via poetica

a poet & storyteller observing society

In a documentary I watched recently, Pierce Brosnan said, “The oceans are the source of our deepest myths.” Yuri Rytkheu's When the Whales Leave is one such story, drawing from the myths of his Chukchi people in the far reaches of northern Russia. It is a story rooted in the origin myths of his indigenous people, but I must admit that the origin of the story is not what makes the novel worthwhile. Nor is it the beautiful language of the story (translator Ilona Yazhbin Chavesse said that it “sings” in the Russian).

Rather, the story is a balm to the spirit in our own moment. (I'll admit, this review was due about a month ago, around the time the world shut down from Covid-19. Stories like this one have helped me to cope). In rich and vivid language, we learn the story of Nau, the mother of the people, whose first children are the whales. Only then did she give birth to humans. The father of the people is Reu, a great whale who became human out of Great Love. Whenever there is conflict among the people, or fear, or scarcity, they are reminded that their origin is in Great Love, and that they share the fate of their world with all other living things. They are reminded that Great Love is not something we can have alone. It is something we find in our connection to our spouses, our children, our neighbors, and the creatures of the world.

Each chapter of the story unfolds a smaller narrative of a generation and their trials, much like Matryoshka dolls — each fitting into the next, painted in its own way but facing many of the same themes, grappling with the same emotions. One chapter in particular stuck out to me, when some of the men of the village decide to follow the whales and see where they go when they leave the far north. In doing so, these people discover other tribes that have similar belief, and a similar desire for the Great Love to bring peace. As long as Great Love is alive in the world, then all will be well.

As must happen in good stories and in life, a conflict arises. In this case, even the conflict is apt for our era — considering the role of humans in our relationship to the land, the sea, and their creatures. Like our own ecological strife, these issues have no easy resolution. I found myself even empathizing with one of the antagonists as he strove to do what he thought was best. I found an example of how to humanize those with whom I disagree.

When the Whales Leave is not only a great novel (and quickly becoming a favorite that I reread often), but part of a wonderful imprint of the publisher. The Seedbank Series by Milkweed Books is worth knowing — seeking to keep the indigenous stories of people alive, much like a seedbank helps to ensure ecological diversity. In a world dominated by the strife of politics and pandemic, this book is worth your time. For me, it was a story amid the noise that reminded me of what can be good in humanity, and the role we can play in shaping that good for future generations.

NB: Periodically I am sent books by publishers in exchange for a pithy and honest review. In this case I am reviewing Narrative Sociology, edited by Leslie J. Irvine, Jennifer L. Pierce, and Robert L. Zussman, from Vanderbilt University Press. I will also be submitting the review to a journal.

Emile Durkheim famously said that sociology was the study of “social facts.” That, of course, means that any aspect of society can become meaningful sociological study. If true, how exactly do we organize and understand that object of study, those facts, those experiences? The answer just might be narrative.

The editors of this incredible volume make it clear that narrative sociology is not a unified school of thought, or even necessarily a specific method. They've deliberately collected a diverse range of thinkers. A few big names jumped out at me just from reading the table of contents: Francesca Polletta, Michel Foucault, C. Wright Mills, and Jerome Bruner. They've included well-known thinkers, even before “story” and “narrative” became buzzwords in business and big data, while also offering some solid evidence from social science that there's good reason for narrative to be all the rage. The editors also did a good job of highlighting sociologists with otherwise different approaches, from classical to postmodern and the various rivulets of scholarship in between.

That said, some of their conclusions seem a bit obvious (of course there is a connection between who makes the narrative and who has the power) and some chapters took a long time to digest. That may be in part, of course, because the writing is meant for academics and because for more data-driven social scientists some of the more qualitative ideas central to the book may need extended proof. On the other hand, for a social science with such deep roots in positivism and empiricism (sociology) to now have such a strong current of antipositivist (i.e. interpretive) approaches is interesting to document, and this collection of papers from at least the last four decades is a thorough account of that “narrative turn” in the social sciences. As someone with a dual career in the social sciences and the humanities, I found the book to be most fruitful when viewed as a historical collection and not only a commentary on current research.

Overall, the book meets its stated goal in organizing sociological scholarship around narrative. I was continuously reminded of a kaleidoscope: seeing all of the same pieces before, but arranged in a different way. The structure of the book serves well to this end, too. Part I addresses “Varieties of Narrative,” including three essays under the header “Does Narrative Explain?” (the answer isn't as straightforward as one may think). Another header “The Work Narratives Do,” was a highlight for me, including work by Arthur Frank, Robert Zussman, and the aforementioned Bruner and Mills. Part II focused on “Sociological Narrative Forms,” making a case for how sociology might use narrative as a structure for research (everyone wants to tell a good story, after all), and Part III, “Narratives and Institutional Contexts” offered a variety of perspectives on power, oppression, activism, and institutions. With such a broad range of topics in a few hundred pages, it was quite brilliant, really, to see the skill of the editors in organizing the various approaches to narrative and coalescing key themes from years of work.

In sum, the book won't only be of interest to academics, but also to writers and storytellers addressing social issues, psychologists who utilize narrative approaches in their work, and to activists who want to support their grassroots efforts with documented scholarship. It's a valuable reference, one which I'm certain I will return to in my own research and writing. The editors were right: the time for a narrative sociology is upon us.


Addendum: This review was originally slated to post several weeks ago and my schedule was impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. This makes me give additional thought to some of the narrative approaches mentioned in the book, especially around employment and healthcare. It's become all the more obvious to me that as death tolls rise, unemployment lines form, and people find themselves without many basic necessities, a numbers-driven or purely demographic approach to the current situation is clearly not enough. Each person without a job now, or without food, or without proper medical care, has an important story to tell that contributes to the qualia of what emerges as our collective narrative. Each system that we describe as “broken” — the government, the hospitals, and the social safety net — all need to know these narratives, too. Any sort of systemic or political impact that social scientists may hope to have in moments like these must be grounded in real narratives. With all of that in mind, this book becomes more important than ever for the scholarly debates that it will inform the coming years.

The Society of Classical Poets published two of my pieces.

Despite being a poet and poetry teacher for years, I hadn't published anything in a while. So this is exciting for me.

I've been trying to make more art — theatre, poetry, storytelling, and essays. So I'm delighted to share that once more, my work was featured on an episode of the Story Story Podcast! Enjoy.

My friend Rachel Ann Harding runs the amazing Story Story Podcast. Some of my stories were featured on her podcast:

The Foolish Wise Man returns

Wow! A friend of mine has been running a podcast for traditional storytelling and asked me to contribute. Listen here. :–)

Teaching as TLA

I wrote a piece on the blog of the TLA Network, reflecting on my teaching practice in the context of poetry and storytelling.

Something remarkable happened that July, in 2014. It was my first time at the National Storytelling Network conference — that year it was down the street in Mesa, Arizona. Naturally, in a place like that, the excitement is palpable. For me, that excitement was mixed with a clear sense of wanting to grow as a storyteller. I had known since I was 14 this was what I wanted to do, and so I was determined to make the most of my time there.

On the one hand, making the most of it meant attending workshops and swapping business cards. But it also meant taking the time to make real connections. It also meant taking risks. One workshop time slot, I wasn’t attending anything. Instead, I was sitting at a table with a storyteller who is always very invested in the young people joining. Her name is Judy Sima — and if this were my hero’s journey, she would be one of my guides. In fact, she helped set a whole tremendous chain of events into motion.

She asked me, “Have you heard of the mentorship grant?” I told her that I had.

“Are you going to apply?” she asked. I told her that I wanted to, but I hadn’t found a mentor yet.

“You must have someone in mind,” she said. I did. His name was Antonio Rocha. Like me, he’s a mime and a storyteller. I had heard a radio interview of his and was just blown away. As I sat there in the sweltering lobby of the hotel telling Judy all of this, I could feel my energy rising. I knew that Antonio was the one I wanted to work with. The rest, however, was still a mystery (and I was just some young upstart, anyhow).

“Well,” Judy finally said, “have you asked him yet?” I remember my response was somewhat flippant. “Oh, of course not. I doubt he’d want to work with me.”

“You might be surprised, kid.” Judy always has a sort of warm, radiating smile on her face, but even now almost two years after this event, I still remember her smile and the gleam in her eyes in that moment. I wonder if she, like Antonio, saw something in me that I am blind to.

So, with a lot more cajoling, Judy convinced me that I should ask Antonio to apply with me for the mentorship grant. She also insisted that I be prompt. Just a few days after the conference ended, I found myself on the phone with Antonio. I had already sent him information about the grant, and he had already requested to see a rough cut video of one of my performances. In the 45 minutes that we spoke on the phone, we discussed stories, festivals, Antonio’s mime teacher Tony Montanaro (who also trained one of my main professors at NYU), and how I hoped to grow as a performer.

At the end of that conversation, two things were clear: I had found my storytelling teacher, and he would work with me whether or not we got the grant. The excitement — no, call it joy — made me speechless by the end.

We began immediately. I would send Antonio clips, and he would email me back feedback and ideas for improvement. Then, coaching sessions over Skype began. That same energy I had talking to Judy at the conference would reappear every time we were working. I felt — and still feel — that I am sitting at the feet of a master when learning from him.

We didn’t win the grant, but we have continued to collaborate. This past July, Antonio and I met in person at the annual storytelling conference (now in Kansas City). It was incredible. Not only did I get to witness his profound talent in person, but I also felt the palpable support of the storytelling community. Many friends and colleagues by now had learned of Antonio mentoring me, and would come up to express their enthusiasm, support, and friendship. Then, two weeks ago, Antonio was in Phoenix. I got to attend his workshop — The same one I would have attended with mentorship grant funds. In a way, then, things have come full circle. That conversation with Judy that lent me the courage to ask Antonio for his guidance and mentorship happened here in Phoenix. Here in Phoenix, I took the workshop I had been hoping to take. But in the interim, I have gained so much more. In the last 18 months, I have gained more confidence in my stories, and more grace in my telling. I have learned from an incredible and one-of-a-kind mentor, and I have earned a rare friend.

On many occasions, Antonio has spoken to me about his mentor, Tony Montanaro. He speaks of him with great respect, fondness, and gratitude. Above all, gratitude. He tells me, “I studied with Tony for 15 years. And I never stopped learning.” Recently I got to tell Antonio just what I hoped for: that my friendship and learning with him might follow that pattern. Like an apprentice who studies with a master for a lifetime, I hope to study with Antonio for as long as he will have me.

And, like Antonio speaks of Tony, I offer my teacher profound gratitude. Fondness, respect, amazement, joy, and all the rest, yes — but above all, gratitude. His teaching has become a part of how I inhabit stories, whether teaching or performing. As I continue to discover and develop my voice as a storyteller, and my place in the next generation of tellers, I hear his encouragement ringing in my ears. As I practice and hone my craft, I hear his loving insistence to believe in myself and trust my instincts.

What more might a young teller ask for? Thank you, Antonio.

I recently finished reading The Courage to Teach, by Parker J. Palmer. In it, he writes, “Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” That thought prompted a journal entry for me,

“If good teaching comes from identity, then my teaching, at its best, is rooted in my identity as a storyteller — that is, not only in my artistic, creative identity, but in the integrity of my healing and wholeness because of stories. It’s from that place of abundant stories, with their inherent power and wisdom that my best teaching comes.”

Another storyteller echoed the same in a recent conversation: “You can’t ask us not to tell stories. It’s how we engage with the world.” It’s how we make sense of the world, too. Our lives, our work, our loves — in some broad or particular way can be called “stories.”

But more than that, being a storyteller is not just a career, or even a passion that coexists with our other activities. Rather, it is something that defines everything we do. As an English teacher, I am a storyteller. As a professor of theatre, I am a storyteller. As a community activist and volunteer, I am a storyteller. As a husband, a son, and a friend, I am a storyteller. Always.

Sometimes that identity is rooted in speaking the best words I can find. More often, it is rooted in an observation, and in deep listening. It means listening from the vulnerable places, and using a story to “tell the truth, / but tell it slant,” as Dickinson put it. When I am given permission to fully inhabit that identity, I am my best self. When I step out of it — by force or by unwitting choice — I lose touch with that deepest part of me, that inner guide for all I do. Storytelling is who I am. Know fully what that means, and you are that much closer to knowing me and my greatest gifts. I am always a storyteller, no matter what work in the world I am doing.

Back in November, I got an email from a school I had been in contact with about bringing in teaching artists for enrichment programs. “We have an opening for an English teacher for next semester. Would you like to apply?”

“Why not?” I thought. Every teaching artist has been here, needing more work, and more experience. Teaching English does lend itself well to storytelling and drama after all.

Fast forward to January, and I'm offered the job. In fact, I started Monday. I'm really enjoying the position so far, and the teachers and administrators there are incredibly supportive — and curious — about have a linguist-turned-performing-artist in the English classroom. Like any teaching artist, I view myself as an artist first and a teacher second. But when faced with the opportunity to become a full-time teacher, should a teaching artist become a teacher?

Having a number of teachers in the family, and observing great teachers this week, I'm proposing that a teaching artist should be a teacher for a little while, but maybe not for the reasons you'd expect.

First off, teaching is an occupation that has entirely its own skill sets. Teaching artists borrow many of these in creating curriculum and guiding lessons, but for this issue I fall on the side of teachers. There is so much more in classroom management, data tracking, and accountability that a teaching artist (at least typically) doesn't face. That comes with its own challenges for teaching artists — which I'll get to in a moment — but imagine with me what teaching artistry would be if each of us had the finesse and skill of masterful teaching. The arts can still be a part of our tools, and perhaps even what drives us to teach. Nevertheless, masterful teaching is something I believe every teaching artist should learn how to do.

But what about the art? Ah, yes. With testing, grading, classroom management, and so many other things, where is the time for the arts, and art for art's sake? My answer: the classroom.

Starting next week, my students and I are doing a long unit on Taming of the Shrew. We'll be reading sonnets, exploring Elizabethan norms, and going through the play thoroughly, up until we go to see it produced at the end of February. A theatre's outreach department is coordinating getting us scripts and tickets. Imagine this from the theatre's point of view: another teaching artist is actually the English teacher preparing the 9th grade learners for the show. My point is that while I've aligned my unit with the necessary standards and objectives, my focus is relentlessly on the arts. We'll discuss the richness of the language and the profound contribution that the Bard has made to English, but at the end of the day, my goal is to meet my objectives through targeting the arts learning.

In other words, I don't see myself as sacrificing my integrity as an artist. Right now I'm reading The Teaching Artist Handbook (which I'll review later this month), and the focus for the first portion is on guiding teaching artists through what and how to teach. All in all, its practical for teaching artists, and no less practical for teachers. At first I worried that becoming a teacher would neglect my art. Then I thought, “What is a good lecture without storytelling? Or what is a good English class without drama and theatre to drive its inquiry?”

Ultimately, will becoming a teacher make you a better teaching artist? To answer that question, I want to make one final point. We position ourselves as advocates for the arts and more hands-on learning, right? So let's remember that teachers more often than not are our allies. They meet standards, prepare students for tests, and work relentlessly to educate young people — and many also say, “The arts are something great to integrate with that.” If they don't do so, the might not know how. A teaching artist who becomes a teacher is still an advocate for the rich, artful learning already witnessed — and he can show others how to do it. Above all, he is still an artist, and with that can teach from a place of profound abundance.