How Owen got started in the bardic arts:
The key points:
- My first day at camp: When I found the courage to take a stand
- The day I found my harp: When I met the muse for the first time
- The day I performed my first poem: When I found an audience
In middle/high school I did theatre. Mostly tech (lighting, sound, set,
and costume), but occasionally I got stuck acting. I got started the
summer between 6th and 7th grade when I went off to an 8 week summer camp.
I was standing in line for dinner the first night, and one counselor was
talking with another “Yeah — the problem is that all these kids will want
to act, none of them will be primarily interested in helping out behind
the scenes with the tech stuff” A sudden flash of inspiration struck me
about how no one ever achieves anything without being willing to take
I turned around on the spot and said “Who says no one wants to do
tech — my name is… and I want to learn.” This was more or less when
I overcame my shyness about speaking out, though it was several years
before I linked this lesson up with performing.
The fall after summer camp, I started playing string bass in middle
school. I was waiting for my best friend to finish an after school
violin lesson, and made some sort of half-snarky comment, which resulted
in the instructor looking up at me and saying “You’re tall enough —
tomorrow you’ll stop by and we’ll get you started on Bass. (reference the
observation in the previous story about risk-taking — I couldn’t exactly
back down). Later that year, I fell in love with harp music when I heard
Alan Stivell’s Renaissance of the Celtic Harp and made some comments about
wanting to learn harp some day.
So I went to high school, and had a serious crush on a girl in my class.
She had joined the cross-country running team, and so I, of course did, too.
(The silly things we do). The coach was also in charge of organizing
volunteers for the local Renaissance festival, and had arranged for his
team to have a games booth to raise money. So we showed up (I’d made my
own costume), and no one really had any idea what to do to draw customers.
So I listened (the first duty of a bard, right?) and figured out how the
busking thing worked, so I started calling out to people to come try their
hand at our game. We raised $500 that day, I lost my voice, and got the
assignment to be in charge of the booth for the rest of the fair. This
was when I learned that making a fool of yourself can be done deliberately
and with dignity. (That was Saturday. Sunday I learned the power of
But I never applied the (Saturday) lesson to actually get as far as asking
her out on a date. We wound up having a brief conversation shortly before
we both headed off to college, where we asked each other why we hadn’t
gotten together, but she was going to UVA having graduated a year early,
and I was probably going off to college a year early as well — leaving
HS for college without waiting for the diploma. This was when I realized
that not saying what you feel can have as big or bigger consequences as
saying, exposing your inner self, and possibly failing. If there was one
thing I would have done differently in high school it would have been to
have had the courage to tell her how I felt about her.
When I went off to college, I discovered that I missed having music to do
(the String Basses belonged to the Middle and High Schools), and the
December of my junior year in College when I was home, my dad surprised
me by saying “here’s some money go buy yourself a harp, then.”
So I drove into Baltimore and found one. There was a small,
bullet-holes-in-the-sign store across the street from Peabody Music
Conservatory, called “Ted’s Music Shoppe” I went in and there was this
huge 5 foot harp hanging from the pillar. I pointed at it, and Ted’s son
took me next door to the warehouse, where 5 bins back on the right were
several more of it. She was the third one from the right. I looked at her
and she spoke to me: “Get me out of here, NOW! and I might even let you
play me some day.” (I’m not used to having musical instruments talk to me
like that, but it was very clear and vivid). So we left. The price he
asked was exactly what I could afford. ($375 for a 5 foot floor harp. I
figure the harp talked to the owner because that wasn’t a haggled price,
and even back then (1984) that was about half of what the price should
So I had a harp. What to do with one? I spent several months learning to
tune it, and fumbling about with it. That summer I was staying in Madison
WI (University) between terms, so I went down to State St (pedestrian mall
near campus) and played street harp — there weren’t any other harpers,
the other musicians played saxophone, guitar, clarinet. I didn’t really
make any money at it, but one day this guy came walking up with a Mandolin
on his back and asked me if I’d ever heard of the SCA. (I had, from
gaming, from the Renaissance Festival, and from another group, called
Dagorhir, which I was in in Maryland while in High School.) So I figured
— “they could use a harper, even a not very good one” — so I went to my
first SCA fight practice that night.
I played harp at events for 4 years, sang a little bit with the
Jararvellir Music Guild, was Herald for the Dance Seminar (which involved
doing more or less what I’d done at the RenFest) but didn’t do any
“bardic” stuff — writing/sharing my own work (I’d gone to postrevels and
sang along, but not led anything) until the week I left Jararvellir for
Nordskogen. My girlfriend and I had suddenly broken up, and the town was
too small to have all the same friends and not be on speaking terms. I’d
spent a lot of time the month before I left hanging out at Thorbjornstead
(Thorbjorn the Greysides’ home, with him, his wife, daughter, and the
various people who lived there). The previous winter, my harp had
suffered an accident when I slipped on the ice, and Tjukka (there is only
one Tjukka) who was living there, helped me to repair it. Tjukka also
offered to help me move to Nordskogen, which was a godsend, since I had
little money at the time, and would have had real trouble getting
everything moved without him driving behind me in a van with most of my
stuff (mostly books). He was at the time staying there because he had very
little money, too, but he wouldn’t let me even pay for gas. This is where
I learned that one can speak with simple actions more loudly than with
I wrote a poem for Thorbjornstead, and read it to them the evening
before I left. (Strong blow the winds of fate to sea). A month later,
at Nordskogen Warlord tourney (the first W in WW), I performed that
piece at a bardic circle. They looked at me and said “That’s very good,
do you have anything else?” — I had to tell them that I didn’t.
I left the circle and went off and walked around the site and
“The Smith” came to me — I wrote it down and went back to the circle, and
said “Here’s another one.” And that’s when I realized that I could write
poems and that people would listen to them. But that I should expect to
have to perform them.
It was funny two weeks later when we were all in Jararvellir for their
summer event (Warriors Day, the second W in WW), and the Baroness
of my new group was talking to the Baroness of my old group, and
said “why didn’t you tell us you were sending us a bard?” “who” “Owen”
“Owen?” “yeah, nice poetry” “He does?” <blink>! <blink>?
The following spring I went to A&S and wanted to enter a sonnet, but found
out that you couldn’t enter a sonnet at regional, because it was a mail-in
category. So (after griping a bit) I decided to do something to make it
easier for people like me who wanted to share their poetry to have a place
to do so.
But that’s all prelude: when did I know I wanted to be a bard?
The Thursday after that Nordskogen Warlord, I went to fighter practice. I
had two new pieces I’d written since the event and O wanted to share them.
The first was a forgettable filk about the events of the weekend, and the
second was “Fly Dragon, Fly” — I sang them for Angus Ulrich, who had been
the victor in the Warlord Tourney, (and was therefore the subject of the
filk) — he listened to both of them and then said:
“Owen, there’s more to you than beer and twinkies”
Which, coming from him, still amounts to possibly the greatest praise
I’ve ever received.
That was when I decided to try to be a bard.