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Show Notes:

In this episode of The Sword Guy, I talk to Kaja Sadowski, author of the must-read Fear is the Mind-Killer, about training with two swords, training in high-stress situations, and lots more training besides!

Kaja has been a physical instructor since 2004, teaching figure skating, rock climbing, and mountaineering before coming to martial arts in 2010. They joined the coaching team at Valkyrie Western Martial Arts Assembly in 2012, and created their beginner program shortly afterwards. They currently teach group and private lessons to students of all experience levels, and run the school’s self defense program.

Their primary weapon is the rapier, and they also teach unarmed striking, grappling, and knife combat. Their interests vary from the historical to the modern, and range from recreational martial arts to practical self defense and professional use of force. They have been a civilian auxiliary with the Vancouver Police Department’s Force Options Training Unit since 2015, participating in realistic tactical training scenarios and providing guest instruction to their Special Municipal Constable program.

GW: Hi, everyone, and welcome to the show. This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. I’m here today with Kaja Sadowski, who is co-owner of Valkyrie Martial Arts Assembly in Vancouver, a lovely school that I’ve taught at, and I could not recommend more highly. They are also the author of a book called Fear is the Mind Killer, which if you’ve been paying attention to things I’ve been saying since that book came out, you really ought to have read it by now because it’s one of the best books I have ever read on the subject of martial arts. So without further ado, Kaja, welcome to the show.

KS: Thanks for having me.

GW: Well, it’s nice to see. Now, let’s just start off by locating you. Whereabouts in the world are you?

KS: So I am in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

GW: And what’s what is it like there at the moment? Everybody locked down?

KS: Well, we’ve actually been opening up a little bit for the past two weeks. B.C. is really lucky in that we currently have the lowest number of cases in Canada. Actually, I think some of the lowest in North America. Which means things are just starting to loosen up a little bit. We are looking at slowly starting to run private lessons at the school again in a couple of weeks and things are starting to move. So there’s a lot of cautious optimism in the air right now.

GW: Excellent. Glad to hear it. So what made you want to start historical martial arts and how did that happen?

KS: I mean, I’ve always thought swords were super cool. How could you not? I’ve got memories of dressing up as a pirate for Halloween and swashbuckling and all of that stuff, but I didn’t realise that it was a thing that I could actually just go and do. The only sort of sport or hobby I’d seen around swords was Olympic fencing. And that just didn’t really appeal to me. And then when I was in college, a good friend of mine took an introductory class at a local school in Vancouver and just came one day, and went, “Kaja. Did you know that you can do this thing? They have real swords and you can get to use them”. And I signed up for a course a little over a decade ago now and just never looked back.

GW: And what are your main weapons interests?

KS: So I primarily work with single-handed swords. I started out working pretty much exclusively with rapier. These days, I do a lot of the stuff that people kind of consider the wibbly boundary between rapier and side sword. I work a lot on Marozzo, I’ve been working on Godinho’s two swords recently, which I adore. And then I work a lot with daggers and knives. So pretty much anything that you can hold in one hand makes me happy.

GW: OK. Tell us a bit more about Godinho’s two swords. What is the system like?

KS: So it feels a lot more… The body mechanics are obviously different, but in terms of intention application, it feels a lot more like montante or the other really big two handed swords, than it does feel like rapier or side sword or anything like that. It’s about crowd control and area control and taking up space.

GW: Oh, sorry. You said two handed swords?

KS: It’s two swords, two single handed swords.

GW: Because what you were describing was like, hang on, that’s montante? Did I miss it?

KS: Yeah.

GW: OK.

KS: And it’s like tactically it is montante. It occupies kind of the same conceptual space. OK. But you’re doing it with two hands moving independently and that opens up a lot of interesting options.

GW: It would.

KS: So yeah, it is super fun.

GW: Godinho: when was he writing?

KS: I am so bad at dates but I’m going to say late 16th century.

GW: OK. Italian? Spanish? Portuguese?

KS: He’s Spanish / Portuguese?

GW: OK, let’s say Iberian, shall we say Iberian is a good word.

KS: Let us say Iberian because it lets us be the most accurate. He writes primarily in Spanish. He does talk Portuguese as well. And he is sort of considered a precursor to the Destreza tradition. But he’s doing different stuff.

GW: Am I all right to assume you are working from a translation?

Yes. OK.

GW: So who else is doing this and who’s work are you building on?

KS: So the translation that I am working from is Tim Rivera’s. Which was a collaborative project with Steve Hick, Eric Meyers, Manuel Valet and Jamie Girona. And in terms of interpretation, we started working on this stuff at Valkyrie kind of as a group project. And then I went off on my own a bit, especially during the pandemic. Independent study became a lot more kind of viable then. And a number of my private students have sort of independently taken an interest in Godinho. I started working on him a bit with a pair of students I have down in Minnesota who I’ve been working for about a year and a half. One of my local Vancouver students took an interest. And then recently I have been working with Christian Goodner who is out on the east coast of the U.S. and who’s worked a bunch on Godinho’s montante but had not worked with the two swords. And so we’ve been doing a combination of teaching and kind of collaborative standard interpretation. And Dan Halliday in New York has gotten involved as well.

GW: How do you model the crowd stuff? How do you model the defence against the crowd? How do you get those sorts of scenarios modelled so that you can test the interpretation?

KS: Luckily with a lot of the group stuff, I had an opportunity to play with that in person before the school closed, and we would just build straight up scenarios. For safety reasons, for a number of those, because a lot of it is working against people who are unarmoured, you don’t want to just put people in a fuckton of armour that completely limits their ability to move and then bang them with steel swords. So we would modify equipment to use like sticks or buffers or other things that were a little bit more forgiving if they actually hit people. But we ran it as scenarios. We would have one person doing Godinho’s rule that was intended for a specific contact.

GW: Just for the listeners who may not be familiar with this stuff, one of Godinho’s rules is like a sequence of movements?

KS: Yes. Basically, his two swords section is structured into 12 rules, each of which covers a specific scenario. So he’ll say, for example, “All right, so you’re in a street. The street is wide enough that you can throw horizontal cuts without hitting anything. But not so wide that people can move past you as you’re doing them. And you’re dealing with people who are in front of you.”

GW: Oh, I love that way of measuring the width of a street, by the way. That’s the only way streets should be measured.

KS: Right. It’s like, well, can I hit the wall? Yes. And he’s sort of got three widths or street which are very wide, not too wide and narrow and you work within those. Or one of his one of his other rules is, OK. So you’ve got to get a lady out of a crowd and she’s behind you and you’ve got to walk her through it. And then the next rule that comes immediately afterwards is, whoops, you got surrounded and now she has to sit down.

GW:  So you’ve got to do all your sword swinging without decapitating the lady.

KS: Correct. The way that his text is structured actually lends itself really well to scenario work because he’s kind of pre-built those. He’d show exactly what’s going on around you and what situation you’re dealing with. And that makes it very easy to build appropriate situations for pressure testing.

GW: Excellent. Yes, it would do.

KS: And one of the things that’s been happening currently is that as I’ve been working on this with more people and as I’ve been really challenging myself to be clear and precise in my interpretation, some of my ideas around the movements have changed. And so it’s going to be really neat to take the modifications that I’ve been making during this time of individual study and once I can interact with groups of people again, doing a second round of pressure testing and seeing if anything’s changed there.

GW: Yes, of course, because the interpretation doesn’t work until it’s actually put into practise.

KS: Of course. Right now, there’s a lot of stuff that’s been shifting in terms of body mechanics and fluidity and the ability to continue moving, which you can practice solo. But obviously none of that matters if it doesn’t work against other people.

GW: Precisely. Interesting. Do you have a plan for how you’re going to test the new interpretations that you’ve come up with working alone? Feel free to geek out. The people listening are sword people so you can geek out as much as you like, as deep as you like, we will not get bored.

KS: I mean, honestly, what I’ve been doing currently is grabbing people who are experienced swordfighters and know how to move well with a weapon. I’m kind of focussing on folks who have good mechanics and a good sense of flow and understand how fluidity is supposed to work in a fight. And I’m throwing this material at them and not just feeding them my interpretation wholesale, but having them work through it with me and seeing if we arrive at similar conclusions. Actually one of the really interesting things that I’ve been doing recently in my classes, because Valkyrie is still is still teaching – we are running classes six days a week online, So I’m really fortunate in that on Tuesday nights, I have a regular cohort of students that I can throw things at and see what happens. Independent study and independent experimentation is something that’s been a very optimal choice for us. So one of the things that I’ve been doing with Godinho specifically that’s been a lot of fun is I’ll bring him to class and I’ll say, “Right, here are a couple of basic movement principles within the system. This is how he understands footwork. This is how he understands cuts and how your sword should travel. This is how he talks about posture and movement.” And I give people the big picture of how Godinho moves and what Godinho should feel like. And we’ll maybe work through a basic movement, patterns that people can develop an internal sense of. Then what I’ll do is I’ll take one of the sequences of movements in one of the rules that I’m working on, especially one of the trickier ones or one of the weirder interpretations, and I’ll start to throw it at students in pieces. So, for example, there’s one of them, rule four, that involves linking together two very different kinds of cuts. And then transition between them is weird and tricky and when I was working on it with Dan and Christian, it took us like a week to get any sense of it. This is with checking it against interpretations that other people have done that are out there. For example, Ton Puey did a video series on Godinho’s Two Swords. That’s now a few years old, but it’s a useful kind of check of how are other people doing it. But with this rule, you start with throwing cuts on one side of the body and then you transition to sort of a pair of, like, scissor cuts right down the centre and then move to the other side. What I did with the students was I didn’t tell them what the pattern was, but I had them go, “All right, both of your swords are on one side of your body and they need to move to the other side. And one of your cuts is going to be a reverso. So a cut coming from your backhand side. And one of your cuts is a reves. And your other cut is going to be a tajo or a or a forehand cut. So you’ve basically got three options for getting yourself efficiently to the other side. You can begin with the reves and follow with the tajo. You can begin with the tajo and follow through with the reves. Or you can kind of throw them both at the same time.” And I had the students go and play with that and work out on their own, which they liked better and why. And come to their own conclusions about what made the most sense mechanically and tactically.

And then we played with, OK, so what if your swords are now on opposite sides of your body? You’ve got one on your left and one on your right. And if you want to swap sides, you can either start with your arms uncrossed and throw two forehands, two tajos, so they end up crossed, or you can start with them crossed and throw two reveses to uncross right. Again, go play with that. Once everybody had developed preferences, we played with transitioning between the two. This was working with a group of four or five students that day and we worked on it for an hour. It was all just go figure these things out and see what makes the most sense for your body. Then we would do show and tell and talk about why we were making the choices. Some people would talk about tactics and how moving in a certain way would let them maintain coverage in front of them with both swords rather than creating gaps. And some people talked about mechanics and how moving a certain way would allow them to change direction more easily or to use their momentum more effectively to throw cuts more smoothly or to throw faster and sharper cuts. The thing that was really awesome for me was that everybody had different reasons for why they liked what they liked. But they ultimately came to very similar conclusions about what worked best. So we ended up coming up with this organic consensus that also happens to be a very good fit for what’s in Godinho and helped kind of refine and strengthen my own interpretation and ended up running on very parallel lines to it.

GW: Interesting. Yes, a good process.

KS: Yeah. So that’s one of the ways that I’m testing things is, OK, if people are using good mechanics and good tactical thinking, are they going to come up with something broadly similar to what I’m doing under the same conditions? And if so, that is one decent test that does not yet require that I immediately go out and fight 10 other people because obviously that’s a problem.

GW: Particularly in lockdown, but that time will come. That time absolutely will come. Now, I’ve seen some of your classes and particularly your self-defence oriented classes, and I’ve been struck by how you managed to have a class with a pretty high level of force and a pretty low level of equipment and yet the whole thing is pretty safe. I’d be interested in your thoughts on protective equipment generally, perhaps specifically in the context of Godinho’s two swords. However, you want to take the question. Tell me about equipment, protective equipment.

KS: My philosophy on protective equipment in general is that it is a last line of defence. It is an important piece of the puzzle that allows us to prevent serious injury when the other safety guidelines or tools that we have in place have failed. So it’s super important. It can definitely mean the difference between life and death or continued function and catastrophic injury, especially with things like eyeballs are concerned. But it’s not the first thing that I want to rely on. I don’t want my students ever going into a scenario or a lesson and thinking that their equipment is the only thing that is keeping them safe.

GW: Yes, or even wearing equipment makes them safe, because people get killed in armour. In the Middle Ages, people were being killed in full plate armour.

KS: Equipment helps if you do an “Oops”. It’s not it’s not perfect, it’s not foolproof, but it’s an extra layer of protection. But for me, the most important safety tool and the one that I will always emphasise in my classes is trust and the relationship between the people involved in the exercise. The fact that there needs to be an ethic of care in our training. That your job as a training partner is to make sure that you and the person are working with, a. learn and b. walk away safely at the end of whatever it is that you’ve been doing.

GW: I would switch those around. I would put the “learn” second.

KS: That was not necessarily primary, although, you know, the thing is actually no, I’d argue with you on that, in the sense that if our only priority is everybody walking away safely, why the hell are we training martial arts?

GW: Yeah. OK.

KS: So, yeah, we’re here to learn. We accept that there is an inherent level of risk in that and that everything we’re doing is for the sake of the learning. But my God, do we want to walk away at the end. I’m comfortable with that. I am.

GW: What do you guys use, equipment-wise?

KS: Gear-wise? It’s very situational. For something like Godinho’s two swords because it’s a system that relies a lot on the power generation that comes from continuous movement and you get a lot of full body stuff going into it – swords that could really hit like a brick. If I’m sending people in against that in a pressure testing context, I’m going to make sure absolutely that they have a rigid throat and back of neck protection. I’m going to make sure that they’ve got a full face mask and something protecting the back of their head, because those are all places you do not want to “Oops” into. And I would probably be looking at hard protection for the joints, for the knees, the elbows and the hands, because those are all things that if you’re whack them hard with a sword are just going to break. And if people wanted to throw on more, if they wanted to, for example, make sure that they had rib and sternum protection that would be a thing that they could absolutely do. But, yeah, that’s kind of my baseline there. I don’t want people in anything that really affects their ability to move in with something like two swords. A really big part of its effectiveness is the fact that it’s scary. The reason it works, the reason that it takes up an enormous amount of space is that you’re effectively staring at this helicopter of doom. There should be an enormous internal hesitation to actually step into that gap and that means that in order to test it effectively, you need people lightly armoured enough that getting hit sucks. It shouldn’t injure them but it should be…

GW: You can’t shrug it off or ignore it.

KS: If you put somebody in the kind of armour that a lot of folks wear for longsword tournaments, they could probably walk right in and that’s not a realistic representation of the context that this way of fighting was intended for. So you’re not actually going to get an interesting result. So you want people scared of the swords. You want people aware of the fact that if they get touched, it’s going to be real bad news. But you still want them to have the freedom to problem solve within that without immediately risking catastrophic injury.

GW: Yeah. OK. Pretty much everyone I talked about equipment has pet peeves. Feel free to vent.

KS: All right. This is it. This is my real big one. This is my hobby horse when it comes to equipment. I’ve got two actually. One of them is primarily a safety concern and one of them is primarily a technique and ability to fight concern. So the safety one is it appalls me how many people think that fencing masks are sufficient for preventing concussion.

GW: Yes. You and me both.

KS: Or who think that concussion is not a substantial enough risk in fencing to be concerned about. I think this is a particular problem in rapier and in combat with singlehanded weapons or weapons that are considered lighter than long swords.

GW: Interesting. Everyone talks about longsword in the context of concussion. But you’re the first person who’s brought up rapier. Please, proceed.

KS: Everybody talks about longsword because they’re like, well, you’re basically swinging a giant crowbar at somebody’s head, and that’s bad. But if we understand the mechanics of concussion, one of the worst things that you can do in order to cause one is hit somebody with a solid thrust, high up on their face and drive their head backwards especially if you add any rotation to that impact.

GW: Which is pretty much the description of the rapier thrust. That is what rapier does. Yes, exactly.

KS: Rapier thrusts to the face. It loves thrusting to the face and thrust into the face is great.

GW: It’s the core of rapier.

KS: Not only that, but the profile stance that most systems encourage one to fight in means that when you do get hit in the face, there’s almost certainly going to be rotation happening as well. Because you’re not square on to your opponent, your head is already turned. And when it gets hit, it’s going to turn more. So there is a massive, massive risk of concussion in rapier. And we don’t talk about it because we’re using light, fun, fluffy weapon.

GW: No one who’s ever picked up my working rapier has called it fluffy. If you handle a historical rapier, I’m talking about my sharp rapier at the moment, it’s a rigid iron bar. I mean, it’s got no flexing in it. It is springy enough that if you hit really, really hard, it’s not going to shatter, it’s going to bend a little bit. But it is not a flexible weapon. And even when you go to a fencing weapon like my training sword – I have a very light and beautiful training rapier, but there’s a kilo of mass just in the sword. And if I do it right, I’m putting maybe 50 kilos of mine behind it, too. And it takes time for that steel to bend.

KS: Exactly. I’ve been I’ve been concussed by a rapier, it was a minor concussion, but it definitely happened. I know the local SCA has a long history of people getting concussions so badly they stopped fighting, permanently, because of the brain damage they suffered. It’s just not something that comes up enough, I think in the HEMA community. When it does get talked about, people are like, well, you should put a rugby scrum cap under your fencing mask and that will stop it.

GW: That’s totally going to help. Yeah, totally. It’s a lack of understanding of the mechanics. Boxing gloves totally stop all the concussions, right? That’s why no boxers ever had concussions ever, right?

So how would you solve it? If money was no object and you had all the scientists in the world working on it, what would you want to see them come up with?

KS: This is a real hard one for me. This is, you know, thinking about this is a technological problem because we know that one of the best ways of preventing that particular kind of “Pezzing” effect is to basically stabilise the neck. It is to make it so that the head can’t go back. I don’t know how you do that and still allow for the kind of movement that is integral to rapier fighting.

GW: Some sort of helmet that is so anchored to the shoulders might do it, but you it then you would have difficulty moving.

KS: Exactly. That’s the thing and we end up sacrificing.

GW: How about this, you know, like a diving suit. If you had a like a perspex ball so you could see all around and it was anchored on your shoulders like a diving helmet so you could turn your head this way and that inside it. But the rapier would hit the ball? That might do it.

KS: Maybe, yeah. Or honestly, heading in the other direction and looking at swords and seeing if there are ways that we can make them flex more and sooner on impact.

GW: But then you have the wobble problem.

KS: But then we run into doing rapier with a fencing foil and we have the wobble problem. The thing is, I honestly don’t think there is an ideal technological solution. I think we’re stuck with human solutions, on the one hand, that involve things like managing force and managing distance and fighting in ways that mean that the amount of times you get hit with enough force to potentially concuss somebody is minimised. Also just acknowledging this is a big danger with what we do and that like in boxing, when you when you take up this art and when you fight with intensity, that is a risk that you are taking and have people come into it with informed consent. Because I think a really big thing that happens is that people come into this without understanding the risks. It gets sold to them as a fun and safe way to get in shape, and I don’t think that’s honest. I think at a certain point, we have to recognise that this is something that’s going to hurt you and it’s probably going to fuck you up a little bit. Is that a trade-off you’re willing to make? And if not, maybe don’t spar at full speed? Definitely don’t get involved in tournaments.

GW: Or do it very occasionally.

KS: Train for it the way that boxers or MMA fighters do where training at full intensity is less than 10 percent of what you do in your practise.

GW: It’s less that it’s less than one percent of what I do in my practise because, you know, I’m forty six and I’ve been doing this for 20-odd years. And yeah, I’ve only got one head.

KS: Exactly. Because of my long and storeyed history in many extreme sports and also an extremely clumsy childhood, I have had five or six concussions in my life.

GW: That’s more than enough.

KS: I should not have more. I don’t compete anymore. Even though I’m young and fit enough to still do so because that risk is one that’s unacceptable to me. And when I spar, I spar with people I trust to do so with control and with my health at the forefront of their minds. And I don’t play at full intensity and full speed very often at all.

GW: So that that was one equipment trigger. You said you had two. What’s the other?

KS: Oh, God. Everybody’s gloves are too bulky. They don’t know how to hold their swords. I have a particular pet peeve about longswords, broken fingers, whatever, you guys figure that shit out – I’m not a longsword person. But the number of people who use rapier and rapier-like swords, some of which have a bloody cup hilt, and will still wear these massive, bulky, padded gloves underneath that mean that the only thing they can really do is hold their sword in a bloody fist. And it completely destroys their ability to use the weapon as it’s intended. It actually creates more safety problems than it solves because there’s no softness in their movements, there’s no ability to control their impact.

GW: It feeds into the concussion problem.

KS: Yeah. Exactly. Maybe your fingers are a little bit better protected. But honestly, that’s a thing that your guards should be bloody doing anyway. And the side effect is that you’re hitting people way harder than they should ever be hit. And your fighting is ugly. I’m going to throw in that aesthetic complaint because it matters. Who the hell is doing Marozzo? Because it’s smashy and inefficient rather than because it looks fucking sexy.

GW: Well you said it.

KS: I did and I stand by it. Most of what I practice is as pretty as hell and it should be. That’s an integral part of authenticity and fidelity to the historical sources that we are throwing out the window.

GW: If I’m fencing rapier if I’m intending to use my left hand to parry, I’ll have a steel gauntlet on my left hand, but I’ll only ever use just a fencing glove on my right. I once got rapped on a fingernail in a painful manner when fencing rapier, I think once.

KS: I’ve been fencing in leather unpadded, motorcycle gloves for ten years. The only hand injury that I had ever sustained was the fairly exciting loss of a fingernail on my left thumb, which happened during a machete lesson. Machetes don’t have a guard – don’t get hit in the hands. I’m a leftie so it’s my dominant hand. I have never once had anything happen to my sword hand while fencing that has made me think gosh, I need heavier gloves.

GW: I have had a finger broken twice. Once was because I’ve been doing sabre with a closed hilt, kind of a complex hilt, covering the hand. And I was sparring, like twenty five years ago – we were children – with a single handed sword which had an open guard. So nothing protecting the fingers. And I tried to do a kind of classical sabre fencing parry lifting the sword above my head and I parried with my knuckles and something cracked. And that was just me being stupid, basically thinking the guard was there and it wasn’t. And the other time I got a finger broken on my left hand because I was fencing with a longsword and I’d just bought a brand new pair of steel gauntlets and I was fencing my friend and I parried his sword with my finger and my still gauntlets were in my fencing bag two metres away, not on my fingers. So, you know, it does happen. The gloves only work if you wear them. Let this be a lesson. No talismanic protections. So your pet peeves of protection are concussion in rapier and inadequate hand protection or other excessive hand protection in some cases. And lack of sensitivity and flexibility.

KS: Correct.

GW: Yeah, we are basically the same person in this discussion. I think we should probably move on because otherwise it’s just going to be bouncing back and forth between mirrors. So we need to find something we disagree on. How about this one? This is not going to generate any disagreement, I don’t think. But what has been your proudest moment in historical arts?

KS: My proudest moment? I’ve had a couple in the past year that are all there are all kind of mirrors of each other, they’re all little instances of the same thing, so I’m going to kind of lump them together. It’s when somebody has reached out to me – a colleague, somebody else who teaches martial arts, HEMA specifically, and has told me that they read my book and they implemented some of the culture changes that it suggests and their school got better.

GW: I can imagine.

KS: Specifically, the one that’s gotten me, I think the one that got me the most that absolutely brought me to tears was a colleague in the US who’s teaching down in Texas who told me that every time he implemented one of the things that I suggested in my book, his school became more like what he’d always wanted and didn’t know he needed. It was helping him teach and train the way that made the most sense for him and the way that brought him joy and fulfilment. And that’s more than I could have ever hoped for, you know.

GW: Yeah, well, I’ve been telling everybody I wish you wrote the bloody thing 20 years ago because then my own school would have turned out closer to what I had in mind.

KS: It still just makes my brain shut down when I hear things like that. It matters so, so much. And I didn’t let myself dare to hope that it would have this impact.

GW: Well, you’re not supposed to write a book like that your first time out Kaja. You’re supposed to build up to it and after about 15 books, you produce something like that.

KS: And you know how much pressure that puts on writing a second book?

GW: None. Because the thing is, it doesn’t matter what you do, you can’t expect to top it, so you’re free to do whatever you want.

KS: That’s a good point and that’s the conclusion that I’ve ultimately come to. I don’t have to worry about everything I do being revolutionary, because that’s an unreasonable expectation to have. And now I can go write weird niche stuff that nobody else cares about.

GW: Precisely. So what are you working on at the moment?

KS: I am working on a historical interpretation book. I am writing specifically on that weird last bit of Marozzo where he talks about self-defence against the dagger.

GW: OK. Yeah. I am familiar with the book.

KS: It is a funny little self-contained section of the text that behaves rather differently from the rest of it. It’s also a really interesting case study in how you build an effective and very simple self-defence approach that you can boil down to a very small number of principles. And when you look at the 22 individual plays that he’s actually got in that section, they’re sort of just three things applied in different contexts.

GW: OK, what are those three things?

KS: Three basic kinds of movement. You drive right through somebody’s centre of gravity and you knock them over; you make contact with them and you pivot them or yourself, so you turn their force against them kind of Aikido style; or you isolate a joint and you break or lock it for a disarm.

GW: And that’s a pretty complete martial arts system, right there?

KS: It is and my contention with this and the thing that I want to use the book to show is that if you understand the decision making model that’s at play in a system and you understand the basic mechanical principles that it’s using, which in this case are those three techniques, you can reconstruct all of its individual techniques on the fly and you can do so without having to memorise them. You can do so using them as a means of exploring and refining your approach rather than as a set of things that you need to remember in order to do it right. So it’s going to be an exploration of training practises and pedagogy via this one specific interpretation of very small little system.

GW: It sounds fascinating. Do you have any timeline for when the book might be out?

KS: So originally my intention was to have it done by the end of this year. I would still like that to be the case, but I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I was stalled on it for a good seven months where I just didn’t write anything at all.

GW: Kaja, you weren’t stalled – I just have to correct on this one. You were letting it come into a state of readiness to be put down.

KS: You’re right. Oh, it’s so good to talking to a fellow writer.

GW: Never stalled. I only ever thinking.

KS: It was it was proving like sourdough. Anyway, I’ve started writing again and I know what I want now. I have a clear outline and it’s fun and it’s exciting. I think it is reasonable to say that it will be out in the first half of 2021.

GW: I have a suggestion, one writer to another: finish the book, get it through the second draught, and then think about when you are going to publish it. That’s what I did. Then I can say you’re definitely going to have the book beginning in May. I mean, I could have sent people the book in February and it would have been OK. It just had a couple of editorial passes to go through. But, you know, I wasn’t even discussing when it might be out until it was done because I had no idea, I might have needed to rest it for another six months before it had finished proving like sourdough.

KS: I think I like to set myself vague deadlines as a way of keeping myself accountable. So first half of 2021. I should be on track for that. It is useful for me. I need to be more careful about what I publicly commit to. I have learnt that over the past year.

GW: So you can probably commit to trying to probably have it ready by…

KS: Correct.

GW: I’m very much looking forward to reading it whenever it comes out, whether that’s next year or whenever. OK, so what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?

KS: This is honestly a really hard question.

GW: Well, I mean, three years ago, we could have said writing a book. But then you went and did it.

KS: Yeah. I don’t have that one anymore. My honest to God problem as a martial artist and as any kind of a creative person is that I am much more a person of action than of ideas. I am slow to come up with ideas, they take a lot of time and they are few and far between. So when I get one I usually have to act on it immediately.

GW: OK. Like what?

KS: Like the book. I’m starting to do work on scenario work and use of force and stress and all of that and bringing it into the HEMA community. The second I decided anything like that was a good idea. I just started doing it. And I often start doing things before I’m even sure something’s a good idea. This is part of why I like working in groups and in collaborative communities is that I often surround myself with people who have better ideas than I do and become the person who goes out and does them. With credit, of course.

GW: There are so many ideas out there. It’s the execution that is everything.

KS: Yeah. I don’t know that I have ideas sitting around that I haven’t used because I don’t know that I have very many ideas.

GW: Wow. That’s a really good balance to have actually.

KS: So my answer is I don’t think there is one. Give me ideas please.

GW: Fair enough. Well you heard it here people. If you have ideas for things you think Kaja should be doing, she has just invited you to send them in. OK. My last question. Somebody gives you a million dollars, let’s say pounds which is two million Canadian dollars, to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend that money?

KS: I would seek out clubs or organisations around the world to try to find as many in as many cities and hubs as I can afford. I would find clubs that are starting to do really good, really interesting work that are run by people who have great ideas but don’t necessarily have a voice or resources and I would make sure that they have the space and the tools to actually grow. Because my experience with Valkyrie and what we’ve done in in our local community is that our ability to learn and to train and to make change absolutely expanded exponentially once we got a space.

GW: Oh, God, yes.

KS: I once we got the stability to just train from a place and to grow a community in a place. There are so many people that are doing amazing work in HEMA that nobody ever hears from and that nobody ever gets to see the fruits of it because it’s them and two other people training in a park and they don’t have the continuity that space allows. And they don’t have the platform that a space gives them. I want to find those people and I want to give them a home and go, here you have somewhere to train rent free for the next year or two. Build something with it.

GW: Wow. That’s a very good use of the money.

KS: I think that that would create way more positive change than funnelling money into any one big new projects that I could come up with.

GW: That that’s really interesting. When I started my school in 2001, we opened on March 17th and then on the 1st of June, we moved into a permanent training space, which cost me all of everyone’s training subscriptions each month to start with. From a business perspective, it was an entirely stupid decision. But from a martial arts perspective, it was exactly the right thing to do. It was absolutely transformative. The difference between showing up with a bag full of gear at some school sports hall or some park or whatever and showing up and all your gear is already on the walls and everybody knows where to come. You’re not shuffled out of it at the end of your two-hour slot or standing outside waiting to be allowed in while the judo guys finish and put away their mats. It is absolutely a completely different way of being when you have your own space. I think that’s an excellent use of the money.

KS: This is the thing is, I agree with you completely that business-wise, running a martial arts space is dumb. It’s like, oh my God, nobody go into this business to get rich or to even have baseline economic stability. But it is absolutely vital from a community and from a martial arts perspective. I think we really underestimate how much community growth and how much knowledge sharing and how much training happens, not in class, but in all of the times outside. When people just drop in to fuck around. When people start taking private lessons because there’s something they’re interested in when they’re hanging out after class for an hour, you know, shooting the shit. That’s when powerful, valuable, revolutionary things happen. And you need a space to make that.

GW: From a certain perspective, the purpose of the classes is simply to get people into the space to allow that to happen. It’s like if I like conferences, business conferences, you know, no one actually cares about the speakers. No one actually cares about the formal curriculum. You go there for that chance conversation over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee or something which completely changes what you’ve been doing.

KS: I used to be an academic and I still have a lot of a lot of friends in that field and every single one of us, I think, would say that the reason that we go to conferences is for the conversations that happen at midnight on Saturday after three glasses of wine. That is where the magic happens and that is that is what I want people to have in HEMA. There are so few of us that do there are so few of us that have a stable space. And quite frankly, most of the ones that do are the people that need that resource the least. There are folks who have a good amount of stability, that already have a community, and maybe don’t necessarily have that many new and exciting things to say. You know, by the time you get a space, by the time you get stability, you’ve been in the game for long enough that you’re adding value to the community. But you’re not a new voice anymore.

GW: Is the newness of the voice particularly important? I think I speak as someone who’s been doing this since the early 90s. I’m about as old as it gets and I don’t want to be completely obsolete Kaja!

GW: I adore you, Guy, and you’re not obsolete. But the first generation of the first and second generation that I’ve seen of HEMA instructors and the people that have really managed to grow and build something are straight middle-class white guys. And there is a narrowness of perspective that comes with that. Even if you are the smartest and most engaged and most thoughtful and wonderful straight, middle aged white guy in the world, there are perspectives that you lack that are sorely needed in our community.

GW: I couldn’t agree more.

KS: The people that we need to hear from, the people that are going to make really valuable change, that are going to make our community richer and smarter and better and are already doing so, even though they lack an enormous amount of the resources, are the people that are probably never going to have a permanent space because they’re not going to be able to afford it. Because they don’t have the same stability and the same advantages that a lot of the rest of us started out with. Valkyrie has been surviving by the skin of its teeth since we opened. We’re a really marginal space and we’ve still had a lot of advantages and a lot of external support come our way. We were run by women and were run by queer people. That that has made things harder for us, but we still don’t face racism. We still don’t face a lot of other structural difficulties that stop other voices from coming forward. And we’re just barely scraping by. So I know how many voices we’re missing because of those structural inequalities. And that’s why my billion dollar plan would be throw money at the people who need it most. And who need to be louder and who need to need to be able to contribute to our community. And I’m not saying that, you know, a school run by a queer woman of colour in a marginalised neighbourhood in New York necessarily has to be doing social justice work. But it’s going to bring a perspective to swordplay and to HEMA that is fundamentally different from what the loudest voices are now. And we cannot help but be enriched by that.

GW: I think that’s an excellent point to close on, because really, what can one say after that? Thank you very much, Kaja. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I wish you all the best with the new book and thank you again for writing the old book. I hope to talk to you again soon.

KS: Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful.

GW: Thanks for listening. I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Kaja Sadowski. You can find Kaja online at www.patreon.com/kajaswords. And remember to go along to www.guywindsor.net/podcast-2 for episode show notes and to download your free copy of Sword Fighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists.

And tune in next week when I’ll be interviewing Tan Smith. To not miss that episode, you had best subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. See you next week.