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Three Men and a List (to say nothing of the blog)

by Noseybee
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[Noseybee’s Nosy Note: The Wondering Minstrels was a joyous exploration of poetry that began as a poetry-by-email service and soon morphed into a lively community of poetry lovers. From Feb ’99 till Jan ’07, The Wondering Minstrels were a source of a poem a day, (almost) every day, accompanied by commentary, analysis, criticism, biographical information about the poet, literary anecdotes, historical asides, trivia etc.  Eight years, over 1900 poems, and tons of information about most of them; surprisingly, this treasure trove of verse was the handiwork of three geeks from our very own IITB – the poetry-by-email service was started and run by Abraham Thomas and Martin De Mello, with an accompanying archive website created and maintained by Sitaram Iyer. Read more about their motivations and their journey with The Wondering Minstrels in this interview.]

Noseybee: What’s the raison d’etre of the Wondering Minstrels?

Martin: To share the pleasure of poetry. The sad reality is that many people’s main exposure to poetry is as a subject they learnt in school, often accompanied by the tedious requirement to deconstruct and explain it, and then lost touch with once they graduated. Right from the beginning, our idea was to emphasise the pleasurable aspect – yes, we accompanied each poem with a write-up, which might give some people flashbacks to school, but the write-up was not about an academic examination of the poem, but about the reasons we enjoyed it. They ranged the gamut from an appreciation of language and craft, to personal associations with the poem or the poet.

[Noseybee’s Nosy Note: – Interested readers can see some examples by following the links at the end of the text of this interview.]

Noseybee: Among the three of you, who first thought of starting something like the Wondering Minstrels? How did the idea first come about?

Martin: It started off as a way to share some of our “old favourite” poems among a few friends, as a sort of random-act-of-poetry. I think Thomas was the one who started it, and I chimed in. As we started adding more people, we set up an actual mailing list to make the whole thing less unwieldy, with the added benefit that people could simply add themselves to it.

Thomas: If I remember correctly, I discovered a new poem online one day, and emailed it to Martin and a couple of other friends with “literary” interests.  Sort of the way you’d share a funny joke or a clever puzzle or an interesting news story.  By coincidence, Martin found another poem the next day and posted it to the same group.  So then naturally I had to find a fresh poem to post the following day, and Martin did likewise, and, well, one thing just followed from another.  A few days later, one of the recipients — I wish I could remember who — said, “hey, can you add this other friend of mine to the poetry list” and that was the real beginning of the Minstrels as an independent entity. I remember thinking early on, just how long can we keep this up?  It turned out, we could (and did) keep it up for quite a while.

Noseybee: What were you aiming for, and what were your concerns when you started it?

Martin: Honestly, we weren’t aiming for anything. It just started off as us mailing a few friends our favourite poems, and snowballed from there. Our goal, as we stated it then, was simple: ‘if we can brighten up people’s days, make them think a little, make them feel a little, perhaps encourage them to buy a book of poetry… well, if we can accomplish any of these things, we’d be more than satisfied.’

One of our main concerns when the website started getting popular was that we would get take-down notices for some of the more contemporary poems we ran, but fortunately that never became an issue.

 Noseybee: How are the three of you connected?

Martin: We were all in IITB together, and indeed wingmates (Thomas and Sitaram were a year behind me). After we graduated, there were several of us who kept in touch (and indeed, still do!), mainly over email, but with the occasional trip-fuelled reunion. Coincidentally, Sitaram, Sameer, and I (another early contributor) also ended up in the same grad school, Rice University in Houston.

Thomas: The other commonality was that many of the early contributors and list-members were active in campus literary competitions & festivals.  So there was a shared love of words.

Noseybee: Did you play different roles? Or was it just 3 people so that in any given week, at least one person had the time and enthu to post something?

Martin: Thomas and I were the main posters; we usually posted on alternate days, with the occasional request for one of us to cover for the other when we were too busy to send out a poem (and, yes, with the occasional day when there was no poem). Sitaram got involved when he decided the mailing list archive would make a great website; a lot of the later growth and popularity of the Minstrels was due to this, because people searching for poems would stumble across the website, and get drawn in. Later on there were guest posters who submitted with enough regularity to become recognisable names, and who helped greatly with the time and enthu problem.

Thomas: Eventually we settled into a steady rhythm of 3 poems each per week, with guest contributions on Sundays.  Occasionally one of us would do a “theme week” with a number of poems on the same subject.  I think my favourite theme was “poems set on the Silk Road” but there were plenty of others.

Noseybee: How often did you disagree on whether a poem should be run or not? How did you settle it?

Martin: Almost never – we mostly ran our poems independently, without consulting the other, and when readers started sending in guest poems, we likewise pulled one off the queue when it was our day and ran it, either with or without some additional commentary of our own. The closest we came to controversy was when David Wright (a frequent contributor) sent in Eminem’s profanity-laden “The Way I Am”. We debated rejecting it, but in the end were convinced by the excellent write-up David had added, pointing out the similarities between today’s combative rap artists, and John Skelton. It got a ton of feedback (both positive and negative) from readers, and sparked some great discussions, so all in all I think we made the right decision to run it.

Thomas:  Was there a controversy there?  I remember David himself being somewhat diffident — “please don’t run it if you feel your readers would be offended, but here’s why I think this is genuine poetry”.  And I think we were all in agreement.  I don’t recall any debate at our end.

The commentary was what made Minstrels different, and added the personal touch that helped the poems resonate with so many readers.

Noseybee: What or when was the ‘yes, this has taken off’ moment?

Martin: No one moment, but some memorable things that contributed to the feeling were:

  • Getting an insanely high Google page rank (8/10 at our peak), so that we were very often the first or second hit when searching for a poem
  • Crossing 1000 email subscribers
  • Increasing number of people we did not know who started writing in with feedback and guest poems, and even setting up their own websites to link to their favourite poems on Minstrels
  • Rice University pointing out that the website (which was hosted there while Sitaram was a grad student) used more bandwidth than the rest of the computer science department combined
  • Long-time member Amulya Gopalakrishnan writing her master’s thesis on “Media change, negotiation of literary value and postcolonial hybridity through a study of The Wondering Minstrels, a largely South-Asian community on the Web dedicated to the celebration of English poetry.
  • And last but not least, getting a comment from Arthur C. Clarke (!)

Sitaram: Walking by some engineers at Google who had just computed the top 50 most bookmarked sites on the web (circa 2008), and were staring at the Minstrels website trying to figure out what this odd little site was doing on that list, with no idea that the maintainer was standing behind them (who had the pleasure of remarking “it’s a small web”)

Thomas:  I always enjoyed it when poets would appear in person among the comments to their own poems — we had a few of those.  Interestingly, they never ever complained about unauthorized duplication.

Noseybee: What was the rationale behind insisting on some commentary with every poem?

Martin: There were plenty of places where you could go read poems, both websites and printed anthologies. A lot of them were very well curated, and some even shared our values of being eclectic and emphasising the pleasure of poetry. The commentary was what made Minstrels different, and added the personal touch that helped the poems resonate with so many readers.

The commentary also generated some feeling of community. Even if the website wasn’t geared towards it, there were definitely people who engaged regularly with comments and submissions, and many who became recognizable names as a result. And it was not just people responding to the poems, but people responding to each other, discussing the poems among themselves, and writing in to say how much a particular poem meant to them, or how they found it the perfect thing to send to their own friends and loved ones on a variety of occasions.

Sitaram: It’s worth mentioning here that there was Martin’s /Abraham’s / guest poster’s commentary, and separately, there was the comment thread that often brought in some touching personal experiences, such as ‘Invictus’ being read in prison as related by an ex-convict, or those who pointed out various poems that helped them through depression or heartbreak or medical problems [1] or other challenges, or almost a thousand comments on Highwayman.

Another personal motivation was Minstrels made me feel like a part of the vibrant culture of internet content creators.

Noseybee: I totally agree that some examples of the personal touch in the comments would make that portion come alive. Apart from the ‘Invictus’ example you mention, there’s also Vikram Doctor’s comments on ‘To His Coy Mistress‘ which are quite funny, or this sign of the Monday morning blues, or a memory of coping with a break-up in the commentary on this poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, I recall there were lots of others too.

Sitaram: On which note, I also remembered that a (current) colleague (and 4 years my junior at IITB) met his wife through Minstrels — I imagine there was a lot of poetic wooing involved. I think there was at least one more such couple but for the life of me can’t name them. Move along, Tinder.

Noseybee: How often did you have to look up references while writing the commentary?

Martin: I personally love the formal, structural aspects of poetry, and the way the sounds and rhythms interplay with the content and imagery, so a lot of my commentary dealt with that aspect of things. I didn’t often look up references, but I did search for what other poetry sites had written about the poem, to see if there were things I’d missed or not known about (e.g. I learnt the term “fifteener” while looking up Tennyson’s lovely “Locksley Hall”; I had not known that that form had a specific name).

What did involve a lot of hunting was the brief biography of the poet that we ran as an addendum to most of the poems. For many of the lesser-known poets, the internet had not quite caught up with reference books at that time. For instance, Poem #24 (back in 1999) had this to say about Arthur Guiterman:

He does not appear to have led the world’s most interesting life either – some dedicated web searching turned up the following, which for lack of a better name I’ll call a

Biographical Note:

Guiterman, Arthur, American poet, 1871-1943.

which prompted a reader to write in

actually Guiterman did have a great life … – you can read about him in Famous American Humorous poets, by Everett S. Allen

Thomas:  To support my Minstrelsy I ended up acquiring quite a large library of poetical works — a couple of bookshelves’ worth at least.  Collected works, anthologies, biographies, critical commentaries, you name it.  I discovered an enormous number of new poets through the Minstrels, not to mention reading new works from old poets, or even understanding old poems in new ways.  And reading all that material helped spark new ideas for commentary, or suggested new content to share.

Noseybee: Did the first few guest submissions find their way to you or did you have to ask for them?

Martin: I think our friend Sameer sent in the first guest submission; it was his idea rather than ours. Over the years, the guest poems added a ton of diversity to the site, especially since Thomas and I have very similar tastes in poetry. And particularly towards the end, where there were large gaps of inactivity when both Thomas and I did not have the bandwidth to run a daily poem, the stream of guest submissions kept the site running for quite a bit longer than it might otherwise have.

Noseybee: What gave you the enthu to put in so much effort and wherever did you find the time?

Martin: The enthu came in large part from the tons of wonderful, engaged and enthusiastic feedback we received, both from our friends, and later from friends-of-friends and finally total strangers who discovered us via the website. The time came from being a jobless grad student. (More seriously, it was indeed a huge time commitment, and we didn’t always manage to adhere to the poem-a-day schedule, but it was a very rewarding effort, and that’s what kept us going).

Another personal motivation was Minstrels made me feel like a part of the vibrant culture of internet content creators. This was in the days before Tumblr, Facebook, Myspace and even Blogger, so there was a definite feeling that if you published content, you were part of the “commons gardeners” helping make the internet a more interesting and entertaining place for everyone.

Thomas:  I was definitely not a jobless grad student — I had a pretty intense job at the time — but I nonetheless found the time to write Minstrels commentary, because it was fun.  I enjoyed reading and researching new poems, and connecting with readers, and getting feedback both positive and negative.

To quote Thomas (who came up with the name) “the pun on ‘wondering-wandering’ is meant to evoke a sense of the numinous – truly great poetry takes you on a journey of revelation and wonder, emotion and insight.”

Noseybee: Does the Wondering Minstrels still exist, and in what form?

Martin: Sadly, the mailing list itself is entirely dormant now. Life simply got too busy to keep up, especially since both of us had very time-consuming jobs. There was a “death throes” period where we would go days or sometimes even weeks without a poem (and, as mentioned earlier, we were very grateful for all the guest submissions that kept us going!), and finally we just decided to call it quits. We did occasionally talk about starting up again, but in the end it never happened.

[Noseybee’s Nosy Note: Abraham Thomas is currently the founder and Chief Data Officer at Qandl, a marketplace for financial, economic and alternative data. Martin DeMello is now a Software Engineer at Google, working on developer tools. Sitaram Iyer, who did a B.Tech in Computer Science, is a Distinguished Engineer at Google. Abraham and Martin plead guilty to completing a B.Tech degree in Engineering Physics sometime during the late 90s.]

Sitaram did do a lot of heroic work to rescue the archive of poems, though, and when we lost our web hosting, he mirrored it to a blog, where you can still find it here.

Sitaram: A few years ago I spent an entire Christmas break getting through the painful work of cleaning/normalizing the data (poems, comments, etc.), which makes it possible to rebuild the site if time and enthu and web technologies of the day permit.

Thomas:  I sometimes think of what might have been — not just the archive, but the entire community interaction model we built.  Minstrels was a regularly updating, calendar-organized repository of content with reader comments — in other words, a blog — built way before blogger and wordpress and tumblr and their ilk.  That’s kind of cool, when you think about it.

 Noseybee: And the last question from me, why “The Wondering Minstrels”?

Martin: It’s a play on the phrase “wandering minstrel”, influenced by Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful song “A Wandering Minstrel I from The Mikado. To quote Thomas (who came up with the name) “the pun on ‘wondering-wandering’ is meant to evoke a sense of the numinous – truly great poetry takes you on a journey of revelation and wonder, emotion and insight.”

“A Wandering Minstrel I

A thing of shreds and patches

Of ballads, songs and snatches

And dreamy lullaby.”

— W. S. Gilbert, ‘The Mikado’

Some more examples of poems and accompanying commentary, for readers that are interested and have time to spare :

Wombat, by Ogden Nash

Explorer, by Rudyard Kipling

Theme for English B, by Langston Hughes

To Maeve, by Mervyn Peake

We Real Cool, by Gwendolyn Brooks

The Curse, by J.M.Synge

Look at all those monkeys, by Spike Milligan

A Minuet of Mozart’s, by Sara Teasdale

[1] e.g. (also about Invictus): As a plebe (freshman) at the U.S. Naval Academy, I was required to memorise this poem.  Now, 45 years later I can see how this attitude has made all the difference.  I am now 4 years distant from brain surgery and treatment of a malignant tumor and have, among other things, leaned on this poem for support and healing.

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