(I was one of 5 NEH recipients from New Jersey invited to present an abbreviated version of my report at the Luncheon for NEH Summer Fellows at the 1994 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Waterloo Village, NJ. This piece was originally printed in The Wardlaw-Hartridge School Update Magazine (VIII.1, Autumn 1994) and was entitled "Fresh Winds Over Earliest Foundations: Metamorphosis in Greece")
Where in the world can you study
Latin poetry in the morning, attend modern language class in the afternoon, go for an
after-lunch snorkel and swim in the Aegean Sea a minute walk from your dorm, divide up
your day between reading, writing and stimulating conversation while sunning on a pebble
beach, feast on a meal of boiled octopus, taramasalada and catch-of-the-day for dinner, go
for a night-swim in water aglow with phosphorescence and wrap up the day with a round of
singing on the roof under the stars? Only on a Greek island, of course!
This summer I was fortunate enough to have participated in the five-week long NEH Summer Seminar for School Teachers entitled "Ovid's Metamorphoses: Myth in its Physical and Poetic Landscapes" on the gorgeous island of Spetses, in the Saronic Gulf. The funding for this trip came from three distinct sources: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, and The Wardlaw-Hartridge School. My only problem in sharing the wonder of it all with you is finding a suitable place to begin.
The whole purpose of the seminar was to study Ovids great fifteen book poem Metamorphoses , a collection of metamorphosis myths from antiquity, in the Grecian landscape which serves as the setting for most of the stories, and to study it with a group of interested and informed individuals, guided by an Ovidian scholar of international repute. Although the subject matter itself is enough to ensure an interesting time, it was the seminar participants, fifteen high school teachers of Latin, History, English and French, from thirteen different states, and the seminar director, Dr. Fred Ahl, Professor of Classics at Cornell University, who really made the seminar such a smashing success.
In my application for this grant, I had written that I hoped such a summer of study would "heighten my appreciation for Latin literature and illustrate the debt it owes to its Greek roots." I had no idea that this would be merely one of many discoveries I would make this past summer. Yes, even though I knew an awful lot about Ovid before I went to Greece (having used him as the major source for my doctoral dissertation), because of lectures and discussion I did learn an impressive amount about this author and his poems, and the many other classical authors whose works we read as supplementary texts. But I did much more than just nurture the intellectual side of my personality while I was in Greece: I found that I had a creative side, too, and nobody could have been more surprised than I.
Thankfully, the seminar participants were an amazingly talented and spirited bunch. We could have spent the summer locked in an air-conditioned room arguing the merits of one interpretation over another (otherwise known as engaging in scholarly nit-picking), but we didnt: instead, we approached the study of Ovid and his influence over other major literary figures from every possible point of view. Instead of simply reading and discussing Shakespeares treatment of Ovids Pyramus and Thisbe story, for example, we staged that part of A Midsummer Nights Dream, creating wardrobe and props from whatever we had handy; Ovids treatment of the Atreus/Thyestes child-feast story led to an evening reading of Dr. Ahls forthcoming English translation of Senecas play Thyestes, which was followed, of course, by a kid dinner at the Lazarus Taverna; and so that we could follow the modern Greek presentation of Aristophanes Clouds we were scheduled to attend at the ancient Theater of Epidavros, the night before their production we staged the play ourselves. These extra events were not only immensely entertaining and enjoyable, but not surprisingly of excellent quality; many of the participants are or have been actors, singers, playwrights and directors, and our productions had the mark of excellence.
Nor did we forget that we were in Greece! Dr. Ahl was adamant about getting us to explore our environment as well as our inner selves, and Ovids poem, an exploration of mystical and magical change in nature, offers much inspiration. I will never forget reading about Cyparissus, the boy who lent his name to the funereal cypress tree. It is something to read this story, how Apollo transformed him into a cypress because of his great grief at the loss of a favorite animal, while sitting in the shadow of just such a tree on a moonlit night. Or to read Homers Odyssey while island-hopping and feel the splash of his wine-dark sea on my legs. Or to read about Lycaon, the first werewolf, and take part in a group howl at the foot of the mountain named for him.
But we didnt just witness, watch and wonder: we proudly created our own art, inspired both by the genius of Ovid and the glory of our surroundings. Every morning during seminar, Dr. Ahl would begin with an hour lecture on some aspect of classical literature or history that supplied background information for the topic of the day. A discussion of the portion of Ovids poem assigned for that day would follow. The last hour, however, was reserved for creative presentations. In fact, so many poems, narratives, monologues, letters, re-tellings of old myths from new perspectives, etc. came out of this seminar that we are planning to publish them all in an Anthology of Creative Works of the NEH-Spetses Fellows, Summer of 94.
Not only did I study the Metamorphoses this summer, but I experienced a remarkable metamorphosis of my own. Although I knew that studying Ovid in Greece would be exciting and perhaps even give me a "new perspective", I was completely unprepared for the reality of it: I became, for the first time in my life, a student and ardent admirer of nature. I perched for hours at a time on the rocks on the shore, punctuated only by intermittent dives into the sea, and then wrote Ovidian-like poems about what I saw and felt. I became one with the Greek landscape, the inspiration for Ovid and every other ancient mythographer. And most startling of all, I myself became inspired and found that I, too, had found my Muse, who supplied me with a voice I never dared dreamed to hope for. I was fortunate that some of the other seminar participants were creative writing teachers, for they became my teachers this summer, and helped me express these new thoughts and feelings.
And all of that was just the time spent on Spetses. After a difficult leave-taking, we embarked on a week-long sojourn through Arcadia, stopping in small towns rarely visited by tour buses for picnic lunches, visited many cities, museums and ancient sites, and ended our journey with a three-day stay in Athens. Everything was wonderful: climbing Monemvasia, site of Byzantine, Frankish and Venetian fortifications; entering the palace at Mycenae through the Lion Gate just as Agamemnon did on that fateful day upon his return from the Trojan War; running the stadium track at Olympia, site of the first Olympic Games and seeing in person Praxiteles' Hermes, that world-renowned statue of Parian marble; crossing over a gorge in a train attached to the mountainside by a chain; taking a dip in the Gulf of Corinth while waiting for the ferry; feeling the presence of a great unnamable magnificence at Delphi; witnessing a spectacular sunset at the foot of the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, site of King Aegeus apocryphal plunge into the sea; feeling tears come unbidden upon my first viewing of the Parthenon, spending two hours in the Mycenean room of the National Archaeological Museum...After the seminar was over, I continued my travels and visited Santorini and Crete, seat of the ancient Minoan civilization. On Santorini, I toured Akrotiri, a city buried by the eruption of Thera three thousand years ago, swam in the hot springs, and then toured the still smoking volcano itself. Then it was on to Crete with a stop at Cnossus, the legendary palace of King Minos, a walk on the oldest road in existence, and a visit to the Minoan Museum in Heraklion. The only difficult part of this trip was leaving.
This seminar was clearly more than a group of people sitting around talking about a poem written about two thousand years ago. For me, it was a combination of graduate school and camp; there was time for serious study, silliness, sudden epiphanies, creative streak-indulging, philological arguments, comparative studies, and educational lectures. The special chemistry of the participants and director, the supportive atmosphere that encouraged first time poets to present their work at seminar, and the inspiration of the seminar location all contributed to an atmosphere in which anything was possible. It is not often that teachers get an opportunity like this to indulge in a favorite subject with others as attuned to its joys, and for this revitalization of spirit I am extremely grateful. We must all remember that the best teachers are also students: the ideas and techniques my colleagues shared with me have already come in handy in the classroom, and I can only hope that my excitement at discovering my own creative streak can also help bring about similar metamorphoses in my own students.
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