When it came time for the Editors to choose their award winners, this is how the conversation went:
“Want to go with Pyrrhus for literature?”
“Let’s do it!”
Pyrrhus is a fun read full of history, linguistics, and a whole lot of fire. The author Jenica Jessen is majoring in linguistics at the University of Utah and studies just about everything she can. Legend has it that a member of Scribendi had the opportunity to sit down and ask her questions about her poem. It’s not as great a legend as the stories about Pyrrhus, but we take what we can.
The fun part? A transcript has been found that looks exactly like how that conversation went. I’ve included it below, and your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read the words of the remarkable Jenica Jessen and revel in the history not only within her words, but of her words.
What inspired you to write this poem?
I misread the word “pyric” (meaning “related to burning”) as “pyrrhic” (as in “pyrrhic victory”). I’d heard of a pyrrhic victory before, and the word nerd within me immediately wondered if there was a connection. As I was thinking it over a line came to me—“We won our pyrrhic victory, and now everything’s on fire”—and that’s when I knew that I had to write a poem.
In your poem, you singled out the linguist and the strategist and what they would tell you about Pyrrhus–why did you choose to single out just those two?
Those are the two perspectives that I’m most familiar with. I’m a linguistics major and political science minor, so I’ve examined pyrrhic victories from a strategic point of view but I’m also really interested in word histories.
Since this poem is about a real historical dude, did you have to do any research? Or did you already know all you needed to?
I had to do quite a bit of research, actually. First I had to figure out if my intuition was correct that the words were related. (We don’t directly derive “pyric” from “pyrrhic”, but they do share a common root.)
Then I had to find out a bit about pyrrhic victories. I knew that they were associated with a famous quote (“Another such victory and I am undone”) but I had no idea who said it or how they got their name. So I learned about the Battle of Asculum (the official name for the battle in the poem) and spent a little while studying the life of King Pyrrhus. When I found out that he was cremated, I got really excited.
Why did you choose to structure your poem the way you did?
I started with Pyrrhus because I was worried that starting anywhere else would be too boring. I wanted to include the explanation of the etymology because that’s was the origin of this poem, and I wanted to include a discussion of the strategy because I know that “pyrrhic victory” isn’t exactly a common phrase. But I interspersed both with the story of the king because I felt like that was the most engaging part. My own thoughts on the whole story went at the end of the piece—from a practical perspective, because it wouldn’t make much sense until the reader knew a little bit about Pyrrhus, and from a more poetic perspective because I thought it had the biggest emotional punch.
What, if any, specific challenges did you face in writing or revising your poem?
The last section of the poem was really, really hard to get right. Most of the rest of the poem is just a narration of facts—an artistic narration, but factual all the same. The ending was entirely my own thoughts, and I had a very hard time narrowing down what exactly I wanted to say on the subject. The ending started out as a few pages long and I had a hard time cutting it down to the most powerful, important, and cohesive lines.
What inspired you to enjoy writing?
Ever since I was little I’ve enjoyed making up and telling stories, and writing is the perfect way to keep doing that as an adult. Plus, I have something to say on just about everything, and writing gives me the chance to get it all out of my system. The paper can’t get bored or irritated when I feel like launching into a deep discussion about politics, movies, or linguistic facts that I think are really cool.
Do you have a favorite part of the poem? (If so, what is it?)
I’m pretty fond of the entire thing, but if I had to choose I’d say the last four lines. I don’t normally write metered poetry, but I felt like the rhythm and rhyme gave the end of the poem just a little extra oomph.
If you could say one thing to the readers of Scribendi–of your poem specifically–what would it be?
It’s easy to become so obsessed with victory that you end up losing yourself along the way. I’ve seen too many people who are more concerned with being right than they are with doing right—particularly in the political sphere, but in other areas too. I think that a win-at-any-cost attitude tends to hurt us more than help.
(And here’s a random side-question. Your contributor bio mentions Star Trek. Our Editor in Chief is a huge Star Trek fan, so on behalf of her I gotta ask–which series is your favorite?)
Ooh boy. I love Data and Captain Picard—how can you not love Data and Picard?—so I’m tempted to answer NextGen, but right now I’m buried in the middle of Deep Space Nine. I love the fact that the entire show is basically geopolitics in space, because I’m the kind of nerd who gets into that sort of thing.
I’m not really a fan of the original series, and I know almost nothing about Enterprise. I know a lot of people who say that Voyager is their favorite, but unfortunately I haven’t seen enough of it to judge. It’s next on my watch list. 🙂