The Big Idea: Ilana C. Myer
Posted on September 29, 2015 Posted by John Scalzi 9 Comments
Poets: Can they change the world? And what kind of world would it be if they could? Ilana C. Myer poses this question in her Big Idea, for her novel Last Song Before Night.
ILANA C. MYER:
It began in a college class—long enough ago. The topic was poets in Celtic myth. The text was “Guaire’s Greedy Guests,” the tale of a man who suffers from guests for whom the term “imposition” is an understatement. The host must accede his guests’ every demand, is too scared to do otherwise, for one reason: they are poets. Poetry, in those myths, had power. With words they might bring any disaster on him they choose.
The idea of a terrifying poet is incredible to anyone who has lived in our world for five minutes. Even our Poet Laureate’s greatest power is, likely, to acquire a prestige position at a university. Yet here in Celtic myth was a different concept of the poet altogether. Kings sought the blessing of poets, feared them. A life might be transformed, or destroyed, through song.
There in that class was planted the seed of Last Song Before Night. I asked myself: What would it be like to live in a society where poets were powerful? Where they posed a threat even to the king?
Immediately I thought, first of all, as personalities they would be less like poets of our day and more like rock stars. The combination of charisma, skill, and societal clout would make someone larger than life. But they’d have the pitfalls of rock stars, too—the ego traps and rivalries that characterize the arts as a whole, especially near the top. And with such characters as protagonists, the conflicts must center first and foremost around questions of art: What it means, what it makes of us, how it connects us to the world. How through art we can craft illusions to hide from the truth of ourselves, or else discover it—at times in ways acutely painful.
When Last Song opens, poets are enjoying fame and wealth although their enchantments are long gone. They reap the rewards of being rock stars without the responsibilities of true power. Ultimately the protagonists will be forced to recover their lost enchantments in order to avert cataclysm—and this can only be done at great cost.
While Celtic myth provided inspiration, I was equally intrigued by the troubadours of twelfth-century Provence, with their intricate codes of honor and problematic ideation of women. That I ended up writing the book while living in Jerusalem, a city of near-eternal summer and Middle Eastern culture, was an influence that crept in through the back door.
Beyond the influences of myth, place, and history, what shaped this story was an intense drive to create something even when there didn’t seem to be a point—everyone knows it’s hard as hell to get published. Dedicating years and making significant life choices around the completion of this book always seemed, in light of reality, a form of madness. Inevitably, the questions I was forced to ask myself over the years—why I was doing this, what art means to me—became an undercurrent in the writing.
I had hoped, starting out fresh out of college, that through the process I’d discover concrete answers. I can say honestly that this didn’t happen, but what opened up to me instead was infinitely more valuable in the end. I am excited to share it with you.
Last Song Before Night: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.
Its a beautiful book, Ilana.
I like poetry too.
Regarding poetry, at a course in college I discovered that modern poetry doesn’t rhyme—and rightly so. I later took a night school course in modern art history where I learned that modern art (like modern poetry) is not a hoax. You can imagine how these courses opened my life to new vistas, “Oh, so this is what I’ve been missing, what excites so many others.”
I’ve since learned that while commercial galleries sell “pretty,” public galleries are more like poetry, helping you to see anew. (Showing stuff you wouldn’t want to take home)
My most recent surprise vista was learning to write my own poetry, and to join recitals at the local poetry cafe. I’m amazed, and grateful that I got into it. At the good parts people snap their fingers, instead of clapping, so that the poet will not stop speaking.
I am on my glide path to retirement. I am commenting here to encourage others to get educated at a younger age than I did.
It was Auden who wrote:
” For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”
The old Dutch poet/painter Lucebert once wrote:
“All that has value is defencelesss” (‘Alles van waarde is weerloos’)
I am definitely sold on this book but I am happy enough to live in a world where poems are not the coinage of fame & power.
What a great idea! I think those old-fashioned troubadours and bards were a little less like rock stars and a little more like the three guys who beast around in a beat-up old van, playing bars most of the time, and are thrilled when they get a gig at a music festival.
“The host must accede his guests’ every demand, is too scared to do otherwise, for one reason: they are poets.”
Unfortunately, the modern day equivalent of this is Yelp reviewers.
One of the (admittedly few) things that delight me about rap music is that poetry has become dangerous again!
“The idea of a terrifying poet is incredible to anyone who has lived in our world for five minutes.”
Not “our world”. “Our country”, maybe. Go further east and you’ll find quite a few kings (or rather dictators) being terrified of poets. Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Joseph Brodsky.
I really like the idea and will certainly be reading the book. Good luck and congratulations on getting it published!
In times of limited literacy, poets were also the historians, newscasters, and political commentators of their times. They cast events and personages in forms that people could remember and repeat, and heavily influenced public opinion.
It’s easy to see poets as rock stars when you consider that the big difference between a poem and a song is that the latter is meant to be performed with music. But…I hadn’t quite made that specific analogy until you pointed it out.
Thank you for helping me find a new perspective, and I’ll definitely be on the lookout for your book!