiches when I go on hikes, but the problem is the evidence that is left behind. There is trash everywhere along the path — for Indians, the world IS their trash can.

In America, I can see myself getting upset by this, but here, it is just different. And I like stopping for tea.

The worst of the piles of trash along the walk, It isn’t usually this bad.

The rock that gives the view its name is long, but turned sideways as you walk up to it, so it is more like Dolphin’s Smashed Nose. Or Hammerhead Nose.

Eagle’s Point is a quick one minute walk away for a different view, but when we went the fog was everywhere, so we could only imagine the view. The fog was our view.

Dolphin’s Nose

Eagle’s Point

But then as we came up to civilization, the fog began to roll away and we caught a glimpse of a mountain in the distance.

On the way back, beside an old rusty
abandoned tea stall.

Monsoon Medley

The Southwest Monsoon has arrived. I can verify that with a conversation I had with my cook. She speaks little English and I speak no Tamil. But she verified it nonetheless.

Yesterday it poured, and it poured again today. There is nothing special about Monsoon here, at least not for someone new to it. The city I live in is up in the mountains where the climate isn’t as hot as down on the plains, so for vegetation it is a relief I suppose, even in this tropical area, but for human beings there is no relief from the blazing sun.

The best I can say is it is a lot like April showers back home, a warm welcome but other than that nothing to take a picture of. No dark clouds like I was hoping — that will have to wait until next year, when I go down the mountain to wait for it.

But I did take a short video from my front porch.

It is the rain of Lord Krishna, the rain of romance, the rain of renewal, the rain of relief, the rain of poetry.

My youngest son just might be a poet someday. Writing apparently is his weakest subject at school, but he can recite “The Road Not Taken” by heart, and he has a knack for homonyms.

Idli is a mashed up rice pancake that is served with dhal. He doesn’t like rice and dhal. But he does like idli and dhal. Why? It’s just rice! Yes but…

“I love Italian food and Italian food comes from Italy — get it? Italy, Idli?”

That’s my son…

Maybe it’s the Monsoon, but I did something these last two days that are generally against my rules: I wrote a poem both days in a spurt of inspiration instead of chewing on them for a while and letting them form in my head. I also did a second general no-no — I sent them off to two different publishers without sitting on them to see if they can be improved.

Then I went out in the rain and took a walk, soaking my sandals as well as the bottoms of my jeans. A family of neighboring dogs desperately wanted to to come into my house, but they were soaking wet. Eventually I let one in, dried her off with a towel, and let her rest on our day bed. But then our cook appeared for work — neither of them were expecting the other and they both yelped — the dog ran out into the rain and that was that.

Just a little Monsoon blessing — now, time to stay outside.

Waiting For Monsoon

The monsoon is coming. We’ve felt it in the air for a few days now. The clear skies have given into cloudy ones, with a bit spurts of sun every once in a while. The air has chilled, the wind has come in, the silent calm can be as deafening as the busy crowds at tourist season.

Apparently last night there was a major storm. Pine cones dropped on the roofs, wind was fierce, rain was unrelenting. I slept through it all. My wife was sure the monsoon had rolled in, but it was a storm before the storm.

When I walked to campus this morning, I looked to my left and saw a beautiful site. As always, pictures do no justice, and I knew that, but I had to take a photo.

It may be hard to see, but there are mountains in the far background, that seem to be highlighted by the colors in the horizon.

I have never witnessed the monsoon, much less the arrival of it, but the pictures…

I hope the arrival of the monsoon here up in the mountains is as dramatic as down in the plains of south India. If not, next year I will have to take the boys down.The monsoon has moved up the western coast of India, and will make its way east soon. I have been tracking its progress and assumed it would hit yesterday, but I also know it’s several days behind schedule. So I wait.

There is a great book called Chasing the Monsoon by Alexander Frater, a true story of his attempt to travel north with the monsoon to different cities to watch it arrive in each location. It is perhaps the best book I have read about India. We are encouraging our younger son to read it, and gave it to him this morning.

Once, many years ago, I went to Bethany Beach in Delaware with a large group of family members, only to have a huge winter-like rain hit the area for days. It rained and didn’t stop raining. I wrote a poem at that time, about being stuck inside as it rained on my vacation, literally.I used anapestic meter, trying to capture the essence of the rainfall. I wasn’t as good at my poetry then as I am now, but anapestic meter is hard to write, as it doesn’t sound natural, so I don’t know how well I succeeded, but I tend to think the attempt fell short.

I have wanted to write a poem about rain for a while now. Perhaps being in the monsoon, and seeing the arrival of it, will help to finally write one. At the moment, not working and being in India, my entire life almost seems a vacation. Monsoon is such a necessary natural occurrence for the livelihood of India, and it can be quite romantic to boot. Perhaps it is just the thing I need to write that poem.

Dreams and Writing Them

I have been in India for more than a week now and I have yet to have a dream about my new home. My dreams this past week have been very stressful. They indicate to me the stressful existence I lived in America. My dreams have been filled with problems at work, issues at home, economic, political and societal concerns. We came to India with the purpose of living a less stressful life and I only hope we succeed. If you’ve been to India, you know that the pace here is slower and more relaxed. And where we are in India, the hills of Tamil Nadu, will also surely help.

And yes, I do know that stress comes from within.

Last night I had my first dream about being on a plane and going on a long trip, so my guess is my subconscious has left America as well. We will see.

I have tried writing poems about my dreams — twice — with, I think, little success. Are there any poets out there with successful attempts they want to share and pass on secrets to me? I have thought about keeping a dream journal, but I never have. I don’t think it is my cup of tea. But the idea of a poem about a dream based on leaving America for a new life inspires me. At the moment, I also don’t know when I will have time to write it.

We are planning to take a half-day trip outside of town to a peaceful spot with a waterfall. Perhaps it will be enough to ignite my first dream about my new home. And then, if it does, a poem just might emerge.

A Big Move

In case you heard it through the grapevine, yes it’s true. I have moved to India with my family. My wife arrived in late April with my eldest son Zachary; I stayed behind with my youngest son Noah as I finished up work and sold the house.

Zachary, now fifteen, was thrilled to go. He has read all the ancient Hindu texts there are to read, and performs pujas, he recites Hindu myths, he chants in Sanskrit. He is a practicing Hindu through and through. His middle name is Kartik, named after the Hindu god of Just War (as in “acceptable cause to war”, not “only war”). In India everyone knows him by his middle name.

My younger son not so much. He threw a fit when he found out not only were we moving, we were moving to India. He hates Indian food and was positive he will be miserable. He has lived in the same house for eight years (he is ten) and knows nothing else as home. He would prefer it if his best friend’s parents adopted him, thank you very much. He is coming around and accepting his fate, but it’s hard.

I am a poet with Scottish and English and Irish heritage. And yet, because I am married to a woman who is half Bengali, I qualified to get a PIO card (Person of Indian Origin). This the reason behind the name of this blog. I say I am a poet, because before I worked a 9-5 in the field of IT. I was breadwinner first and poet second. I was an IT person who wrote (and published) poetry. If I were to say I am a poet the vocation never sat right.

But now I am Mr. Mom — my wife is the one with a 9-5. I do not object to working again, but my goal is to be a poet first and whatever else comes my way second. We will see how this goes.

So a declaration: I am a poet…of Indian origin.

Georgetown University professor on my children’s Beowulf book

Tod Linafelt, Georgetown University says of my Beowulf for kids:

Joshua Gray’s rendering of Beowulf for children is ‘grand and gruesome,’ just like the monster Grendel that stalks its lines. Gray captures both the fearsomeness of the poem’s monsters and the artful alliteration of its Anglo-Saxon origins, while leaving out the long speeches that would turn away many young readers. Hook the kids with this version, and hope that they will return to the longer poem in later years.

And in case you missed the sneak peak of the fabulous art by Sean Yates, go here.

Children’s Beowulf Endorsed By Benjamin Bagby

In my quest to get my children’s adaptation of Beowulf put on the big stage, this weekend I realized I had to get big names to endorse the poem.

I wanted one of the names to come from someone very familiar with the original text, and my search for who that might might be did not take long: almost immediately, I thought of Benjamin Bagby. I emailed his USA contact last night, who responded by telling me he forwarded the email on to Bagby, and this morning I got the email I was hoping for.

For those who don’t know who Benjamin Bagby is, let me fill you in: this guy memorized the first 1000 lines or so of the original text — that is, in Anglo-Saxon and not a translation of the text — got hold of an Anglo-Saxon harp by hiring someone to recreate the harp based on archaeological finds, and he tours around the country performing live in an insanely awesome one-man show. I highly recommend seeing his performance, if you ever are able to. It’s pretty incredible.

So, this endorsement is pretty big. Here is what he had to say of my poem.

Joshua Gray’s poetic re-telling of the Beowulf epic as a tale for children gets to the essence of the action with a use of modern English which is accessible and clear for young minds, listening while busily building their own image-worlds. My own experience is in telling this story to adults in a language they no longer understand, but I have the sense that this new text may well encourage very young listeners, years later (after their bedtime stories are a distant memory), to recall this tale with pleasure and to discover a vibrant curiosity to know more about the doings of Hrothgar, Grendel and Beowulf. It will serve as a wise and entertaining investment in keeping this important story alive and well in our culture’s memory, as oral poetry and a fertile field for imagination, in both children and those who read to them.

Benjamin Bagby, performer of Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon

So where are we with the children’s poem? I saw some of the images that Sean Yates has come up with, and I have to say I am super psyched by what he has come up with. The book should definitely be for sale in January 2012.

The Problems and Joys of Sanskrit Prosody

Please note: this was originally published as a note on my Facebook page.

If you read my last note, you would know that I have embarked on an epic journey, and that it involves sanskrit verse (I originally thought vedic verse, but decided that was too strict in structure). One thing important to understand about sanskrit prosody is that it is syllabic in nature and not at all accentual, because sanskrit does not have stresses in the language. What it does have is system of weights.

Instead of long and short syllables, the language has heavy and light syllables. There are several rules to determine whether a syllable is heavy or light but it can be reduced to one basic generality: if the syllable has only one vowel AND it’s a short one  AND it is followed by only one consonant then it’s light. Everything else is heavy.

“But” is light; “butt” is heavy; “boot” is heavy.

This can bring quite a few challenges, because the prosody does not translate well. Writing Sanskrit verse in the English language can be enough to send someone to the halfway house.

1. Some words that we designate as short in accentual-syllabic meter are considered heavy in Sanskrit, and vice-versa. Examples of such heavy words are: and, so, he. Examples of light words are: flag, strut, grin.

2. Neutral words don’t exist in sanskrit, for example, “they” is always heavy.

To keep my sanity intact, because the Sanskrit does not translate super well in English, I have come up with a few rules for myself.

1. Certain vowel sounds are a little harder to determine. “Can” is shorter than “cane” but longer than “cat.” I have considered syllables like “can” to be light.

2.  I have considered the two articles “the” and “a(n)” to be neutral, in that they either count as light or they don’t count. Only scanning the line tells the reader which one applies.

3. The word “to” is heavy by rule but I have made it light.

4. Words with a silent e at the end, such as “there,” or words whose singular construct would normally be light, such as “pans,” I have counted as light.

5. The letter x is made up of a k and an s sound, and so I have counted it as two consonants, making the syllable heavy. I have to admit part of the reason is to allow for proper scansion for a particular word used in the poem.

(As an aside, the words in sanskrit are actually clusters of parts of speech. I only have a shallow understanding of how it works, but basically phrases in English (grammatical groupings of many words) combine to make one long word in sanskrit, From what I can determine, short connection words don’t exist in sanskrit (at, to, or etc.), though it’s possible they are embedded in the words.)

Sanskrit is made up of quatrains called verses. Each quatrain is made up of two couplets, each couplet is made up of two padas, which means “foot,” but is really what we think of as lines. On each pada there are four feet of four syllables each, making 16 on a line. But it doesn’t stop there. Excess is allowed, but only 16 syllables are counted. I have allowed excess on only the fourth pada of each verse, and many have no excess. Also, each verse is end-stopped, which means every thought behind the verse has to stay within its own parameters. This makes it easy for revision, because I can come in between any two verses and and compose. The first pada and the second can be different or identical in scansion, but the general rule seems to be in each verse pada 1 and 3 are identical and pada 2 and 4 are identical.

Finally, as I mentioned each pada is made up of four feet. The most common form and the one I have adopted follows the pattern oooo | LHHo | oooo | LHLo | where o can be light or heavy. In the second foot, the last syllable is usually light; in the fourth foot, the last syllable is usually heavy. The first and third feet have some rules, but I have not abided by any of them because ultimately they have almost complete freedom of scansion as long as there are four syllables; I have only stuck with the strict second and forth feet rules.

Yes, this has been quite the challenge, but it has been so much fun to figure out. Indeed, in my first attempt I completely did the meter all wrong, and I had to redo the entire thing. I am only done with one small section of the first part, but in some ways, it seems like the hardest part is over. There is fun in learning a new meter, and trying to translate it to your own language. As of yet, I have found no other Sanskrit verse written in English, which has been a little frustrating because I have nothing to compare my work to or learn from, but in a way navigating through the uncharted waters that is part of the fun.

Last Days and Poet Couples

I’ve been thinking a lot about poet couples lately. I guess there are only a handful of them that go back to the beginning of time, but I could be completely wrong. By poet couples I don’t mean two unrelated poets who together defined an era. I mean two married poets, brother and sister, father and son, etc. They don’t have to define an era, they just have to be in the history books.

There are a few I can think of off the top of my head. Percy and Mary Shelly (though Mary was a novelist, I’m including them), and Elizabeth Barret and Robert Browning. But there is one in particular I have been thinking a lot about.

This summer I have been battling skin cancer, and have come off the battlefield with five holes and incisions in my right leg.Last summer, my mother-in-law lost her too-brief battle with cancer. During that time, and often since, I have thought of Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. They both fought their battle.  Donald Hall won his against colon cancer; Jane Kenyon, tragically, lost hers against Leukemia.  Hall wrote some really good poetry during these times, specifically what I have read that really touched me is his poem “Last Days” about Kenyon’s final days, the preparations they went through together to be ready (from a practical point of view), for the inevitable.

Perhaps I like this poet couple because of this connection of experience I have with them. I knew of their fights against their respective enemies, but didn’t think much of it until my mother-in-law got sick. But I did read “Last Days” before she got sick, and it brought tears to my eyes — and while my wife will tell you that isn’t hard to do, I hardly ever tear up when I read poetry.

Or perhaps because they are a modern poet couple, but whatever the reason, hats off to Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. And a low heartfelt bow to boot. I am not going to bust “Last Days,” that almost seems sacrilegious. Since I am not busting it, I can’t really put the poem here, and maybe because of its length, I can’t find a link to it. But I strongly recommend reading it, if you haven’t already