How to Celebrate “Whan That Aprille Day” (2017)

A guest posting by COURTNEY RYDEL

Cover of the Whan That Aprille Day event program at Washington College
Cover the program for “Whan That Aprille Day” celebrations last year at Washington College. Program designed by Olivia Serio (President of the Poetry Club, Washington College, class of 2017).

“Whan that Aprille Day” (the annual celebration of old, dead, and undead tongues) is rapidly approaching! Enjoy this posting by Prof. Courtney Rydel (Washington College) on ways to celebrate this occasion. – Global Chaucers co-directors

Coming at the beginning of April, National Poetry Month in the United States, “Whan That Aprille Day” is a holiday begun by the @LeVostreGC persona behind “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog” and “Chaucer Doth Tweet” in 2014. @LeVostreGC proposed medievalists unite in our efforts to celebrate “the beauty and great loveliness of studying the words of the past. Our mission is to bring to mind the importance of supporting the scholarship and labor that brings these words to us…and the teaching of these…languages. For without all of this, the past would have no words for us” [read the full 2017 iteration of this open call at the medieval studies blog In The Middle].

In spring 2016, I curated an event on Multilingual Chaucer, gathering students and faculty from across Washington College, the small liberal arts college in Maryland where I teach.  Since then, I’ve participated in another large-scale Chaucer project that was directed towards the larger community, #MedievalBirds with ornithologist Jennie Carr, work on which is still ongoing. Currently I am planning a major Chaucerian event for spring 2018, with guest speaker Kim Zarins, that will involve collaboration with the Education department and local high school teachers.

Based on these experiences, I would like to offer some suggestions for other medievalists looking to create exciting events to celebrate “Whan That Aprille Day” on their campus.   Although the event originated with celebrating Chaucer, that context should not be limiting. “Whan That Aprille Day” has the goal of celebrating the “beauty and great loveliness” in all languages.  Any language, literature, or poetry is welcome!  In this contemporary moment when the NEA and NEH are threatened, we need to come together as humanists and poetry lovers.  The more that medievalists connect with scholars of modern languages and across disciplines, and with our larger community, the stronger we will be.

  • Celebrate the gifts and skills of your students and faculty, and show them how they connect to Chaucer. At Washington College we hosted a reading of “Multilingual Chaucer,” which included students and faculty reading poetry in languages including Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Latin, Spanish, French, Russian, German, Hindi, Old English, and Middle English.  Some readers read their favorite poems in other languages, and some read Chaucer or Chaucer translations.  The mixture of languages and diverse poems brought alive how “The Father of English Poetry” inhabited a multilingual space, and allowed us to hear the many languages of our polyglot, increasingly international campus.
  • If you’re going global, check out the fantastic Global Chaucers online archive, created by Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington. This resource for post-1945 global non-Anglophone translations of Chaucer offers sample texts, blog posts and scholarship on Chaucer in modern contexts, and reflections on his impact in the contemporary landscape.
  • Look to interdisciplinary and collaborative research. My biologist colleague Jennie Carr and I undertook a project on #MedievalBirds in fall 2016, in which we combined her expertise on ornithology with my research to create an interactive downtown gallery exhibit on Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.  We involved students in creating a physical tree that branched onto the ceiling, showing how Chaucer’s categories of birds overlapped with evolutionary development, and in creating videos of students reciting passages from the Parliament of Fowls with present-day English translations in closed captioning.
  • Think about going beyond your college into the community. For Spring 2018, Washington College is planning an event that brings together high school teachers with our community to think about Chaucer in relation to the brilliant YA lit retelling of the Canterbury Tales by Kim Zarins, Sometimes We Tell the Truth. This event will give us an opportunity to bring together our LGBTQIA student groups as well as our secondary ed community with lovers of poetry and medieval studies.  Kim has graciously agreed to come and do a reading and craft talk, and the Education department is collaborating with us on a workshop with high school teachers to help them craft more in-depth lesson plans and relate Chaucer to contemporary issues.
  • Include other medievalists, faculty, and even emeritus faculty with a love of Chaucer! Our beloved emeritus faculty Bennett Lamond, who taught Chaucer for decades at Washington College starting back in 1965, read at our Multilingual Chaucer event.  He gave a hilarious, spirited reading of “To Rosamunde,” likening it to the Rolling Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
  • Get students involved in their own retellings and rewritings of Chaucer. David Wallace’s undergraduate Chaucer course at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2014 held an event in which students debuted both their own readings of Chaucer in the original Middle English as well as inspired, irreverent translations into present-day English.
  • Direct your event to increase opportunities for outreach on your campus. Are there other departments or programs with which you want to collaborate?  How can Chaucer connect to other time periods and topics?  Maybe you want to celebrate Chaucer’s influence on later art and media with your Media Studies or Art History departments.  Perhaps you want to work with your Gender Studies department on an event that looks at gender roles in Chaucer, or with Comparative Literature or Modern Languages scholars on an event that highlights translation.
  • Advertise! We had co-sponsors who also helped to publicize the event, including the Global Education Office, Department of English, Department of Modern Languages, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Poetry Club, and Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society).  Their efforts, along with our posters, tweets, and announcements, ensured a good turnout for the event.
  • Use social media for collaboration, connections and archiving. This international holiday was created and promoted through social media, so it’s important to create records, post pictures and videos, and tweet, blog or Facebook with the hashtag #WhanThatAprilleDay17 (please note the spelling).

Of course, all of these reflections come from the perspective of a medievalist working in English, who teaches Chaucer. Although “Whan That Aprille Day” started from a Chaucer parody account and remains Middle English heavy, its goal is wide and universal, and it offers possibilities for global and multilingual exchange, just as Chaucer himself makes in his poetry.  In the words of @LeVostreGC, “we hope that the connections, affinities, and joys of this made-up linguistic holiday will widely overflow their initial medieval English context.”

WATD Washington College event group photo
Readers pose for a group photo after the “Whan That Aprille Day” event at the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Washington College (2016).
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