Fifty years ago I was kicked out of a poetry class at Michigan State University.
The circumstances of that exile, together with a recent and uncomfortable experience at a story slam, provide the book ends for what follows here… a personal take on the personal or traditional story conversation.
The Eagle. by Alfred Lord Tennyson
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls
These six lines were the catalyst for my expulsion from the class, and depending on how and who I’m telling the story to, sometimes serves as the creation tale for how and why I became a storyteller.
My offense was this. Despite the unyielding position of my poetry teacher, I insisted that the poem would have more immediacy and impact for someone who had actually observed an eagles bullet like dive from the heights. I argued that personal experience would inform and deepen the readers appreciation of the poem. Professor Adamant, as I now call him, countered that the reader brings nothing to a work of art. Art must stand on it’s own, the complete and self sufficient masterpiece of it’s creator. All value is created by the author. Neither of us would yield. I was advised that poetry had nothing to offer me, I had nothing to offer poetry, and was shown the door. I decided that I needed a break from what felt like the detached and aloof environment of academia. I didn’t want to study utopias in a sociology class, I wanted to live in one! So I stuck out my thumb and headed West. I was hoping to get on a freighter to Japan, but the road turned unexpectedly north.
A month later, I was holding one end of a beach seine net, as dozens of bald eagles fell like thunderbolts around me. I smiled smugly thinking of Dr. Adamant, hunched over his copy of Yeats in a musty, ill lit office. I had signed on to fish for halibut out of a small Tlingit village inSoutheast Alaska. The next youngest man on the boat was 81!)
We were netting herring for bait, and the eagles were feasting on the spoils. On that same trip, I watched in awe, as a humpback whale breached not far from the boat, it’s tail fluke disappearing into the deep in what seemed like the most graceful gesture I had ever witnessed. Today, when Eagle, Whale, Bear and Salmon appear in my stories, those early encounters are still with me and lurk somewhere in the telling. Sitting in the galley after dinner one night, I heard one of the old men tell a traditional story about why Yellow Cedar smells like whale blubber when it burns. That was the first folktale I ever heard as an adult.
Now to a recent story slam, where the ground rules required that all stories told must be true…told in the first person… happened to you, etc. I fashioned a five minute story that I felt was true to the spirit of those guidelines. This time it was not an eagle, but Nasruddin that got me in trouble.
I began my piece with this remembrance. Soon after 9/11, I was drinking coffee at a sidewalk cafe in Berkeley, when I saw a possible “terrorist” approaching. Dark hair, dark complected, semitic nose (like mine!) a young man, jaw clenched and obviously in some distress, glanced furtively first this way, then the other, and was heading my way. “See something, say something?” In a brief few seconds I ran a dozen possible scripts through my mind. In some, I was a hero, in others a coward. The next moment, there he was, not just passing by, but standing at my table, looking me straight in the eye.
“ Excuse me sir, I was sitting here a little while ago, and now I can’t find my car keys. I wonder if I may have left them here?” Quickly, I ran some new scripts. I was ashamed of myself…no, mine was a natural reaction.. I was just being prudent… surely others saw and felt what I did. What I definitely wanted to do though, was to redeem myself in my own eyes. I jumped up, eager to be of assistance.
“Let me help you look!” I got on my hands and knees and began peering around under the table. While I was thus occupied, I heard a sigh of relief, tinged with a little laughter.
“Here they are” said the now rehabilitated terrorist. “You were sitting on them!”
Later that day, and ever since, when I reflect on that encounter, I can’t help but think of the story of Nasruddin and his keys.
One evening, a friend finds Nassrusdin, frantically looking for his keys underneath a lamp post. the friend joins the search, but after some time the keys have not shown up.
“Are you sure this is where you lost them?” the friend asks.
“Oh no, no, not here!” replies the holy fool. I lost them near my house.
“Then why in the world are we looking closer to your house?”
“Isn’t it obvious? replied Nassrudin. “The light is so much better here!”
My telling included this truly true, it happened to me story, and another true to the bone story about a time I totally misjudged and stereotyped a neighbor, only to learn her real story years later. I took about thirty seconds of my alloted time to share the Nasruddin tale and tell the audience how reflecting on it deepened my understanding of the two personal stories. Thirty seconds ill spent, I was told. At this venue there was no place for Nasruddin or any mention whatsoever of folk or fairy tales. The rules were clear. It
I’ve been chewing on this less than pleasant experience for the last month. This includes what was a subsequent civil dialog with the powers that be. We agreed to disagree about the nature of my offense, and on perspectives I share here below. I promised never to repeat the foul on that stage. In my mind, it’s a lose/lose proposition though.
What struck me as most interesting/provocative about this exchange was the idea that personal stories must stand on their own and can deliver universal messages just as well as traditional tales. Therefore they have no need whatsoever to reference those traditional stories or wisdom traditions. I agree that personal stories can stand on their own. But must they always? I understand a desire to raise up this contemporary expression of storytelling and to celebrate personal storytelling as an exciting “new” form. But to cleanse itself entirely of traditional references in order to promote it’s intrinsic worthiness seems like a parochial and insular stance that disenfranchises mostly younger audiences from exposure to a rich cultural legacy.
Personal telling, moth/slam/ style didn’t arrive fully formed, via a virgin birth. LIke all art forms it springs from traditions and an arc of history. Why not fully embrace that history rather than feed a story of rift and separation? “Hey folks, we’re part of a long tradition. Look what were up to now!”
Traditional tales of course can get stiff, old and mummified if deprived of the opportunity to be reworked, retold, reimagined and deprived of the fresh juices of the current historical moment. The gate swings both ways if it’s not locked by threshold guardians in either camp.
I am always delighted when I hear tellers moving back and forth between the two worlds. In other artistic realms, think of Astor Piazolla bringing new life to Tango, Bill Monroe inventing Bluegrass while paying tribute to traditional folk and gospel and upstart Elvis Presley at the same time. Think of quilters stitching together traditional and modern motifs (Thank you Paula Martin, Tim Erenta and Judy Schmidt who offered these examples and many others who weighed in on the storytell listserv with other examples)
One early morning on the banks of the Yukon, a year after my arrival in Alaska, I was about to push my kayak off for another day’s paddle towards the mouth of the river and my destination at the shore of the Bering Sea. An old Athabaskan man stood nearby nursing a cup of coffee. We were talking about the weather, when without being aware of when the conversation took a turn, I found myself listening to a story about Old Man Beaver. A minute later, and again seamlessly, my local guide was telling me what to expect on the next stretch of river. Then I got it. He was alerting me to be on the lookout for a particular landmark. I would l recognize it because it we the place he just mentioned in the Beaver story. At that moment, the door swung freely between the dreamtime and that particular August day, between a traditional tale and the news of the moment. Old Man Beaver and I were part of the same story. He was alive in his time and I was alive in mine. Together!
I have a memory of Brother Blue at a festival, cheering on tellers from his front row seat. Cheering them on whether the tales were personal, traditional or some hybrid of the two. As I’ve tried to come to grips about why I feel so strongly that the unbending rules at the slam or anywhere where the lines are too zealously defended, are shortsighted, I turned to my treasured copy of Warren Lehrer’s book of Brother Blue’s stories and riffs. Here is Brother Blue…
“I’m just bein who I am,
doing my thing
and you’re pickin up on it from where you’re comin from
sendin it through your own instrument.
That’s the best kind of jam two people can have
you’re like an angel sent down from somewhere
you understand my language
that’s why i want to give you ultimate freedom
I don’t want to hamper you
as long as you can say
that’s the way I heard it
then I trust you.”