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Jack Mitchell on inspiration, Star Wars, and how to write an epic poem

Podcast & Video

Today’s Dialogue is with thinker, writer, educator, and The Hub’s poet-in-residence Jack Mitchell. Since we launched in April 2021, Jack has expertly curated and produced the Poetry of the Day in our daily newsletter, Pier Diem.

But that’s hardly all he’s done. Last month, Jack released a new book, The Odyssey of Star Wars: An Epic Poem. It tells the story of the original Star Wars film trilogy in blank verse, which is also known as unrhymed iambic pentameter for poetry buffs.

This conversation has been edited and revised for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: I’m honoured to speak to Jack about his work, his love for poetry, and this ambitious new project that has brought Star Wars to life in the meter of Milton. Thanks for joining us, Jack.

JACK MITCHELL: Thanks for having me.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start the conversation about you—including your career and passion for poetry. I suspect our readers who read our newsletter every day enjoy your contribution as much as I know I do. What drew you to the world of literature and poetry?

JACK MITCHELL: I’ve been reflecting on that a lot recently! In retrospect, I think the training in poetry and the exposure I had to it as a kid in school was really formative. My teachers, from Grade 1 onwards, always seemed to put poetry front and centre, whether that involved reciting it, learning it, or writing it ourselves in our little way. That had a great influence on me. I remember those real “fire in the belly” teachers who tried to find poems that would interest kids in poetry.

That was always in the background, but when I was in university as I was grappling for a subject, or for a style for my own creative work, I had the good fortune to run into Homer at the right time. I had read the Iliad in translation before, but in Greek, it made a huge impression on me. I decided that this very plain, narrative style was one I wanted to adopt myself.

Initially, I tried using that style in prose, but eventually I thought, “Well, why don’t I just try doing it in verse myself?” And from there, I seized upon this Canadian subject matter of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which was very Homeric and Iliadic: two heroic figures dying as part of a siege of a huge fortress on a cliff—it doesn’t get more Homeric than that. That’s when I first created my first, Canadian epic poem, and took it on tour across Canada a couple of times: first by myself, in 2000, on my motorcycle, and then with the support of the Dominion Institute in 2005, with a whole production, including my brother and a car and much better logistics. My idea was to take this performance-based style of epic to the larger public as a way of trying to get people interested in poetry in a heroic spirit, people who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to it.

SEAN SPEER: One of my favorite podcasts is Tyler Cowen’s podcast, and a question that he frequently asks his guests is about their so-called “production function.” You’ve been curating and producing original poetry for us at The Hub every day, with well over 100 installments in our newsletter. How does someone go about curating or producing original poetry on a daily basis? What’s your process?

JACK MITCHELL: Well, just to lift the hood on the ugly process, it mostly involves me realizing that there are only 10 pieces of poetry left in the bank, at which point I frantically scramble to produce a lot in a short timeframe. I usually devote one or two days—or more like nights—to producing a slew of them for The Hub to cover for a week or so, usually in batches of six or seven at a time.

The immediate sources are often current events, and the poems that are more satirical or epigrammatic are sometimes serving as subtweets of somebody or something that ticked me off. Sometimes I strive to reach beyond anger and move on to a general philosophical level. I’ve taken up from the poet Martial, the Roman epigrammatist, the device of having a fictional addressee who is the target of my ire—just names like Bob or Ben, whatever name rhymes really. That helps me try to reach beyond a particular negative reaction I might feel to a tweet, article, or current event and aim for a more general statement.

Other times, when it’s a general, lyrical mood, if I’m talking about walking in the woods or something, that’s usually because I’ve just come back from walking in the woods with my family. And if I’m really desperate, I’ll just mine the epigrams of other poets from different traditions around the world, either translating them or adapting them or taking them as a point of departure. I’ve also cannibalised epigrams of my own, which are in prose, from a project about five or six years ago. So, it’s a slew of different strategies, but the unifying theme is last-minute panic.

SEAN SPEER: Well, it never seems that way to the reader. You’ve produced a wonderful compilation of poetic content for The Hub and its readers. On behalf of the entire team, we’re grateful and honoured to have you involved in our little project.

Let’s talk now about the main topic for today, which is another project that you’ve been involved in. You recently published a book called The Odyssey of Star Wars: An Epic Poem. It’s a fascinating read that Hub readers will no doubt find unique and interesting. If you like Jack Mitchell in our newsletter, you’re going to love Jack Mitchell in book form.

What gave you the idea to re-tell the popular stories of Star Wars through epic poetry?

JACK MITCHELL: I had two motives. The first one was to interest a larger public in poetry: epic poetry in general, and specifically narrative poetry. Poetry somehow doesn’t have the same wide popular appeal that it once had in the English language as recently as 50 to 100 years ago, and certainly not as it has in other cultures around the world today. The English-speaking world is a leader in some fields, but I think we need to work on making poetry that connects with a wider public. For me, an important part of the health of a body politic is an appreciation for language, and specifically, with regard to epic poetry, for the heroic spirit. The underlying theme of the epic around the world is belief in one’s own potential as a heroic figure: not just being a stormtrooper, so to speak, but in being a Jedi.

Star Wars was a natural fit for an epic poem, but the fact is I started off without a plan. I just wrote the first 20 lines one night at random and it seemed to click, and so I kept going. I didn’t have the slightest thought about how I would ever get it published, I was just reading it to my kids. Then, when I’d finished the equivalent of the first Star Wars film, A New Hope from 1977, I thought, “Well, maybe I should try and get somebody interested in this.”

The initial reaction was mixed. A lot of people were like, “Well, ah, that’s a crazy idea.” There were a few no’s, and generally a dearth of replies. So, I thought, “Well, there’s a fork in the road here. Either I’m done with Star Wars and I move on to something else, or I’m going to go whole hog, I’m going to do the whole original trilogy.”

Because I was enjoying it, I thought, “Well, I’ll just keep going,” and thanks to the kindness of friends and strangers, I was given the chance to connect with a wonderful agent, Hilary MacMahon, and a publisher, Abrams. There was a long process of figuring out how Star Wars could ever see the light in the form of an epic poem, and again, thanks to the kindness of everyone along the way, including Disney and Lucasfilm, it actually has. It was a very collaborative process from that random first impulse to this actual book.

SEAN SPEER: How do you think the use of lyrical verse and meter accentuates or changes the ideas inherent in the Star Wars stories?

JACK MITCHELL: Film has a verbal component to it, but ultimately the viewer of a film is mentally recreating the significance of the images that they see. What poetry does is to take the visual and make it verbal, asking the reader or listener to provide the visual image.

It’s the opposite of film in that way: in the written form, chords that are struck emotionally through visual signs have to be struck verbally on the page. Prose is the same, I suppose, but with poetry, if you stumble too often, the reader will become disgusted and put it down, whereas, in prose, the reader gives the author more leeway. Poetry is more of a tightrope-walking challenge that way, but I think the tension that results can be artistically satisfying.

People hear the phrase “epic poem,” and they think, “Oh boy, this is going be a huge one.” The Mahabharata has over 200,000 lines, and the Iliad has over 15,000 lines. Naturally, people think that’s bulky, but in fact both those poems move quite fast. I think one advantage of epic verse is that it has to move faster than prose or the reader will get bored.

The unifying theme is last-minute panic.

SEAN SPEER: What do you hope that people will take from the epic poem format that they may have missed in the films?

JACK MITCHELL: The films developed in a very strange way. There was no real plan for a sequel to the original film—it existed perhaps in the brain of George Lucas, but A New Hope wasn’t conceived originally as part of a specific trilogy. The original trilogy was developed quickly afterward, and then Lucas went back and created a prequel trilogy, which greatly expanded the story of Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader in a way that complemented the original films, just as the second and third films of the original trilogy complemented the first film. So, the whole thing evolved very organically, all governed by the creative genius of George Lucas.

But the result is that when Star Wars fans go back and view the original trilogy, they view it through the lens of the backstory in the prequel trilogy: that background content isn’t actually present on the screen, but we read it in. There’s actually a term for this, “headcanon,” which is when you mentally inject information from your own knowledge or imagination into other canonical material.

My poem has an advantage in being able to fold the backstory from the prequel trilogy, and from other Star Wars films like Rogue One and Solo, into the original trilogy. This deepens the allusive power of the story as it unfolds, following the original trilogy. So that’s a great advantage of retelling it in a poetical format in which making these allusions is quicker, easier, and more natural than it would be in prose.

SEAN SPEER: I asked earlier about your production function. How are the creative and writing processes different when working with well-developed and well-known material compared to writing your original poetry from scratch?

JACK MITCHELL: There was a lot more work! The Star Wars universe is extremely well-developed. The films themselves add up to a lot of screen time, and there’s also a lot of canonical material released in the last nine years, plus vast amounts from before that. I was initially a bit of a babe in the woods when it came to this massive corpus of material, but fortunately, there’s a whole scholarly world of Star Wars material, and I benefited greatly from its research, ideas, and insights.

As a result, I proceeded fairly slowly: I made careful research plans for each section. Whereas my shorter, lyrical work mostly describes my own reactions and opinions. What I relished in this larger project was the subordination of my personal creative impulse to the constraints of a creative effort bigger than myself. It put me more in the shoes of an ancient epic poet, who had to be part of a large and active tradition. There are other epic traditions in English, of course, but if I had come up with something of my own about, say, King Arthur, the number of people who were going to correct me about my treatment of Camelot was pretty small compared to Star Wars, and I found that discipline valuable as an artist.

SEAN SPEER: Just a final question. Why do you think that the Star Wars story resonates across generations and with so many people, and what themes or ideas are behind its massive and ongoing popularity?

JACK MITCHELL: That’s a great question. It’s a cultural phenomenon that can’t be ignored. I mean, it’s so huge, and it’s not because of some corporate Death Star out there enforcing its popularity. It has authentic, enduring appeal to many generations. What first motivated me was noticing that my kids were keen on it without me having told them to be as keen on it as I was. They were, like, six and four, independently interested, and so I’m like, “Okay, well, something big is happening here.”

What is the grand theme? I’d say that it’s the traditional heroic theme of the hero’s journey, which was a direct inspiration for Lucas. But even more, for me, it’s this fundamental idea of heroic choice. That’s why I started the poem with the phrase, “the choice of Vader,” which is also the title of the last book; the choice on the part of Darth Vader as to whether he’s going to fulfill his destiny, whether he’s going to align himself with his deceased spouse and his son, or whether he’s going to continue in the evil ways he’s been practicing. That capacity for choosing one’s own destiny really resonates: every human being faces that need to choose who they are, to become who they are, and so, whether as a literary myth or as a myth on screen, that theme is bound to resonate with any human being.

SEAN SPEER: Well, Jack, congratulations on such an exciting undertaking. The book is The Odyssey of Star Wars: An Epic Poem.

If you like Star Wars, poetry, or Jack, I encourage people to find it online at Amazon or elsewhere. It’s a fascinating literary product that both tells the powerful story of Star Wars but also speaks to some of those deeper human instincts and impulses that Jack has just outlined.

Thank you so much for joining us today and again for being part of The Hub. We’ve really been grateful for your ongoing contribution.

JACK MITCHELL: It’s a real pleasure to be part of The Hub. I must say, it’s the thing I look forward to most every day.