Eisteddfod (‘Sitting’): Queering Oceanic Voyages

By: Liam Lewis (University of Liverpool) and Vin Nardizzi (University of British Columbia)

In May 2022 we met at Bodega Bay Marine Lab in California to reflect on queer ocean voyages. Sitting in full view of the gorgeous ocean, we celebrated our time together as creative creatures who had taken a journey and an imaginative leap into the world of words.

Focusing on poetry as an act of creation and festival, we shared poetry and prose together in the medieval Welsh tradition of ‘sitting’ or eisteddfod. In medieval Wales an eisteddfod was a festival in which bards and minstrels competed for patronage, and the tradition continues to this day. Inspired by this rich tradition, we turned to the ocean as support and inspiration for thinking about the roles of  poetry and poetic discourse in ancient and pre-modern conceptions of sea travel. Sometimes words communicate metaphor and at other times the physical reality of water. Sitting together to listen to each other, we explored queerness, travel, and oceanic spaces through the medium of the spoken word. Our time together was a queering of normative academic practice by putting process and creation before output and completion.

Eisteddfod participants were invited to reflect on a piece of shared reading in advance: Patricia Yaeger’s ‘Sea Trash, Dark Pools, and the Tragedy of the Commons’, PMLA, 125.3 (2010). We then invited them to choose or write a short poem or prose excerpt to bring to the workshop, at which we listened to each other’s work. These were  examples of premodern oceanic writing, modern responses to the key themes of the workshop, or even some personal creations! This time together enabled us to inhabit the shoreline as a space for reflection on queer lives and spaces, and to spotlight the role of the sea and water in the act of poetic creation. 

Some of the readings were recorded, and some are visual or written word responses. Let’s explore! 

The eisteddfod began with a reading of an infamous passage from the early modern poem Hero and Leander (ll. 160-87) by Christopher Marlowe. Vin Nardizzi was our reader. The inspiration for this passage – and indeed for our workshop – were some comments made during an online reading group by Vincent Steinfeld (University of Oregon MA at the time; now UBC PhD). Listen to Vin reading Marlowe here:

Vin Nardizzi’s reading of Marlowe
But when he knew it was not Ganymed,
For under water he was almost dead,
He heav'd him up, and, looking on his face,
Beat down the bold waves with his triple mace,
Which mounted up, intending to have kiss'd him,
And fell in drops like tears because they miss'd him.
Leander, being up, began to swim,
And, looking back, saw Neptune follow him:
Whereat aghast, the poor soul gan to cry,
"O, let me visit Hero ere I die!"
The god put Helle's bracelet on his arm,
And swore the sea should never do him harm.
He clapped his plump cheeks, with his tresses played,
And, smiling wantonly, his love bewrayed;
He watched his arms, and, as they open'd wide
At every stroke, betwixt them would he slide,
And steal a kiss, and then run out and dance,
And, as he turn'd, cast many a lustful glance,
And throw him gaudy toys to please his eye

Watching the waves in Bodega Bay as the poem was read aloud brought to life the vividness of the imagery in this poem, as Neptune grasps at Leander’s body in the water!
We were gifted a multilingual reading of Italo Calvino’s  “Blood, Sea” from t zero (Harcourt Inc., 1967) read by Elisa A. Daniele. The strong imagery made us reflect on the connection between water and bodies as the narrator is a drop of blood. She reads the poem in English and Italian here:

Elisa A. Daniele’s English Reading
Elisa A. Daniele’s Italian Reading

Here’s a quick peep:

This is a distinction I might bring up to give a clearer idea of before and now: before, we swam, and now we are swum. But on sober reflection I prefer not to go into this, because in reality even when the sea was outside I swam in it the same way I do now, without any intervention of my will, that is to say I was swum even then, no more nor less than now, there was a current that enfolded me and carried me this way and that, a gentle and soft fluid, in which Zylphia and I wallowed, turning on ourselves, hovering over abysses of ruby-colored transparence, hiding among turquoise-colored filaments that wriggled up from the depths; but these sensations of movement -- wait and I'll explain it to you -- were due only to what? They were due to a kind of general pulsation, no, I don't want to confuse things with the way they are now, because since we've been keeping the sea closed inside us it's natural that in moving it should make this piston effect, but in those days you certainly couldn't have talked about pistons, because you would have had to imagine a piston without walls, a combustion chamber of infinite volume as the sea appeared infinite to us, or rather the ocean, in which we were immersed, whereas now everything is pulsation and beating and rumble and crackling, inside the arteries and outside, the sea within the arteries that accelerates its course as soon as I feel Zylphia's hand seeking mine, or rather, as soon as I feel the acceleration in the course of Zylphia's arteries as she feels my hand seeking hers (the two flows which are still the same flow of a same sea and which are joined beyond the contact of the thirsty fingertips); and also outside, the opaque thirsty outside that seeks dully to imitate the beat and rumble and crackling of inside, and vibrates in the accelerator under Signor Cècere's foot, and all the line of cars stopped at the exit from the superhighway tries to repeat the pulsing of the ocean now buried inside us, of the red ocean that was once without shores, under the sun.

You can find more of Calvino’s work at the following link: http://anthropology.mit.edu/sites/default/files/documents/helmreich_blood_waves.pdf

Hillary Eklund shared a more sombre, reflective poem by Brenda Marie Osbey, from “Qu’on Arrive Enfin”, All Souls: Essential Poems (LSUP, 2015). Osbey served as Poet laureate of Louisiana from 2005 to 2007, and teaches at Louisiana State University. Hillary reflected on the poem’s themes of enslavement and the flood, thinking back to her own experiences of swamps, flooded landscapes, and cityscapes. Hear Hillary reading parts 2, 3 and 4 here:

Hillary Eklund’s reading of Osbey

We can share a few lines here to give a taste of the words as they appear on the page:

funny, no?
how we always return to this–
the city, the life
that slavery built,
tales altogether invented
as told by historians, founding fathers, the church.
but we are sick and tired of lies, dirty tricks and fraud,
and can only wish hard-hard-hard
that the lakes, the bayous, swamps large and small
will have swallowed it all
erased it all.

You can find more of this in the full collection: https://lsupress.org/books/detail/all-souls/

Ashley Sarpong brought an innovative visual poem based on the shared reading we looked at before the eisteddfod. It’s an original poem called “Thus Spake the Sea Trash”, which we can share with you below.

“The sea functions in literature and culture as a trope instead of a biotic world or swarm of agencies. But even shadowy or unnatural tropes have real-world consequences. Figures of the boundless sea or the oceanic sublime encourage humans to treat it is an inexhaustible storehouse of goods. Oceanic ecocriticism invites us to examine the way ordinary figures of speech persist or echo forward in time; they continue to resound, regardless of their truth-value, working over and through us like a nightmare ideology.”

“How do we define ‘more than human’? Ocean plastic (a quasi-object once filled with human agency that exceeds this agency in its afterlife) fits this category. So does the waste oil swirling through the Gulf of Mexico. If ‘bright ships’ and exploding oil rigs are always leaving ‘this or that in fee’ we have to recognize literary artificats’ complicity in such acts of sabotage and embrace ecocriticism$ as a tactic for recognizing that sea trash also flows from novels and poetry.” 

“How does literature speak to a watery realm where exploitation and overconsumption are so deeply threaded?” 

“How do I interest you, reader, in the many ways in which literature lights up the financial fate of oceans? My first strategy is zoophilic; I’ve thrown around fish facts to amplify a shared sense of ocean in crisis. Second, I’ve deployed a new vocabulary, asking techno-ocean and ecocriticism to call forth a world where the BP oil spill is minor and transient: even its plumes of invisible oil offer a minimal example of the harm that comes when we accelerate the transformation of oceans into capital. Third, I’ve suggested that an analysis of inputs or externalized costs create subterranean entrances into the retail ocean”

“Ecocriticsm devolves into echocriticism, a practice of anachronistic reading inviting stories, novels, and other imaginative works about the sea to provide echo chambers, sites of wild or sober echolia, for the most pressing questions about the ocean’s and oceanic creatures’ survival.” 

“But living on the edge of hypertechnologized oceans, we need to throw our mythologies wide open. What is the loss of faith compared with the loss of the living ocean? How do we feel (or even breathe) when the ocean becomes ocean?”

“Ecocriticism$ explores the economic and symbolic logic that pushed us into this tragedy; it registers our imaginative techniques for handling the ocean’s supposed permanence, vastness, and incomprehensibility.” 

“We can approach the cyborg ocean and the tragedy of ocean wasting by thinking about the imaginary of corporate profiteering, in which oceans are places for stealing resources, dumping trash, and making money through shipping, oil drilling, and so on. Examining literary constellations of sea trash, vanished fish, and the techne of capitalist extraction offers a perverse set of terms for an ecocriticism$.”

“Wallerstein describes the environmental preconditions that allow capitalism to flourish. If the linchpin of this system is the relation between production and consumption (that is, the relation among those who own, those who produce, and those who consume), then oceanic resources, sea trash, and infrastructures like ports, ships, and oil rights have become preconditions for a more entrenched capitalist system. The sea is just another site where human relations take shape and connect through low-cost hardware and the freedom of an unregulated environment.”

Debapriya Sarkar read the evocative 17th-century poem “Similizing Birds to a Ship” by Margaret Cavendish, which made us look up to the birds swooping around Bodega Bay as we listened. We thought of long journeys travelled, and the subtle connection between water and air.

Birds from the cedars tall do take a flight
On stretchèd wings, to bear their bodies light.
As ships do sail over the ocean wide,
So birds do sail, and through the air do glide.
Their bodies are the keel; feet, cable rope;
The head, the steersman which doth guide the poop.
Their wings, as sails, with wind are stretched out wide,
But hard it is to fly against the tide.
For when the clouds do flow against their breast,
They weary grow, and on a bough do rest.


At this point we listened to a prose-poem read by Sharon O’Dair. The poem was called “At the Bottom of New Lake” by Sonya Larson (Amazon Original Reads, 2018). Sharon introduces the poem, and her reasons for reading it at Bodega Bay, below:

“In 2018, Amazon published seven short stories called Warmer: “a collection of seven visions of a conceivable tomorrow by today’s most thought-provoking authors. Alarming, inventive, intimate, and frightening, each story can be read, or listened to, in a single breathtaking sitting.” One—“At the Bottom of New Lake”—captured me because author Sonya Larson spins differently the familiar question, “What are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?” For this blog post, I’m presenting what I audaciously call a prose poem, one constructed from the story, from lines mostly by the main character, a poor immigrant girl named Chuntao Foon, who is quizzed by an overbearing white teacher about her carbon footprint and attitude toward a long-ago climate catastrophe.”

Before the Flood, people like us couldn’t walk right up to the ocean
never owned any beachside property.
It wiped out the mansions, and the rich people fled.
Underwater treasures leftover from the Flood
they were there for the taking. Rich people stuff
We got a house right on the water.
That was my New Lake, my water inlet,
my little path from the house that went directly to the water.
Like a private path to heaven.
Chuntao doesn’t burn fuels.
She rides a bike. She walks.
We are vegetarians—most of us from Guangdong are.
One lamp lights the whole kitchen, living room, and dining room,
Because in my house they’re all the same room.
I do believe in carbon footprints. I just think that yours is way bigger than mine.
The kids were smiling. Never before had I felt proud to be poor.

Liam Lewis finished the eisteddfod by reading an extract from the 12th century lai called ‘Guigemar’ by Marie de France. In the poem the main character, Guigemar, hunts a stag and is wounded in the thigh by his own arrow. He boards a mysterious ship, which sets sail to an equally mysterious island where he meets a beautiful lady in a tower. Here is the passage when the ship sets sail of its own accord. He read in the Old French and you can listen to the recording here:

Liam Lewis’s reading of “Guigemar”
El hafne out une sule nef,
dunt Guigemar choisi le tref.
Mult esteit bien aparilliee ;
defors e dedenz fu peiee,
nuls huem n’i pout trover jointure.
N’i out cheville ne closture
ki ne fust tute d’ebenus ;
suz ciel n’a or ki vaille plus.
La veile fu tute de seie :
mult est bele, ki la despleie.
Li chevaliers fu mult pensis ;
en la cuntree n’el païs
n’out unkes mes oï parler
que nes i peüst ariver.
Il vait avant, si descent jus ;
a grant anguisse munta sus.
Dedenz quida humes truver,
ki la nef deüssent guarder :
n’i aveit nul, ne nul ne vit.
En mi la nef trova un lit,
dunt li pecol e li limun
furent a l’oevre Salemun
taillié a or, tut a trifoire,
de ciprés e de blanc ivoire.
D’un drap de seie a or teissu
ert la coilte ki desus fu.
Les altres dras ne sai preisier ;
mes tant vos di de l’oreillier :
ki sus eüst sun chief tenu,
ja mais le peil n’avreit chanu.
Li coverturs de sabelin
volz fu de purpre Alexandrin.
Dui chandelabre de fin or
(li pire valeit un tresor)
el chief de la nef furent mis ;
desus out dous cirges espris.
De ceo s’esteit il merveilliez.
Il s’est sur le lit apuiez ;
repose sei, sa plaie duelt.
Puis est levez, aler s’en vuelt.
Il ne pout mie returner ;
la nes est ja en halte mer,
od lui s’en va delivrement.
Bon oré ot e suef vent,
n’i a niënt de sun repaire ;
mult est dolenz, ne set que faire.
At port was a single boat; Guigemar could make out a sail. It was a boat ready to take to sea, sealed within and without so that it was impossible to see the slightest joining. There was neither peg nor clamp that was not made from ebony–no material is more precious! The sail, all of silk, unfolded magnificently. The knight, taken aback, had never heard that a boat could take to land in the region. He moved towards it and alighted his horse to board the boat. He thought he might find whoever kept it, but there was no-one. In the middle of the boat was a bed with a frame and sides on which were engraved, in gold, the works of Solomon, mounted with cypress and white ivory. A silk fabric with gold brocade covered the bed. As for the drapes, I could not say, but for the pillows, I can tell you that it sufficed to place your head on it to be relieved of all your cares and woes. The sable fur covers were lined with Alexandrian purple dye. At the prow of the vessel two refined golden candelabras, the least precious of which was itself a treasure, held two lit candles. In wonder, Guigemar leans on the bed to rest himself as he is in pain. He gets up, wishing to leave, but it is impossible. Already the boat is on the high seas and glides to the open ocean with him inside. The weather is fine and the wind blows. Return is impossible. He is saddened, helpless.

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