A Conversation with Mistress Leofwen, SCA Bard

I met Mistress Leofwen Cryccthegn, mundanely known as Jennifer Nestojko, when my spouse and I recently moved to the West Kingdom. She is a Laurel, having achieved the highest recognition in the Society for Creative Anachronism for her expertise in writing Anglo-Saxon poetry. As someone who enjoys the Bardic Arts, and listening to performances of music, poetry, and storytelling, I appreciated getting to know her. I invited her here to talk about Anglo Saxon verse, and the Bardic Arts in general. Take a seat, and check it out!

Q (Infamous Scribbler): Tell me a bit about your area of expertise. What do you do? How long have you been doing it? Where do you share or publish your work?

A (Leofwen Cryccthegn, mka Jennifer Nestojko): I have several areas of interest in writing, and have had two short story sales, but in the SCA I am known for my poetry. I do many forms of medieval poetry, and my specialty is Anglo-Saxon style alliterative verse. I have written a few pieces in Anglo-Saxon as well, which is an interesting process. I begin with a modern English version, translate it into Old English, and then translate it back into a poetic modern English version. It is fun playing with the languages.

I first started writing alliterative verse at least twenty years ago, though thinking about that span of time is a bit mind-boggling. I’m pretty sure it was only a few years ago, right?

I share my medieval poetry orally in performances and at bardic circles, and I also send pieces in to the local newsletter betimes.

Q: Can you share with me some of the story of your journey? What first interested you in what you do? What were some challenges along the way?

A: In college I took a class in Old English, and I was hooked. It was a tough class, but it was fascinating. The language and the literature and the time period certainly evoked something in me, although much exposure to Tolkien since I was a young child probably primed me for that reaction. I took the next class as well. I then played with the language and poetry a bit. When I went to grad school I was overjoyed to be able to take another class in the language.

It seems I have an affinity for the rhythm of alliterative verse, and I certainly did not start with an affinity for sonnets. I couldn’t figure out how to write in iambic pentameter until I finally realized that I tend to start a line with a stressed syllable, which is certainly not iambic! I love the imagery found in Anglo-Saxon poetry, as well as the variations on tone.

I am challenged by the fact that a bit of time has passed since those classes and that I am not all that confident in my grammar, because the grammar can be a bit tricky. Most people won’t catch the mistakes, but there are a few people I know who can. They keep me honest and humble.

Q: What in particular do you find most satisfying about your work?

A: I find being able to find the right combination of tone and imagery and rhythm very satisfying – especially if others feel the power of the piece as well. It is deeply satisfying, and it is a connection with a distant world that lurks deep in our culture and modern language and traditions.

Q: What do you find most challenging?

A: I find my own inadequacies most challenging. I have so much to learn, so much to improve upon, so much to try. I’ve barely started.

Q: What piece of advice would you offer someone interested in this field? What piece of advice do you find yourself giving over and over to people who are hoping to learn from you?

A: Enjoy the process, play with words and images, make mistakes, but then improve your craft and keep learning. Recognize that it is a craft and learn the structure. Don’t throw a bunch of alliteration together and call it a poem – learn the patterns of alliteration that are part of the form. Play, but then improve.  Don’t dismiss your potential to learn and create.

I sometimes partner-write with people to help them learn the form while doing it and to give them confidence. I wrote once with a friend who had been challenged to do a piece but didn’t know how. The resulting poem was mostly his own; I just guided him through it and gave feedback. It was fun facilitating that experience.

Q: What work are you most proud of, and why?

A: I found translating the chorus of “I Melt With You” satisfying, because I was turning Modern English into Old English, because I’m a dweeb that way. However, of my alliterative verse, I think I am proudest of my stepdown piece as Bard of the West, which was modeled after the poem Widsiþ.  It is my own piece, but it clearly is in the tone of the older poem. Besides, I prefaced it with a translation of a verse from the Bauhaus song, “Spirit”, so it has that.

Q: Anything to add?

A: One of my classes is 12th grade English, and I do Beowulf with them. I love having them write heroic boasts about doing chores or write riddles in the style of the Exeter book. I have had them write alliterative verse as well, and some of the pieces are great. One was a heroic piece about shopping on Black Friday. It is hysterical. I think playing with language is essential, and it leads us into more serious moments. There is some very introspective poetry in Old English, and some of that adapts quite well today.

~ ~ ~

Yppe wearþ scip ligyþe; ic binde þu mæste,
þinre banhuses oferborde gledde,
mærþleoht nealles abitt.

                           (P. Murphy, “Spirit” )

For long years I yearned to tell tales of yore,
to weave my words into patterns of wonder,
as a smith makes strong the corslet of mail,
a many-whorled miracle to be worn in battle;
I hoped that my hearers would take heart at my song. 

So time passes and the Western sun sets.

In combat with great ones I clashed, cut down I fell,
rising again to a new rede, unraveling new riddles,
with feather and ink, with faith I looked to the future,
seeking always a song that would speak to my kinfolk;
after each battle I arose ever stronger. 

So time passes and the Western sun sets. 

My poems have been heard, my place before princes set,
my king and my queen bid me come, my kinfolk heed me,
my voice speaks to the valour and victory of the West.
A royal bard, I do the bidding of those bound in fealty,
by the hearthfire my humble song speaks of heroes. 

So time passes, and the Western sun sets. 

So all things shall end, so I must leave my office,
making way for another to mind our memories.
She is strong and her song swells with wisdom.
I leave, though not vanquished; my voice holds its value,
I still am a wordsmith waiting for those who wish me to sing. 

So time passes, and the Western sun sets. 

Lange gearum ic orðede asecgan giedd fryndagas,
awefan wordes into  bisenum wundre,
swa smiþ  hiænaþ heresyrcan,
hring-fag þeodwundor in feohtlace werian;
Ic hopede min gehierenda woldon habbaþ heortan æt min leoþes.

Byre beleoraþ þus, seo westerneu sunne gryndaþ.

In anwiges wiþ eormenþeode ic hlemmede, aheowon, ic ahnag,
eftarisan to niwum ræde, arafian niwum hriddel,
wiþ feðre ac atrume, wiþ leafan ic forelocede forþgesceaft,
ic cunnede æfre cantic min leoda to cweþenne;
æfter ælcum beadwe a swiþu ic bewod. 

Byre beleoraþ þus, seo westerneu sunne gryndaþ. 

Leoþcwides heorcnedon, stede ætforan cynigum astealde,
cynehlafordes ac cwene bebead me cume, min cynna me hedaþ,
wordhleoðores soðaþ wig ac hreþ Westrices.
Cynesceop, ic hlyste ciegereas hæsena, him hyldajjum cnytton,
by heorþe geeaþmodra heortleoþes recþ beornas. 

Byre beleoraþ þus, seo westerneu sunne gryndaþ. 

Eall arþing lunnon, min folgoð þearfe lætan,
aredian weg to oþre; heo wille ure  worda mimorian.
Heo strang is, hire sanges wiþ wisdome swile wordhleoðores.
Ic læte, unadwæscedlic; wordhleoðores heolde weorþes,
Ic beo wordsmiþ giet, forbyrde hie wilnaþ me asingan. 

Byre beleoraþ þus, seo westerneu sunne gryndaþ.

 

Leofwen Cryccþegn
June Crown A.S. LI

 

 

 

 

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