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Instructor Spotlight: Puck Curtis

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 By Keith Cotter-Reilly

puckPuck Curtis began studying historical fencing in 1992 and researching Spanish swordplay in 1994. He is the co-founder of the Destreza Translation and Research Project and maintains the Theory and Practice section of its website. Currently living in Sacramento, California, he has been the primary historical fencing instructor for the Davis Fencing Academy, and currently teaches Destreza as a martial art. Puck received his classical Italian fencing certification as a Master at Arms through the San Jose Fencing Master’s program in 2008. He has been a member of the SCA’s Order of the White Scarf since 2001, and sits on the board of the Tattershall School of Defense.

COTTER- REILLY: You started fencing in the early 90’s, correct? Did you start with Historical fencing, or do you have any modern background?

CURTIS: I learned competitive fencing in the SCA with historical weapons in the early 1990s. It was a great community and quite large but the training was always ad hoc. As I got better I began to see the weakness of the approach to training and I began looking at historical texts encountering ready material in the Italian tradition and some information in the Spanish tradition. After I began teaching solely historical styles I noticed a marked difference in the effectiveness of my teaching and the effectiveness of my students.

COTTER-REILLY: What was your initial main treaty/manual?

CURTIS: The Capoferro translation by William Wilson and Jherek Swanger. It was what everyone was using at the time, but working through it at the time was a real struggle When my wife and I moved to California I enrolled (with my friend Eric Myers) in the San Jose Fencing Master’s Program. After years of training Italian foil, Epee, and Sabre Capoferro was much easier and my teaching was better by at least an order of magnitude.

While it took my about 10 years to reach the top of my game, I was able to teach a student well enough to win open tournaments within a year. Once you have been taught to teach and you have a system in hand, there is no going back. I don’t teach much Italian rapier now because I need to direct my attention to the Iberian tradition but I have hopes that I can train Italian rapier fencers again once my other work stabilizes.

COTTER-REILLY: So you feel that the Masters Program from San Jose was definitely worth the time? Even if it was more in Classical fencing.

CURTIS: I certainly do. Here’s the dirty secret about the classical fencing master’s program… it is about training for a fight. We have a tradition and the weapons we use are lighter, but the way in which I was taught also included heavy sabres and training that included martial efficacy. There are things you learn on the floor teacher-to-student that have been passed down for hundreds of years. I realize that it isn’t easy to see the difference between classical fencing and competitive sport epee but it is there and the difference is martial intent. My teachers have no patience for technique that would get you killed. My fencing lineage from teacher to student is only a few generations from actual duels. Maestro Gaugler’s teacher (Aldo Nadi) was in a duel.

COTTER-REILLY: And Maestro Gaugler was the head of SJSU fencing masters program correct?

CURTIS: He founded the program and when he retired it was passed to Ralph Sahm. Maestro Gaugler passed away just this last year and not being able to draw on his experience was a big loss to historical martial artists everywhere. I trained primarily under M. John Sullins, M. Ralph Sahm, and M. Janine Sahm. I took my Fencing Master’s exam in December of 2008. That was a tricky year because I was shuttling back and forth between Spain and the United States.

I also want to be clear that my examination didn’t cover historical weapons so I don’t assert that title out of its proper context. I certainly think the training helps with my historical work but you won’t find me calling myself a HEMA master. It’s my hope that my work interpreting and teaching historical technique stands on its own merits without needing to rely on an outside authority.

COTTER-REILLY: But the pedagogy aspect of it is what you think helped the most?

CURTIS: Ultimately, that’s for the community to decide. As to the pedagogy, yes.

Teaching swordplay is a different but related skill and teaching classical fencing helped me breakdown the process. What is a student initially terrible at and how, as a teacher, do I mitigate that so we can focus on improvement and build through success.

The Fencing Master’s Program not only taught it to you but you also were forced to defend that practice in front of a board. It’s a stressful experience, but very worthwhile. In Spain they used to do something very similar and we have notes on what Don Luis Pacheco de Narvaez thought should be on the exams.

COTTER-REILLY: So moving on a little bit.

CURTIS: Sure.

COTTER-REILLY: Speaking broadly, in North America, Rapier seems to be most popular on the West Coast of the USA and in Canada. Of course with some hold outs in the Mid-West. Would you say this is a fair view? And do you have any idea of why this might be if it is fair?

CURTIS: I think that is true with regards solely to the HEMA scene but the sleeping giant in the room is the SCA which has 4,000+ fencers. In a crowd that size you’re going to have some serious talent and what you find is that the ISMAC tournament has primarily been won by fencers that learned in the SCA. There is a core of HEMA practitioners inside the SCA which elevates the overal calibre of the fighters.

These people have a large collection of competition, and if Capoferro tells us anything it is that fencing diverse players will make you better. Outside the SCA I think it would be difficult to keep a traditional martial arts school going unless you have access to a larger city. When I think of good fencers in the United States I think of people like David Biggs, Scott Wilson, Kevin Murakoshi, and a few others. Many of these people also fence in the SCA but their lifeblood is the historical work. The SCA is merely the stage on which these players act their parts.

COTTER-REILLY: SCA does seem to get over looked in the HEMA circles, and looked down upon. To you think this is unfair, more so when looking at Rapier?

CURTIS: I think it is fair to be critical of the SCA’s lack of organized training but in a talent pool of more than four thousand the top 5% will be exceptional and it’s dangerous to discount them solely because they fence in the SCA. It’s my hope that we judge a fencer by the art they can produce weapon in hand rather than their group.

SCA training is largely apprenticed-based so different regions will have wildly different talent levels depending on the teachers available. Imagine giving 4000 random people steel longswords without much guidance and then turn them loose on each other for about 40 years.

That’s what the SCA is going to give you. Some good, some bad, but generally a friendly crowd. The ones that really excel in that environment using historical technique ought to be something to see. The SCA doesn’t use steel longswords so their armored fighting is mostly just stick fighting repackaged. But, their rapier game (while limited) provides a pretty good playground and a tournament available pretty much every weekend in the warmer months.

COTTER-REILLY: I think another place where people see a lot of Rapier is WMAW.

CURTIS: It’s true and having just fenced some of John O’Meara’s new crop from the Chicago Swordplay Guild, I think they’re the team to beat.

COTTER-REILLY: I was hoping you’d mention John O’Meara. You have a good rivalry going on there it seems.

CURTIS: John and I have a longstanding and friendly rivalry. We have promised each other we would try to fence at each WMAW until we die.

COTTER-REILLY: So does that mean you will be at this year’s WMAW?

CURTIS: I’m planning on it.

COTTER-REILLY: I think your Destreza video on youtube from WMAW 2009 might be the most popular one from any WMAW.

CURTIS: That’s nice to hear. I like that class because it demonstrates how systematic the Destreza tradition really can be. It’s like reading Capoferro (which is play, counterplay) but making it a series of movements which compromise the adversary’s action and then a counter for each movement. Also, Pacheco as a writer is hilarious. Imagine your classic internet argument between fencers but in book form. At one point he called the teaching of other masters “a deformed monstrosity which tours the world like a tournament of their own vanities.” The guy knew how to nail you with a quill in his hand.

COTTER-REILLY: I fear that the talent to insult like that is a lost art

CURTIS: It’s something we will have to re-cultivate on Facebook.

COTTER-REILLY: Agreed. But I think we are a little ahead of ourselves. Please explain to those who don’t know what is Destreza? In ten words or less….Of course I joke with the last sentence!

CURTIS: Destreza is an Aristotelian revolution applied to combat theory.

COTTER-REILLY: Nine words! I am impressed.

CURTIS: Let’s back up a bit. What was it that pissed Carranza off so much that he needed to invent this new art? It was bad fencing teachers and young men behaving badly as a result of it. In the Renaissance you’ve got a group of fencing theory reformers that arrive on the scene.

Agrippa, Viggiani, Di Grassi and Carranza.

These people are trying to reconcile a classical education with the old sword systems.

It is tempting to say Carranza rejected the old traditions but that really isn’t fair.

Instead what he did was rebuild them on a foundation of Aristotle with a simple ethic.

1. To Know (seek knowledge)
2. To see the possibilities before you
3. To choose from these to produce a positive result
4. To act

This applies to the life of a swordsman well beyond the give and take of the swordfight and that is entirely the point. Carranza sought to improve the character of the men around him and swordplay was one mechanism towards that goal.

His treatment of sword theory is entirely grounded in the best science of his age and explicitly includes an ethic to seek a broad knowledge. Imagine a group of twelve-year-old pages in the Spanish royal court. They are introduced to their fencing master.

“Boys, I’m here to teach you how to fight. First, we study math.”

COTTER-REILLY: I am sure they would be very puzzled.

CURTIS: Once they see how the math ties into the sword theory, I expect their geometry teacher was their hero. It sounds complicated, but it isn’t. Talking about the physics of combat is always complicated. The actual fencing is pretty conservative. I can teach most of the Destreza tradition using a few guards from the German longsword tradition. Which is why I would argue that Carranza’s revolution was one of fighting science and pedagogy. Many of the techniques are the same.

COTTER-REILLY: Could you give me an example?

CURTIS: Sure.Take longpoint for example. It maximized the reach and time of the swordsman. Let’s start there. In false time the adversary attacks us with a horizontal cut to the waist on the inside line and we cover that with a pfulg on the left and then end with a direct cut to the adversary’s face. There’s nothing easier than that.

Carranza agrees that this is great technique and using his tools he can tell us why.

The long point is something that Destreza calls right angle and we use it to find out ideal defensible place in the fight. Close enough we can begin to form offense but not so close we cannot defend.

From there the adversary attacked but because we had chosen a good place we can cover his sword with ours. We would call that an atajo (which in this case is similar to pflug). From there it’s just a quick cut to the opponent’s face. Same technique (mostly) but the foundation is built from the ground up on Aristotle and Euclid. I realize that there is an implied connection to Aristotle in the other works, but the Destreza connection is laid out plainly.

Carranza’s work tells us that every attack has a place and a cause. The cause is either good position or the adversary’s movement. If you have ever heard about someone attacking in true or false time the Spanish might redefine it as true or false cause. It sounds complicated but it boils down to something like a game of cards. If you get a move, I get a move.

COTTER-REILLY: Destreza has been described to me as the art of letting Italians running onto your point. How true is this?

CURTIS: Not true at all. Not in my opinion. At least not for me, anyway. I’m too short for that and the Spanish blades are limited by the law passed by Phillip II. No more than 5/4 of a vara, which comes out to about 41 inches. I’m just too short to wait for an Italian to come to me. Instead Destreza is about finding the sweet spot from wich to attack. I need to be close enough to cover your sword from above (atajo) and then strike you while defended.

By using a shorter sword than my adversary, I show my own machismo.

But that means I either need to maintain my defensive space and then act during his attack or take his weapon with my and press to close distance while I have him at a disadvantage. I hate seeing Destreza that looks like Frankenstein’s monster sort of stumbling around with your point out. The point is extended when you need to threaten to control time of space. Once you have control, it becomes very dynamic. It’s my opinion that it should look more like Aikido than Frankenstein. Seek to cover, he presses, circle around his blade to seize his hilt with your left hand while passing forward and crack him in the back of his head for his troubles.

My first rapier bout with John I had been teaching Destreza non-stop all day. I had intended to fence within the Italian tradition but when the blade pressure arrived, I used a Spanish hilt-grapple (Movement of Conclusion) and a circular cut to the back of the head in exactly this way.

COTTER-REILLY: The video for that bout was, I think, my first introduction to you and Destreza. How did you end up interested in Destreza?

CURTIS: I am an imperfect player but we do what we can. I met a fellow named Ernesto Maldonado in Texas who had found one of Pacheco’s books in a college archive. My wife had lived in Argentina for a year. We got a different book from Pacheco and began to work through it but it was a maze of fencing jargon and theory. As she progressed in her studies she would translate more works and we began to build a lexicon of Spanish fencing theory. She shared this information on the web.

During that time I was trying to convert this to practical application and it was pretty rough going there for a while. As she continued to translate our work kept getting better and we began to refine the practice.

While I don’t think we would pass Pacheco’s examination, I think we’re very close to producing a quality fighting form and our school has been training new students using the Destreza method for about 3 years now. This is a weird new crop of fencers that use the Spanish system as their mother tongue. I think we’ve been making good progress but we won’t be wiping the floor with the Italians until we can build a community of fencers who help us refine our work and correct our mistakes. That’s the real goal. We need a community of fencers working within the Destreza tradition as friends and rivals to challenge each other to improve. It does me no good to run the “Puck is Awesome” show. That’s frankly masturbation.

I need people to find my weaknesses and mistakes so that my work improves. John O’Meara hits me from the Italian side which helps me improve my practice but I also try to encourage up-and-coming Destreza practitioners to work through the material and treat my work with a critical eye. I try to make the best interpretive choices I can, but nobody is perfect. With that in mind Freelance Academy Press will be publishing my Fencing Master’s Thesis as an ebook.

It’s a large chunk of my research presented which should give people a start on the tradition in English.

COTTER-REILLY: Congratulations on that.

CURTIS: (And the research of Mary Curtis as well.) Thanks.

COTTER-REILLY: Well, I have taken your time for long enough.

CURTIS: I hope it was helpful. It’s a beautiful and violent tradition.

COTTER-REILLY: Is there any event/workshop you would like to plug before we end the interview?

CURTIS: I’ll be teaching in Vancouver at Devon Boorman’s VISS 2013. That’s a great school and a good group of people.

COTTER-REILLY: That is in February, correct?

CURTIS: Exactly so.

COTTER-REILLY: Well thank you again for everything. I have definitely found this most interesting, as I hope does the readers.

CURTIS: Glad to help.

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