Spotlight on... Michael McOsker

Michael McOsker
Michael McOsker
This week we meet Michael McOsker, a researcher in the Department of Greek and Latin. Michael chats to us about his work translating and editing the ancient poetry of everyday people and his favourite viewpoint in Naples.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I’m a researcher in the Department of Greek and Latin, with the project ’ Hexameters Beyond the Canon: New Poetry from Roman and Byzantine Egypt ’. At this stage, we’re mostly still editing the poems in question, which are written on pieces of papyrus (ancient paper) that were found in Egypt, at ancient Oxyrhynchus = modern Al Bahnasa, in Egypt. The whole Oxyrhynchus collection is huge; this is just one small part of it.

The main idea is to look at non-canonical literature - not the greats whose poems were copied generation after generation, but the ones who wrote a poem as a school assignment or for a contest or because for the hell of it one day. The first one I worked on in this project is a poem in honour of the guy who paid to have a building built or rebuilt - it’s not great stuff as poetry, but it’s interesting that someone wrote a poem for him - it’s even more interesting that that someone was a total amateur. Once we have these published, we plan to read them in conjunction with other similar poetry preserved in other media (such as inscriptions from Egypt and elsewhere) to try to build up a picture of the literary life of one small slice of the quotidian ancient world. The idea is to try to see everything, not just the crème de la crème, and to get a clearer idea of what role poetry played in normal people’s lives.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I started in October of last year, so not very much time at all. Before that, I was an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoc at the University of Cologne. There, I was working on the carbonised papyri found in Herculaneum, specifically on a philosophical analysis of how poetry ’works’ - that is, when you read or hear a poem, what happens in your soul (or mind, we might say nowadays)- How is it that oddly arranged language about a fictional topic can have such an effect on us?

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

Possibly the book that came out of my PhD thesis, On the Good Poem According to Philodemus. It was a tremendous amount of work to juggle the fragmentary texts, their philosophical background, and the bigger picture, but I’m proud of the result and people seem to find it useful.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Favourite album: Oh man, it’s impossible to choose. Anything by Springsteen pre ’85, or either ’59Sound or American Slang from Gaslight Anthem. I think I wrote half my dissertation to ’59 Sound. One of my flatmates knew not to bother me when it was playing.

Favourite Novel: Catch 22 kills me every time.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

The joke is in two parts: 1. I had to ask a colleague what "pre-watershed" meant (it’s not a term in common use in the US) and 2. I already said "hell" in an answer to this questionnaire.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

I think Philodemus, Horace, Vergil, Varius Rufus, Quintilius, and Plotius Tucca for a wine and poetry symposium. Vergil, Varius, Quintilius and Plotius were all friends in real life and students of Philodemus, Horace lived around the same time and was doing the same kinds of things, artistically and maybe philosophically as well (and he might be my favourite poet). I’d be happy with a nice Italian red and the chance to listen in to a bunch of accomplished Roman poets talk literature.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Study harder in school!

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I have fairly severe amblyopia/strabismus in one of my eyes, so even after two surgeries and years of muscle-strengthening exercises, my eyes can’t focus normally. Additionally, one eye is nearsighted and the other farsighted. I have an absolutely wild glasses prescription-- getting new glasses involves a phone call to the ophthalmologist to confirm that the prescription was written correctly - and one lens has a prism in it to redirect my line of sight in that eye. No one expects that in someone who reads ancient documents for a living.

What is your favourite place?

The Belvedere San Martino, in Naples. It’s just below a 16th-century castle, the Castel Sant’ Elmo, and next to a former Carthusian monastery. From it, you look out over the old city of Naples towards Vesuvius. An absolutely amazing view, especially when the sun is setting behind you and lights up the volcano. When I lived in Naples as a grad student, it was my favourite place to sit and read or enjoy a beverage. I could sit and look out over the city for hours.
  • University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT (0) 20 7679 2000