Speaking extemporaneously about The Odyssey in front of audiences has become essential to my performances and maybe even my life.
For one, it's yet another way my existence as a modern bard mirrors that of my protagonist: Odysseus is just as much the King of Speaking Extemporaneously as he is the King of Ithaca.
It's also become a way for me to challenge myself and develop my thinking about the Odyssey and Homer. Nothing helps you crystalize your own ideas quite like talking in front of an audience, reacting to questions on the fly, working through issues in real time.
More than once, the intensity of (okay and maybe even a little panic) reacting to a question on stage has resulted in me speaking a concise truth that I had previously struggled to articulate.
In Memphis in 2014 at Rhodes College I performed outside in a sunken stone pavilion (full disclosure: when I wrote that just now I heard it in the same rhythm as "Funky Cold Medina:" you're welcome. Also, no, I have no idea what's wrong with me). It was a warm southern fall night and there were bats flying overhead in the dusk as I finished singing. The discussion was going great until a professor raised his hand and interrogated me as to the lack of narrative and specific Greek details in my adaptation. He finished his question (which wasn't a question) by saying: "This isn't the Odyssey."
I was aghast. This line of thought had haunted me since I wrote the piece: I had long pondered if I'd stretched the material too far, if indeed this wasn't the story of the Odyssey, if I was asking the audience to take too much of a leap between my characters and Homer's. If my take on it was so esoteric as to not be The Odyssey at all.
But I had to respond with a hundred students looking on.
The bats continued to circle overhead and I wondered for a moment if their presence signaled this was actually a nightmare.
In that moment of terror, what came out was this: "Well, Homer already created the best narrative version imaginable so I felt like I needed to do something different with my version."
I heard the sound of hundred students exhaling in unison and I realized that I'd spoken the most concise truth and justification possible: my version of the Odyssey is just one of many versions, each with its own strengths, weaknesses, and details, each told in the time of the person doing the telling. I couldn't be Homer and my Odyssey couldn't be his.
That moment at Rhodes was something of a turning point for me professionally and intellectually. It gave me the confidence to go into any situation and defend my take on The Odyssey and it also gave me a window into how my piece functioned relative to Homer's story and the idea of an oral tradition, variation, and eventually Classical Reception.
Really, it gave me the insight that I had permission to do what I wanted with the story. This was confirmed further years later when I read Alice Oswald's amazing Memorial, a poetic "translation" of The Iliad in which she freely admits right upfront that her version has a "reckless disregard for 6/7 of Homer's original."
In that intense moment, I'd spoken a simple but important truth: Homer had his Odyssey and I have Joe's Odyssey and whether or not my Odyssey skewed closer to Homer's in any superficial way had no bearing on its legitimacy as the story of Odysseus.
Fast forward fours years and a couple hundred shows and I'm standing in a lecture hall at Brandeis University after a great performance. A student raises her hand and asks "How do you feel about the Homeric question?"
In short, the "Homeric question" is the wide-ranging study of how the Iliad and Odyssey were created and preserved. People disagree wildly on every aspect of this question in ways big and small.
I started talking and after a minute or so of musing about the romance of the idea of a singular poetic master, I landed on this:
"I don't really care."
This is preserved (along with a number of other moments from the show at Brandeis) by Joel Christensen, aka Sententiae Antiquae, on Twitter.
And really, that was the truth.
Does a part of me, maybe the 24 year old who composed Joe's Odyssey in his bedroom on Magnolia Ave in Chicago with his faithful dog Hendrix looking on, hope there was one singular person responsible for these two staggeringly brilliant epic poems?
Do I think it's possible?
Sure, why not: just about anything is possible and there are examples of singular geniuses doing things creative that we can barely conceive of after the fact.
But does it matter to me, the 41 year old bard with almost 300 shows under his belt? Would the absence of a singular creative Homer change the awe and power these poems create? Would it lessen their genius in any way or make them less brilliant?
We have the poems, we have the text, that's what matters.
In a way, if these two monuments were created not by one person but by many it makes their genius even more poignant: they would be a testament to some collective truth of humanity that was extracted from the minds and souls of many.
NOBODY owns them (wink), EVERYBODY owns them.
Now I've got to go get Funky Cold Medina out of my head before it drives me crazy.