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Why the Prague Summer Program for Writers Has Existed for Twenty-five Years, and Why It May Endure Another Twenty-five

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As we come upon our 25th anniversary session, Richard Katrovas (PSP founder and director) and Ema Katrovas (PSP coordinator) reflect on the historical context of these past 25 years of the Prague Summer Program for Writers.

Richard Katrovas

At the heart of the Prague Summer Program for Writers is the ethos of the Prague Spring, the spirit of Charter 77, and the gentle, wry, ironic, egalitarian, life-affirming hardheadedness of the great Vaclav Havel. My favorite anecdote (possibly an urban legend, though one true to the spirit of the time), from the Prague Spring is of Czech women posing seductively before Soviet tanks, casting come-hither glances, like velvet hand grenades, at the horny Russian boys within, and then fleeing. Such behavior today would not receive any Feminist Seal of Approval, but only the most fleckless ideologue would require one. Such a gesture, apocryphal or not, is quintessentially Czech. Charter 77 is among the more noble examples of a society’s artists and intellectuals asserting collective moral pressure upon the restrictive powers of the State, and Vaclav Havel–the Philosopher King, the Poet Prince, the Playwright President, the most luminous exponent, after Nelson Mandela, of resistance to the vast reactionary forces that rendered the 20th Century a bloody, apocalyptic mess–clarified, by the quality of his life (which is to say the quality of his resistance to oppression and to the failure of imagination that occasions evil), the intersection of the aesthetic and moral realms.

The Prague Summer Program’s reason for being is Prague itself, its history and the relation of its people to that history at the core of which is something akin to what the great English poet John Keats coined as “negative capability,” which in the Czech historical context is best exemplified by the grainy, black-and-white images of more than a hundred thousand Czechs gathered on Wenceslas Square to greet the invading German army; they gave the Nazi salute as they sang the Czech national anthem, “Where Is My Home?” Such an ironic mixed message was likely lost on the self-righteous jackboots and their doomed commander, Reinhardt Heydrich, who would be assassinated by the Czech Secret Services and was the only Nazi high official to be assassinated during the entire war. Two Czech villages were decimated as retaliation. It is more than interesting to note that Heydrich had famously characterized the Czechs as “laughing beasts.”

No people on Earth better exemplify the idea that the personal is indeed the political, and no other small-language literary tradition is richer and more essential to ethnic identity than that of the Czechs. The Prague Summer Program for Writers seeks to celebrate that tradition, and, through a more or less organic process of comparison/contrast, to contextualize big American ambition relative to the ambitions of world-class Czech writers whose work reaches wider audiences only through the alchemy of literary translation.

Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution of 1989, to which I was blessed to bear witness as a Fulbright fellow, represents one of history’s more shimmering confluences of hope and change, truth and beauty. The Prague Summer Program for Writers exists as a humble testimony to that spirit.

Ema Katrovas:

This Spring, I attended two protests on Wenceslas square. The first, on March 3rd, was against the appointment of Zdeněk Odráček to head the department of General Inspection of Security Forces. The second, on April 9th, was against our prime minister Andrej Babiš. Ondráček is a former communist policeman who, to this day, is brazenly unapologetic for  beating protesters, including women, during the 1989 Velvet Revolution. Andrej Babiš collaborated with the StB (the Czech Secret Police) during the communist regime and is under investigation for fraud and conflict of interests concerning his businesses.                                   

On March 3rd, Wenceslas square was packed with protesters. They sloshed onto metro entrances and onto the limbs of low trees lining the square. Someone played a drum in the middle of the crowd (I later saw a video that revealed the drummer to be a long-haired hippie type between thirty and forty; he looked as though he’d been sent by Central Casting), leading the chants: “There are thousands of us here!” “We´re not a herd of sheep!” “We´ll come again!” “Yes, it´s true, we´re being ruled by a member of the StB!” (The latter was in the form of a nursery rhyme.) People waved rolled-up pieces of paper representing the police club Ondráček used to beat protesters. There was also a 4-meter long white tube, which looked like one of those tunnels for dogs made of wire and fabric, being passed over the crowd which I only later learned was also supposed to represent a police club. People jangled their keys and sang the national anthem. There was an unmistakable atmosphere of nostalgia. Though the younger protesters were the loudest, there were protesters there who undoubtedly had stood on that square 27 years earlier during the Velvet Revolution (I recall one woman of about fifty holding up a sign that read, “I can´t believe I have to do this again.”) The younger protesters must have felt, as did I, a false nostalgia for a time they didn´t experience, that mythical time when our parents jingled their keys until the communists left, and, in my case, the mythical time of my unlikely conception. The older protesters must have felt nostalgia for a time when they had something unambiguous to fight for, a time when their values were pure or at least clear, a brief time when “sticking it to the man” (though by 1989 this was a nostalgic 60s sentiment, my father tells me) was as much a delicious pastime as a civic duty.

On April 9th, I met my mother walking down Klikovka street near our building. She was off to join the protest against our prime-minister Andrej Babiš. My mother is the woman beside whom (thanks to whom, really) my American father rang his keys on Wenceslas square during the Velvet Revolution and, incidentally, she is also the co-founder of the PSP. She had not been able to join the previous protest against Ondráček and was absolutely glowing with the prospect of participating in the protest against Babiš. Again, I could tell her participation wasn´t just about current politics but about nostalgia. I joined the protest later, with my dog, Toti, just in time to hear opera singer Dagmar Pecková warble our national anthem. The protest sprawled over the square, this time, and I heard a drum (I wonder if it was played by the same long-haired man from last time) in the distance, at the foot of the square. “Babiše do koše” everyone chanted, among other things, “Babiš into the trash” (rhymed, of course.)

After the first protest on March 3rd, prime-minister Babiš removed Ondráček from his post. Ondráček, clearly a man of gut reactions, did not depart gracefully. Babiš, however, got to play the role of a politician who listens to the people. The second protest (and the others that followed) against Babiš himself had little effect, of course.

Those who gathered on Wenceslas square this Fall and Spring to protest the rise to power of former communist collaborators were really protesting (and this was clear from the banners that focused as much on Babiš´s wealth and business interests as on his ties to the StB) a plutocrat who gained power by virtue of cutthroat machinations and shady business dealings. It seems that former communist collaborators make good businessmen. And, nowadays, as it turns out, businessmen make successful, if not particularly effective, politicians.

I stood on Wenceslas square in November, 2016, in a small crowd of ex-pats as well as Czechs, protesting the election of a shady, clownish multi-millionaire as American president. There was electricity in the air. There were witty banners in both Czech and English. There were, thankfully, no pink Pussy Hats. I thought about how lucky I was not to be living in the US. I was thankful to be there, underneath king Wenceslas´ statue, where I felt safe, protesting something on the other side of the ocean in a land I never have to live in again. I didn´t know the millionaire Babiš would become prime-minister and that the president who supported him, Miloš Zeman, a public drunk and anti-political-correctness performance artist, would be reelected. I didn´t consider that the idiotic nationalist populism infecting the US was a contagion to which Czechs also were susceptible, though, of course, I should have known.

My father´s words on the historical context of the Prague Summer Program are beautiful. The premise that the Prague Summer Program is a tribute to a great victory of democracy over totalitarianism is inspiring. We should see that past as a mere prelude to the future, however. It is not just Czechs who have a beautiful tradition of ironic protest. It´s artists. The PSP hopes to be part of a vast global community of such artists and of people who think, who question, and who, to varying degrees, resist. Sometimes resistance simply means becoming better at using language and telling stories. We hope to be part of that modest resistance.

The Green Fairy

The PSP blog has covered many topics, ranging from the culture and history of the Czech people to be benefits of study abroad programs. Today’s entry will focus on an interesting cultural artifact that is perfectly legal in Prague, one that you’ve likely seen referenced in 19th and 20th century literature. If you’re an adventurous type and you decide to come along with us to the city of Prague for your European study abroad program, you’ll have the opportunity to try Absinthe.

Nicknamed the “Green Fairy” for its color and effects, Absinthe was invented in the late 18th century. It is a licorice flavored alcoholic beverage that contains wormwood. It’s the wormwood (vermouth in German) and its high alcohol content that gives the drink its hallucinogenic properties (I say hallucinogenic, though the chemical that’s in wormwood that is a hallucinogenic, thujone, is present in such low doses that the drink won’t really cause you to see much of anything). From Arthur Rimbaud to Édouard Manet (see his painting, “The Absinthe Drinker”), Absinthe has been enjoyed by many great artists seeking otherworldly or mind-altering experiences. Now, we don’t recommend trying Absinthe without caution—a hallucinogen is a hallucinogen, after all—but, if used in moderation, Absinthe can provide a welcomed change of scenery, inspiration, and enjoyment.

If you’re interested in seeing a bit of Absinthe’s history and connection to the arts, PSP recommends checking out the work of Baudelaire, Alfred Jarry, Oscar Wilde, and Hemingway. Hemingway first tried Absinthe when he was working as a journalist in the 1920s. Absinthe made it into a few of his greatest novels, and he even invented his own Absinthe cocktail, which was a combination of Absinthe and champagne.

In the 20th century, Absinthe became popular in the bohemian inspired US cultures based in San Francisco and New Orleans. Absinthe with high enough thujone content was banned in the US for roughly 100 years, but the drink was declared legal in 2007.

Bohemian Legends III: The Knights Sleeping in Blaník Mountain

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At the end of Alois Jirásek´s 1894 book of Czech legends, from which we have drawn in our other retellings, there is a series of as-yet-unfulfilled prophesies. The most famous one, the one Czechs return to in times of trouble, is the last one, about the knights sleeping in Blaník mountain, which lies about an hour outside of Prague. It is important to consider the time when Jirásek was writing, a time when Czech national sentiments were high but national autonomy was still to be won.  Because it´s relatively short, and because the English version is so difficult to obtain, we have translated Jirásek´s entire chapter on the knights of Blaník mountain from the Czech.

The Knights of Blaník

by Alois Jirásek

Hark, regard Blaník, a mountain in the cloak of a dark forest, runing from its summit down its slopes. It gazes seriously, almost somberly, at the land forsaken by the world, at the tree-covered hills and barely fertile plains. Its crown can be seen far and wide, and people who live near often gaze at it questioningly. When it is cloaked in darkness it predicts turbulence and if it shines clear and blue, it promises sure and sturdy times.

On Blaník´s summit you will see, in the shadow of beach, fir, and spruce trees, ancient, stone battlements, most of them crumbled. They are overrun with moss and foliage and not a trace remains of the wooden castle they once protected.

But under the battlements, within the mountain itself, armed knights slumber. It is St. Wenceslas´ army. They slumber and wait for the day when Czechs will need thier help, when they will be called to battle

Under the rocky peeks of Blaník, on the Eastern slope, there is a rock in the form of a Gothic arc. That is the entrance to the mountain, and there a brook spurts. That is where the knights of Blaník let their horses drink when, from time to time, they ride out of the mountain by moonlight, onto the meadow surrounded by trees. On such a night, a dark thundering can be heard around the mountain, the muffled sound of a drum, and the cry of bugle horns. In the morning, the noise ceases suddenly, and the knights, the horses, everything disappears in the stone gate, into the mysterious womb of the mountain. Only the meadow bears witness to the knights´ equestrian tumult, in the form of countless hoofmarks impressed into the earth.

It is so that more than one person set foot in the dungeon where St. Wenceslas´ army sleeps.

One day, a young girl cut grass under the Blaník mountain. Suddenly, a knight stood before her and asked her to come clean inside the mountain. The girl, unafraid, went with him. The gate to the mountain was open. She saw arched halls within the rock and massive pillars on which weapons hung. There was a deep silence, as in a church, and the space seemed bathed in a strange, yellow haze. By the walls, next to troughs, stood a row of saddled horses, and at the stone tables sat knights, their heads resting on the tables. The knights slept and the horses stood, motionless, not nodding their heads, nor digging their hooves into the ground or flicking their tails.

The girl walked in and looked around, but no one moved. So, she began to sweep. She worked quickly and she soon cleaned the entire hall. No one stopped her or spoke to her. No one woke. She left just as she had entered and when she arrived home, they asked where she had been for so long.

The girl was surprised and said she came at the same time as every day. She was amazed when they told her that she had last returned from cutting grass at this time a year ago, that she had been gone an entire year. So she told them where she had been and everyone understood why a year seemed to her a moment. On the third day after her return, however, the girl passed away.

Just like the girl, so a blacksmith from Louňovice was invited into the mountain by a knight, so that he could shoe the horses. The blacksmith did as he was asked and as he left, the knights gave him some rubble in a bag, which the blacksmith angrily spilled out in front of the mountain. At home, he found they had already mourned him, for he had disappeared without a trace an entire year ago.

So he told his family what had happened and when he shook the empty bag the knights had given him, three ducats fell out. Only now did he see that he had made a grave mistake. He immediately ran back to the Blaník mountain gate where he had shaken out the rubble. But in vain. There was no rubble and no ducats.

They also tell the story of a shepherd who was searching for a wayward sheep and wandered into Blaník alone as well as the story of a boy who spent a year in the mountain, like the shepherd, without realizing it.

But that was a long time ago. Blaník is now closed and gazes seriously, almost somberly, at the abandoned land, and it seems the sorrow of a wistful rumination hangs upon it and on the surrounding landscape. St. Wenceslas´ army sleeps. It is not yet time for it to rise. This will happen in times of the gravest danger, when so many enemies befall our land as to carry our kingdom off on their horses’ hooves.

At such a time, there will be signs of the knights´ arrival: Treetops in the Blaník forest will wither, and on the summit of the mountain, an old, dry oak tree will grow green again, and the stream flowing from the mountain will become so overrun with water that it will rush down as a river. Then a massive, bloody battle will ensue in the land between Blaník and Načarad. The dry pond, by which the dead oak will come to life again, will fill with streams of blood shed in battle. There will be weeping and much grief caused by this desperate battle but Czechs will defend themselves bravely against their stronger enemy. Blaník will open at a crucial moment and knights in full armor will spill out and St. Winceslal on his white horse will lead them to aid the Czechs.

The enemy, suddenly surrounded and afraid, will flee madly to Prague where this terrible battle will be finished. It will be such a wild fight, that a river of blood will flow from Strahov to Charles´ stone bridge. Then St. Wenceslas on his white horse, holding a banner, will lead the Czechs and they will shun all foreigners and enemies from the Czech kingdom. And St. Prokop with his staff, the abbot of Sázava, will help them.

Then, peace will follow and the Czech lands will rest. Many Czechs will die in these battles but the ones who will stay will be complete men. Knowing the mistakes of their forefathers and their own mistakes, they will stand their ground firmly and no enemy will conquer them.

Bohemian Legends II: Horymír and His Loyal Steed, Šemík

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In our second installment of Bohemian Legends, we find ourselves five generations after the death of Přemysl, whom we met in the last legend. Now, king Křesomysl (whose name means, roughly, “a mind of stoking,” implying a love of fire) has taken to the throne and some of the prophesies we heard in the first legend have come true.

The resting place of Horymír´s loyal and slightly magical horse, Šemík, can be found in the village of Neumětely, where one can visit it to this day. A tomb, built in 1887 over the place where Šemík was supposedly buried, reads: “In Neumětely people believed, and still believe, that here lies Horymír´s loyal horse, Šemík.”

Note: For a brief intro to the history of Czech legends, see our first Bohemian Legends post

Horymír and His Loyal Steed, Šemík

Upon king Křesomysl coronation, the people took to the mountains and ventured away from the fields, for Křesomysl minded the prophesy of his forefather, Přemysl, who said the Czech lands would rule with iron. Many sought iron and silver deep in the earth and others sifted through streams in search of gold. They ventured out in droves to win their fortune in metals, claim their cold riches, leaving the fields barren. The Czech lands became rich in metal and poor in bread.

Many patriarchs and yoemen lamented the hunger which befell their lands. Horymír, who was in charge of the settlement of Neumětely, was chief among them. Accompanied by his like-minded companions, Horymír traveled to Vyšehrad to speak to king Křesomysl. They urged him to forbid mining, so that the people may return to the fields and not go hungry. They were not heard. The king´s lust for metals was too great.

Horymír´s audience with the king was not without consequence, however. When the miners in the settlement by Březová mountain heard of Horymír´s attempts to dismantle their profession they flew into a rage. They wanted Horymír´s blood. Some scoffed that if it be bread he is concerned with, they should suffocate him with it. The other miners took to the idea of this punishment and, like a swarm of wild bees, they set out to the town of Neumětely.

The miners reached Neumětely by nightfall. Luckily, a good soul had run ahead of them to warn the town. Just in time, Horymír mounted his favorite horse, Šemík, and escaped the miners´ wrath. Šemík´s white main led the angry miners through the forest for a while but then vanished from sight quite suddenly.

Now safe, Horymír looked back at his settlement. It was in flames, the mounds of grain flying up in ashes, a year´s worth of harvesting up in smoke.

“May I burn to coal should I not avenge this,” he said.

What the miners didn´t burn, they stole. They led away livestock, rode off in stolen carriages pulled by stolen horses and shrieked spitefully: “If he was afraid of hunger, may he now have it!”

The miners, thinking Horymír would die wandering the mountains, lost and alone, went to sleep peacefully the next night, not bothering to place guards at the entrance to the settlement. Horymír and a group of his allies fell upon the mining settlement at Březová mountain that night as the miners slumbered, exhausted by the previous night´s victory. Horymír and his men slaughtered the miners mercilessly. By morning, the occupants of the Březová mountain mining town lay scattered and ghostly under the morning fog, murdered to the last.

After this deed, Horymír rode Šemík to Vyšehrad. They arrived unnaturally fast, when it was still morning, both man and horse untired by the night´s slaughter. By afternoon, miners gathered at the king´s throne with news of Horymír´s brutality. Though Horymír argued that he could not have been at Březová mountain that night since he arrived at Vyšehrad in the morning, the king, always loyal to those who mined for him, immediately imprisoned Horymír. Many patriarchs and other laymen came to speak on Horymír´s behalf, bringing news of the miners´ unprovoked savagery which, to them, justified Horymír´s retaliation. In the eyes of the metal-greedy king, their words did not weigh as much as those of the miners. The miners called for Horymír to be burned at the stake and the king ordained that it should be so. Horymír, it seemed, would burn to a coal just like he swore he would should he not fully avenge his home.

When Horymír stood before the king before his execution he asked to be granted one last wish: To ride his horse, Šemík, for the last time.

“Go,” scoffed king said. “But a Šemík without wings will not save you.”

The guards led the horse out into the courtyard. Šemík, joyful to see his master, danced on hooves as nimble as a deer´s. Horymír mounted him and whistled once with exaltation. The horse rose on its hindlegs, then began prancing around the courtyard, light-hooved. Horymír whistled a second time and the steed leapt from one side of the courtyard to another, landing by the gate. Then Horymír whistled a third time and said: “Well then, Šemík, upward!”

At that moment, the horse spoke in a whisper: “My lord, hold on!” and leapt over the battlements.

The king, the laymen, and the miners alike cried out in terror and then watched, in either fury or delight, as the white horse and his rider galloped far away having already, unbelievably, reached Radotín. Now, the noblemen, too, pleaded for Horymír´s life, so taken were they by his bravery and the speed of his horse.

The next day, the king sent a message to Neumětely, declaring that Horymír had been pardoned and asking him to return to Vyšehrad for an audience with the king. Horymír did return the next day, but on a different horse. When the king, curious about the amazing steed, asked about Šemík, Horymír replied, crestfallen, that Šemík lay at home, for he was heavily wounded by their escape.

Horymír stayed at Vyšehrad only as long as politeness dictated and soon hurried back home, where the villagers had been tirelessly rebuilding their settlement. In the stables, Šemík lay on his side, no longer able to stand. He told Horymír that he would soon pass and had but one final request: That Horymír not feed his body to the birds or the wild beasts but that he burry him in front of his front gate. With that he passed.

Šemík and Horymír won a battle, but not the war. Indeed, the lands were more brutal when in the hands of men, just as queen Libuše warned. The prophesy from the time of queen Libuše, that the Czech lands would be ruled by iron and that they would often go without bread, held true for many generations to come, challenged again and again, but overcome only after the time of legends had passed.

Bohemian Legends, Part I: Queen Libuše and her Prophesies

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For writers, legends and myths may be the most captivating records of a particular culture. Bohemian legends are particularly captivating.

One of the first retellings of Bohemian legends comes from the 12th century Chronica Boemorum written by Cosmas of Prague in Latin. The legends recorded in these ancient texts were rediscovered during the Czech National Revival in the late 19th century, when Czechs were searching for an identity which would not be tethered to their Germanic overlords. The most famous retelling of Czech legends comes from this time, written by Alois Jirásek in beautiful, picturesque Czech.

This is the first in a series of posts dedicated to Bohemian legends. Our retelling does not wish to substitute reading the complete legends (Jirásek´s version has been translated into English); our goal is to entice you to delve deeper into these tales, which are by turns whimsical and universal.

Our first installment deals with the mythic figure of Queen Libuše, who may have lived sometime in the eighth century and was said to have had the gift of foresight. It was she who predicted the existance of the city of Prague. She lived in a castle built on a rock high above the Vltava river named Vyšehrad (literally “high castle”). To this day, one may walk the battlements of Vyšehrad and gaze upon most of the city of Prague.

Note: All dialogue in the text is our own translation of Jirásek´s version of the legend.

Queen Libuše and her Prophesies

Libuše was the youngest of three sisters. Her eldest sister Kazi wielded magic of herbs and knew all manner of healing while the middle sister, Teta, was deeply devoted to the gods and taught the people how to worship. Libuše, though the youngest, was the wisest and possessed the gift of foresight. Their father, Krok, was a duke that rose to power as the people fought after beloved Father Čech´s death. After the death of Krok the people chose his wise and just daughter Libuše as their queen.

In those days, a ruler´s work was mostly that of a judge and Libuše was known for being a wise judge who resolved all manners of disagreements. One day, Libuše judged a dispute between two men whose houses had fallen into a bitter battle over land. When she resolved the dispute in one house´s favor, the man against whose favor she had decided flew into a rage and said: “What justice is this? Can´t we see a woman is judging us! A woman of long hair, but short reason. She may weave, and wield a needle, that she may, but she cannot judge! … Shame to us men! Shame! In what other nation are men ruled by women? Only we are, only we, and that is why we are a laughingstock. Better to die than to bear such a reign!”

Silence followed the aggrieved man´s words. Libuše stared, moved, at the gathering before her then rose and replied with dignity: “So it is. A woman I am and as a woman I act; I do not reign with an iron fist and for that you think I do not understand you. It should be that you have a stricter regent than a woman. May you have him! You shall have your wish. Go home in peace, now. Let the great council elect a ruler. And whomever they elect, I shall marry.”

Then queen Libuše called for Kazi and Teta and the three sisters spent the night in council by the holy alter which only they were allowed to approach. The next day all three sisters stood before the people who gathered from all over Bohemia to hear the queen speak.

Libuše said to them:

“You know why I called the entire nation, here. You do not appreciate freedom. I recognized it and felt it. Inspired by the gods, I announced that I would no longer rule you, because in your hearts you ask for the rule of a man. You long for a ruler who will take your sons and daughters as his servants and take your best cattle and horses as he pleases. You want to serve like you have never served before, and pay taxes…until you feel heavy and bitter. All better than the shame of being ruled by a woman. I do not wish to make you afraid and I stand by what the gods already inspired me to say and what the seeing spirit showed my sisters and me. Elect your ruler wisely and carefully, however, for it is easy to elect a ruler and harder to remove him. If you are determined then it will all happen as you wish and if you will allow it, I will advise you as to your new ruler´s name and whereabouts!”

The crowd cried “advise us, give us council!” and Libuše rose and stretched out her hand to silence them.

“Hark, behind those mountains…there are unkept fields which belong to no one. There your ruler plows with two spotted oxen… Přemysl is his name and his descendants will rule this land forever… You needn´t search for the way. My horse will take you; do not hesitate to follow it. It will lead you there and back by the surest path. The person before which my horse will stop and whinnie, that is the one I tell you of. You will believe me only when you see your new ruler eat at an iron table.”

The next day, Libuše´s horse led a group of men off to find the new king. It walked so surely that the men understood that the queen had taken her steed on this treacherous path many an evening and returned again many a morning. The horse walked with determination, undistracted by herds of wild horses, and when the men stopped to rest, the queen´s horse was the first to step out on the journey again. Finally, they arrived at the fields beyond the mountains and there they met a tall man who plowed with two spotted oxen, just as the queen described. The men took out a royal garb and fell before him, calling to him as their king. Přemysl gazed at them solemnly. Then he stuck his staff into the ground and released the oxen, saying “Go back where you came from.” The oxen ran into the forest and the mountain closed behind them as if they had never been. Then Přemysl spoke:

“It is regretful that you came so early in the morning. Had I been able to finish plowing this field, we would have had enough bread forever. But because you were in such a hurry and interrupted me at work, believe me when I say, the people will often go hungry.”

In the meantime, the staff which he had planted in the ground began to grow. Three green buds emerged from it. Then Přemysl asked the men to have breakfast with him. He turned over his iron plow to make it into a table and the men stood, dumbfounded, for now they saw their king eat at an iron table, just like the queen had said they would. As they sat and ate the bread Přemysl offered them, two of the three leafy branches on the staff shriveled and died. The men asked, afraid, what this meant.

“That I shall tell you,” said Přemysl. “Hear ye that many of my descendants will rule, but only one of them will remain a king and ruler.”

Then the men asked him why he ate at an iron table.

“I eat at an iron table,” replied the future king, “so that you may know that my lineage will rule with iron. Take iron seriously! Plow with iron in times of peace and in times of war protect yourself with it! As long as the Czechs have such an iron table, they will always defeat their enemy. When foreigners one day take this table from them, Czechs will lose their freedom!”

On their way to the castle, the men asked Přemysl why he took his leather purse and his sandals of bast with him, now that he would be king.

“I give them to you to keep forever, so that my descendants may know where they came from, so that they may live in humility, without pridefully oppressing the people entrusted to them, for we are all equal.”

Thus, though she was no longer the sole ruler, Libuše chose her king and he was just and discussed all matters of ruling with her. It was Přemysl who witnessed Libuše´s most famous prophesy: “I see a city touched by the greatness of the stars!” Following this prophesy, Přemysl built a castle in the place Libuše ordained and they called it Prague.

From Poetry to Prose: Writing Outside of Your Genre

The Prague Summer Program is a big advocate of multi-genre workshops, and, as we prepare to celebrate our twenty-fifth anniversary, we would like to encourage poets considering PSP to pursue new experiences. Be committed to your writing—as you must be if you are reading this blog—and face new challenges as they arise. For poets, we would encourage you to accept the challenge of work outside of your genre.

Working outside of our comfort zones can be a great source of anxiety or discomfort, but growth seldom comes to those afraid of new experiences. If you are a poet—especially if you have never given much thought to writing prose—the Prague Summer Program would like to encourage you to consider writing fiction or creative non-fiction in one of our multi-genre workshops. Here’s why:

  • The language of poetry can often be quite ornamental, decorative, and beautiful. The same can be said of good prose; however, prose often has a more concrete, tangible approach that can challenge, inform, and complicate the ways in which a poet chooses to make meaning.
  • Line breaks can be used to compliment the music or rhythm of a poem, and, for the poet who is not used to making it all the way to the right margin, prose offers a new way of understanding the rhythm—a way that does not include the suggested “lighter” pauses that come at the end of a line.
  • This might be a bit obvious, but poets can contain an image, idea, or concept within a single stanza, sometimes connecting to the next through the use of enjambed lines. The poet working in prose must consider how to navigate similar transitions with a different set of tools, which really helps writers continue to develop their idiosyncratic ways of knowing, understanding, and expressing.
  • The use of commas in poetry and prose is complex, and worth contemplating. For example, a poet might use commas when elongated pauses are necessary—typically this need comes from the music of a piece. When writing prose, the same writer might avoid commas to make the reader feel breathless or to suggest that the narrator is thinking rapidly. They might use commas to suggest the passage of time or to further distinguish dialogue between two dissimilar characters.

 

How to Get the Most Out of a Workshop

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Time is always valuable to the creative writing workshop environment—even more so if the workshop has high enrollment and a tight schedule. If you have ever taken a creative writing workshop at a university, you know that even with fourteen or fifteen weeks, it can be a challenge to work through more than a few pieces per writer. To get the most out of your workshops abroad or at your local college or university, the Prague Summer Program has a few helpful suggestions.

Procedure and Faculty

At the beginning of your workshop, your instructor will let you know their workshop rules for engagement. For example, it is common for an instructor to request absolute silence from the author as their poetry or fiction is discussed amongst the class. You should always get to know your instructors approach. Ask questions, don’t make assumptions, and familiarize yourself with the poetry or fiction of your instructor. Our time in the creative writing workshop can be used more efficiently when we understand workshop expectations and gain perspective on our teachers as artists.

Know Your Work

Workshops will improve any work, if the writer takes the time to understand their strengths and limitations. Investigate your writing. Be honest. Before you enter a creative writing workshop, try to identify strengths and weaknesses in your writing, do your best to make sure you can articulate how you understand these strengths and weaknesses, and make sure your instructor knows how you view your work. No matter what level of skill or how much passion you put into your writing, giving your instructor an accurate, honest self-assessment of your work can lead to a more productive workshop with achievable, tangible goals. The more you give your instructor, the more you will get.

Be Mindful

Take notes. Always take notes. If your writing is being discussed, take more notes. If you notice any key terms, repeated concepts, or if a discussion is particularly engaging, write down everything you can. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to repeat what they have said if you find yourself intrigued.

If you’re looking for more creative writing workshop tips, the PSP Blog has more useful suggestions here.

Finding Time to Write During the Prague Summer Program

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The Prague Summer Program makes a point of giving you ample free time to use as you need. Of course, exploring Prague and traveling is a fine way to use this time (more on that in our other blog posts) but we like to think of the PSP as a generative study-abroad program. The time we give you is yours to use for your writing and, as past students will tell you, the program director Richard Katrovas is particularly open to spontaneously reading work you have just written. Finding time to write can be a challenge even when we´re at home, let alone abroad, but, if you are planning to study abroad as a creative writer, don’t forget to give yourself some time to generate new work. Here are a few tips that might come in handy.

Stay in the Moment: Limit Social Media

At home, you might find yourself thinking about writing…and failing miserably due to distractions. Perhaps you tell yourself, “I’ll just check my Facebook feed once before I begin,” or, “I’ll scroll through Instagram one more time before I begin.” Whatever your social networking poison might be, I’m pretty sure we all know what happens next. An hour later, sometimes several hours later, you have been hooked and your writing life has paid the price. If you are studying abroad, you may feel even more inclined than usual to use social media because you, understandably, want to share your travel experience with folks back home. Do yourself a favor and delete your social networking apps, block Facebook from your web browser, and for the sake of your loved ones, stop taking pictures of your food. Don’t check how many likes your post received. Instead, put that energy into writing. Write an essay about getting lost in Prague. If non-fiction isn´t your thing, write an imaginary interview with the Golem. Stay in the moment. Stay focused.

Take Risks as a Writer (not Just as a Traveler)

Sometimes, letting yourself be swept up in the experience of travel is good for you as a writer. It´s only half the work, however. What starts as exploration can quickly turn into procrastination and subsequent guilt for time lost. The issue is that there is a difference between exploring and taking risks as a traveler and doing so as a writer. The Prague Summer Program has a few useful tips to keep you on the ball.

  • The PSP schedule includes many free mornings and afternoons. Use these to work and leave the fun for your extended weekends. If you sit down to write and nothing happens, use this time to plan which weekday morning or afternoon you will try again. Plan what you will attempt to write when the time comes.
  • Pick a place to work, either in the calm silence of your hotel room (if you have a single) or in a public space conducive to productivity. Prague is full of cafés and the public parks around the Inos hotel offer many nooks to work in private.
  • Write spontaneously. Carry a notebook and allow yourself to jot things down even as you are traveling and exploring the city. If you end up writing something outside of your scheduled work time, edit it when your scheduled time arrives.
  • Take advantage of workshop writing assignments. They´re usually not mandatory, but they can be a lot of fun and usually offer an opportunity for research around Prague.
  • Make a point of showing at least one freshly-written piece to Richard Katrovas during the month of the PSP – even if it´s just one inchoate paragraph! The experience of having something new edited during a conference and, if it´s a fragment, discussing how it could fit into a finished piece is instructive in a different way than discussing work you think you have completed. More importantly, sharing work which you have just written can shatter a lot of barriers which cause writer´s block in the first place.
  • Being in a foreign place makes it more natural to try new things. Take advantage of the spirit of exploration while abroad and make a point of trying something new in your writing – an unfamiliar genre, a subject you have never had the courage to write about, the point of view of a character intimidatingly different from yourself. Step outside your comfort zone, not just as a traveler but as a writer.
  • Don´t be wed to the work you write while abroad. Maybe you´ll never use any of it in your published writing. Embracing imperfection and incompleteness is a major milestone in becoming a more productive artist because it means you can have fun while you create. Make it about the journey, not the destination.

Places to See in Prague Part III: “The City of a Hundred Spires”

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During the month of November, the Prague Summer Program’s blog has focused on must-see attractions in Prague for creative writers considering signing up for the with PSP. Our final entry of the month will give a few more suggestions that we hope will take your breath away when the time comes to visit “the City of a Hundred Spires.” Most of the spires you’ll see on Prague’s horizon are nameless houses or minor churches and cathedrals while the most prominent tower is St. Vitus cathedral which forms the silhouette of the Prague Castle. In a nontraditional take, we bring you two modern spires and one out-of-town spire.

Petřín Lookout Tower

Built in 1891, the Petřín Lookout Tower is 63.5 meters tall with two winding, 299-step staircases for visitors that appreciate the journey as much as the destination, but there is an elevator for those who wish to visit one of the two observation platforms without the brisk hike. The steel-framework tower, as you might gather from the design, was inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris and was built such that its tip is at the same altitude as that of the much taller Eiffel Tower. It was used as a transmission tower until 1992. The Petřín Lookout Tower will give you a bird’s-eye view of the city that is sure to make your study abroad in Prague feel complete.

Žižkov Television Tower

Construction of the Žižkov Television Tower began in 1985. The tower was completed in 1992 and, as you might have guessed, took over the transmission operations formerly run through the Petřín Lookout Tower. Standing 216 meters tall, this high-tech giant provides one of the best views of the city. The observatory is 93 meters off the ground, which places the observatory about 20 meters above the Žižkov Television Tower’s hotel. There’s also a restaurant if you’d like to take in the sight while grabbing a quick bite. In 2000, the Žižkov Television Tower gained new fame when artist David Černý (who is also behind the statue of Freud in the first installment of our Places to See series) installed ten bronze statues of faceless babies crawling up and down the tower, an installation he called, simply, Miminka (Babies). The baby statues caused such a (mostly positive) uproar that they were installed permanently in 2001 and, though they were taken down this past October for upkeep, they should be crawling the tower again during the PSP this coming July.

Karlštejn Castle

Charles IV founded the Karlštejn Castle in 1348, and construction was finally completed in 1365 with the consecration of the Chapel of the Holy Cross in the Great Tower. The castle was used as a place to keep valuable items—crown jewels and holy relics—safe, and as you wander the castle, we’re certain you’ll see that the Great Tower provided the best security a King and a Holy Roman Emperor could buy. Standing 60-meters high, the Great Tower is a veritable vault in the sky that was exceptionally well fortified.

Places to See in Prague Part II: Keep Storming the Castle

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Our last entry explored some interesting sights to see in Prague during your European study abroad program, and this post will continue with more suggestions for creative writers that really wish to interrogate the culture and architecture of the Czech Republic. There are simply too many beautiful, resonant, and intriguing locations in Prague to mention them all, but hopefully this list covers enough of the must-see historical locations to get you started.

Prague Castle

The Prague Castle is the most popular tourist attraction in Prague. If you are a creative writer studying abroad in Prague and you don’t go to the castle, we question your sanity. Built in 970 AD, the complex around the Prague Castle is collectively called Hradčany. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore! The PSP‘s guided tour of Prague, which all participants should attend at the beginning of the program, will cover the Castle but this is a place worth visiting twice. It would not be unreasonable to give yourself an entire day to explore the castle (don’t forget the Royal Garden!). Make sure you stick around town for nightfall; the castle’s lights are particularly beautiful in the evening, visible for miles along the river.

The National Gallery in Prague

If you wish to see a beautiful collection of Czech artworks, The National Gallery in Prague will keep you busy for hours. Czech artwork is an important part of what The National Gallery has to offer, though you’ll find a variety of works from across the globe, such as Asian art, European art from the Middle Ages, Baroque period art, and even ancient Greek and Roman works. The buildings of The National Gallery include the Veletrzní Palace, the Covent of St. Agnes of Bohemia, the Kinsky Palace, and the Sternberg Palace.

The Prague Zoo

The Prague Zoo is a real crowd pleaser, and the perfect spot for any animal lover. It is considered to be one of the best zoos in the world. The park has been opened since 1931, and it is the home of over 700 species of animal. If you need a nice, calm walk ripe with nostalgia, the zoo is perfect! And it’s a wonderful outing for children if you have little ones to attend.