Judith Rodriguez’s speech – Laureate Launch

Further to the previous post about our Laureate Launch, which saw the revival of the Melbourne High School student literary publication, Laureate, here is special guest,  Judith Rodriguez’s, speech in full, including the poem she composed especially for the event.

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LAUREATE Melbourne High School, South Yarra, 4pm, 26-06-2013

What a wonderful thing is a school magazine. I want to congratulate Mr Bryant on bringing the creative side of the school magazine to life in this splendid publication. And at the beginning, before I bore you with other stuff, I would urge those with exact eyes to volunteer as copy-editors – another great writer’s skill.

What should I say about writing? How it gives you bags under your eyes, results in your home being cluttered with books and DVDs, leads to late nights and aggrieved correspondence with magazine editors? (Shakespeare knew all about it, and the Shakespeare poster in your library says it all –  “my eyes strain, my hands in pain”.)

As I thought of all this, it occurred to me to ask, how is a writer formed?

For instance, how might Shakespeare have got the urge to write? Let’s go back to his schooldays. Here’s a boy, the son of the town glover – a maker of gloves, very much needed to keep fingers usable in a coldish part of England’s history – still recorded are the years when the Thames froze over – for a town whose homes had fires in only the principal room or rooms, depending on your wealth. You might have just one little fire of sticks collected in the woods and along the hedgerows. Lucky townsfolk with gloves!

Now you’d expect this boy to become a glover, apprenticed to his father or another glover. Or to turn a reasonable inheritance to account and buy land or houses.  (The second would depend on happy fortune, not a good bet as it turned out – John Shakespeare, for a while a prosperous alderman, in later years lost a good bit of money though the family retained its house on a busy street of Stratford.)

What could lead the glover’s son out of the trade workrooms and shops of his regional town?

When reading about my father’s county, Northamptonshire, in a series of books about counties produced by anthologer Arthur Mee, I discovered something I had not previously known. And that was, that the glory of England’s political and literary life was based on a flowering of schools. A customary way for prosperous citizens to thank their community for childhood joys or whatever kick-off they had into a productive career, was to endow a village or town school. Some date back to the middle ages, many to the Tudor renaissance – you’ve got to remember that the public service, where commoners, ordinary untitled people, could become ministers and secretaries in the service of the king and noblemen, began in the time of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I’s father. Literacy no longer hid in monasteries; now, learning could lead to a secular, professional career. Before that, the nobles themselves were the diplomats and legislators.

Arthur Mee’s book not only gave the names of founders of schools, it noted schoolmasters whose names and reputations had survived – graduates of this or that university, kindly or brutal, esteemed for learning or for other qualities. Many became leaders in the communities which had engaged their services. And more and more men could acknowledge their debt to non-monastic schooling – at first, if the family was wealthy, with a home tutor, but otherwise in humble buildings with some local literate person, learning letters from the hornbook and the figuring needed to do accounts. Promising pupils who had or found financial support prepared to go – often sent away to board – to grammar school. At a grammar school boys had to learn to read and write Latin – even Latin verses – in order to have access to classical and renaissance philosophy, ethics, history and political thought as well as literature. Europe to this very day takes a lot of its organisation and imagery from classical Roman and Greek culture. From which the laurels of Laureate come, the bay-leaves of victory that crowned Apollo and were awarded at the panhellenic Pythian games and to great poets.

Well, back to Shakespeare: when important visitors came to town, schools in his time did turn on plays and masquing performances devised by teachers, with the boys acting. It’s believed the glover’s son attended Stratford Grammar School, which is still standing – founded 200 years before his time, in 1553 under King Edward VI it was renamed “The King’s New School of Stratford–upon-Avon”.  There in the 1570s he probably took part in acting , in Latin, the bloody and sensational tragedies of the Roman poet Seneca or the comedies of Plautus. Or an English play in the same vein, like the marvellously-named Gorboduc. One of his early plays, Titus Andronicus, is very like Seneca’s plays of politics and war – loyalty, betrayal, revenge. One of his light-hearted early plays, The Comedy of Errors, is close to an adaptation of Plautus’s Menaechmi, and all his comedies use features of Roman comedy, such as mistakings, disguises, and master-servant mischief.

So I wrote a sonnet about acting at school making a schoolkid ambitious.

NOT TO HAVE READ

Not to have read in a play at school –

the pity of it, Iago! Not to order

a horse, or the head of a senior boarder,

or lights there, ho! Not to be cruel

or a hero, the life of a banquet or duel,

not in your dead-dull days to have heard a

laugh erupt at you bent on murder,

or leaden silence as you play the fool –

Everyone needs their forty-eight lives;

Will has them in his ink-pot. Listen

to yourself, for a wonder, welling words,

skull or schooner in hand, you could write

all the best parts, plotters and princes,

your headful of legend striding the boards.

So that is the way I read Laureate. It’s not hard to see tomorrow’s writers of stories, poetry, journalism, and essays among these writers, and tomorrow’s artists, illustrators and page-designers among the contributors.

I particularly enjoyed the work in the section “Creating and Presenting”. Non-fiction js a demanding discipline. Reporting can be misinterpreted as a brief for making news without naming sources, as we see in some of the more shameful political reporting today. But photojournalism can unite the strong impression of the visual with the beauty and precision of words. And in public essays we find the most thoughtful digestion of public affairs and social mores. Among the items based on history and known happenings I confess to enjoying the 3rd Duke of Alba’s cunning political letter to Good Queen Bess.

I was astonished at the high standard of pieces written for possible insertion in, or adaptation of, writing by Peter Carey and Tim O’Brien. These show profound and careful readings of the text, allied to ingenuity and imaginative outreach.

The fiction of the first section made me conscious of the emotional ferment of students in their teens. Vividly alive to hurt, humiliation, oppression, as also to joy and fulfilment, they took various theatres of activity to present often extreme agonies and ecstasies. The poets were particularly interesting in their ekphrastic poems – takes on pieces of art, including the great Tiepolo of Cleopatra’s feast with Anthony that graces the NGV.

So keep writing, keep making art, and keep editing! I expect to hear a writer or an artist in, say, five years, paying tribute to the learning experience of seeing his words and images in print. And maybe in fifty years – but I shall not be round – you will hear fellow-students saying, “Ah yes, my first publication was in . . . “

Let’s all cheer Laureate on its way , even as you start work on the next one.

Judith Rodriguez

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