Local author Jeff Sypeck’s new book, full of poems about the towering bestial gargoyles of Washington National Cathedral, has been released just in time for Halloween and will help raise funds for repairs on the cathedral’s towers that were damaged last year in an earthquake.
“Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles,” which was officially released Oct. 18, is comprised of 53 medieval folklore style poems, sonnets, soliloquies and songs “all of which are associated with one of the gargoyles or grotesques” on the Washington National Cathedral, said Sypeck.
He called his work a “strange little book” that is geared for adult readers who appreciate an old-fashioned approach to poetry. Sypeck said his poems are best read aloud, expressing the thoughts of gargoyles.
Sypeck called the book a result of his “living in the neighborhood for 17 years and having enjoyed the cathedral and scrutinizing its gargoyles and grotesques.”
Sypeck taught medieval literature to adult undergraduates at the University of Maryland for 10 years and later wrote for clients. But, he told Patch, he was beginning to get tired of writing for other people around the time he finished his first book, “Becoming Charlemagne,” in 2006.
It took the fresh eyes of a six-year -old to draw his attention to the creatures of the towers. While visiting the Washington National Cathedral with a friend and their six-year-old child, who was obsessed with wild boar, the child spotted a gargoyle that looked like a boar, compelling Sypeck to "look up."
Intrigued by the gargoyle and, through the eyes of a gargoyle, he began writing poems and posting them to his blog.
“I was just looking for a project where I could be myself,” said Sypeck.
He added, “I never really thought this would turn into a 50-poem book."
Expected or not, eventually he had enough poems to make a book packed with medieval history and allusions to local landmarks like nearby Cactus Cantina restaurant.
And when an earthquake rumbled through the District of Columbia on Aug. 23, 2011 and caused a pinnacle from the cathedral’s center tower to crack and drop to the ground, Sypeck was nearby in his apartment.
He remembers reading reports about damage to the cathedral that made it sound like “gargoyles were falling out of the sky,” he said. So he quickly headed over to the cathedral, discovering chunks of fallen limestone on the ground when he arrived.
The cathedral was closed after the earthquake and was reopened in Nov. 2011. Repair costs were projected to be as least $25 million in Oct. 2011.
As a grateful neighbor and friend of the gargoyles, Sypeck has allotted for 75 percent of the book’s net sales to go to the cathedral’s earthquake repair fund.
“It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds,” he wrote on his blog.
Sypeck was also grateful to the Washington National Cathedral for allowing him to use a photo of one of its gargoyles on the books cover. The cathedral owns rights to the structure and must grant permission for pictures of it to be used for sales. Cathedral tour guide, Chris Budny, took the photo.
“They were very gracious,” he said. “They let me show the gargoyles and grotesques in the book…something they very rarely do.”
Not only is the book’s cover photo rare, but also the poems inside are one of a kind works about the Washington National Cathedral and the neighborhood around it.
“I know it’s a strange little book,” said Sypeck. “This is not the kind of book that is destined to be a best seller…because it’s local; it’s formal…and it’s print only."
Still, he is glad to have the cathedral as a neighbor and for the inspiration its grotesques provided.
“Looking Up gives voice to the stony figures that adorn Washington National Cathedral…that watch as we pass unknowingly beneath them,” according to the Amazon book description.
Perhaps Sypeck's book will draw attention to the anonymous watchers and neighbors of the cathedral, just as a child did for him.