Playing the World, with Mythology as a Guide: A Profile of Roger Travis (2011)

Shoulder to shoulder with my comrades, I stare down the entity that could very well be the cause of my death. A flood of enemies rushes towards us and I grip my weapon in anticipation for the inevitable slaughter, whether it be us or them. The only question left now is: who am I?

This is exactly one of the questions Professor and gamer Roger Travis wants you to consider. In that situation, I could just as easily have been an ancient Greek warrior rubbing elbows with Achilles as a video game character brandishing a shotgun at aliens. In reality, I’m just a girl on a sofa, as Travis puts it in his blog Living Epic. But, “being there on the sofa,” he says, is “like sitting in a bard’s audience…through them [the heroes of the particular story,] we become integrally involved in deeds we could not possibly realize in our own lives, but which we must acknowledge our longing, and perhaps our duty, to attempt.” The idea is a profoundly engaging one, literally. Travis makes the case that video games’ interactivity with the actions of larger-than-life characters is far from a new concept, but rather is almost exactly the same as it was thousands of years ago, minus the joysticks.

Dr. Roger Travis knew from a young age that when he “grew up, ” he wanted to be involved in a profession that dealt with the ancient world. He had read many books of mythology that made a big impact on him, starting with D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, a classic anthology of Greek mythology by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. It was around this same time that he was first introduced to world of video games too, when he “played Pong at a friend’s house at the age of 11.” However, it wasn’t until later that he realized the two could be reconciled perfectly.

Later he became interested in a wider variety of literature such as the epic Lord of the Rings series and the futuristic Foundation Trilogy; stories with mythology all their own. High school introduced him to Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies, plus taking Latin only strengthened his interest in the field. This interest manifested itself in the form of a Classics degree from Harvard College. Consider it a testament to his Latin that when Travis told me about his degree, he said “an A.B in Classics,” referring to the latin Artium Baccalaureatus, and not the English-grammar-corrupted B.A., or Bachelor of Arts. After receiving his aptly named undergraduate degree, he went straight to grad school for his PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, where he taught as a post-doc for a year. In 1997 he started teaching at the University of Connecticut, where he is now the Associate Professor of Classics.

He’d been through a several-year video game hiatus until he heard about a new game called Halo 2 on a 2004 NPR news story. “It was only then that I put together my classics training with the new things video games were able to do,” Travis told me, “it was obvious to me that video games had reached a point where they were starting to tell great stories. It was also obvious that not many people realized it, and so I had a kind of mission ready for me.”

That mission is what led to many new parts of his life, one of which was using video games to exemplify themes explored in the classroom. This was the first one that I had myself experienced: Dr. Travis used Halo’s epic story and form to illustrate certain mythic themes we discussed in his Classical Mythology class at UConn. For me, the experience wasn’t too good to be true; it just got better. Like Travis, I already had a long-standing interest in mythology, so I couldn’t have been more excited when he used Halo as an example. I hadn’t started playing Halo yet, but just the fact that a university professor confirmed my long-held belief that video games are not worthless pursuits was enough to get me hooked.

Clearly, Travis understood his audience well. Instead of carving a clear line between educational material and leisure activities, he showed his students (and, indeed, the rest of the academic community) that the two fields can have a harmonious interrelationship. “Mythology is the way we understand our world in art,” Travis said. “If we don’t study it, we won’t understand why or how we play the games, watch the films, and read the books we play, watch, and read.” Putting video games and books in the same category, and moreover, classifying them as art, may qualify as academic blasphemy to some, but Travis has made more than a small impact on many others.

His latest project in this vein of work is yet another unorthodox academic experiment. “Together with a wonderful team of like-minded classicists, educational psychologists, and a coder or two, we’ll be launching what we believe is the first-ever practomimetic (game-based) introductory language course.” It’s called “Operation Lapis: First year Latin as an RPG inside an ARG.” In layman’s terms: a Role Playing Game (in which the students assume another identity of sorts) inside an Alternate Reality Game (the ancient world in which Latin was the preeminent language). Aided by CARDs, or Classical Attunement Reward Devices, students carry out missions for Operation LAPIS while learning Latin vocabulary and grammar, just like a regular language course. The course had its first test run last in the Fall 2010 semester at UConn, Storrs Campus, and the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, CT. For more information, see Travis’ August 15th 2010 post on his blog at livingepic.blogspot.com

Travis’ blog, Living Epic, was another step toward expanding people’s awareness and respect for the ancient traditions that are still very much with us, and the ways in which they are manifested in our modern culture. The banner at the top of the page is an immediate attention grabber, placing the words “Living Epic: Video Games in the Ancient World” squarely between some ancient-looking warriors on the left and a couple of the semi-robotic super-marines called “Spartans” that the players of Halo command. Below this subtle timeline is the tagline: Roger Travis, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut, Explains How Games and Gamer Culture are Much Older and Better Things than Most People Think.” To opponents it’s a challenge, but to believers it’s a siren song to keep reading.

The next step for Travis was getting other crusaders of this philosophy together in a community where they could share their thoughts on the matter. “I decided to try to bring together the people who were interested in a basically humanistic take on video games,” Travis explained, “people who aren’t part of the field known as game studies, but who have valuable things to say about video games anyway.” Consequentially there came to be the Video Games and Human Values Initiative. Their mission was to raise money and give it to “interesting people” who were making a statement in the field. Unfortunately, much like Travis’ original idea to turn Living Epic’s early material into a book, there wasn’t a market for such a thing [yet]. But “the initiative lives on,” Travis said, “as a bunch of people with something to say.” Their only hope is that someday there will be enough people listening to make a difference. “We also play video games on Thursday nights,” Travis added.

 

Profile by Eliza Smith

Interview with Diane Smith, Joseph Michael Owens, and Annam Manthiram, editors of “Grey Sparrow” (2011)

1.  Universities and presses back several magazines, but this does not appear to be the case with Grey Sparrow.  Where do you receive your funding?

Diane Smith: I personally fund Grey Sparrow from a modest savings I established during my tenure as a social worker in child welfare.  Grey Sparrow Press incorporated May 11, 2009 shortly after I retired and now operates as a non-profit 501C3 in Minnesota.  My husband teases me on occasion and says, “Grey Sparrow is a negative profit corporation.”

I take no income, nor does my staff.  We are all volunteers.  Submitters are paid in one free copy of the printed journal they appear in.  Modest funds from sold journals are placed in the Grey Sparrow account for further development of the press and journal.

2.  Upon looking at your masthead, I’ve noticed that you don’t indicate genre editors.  Does this mean that you handle art, poetry, and fiction by yourself?

The short answer? Grey Sparrow has a two-tier review system.  There are several readers as well as visual photography and art evaluators.  Each volunteer agrees to a one-year commitment.  I assign three submissions per month.  They evaluate and make recommendations to me; I again evaluate and make a final decision.

And, the longer answer:  As part of the process, evaluators may offer a few words and recommendation regarding publication.  On occasion, they suggest rewrite or request additional photography and/or art for consideration.  Some comments remain private and some are shared with the submitters at the discretion of the reviewers.

3.  In an interview with Duotrope you note that all of your readers are volunteers.  Who are the majority of these volunteers?  Are they students, scholars, friends, family?  Can one apply to be a reader for your magazine?

I could give you a big hug for asking this question.  Our volunteers/art/photography reviewers generally come to Grey Sparrow with submissions of their own; we have already decided to publish their work or have published their work.  Donna Trump, Kim Suhr, Pam Parker, Judith Zukerman, David Petranker, and Sita Bhaskar offer their skills as readers.  Joseph Michael Owens, our technical editor, and I also read submissions as we have had an exponential rise in them.

I have two more readers who have asked for discretion.

One can definitely apply to be a reader!  We welcome our readers and evaluators, we love them, we deeply appreciate them and I’ll give you an idea as to what we are looking for—a warm body—a petite joke of course, but I will mention, I have never turned down a volunteer.

Those who help Grey Sparrow generally hold a BA, some have graduate degrees, all have writing credits.  Just send an informal email to us with a biography.  All our volunteers are kind and competent—they know that when someone submits work—the writer and artist are putting all that they are out there.  For some artists and writers, it is a feeling of vulnerability, even after years of publications.  Like many, they consider their work an extension of who they are.  We are always respectful.

Perks of Volunteering:  We are an all-volunteer staff, but we are not without perks.  I am delighted to publish an independent review for a book coming out by a volunteer, cover a major event, note success, write letters of recommendation for a workshop or possibly a job, give a free copy of the journal that a volunteer has worked on, and consider all requests while supporting the Sparrow.

4.  What are the worst mistakes writers make when submitting to Grey Sparrow?

It is almost impossible to make a mistake with Grey Sparrow.  On occasion, writers, artists and photographers don’t read prior issues or guidelines.  We don’t publish the genres: pornography, science fiction and horror as a general rule.  We do not entertain stories that contain gratuitous drug use and/or abuse.  Read the writing of our 2011 Pushcart nominations—it will give you a sense of the Sparrow style quickly.  View the visuals of our special guest photographers and artists.

5.  Many people ask what you look for in terms of writing, however, what are your criteria for art and photography?

Flash and flare—fine art and photography with an emphasis on message and technique as well as presence in the fine art and photographic communities are important.  James S. Oppenheim shares his personal photography for our primary web pages and print on occasion.

6.  You have several featured artists on your website.  What’s the process for selection?

This might surprise you.  Grey Sparrow receives only a handful of work from artists and photographers on a routine basis compared to the 1,200 submissions for writing we received in 2010.  We have accepted almost everyone who comes to us for the guest slots—do keep in mind, the photographers and artists have strong portfolios and credentials.

As for photography and art included on our main pages, again, James S. Oppenheim helps me a lot!   I also visit Flickr and Red Bubble requesting permission from photographers and artists for inclusion of their work.  We include clip art and clip photography in the public domain from time to time, giving attribution whenever possible and one free copy.  The primary reason for clip art is that we can’t find an appropriate photo for a piece of writing with little time to publication date.  Anyone who would like to submit seasonal art and photography for our changing issues would be so welcome!

7.  What do you (and your editors) like the most/least about your job(s)?

Diane Smith: I love the writers, the artists, the photographers, layout and design, the birthing of each new issue—creativity swirling, twirling in the Milky Way.  Working with such a talented staff is always a joy and I don’t say that lightly.

What I like least is proof reading prior to our copy editor’s final review.  I and submitters often miss 50 or more errors when Annam Manthiram, our copy editor, steps in and corrects them along with several more we missed.  I will say, the Sparrow does not strive for perfection, just competence.  By the time we go to print, we’re generally synchronized.  I’m thankful I have received Annam’s help as print is unforgiving—online corrections can be made in nanoseconds.

Annam Manthiram:  The best part of what I do is working with Diane.  Her passion for nurturing the best creative work out there, her dedication despite personal obligations, and her elegant worth ethic and manner inspire me to be a better person and an accomplished writer.  I learn so much from her, everyday, not just about how to manage a successful literary journal but also how to be grateful for the gifts we have and to perpetuate that cycle of giving.

What I dislike the most:  Sometimes on deadlines, I have to work quickly and read in “copy-edit” mode, which means I am not really absorbing the work, just reading for errors.  In an ideal world, where there were no deadlines, I could sit with the proofs, drink a cup of coffee, and relish in the beautiful words first and foremost, and then do the actual work later.  Diane is kind enough to send me a copy of the completed journal, so I do get to enjoy it after the work is done, at my leisure.

Joseph Michael Owens: I tend to agree a lot with Annam.  Diane is truly a fantastic editor to work with.  She has provided us a real opportunity in working with Grey Sparrow; for newer writers like myself I can see the other side of the literary journal business.  Typically, writers only get to see the submission/acceptance/rejection side of journals but rarely are afforded the chance to experience the nuts and bolts of production and all the hard work that goes into each issue.  I personally love getting to read all of the quality work that gets submitted on a quarterly basis.  I’ve also gotten to see how hard it can be to say no to some really great pieces.

Deadlines are also probably my least favorite aspect, only because they seem to coincide with deadlines I’ve got in my day-to-day life, specifically the deadlines in my MFA program.  However, Diane does a truly fantastic job of never giving me more than I can handle at a given time.

8.  There are hundreds of magazines in the U.S.  When a reader picks up Grey Sparrow, what do you want him or her to take away from the magazine?

Grey Sparrow, as you probably know, was honored with the Best New Literary Journal of the Year Award January 11, 2011 from our professional association, the CELJ in Los Angeles.  Nicholas Birns stated, “The Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ) is pleased to announce that Grey Sparrow has won its Best New Journal Award.  Our judges were impressed by the Journal’s multimedia and interdisciplinary focus; its bridging of the gap between academia and the arts; the felicity of its design; and the international scope of its coverage.  In a time when the print journal is thought to be in danger from economic and technological forces, Grey Sparrow has shown there is still room for innovation and excellence in the traditional journal mode.”

I believe our international voice and style as noted by Nicholas Birns, while touching on global issues that haunt us all, and as Horace said, throwing in a little nonsense and fun, is what readers enjoy.  Did I say that all in one sentence?  We do shy away from writing that is riddled with clichés.  A creative voice is important to the Sparrow along with a strong vision.

9.  Do you have plans for expanding in the future?  Perhaps to a longer magazine, a larger staff, or a wider circulation?

To date, we have had a large online circulation—well over 150,000 readers since inception of the online journal on June 1st of 2009.  The print format was first published January 1st, 2010 and does not include all of the online work.  I use my equipment in the home and I am only geared up for 50 pages in print—I may be buying a flat spine system soon and then, I would explode the size of the journal along with additional publications.

To date, we have added an annual imprint, Snow Jewel.  This is in addition to Grey Sparrow.  This year Snow Jewel honored poetry.  Next year, flash fiction will be honored for Snow Jewel and we may have a flash competition.  A new poetry release is scheduled for October 21st at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis – Andrew Kaufman’s poetry book, Both Sides of the Niger.  His book will be printed locally.  Grey Sparrow just published a poetry monograph, Approaching: Poems of Brazil by Hugh Fox in Portuguese and English.  I am fully capable of producing any poetry chapbook in the home with the saddle staple binding of 50 pages or less and may open the door to more manuscripts next year.

10.  Several magazines have flopped during the recession and a lot of readership has gone down.  What do you think is the key to keeping literary magazines up and running?

Yes, and what do I do?  I found Grey Sparrow during the worst economic times this country has faced in several decades.  I created a five-year plan to start Grey Sparrow Press after retirement and purchased equipment to publish the journal in my home with a simple saddle staple binding.  We do have an excellent high-end color laser jet, paper folder, and saddle stapler that have served us well—we also use expensive heavy, high gloss presentation paper.  I am proud of our quarterly journal.  I’m not sure one can succeed if one is motivated by financial success though.  Literary writing, as a general rule, is not a big seller.  I do know our rise in readership, submissions, and our award this January feel like success to me, keeping in mind everyone’s definition of success is different.  What motivates me is hearing the heartbeat of the nation–listening to what writers say about global and national issues; sharing their concerns and ideas in a creative way with our readers.

That said, I’m deeply saddened tier newspapers, journals and magazines have gone under over the last few years.  They have given us critical in depth coverage around the world in a way Grey Sparrow never could; we’re just a modest little journal.  Employment of hundreds of writers has been lost.  I hoped one day I could pay our staff, but who knows.  I just keep working and realize it takes time to develop a journal.

For more information on Grey Sparrow or its editors, please visit http://greysparrowpress.net

Interview by Alyssa Palazzo

Interview with Alyssa Palazzo (2011)

Palazzo is a creative non-fiction panelist for the Long River Review.

Q: You write poetry, creative non-fiction, and fiction. What appeals to you about writing in the poetic form? In the prose form?

A lot of what I enjoy about form and content overlaps between prose and poetry.  When writing a poem, I like to focus on creating one strong vignette.  I want to produce something tactile and resonant, and I enjoy the challenge of accomplishing that in so few words.  When I write prose, I’m more focused on the narrative and characterization.  I love building scenes.  However, I like to stay concise in both forms.  Why waste words?

Q: You have a very confident voice for a young writer. What do you think has helped you developed your distinctly strong voice?

Lots of reading, writing, and learning.  Having taken creative writing courses since high school, I find that every instructor encourages you to build upon your skills in a different area.  After writing in several different forms, and reading hundreds of novels, I got an idea of what I wanted my own voice to sound like.  I’ve had these wonderful tutorials with writers such as Darcie Dennigan and Deb Olin Unferth and they have helped me hammer out a few of the weaknesses and inconsistencies in that voice.

Q: Would you say you have a particular style? How would you define it?

I wouldn’t say that I have one distinct style since every piece takes on its own.  However, when I write non-fiction, I write how I speak.  I like the idea of colloquial language. In fiction pieces, I take on more of a detached narration because I want my characters to speak for themselves.

Q: With what form of writing are you most comfortable? In which do you feel you need to improve?

Fiction is where I’m most comfortable.  Non-fiction is more difficult because it allows for a lot of vulnerability and honesty that the author can’t mask quite the way she can with fiction.  It’s a difficult feeling to overcome.  Poetry… is just difficult… but like I said, I embrace the challenge.

Q: The characters in your fiction are concrete, complex, and vulnerable. Are your characters inspired by people in real life or are they purely products of your imagination?

I’d like to think that my characters are honest and genuine.  That being said, no, they aren’t inspired by people in real life. I’d like to think that they all contain a certain side of me.

Q: Does anything in particular ignite your creativity?

I love Louise Glück’s poetry.  I always leave her work feeling that I will never produce anything good, ever, and completely inspired by her subtlety, her imagery, and her voice.

Fave Five:

1) Favorite Jane Austen Novel?

Today it’s Persuasion.

2) In a novel-to-film adaptation of your favorite Austen novel, who would you cast as the heroine?

So difficult.  Who could really capture Anne Elliot?  I think I’d have to cast Jane Austen herself.

3) Favorite literary magazine?

The Long River Review.  Duh.

4) Favorite place to write?

On my bed, under strings of Christmas lights (that I keep out all year round), with a bag of lollipops.  It’s pretty awesome.

5) Favorite quote?

“If you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.” – Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

 

Interview by Lynnette Repollet