via poetica

mapping the world with stories

This title is the next one in the Seedbank Series from Milkweed Editions. The series “gathers works of literature from around the world that foster conversation and reflection on the human relationship to place and the natural world—exposing readers to new, endangered, and forgotten ways of seeing the world.” The publisher offered me my copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

If I asked you, “Where is the Altai?” would you know? Nor did I; I had to look it up. The Altai mountains are where Russia, Kazakhstan, China, and Mongolia meet. The region is also home to the Tuvan people, nomadic tribes of herders, for whom the big, blue sky is sacred[^1]. The mountains, too, are sacred in their own way, with the earth and the rivers providing everything the Tuvan people need.

Milkweed Books recently republished The Blue Sky by Galsan Tschinag, a prolific writer, teacher, and shaman from the Altai mountains. From the opening pages, the reader gets a sense of how spacious the world feels, especially when seen through the eyes and ears of a young child. The boy is shaken by vivd dreams, delighted with breakfast, and happy to spend time with his dog. The warmth and poetic language gives a sense of listening to stories in the yurt. The book is peppered with words in Tuvan, Mongolian, and Russian left untranslated, reminding the reader that this story is being retold in a different language. (Note that many of the commonly repeated words are listed in a glossary appendix, for the curious reader).

Here is an example, from the scene where the boy's beloved Grandma passes away, bringing him face-to-face with the waves of change that will come with growing up. The author, this time, translates for us what he hears:

[T]his quiet did not last long. Father broke it: “Höörküj awam dshoj bardy oj!” — Poor sister has left!

He whispered loudly, which may be why it sounded frightening, as if he has hissed. Mother jumped: “Uj dshüü didri sen?!” — Oh, what are you saying?

These two exclamation of shock are locked in my memory like incantations, and, along with rhymes, proverbs, songs, and other well-shaped sayings, have accompanied me through life without being dulled by the passage of time...[^2]

It took me until about halfway through — the scene above being part of it — to realize that this story is an autobiography. It's a bildungsroman, if you will, showing a boy becoming himself and coming to terms with the world changing around him. There is the clash of traditional customs — such as working to build a large herd to support one's family or listening to traditional stories — with new ideals, like the rise of communism in the region. Where for generations people learned what they needed from their tribal elders, as Galsan learns from his beloved Grandma, some children are sent to a city to learn at a school run by the government. In these debates the adults in the story have, Kulak, a Russian word for “fist,” is used as an insult to herders in the region who are not proletariat, not going forward with progress. In other words, this change isn't a gentle one.

Galsan (or as he is known in Tuvan, Dshurukuwaa) clearly loves his land and his people. He questions the value of progress and change, even while being surrounded with it: why must Brother and Sister leave for school? Why not stay forever tending the herds with Grandma? By the end of the book, much has changed. Some people have died, some have left, and the boy (still not yet of age to go to school, but he will be soon) must make a choice: will he stay with his people, his customs, and his homeland? Or will he embrace modernity?

The book, as a part of Galsan's testimony, invites us to the same questions. For the places we know and love, what will we do to protect them? Even as technologies change our lifestyles, what will we pass on to our children? How will we use our words to shape the world?

In this vein, the book is a perfect next installment for Milkweed's Seedbank Series. Those who have loved and delighted in the other titles will be sure to find the majestic world of the Altai and its peoples a place worth remembering.

[^1]: This also reminded me of the Tibetan practice of “big sky mind.” [^2]: p. 95

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.

Beginning is difficult.

I want to say something useful to you. I want to say something inspiring. Whitman said,

“Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much? Have you practiced so long to learn to read?” (Song of Myself, Canto 2)

I'm fascinated that those questions follow each other. More on that later. Like Whitman, I have questions that won't go away. I've tried to answer them. Yet, so many answers feel unsatisfactory. This essay — the first of a series, I hope — is my next attempt to answer those questions. I'll share with you my thinking on storytelling, poetry, ecology, and community. Consider this your invitation into my questions.

I don't know if I will find any answers. If you are up for an adventure nonetheless, I'll offer you an essay every month. I also hope that, if you find any of this worthwhile, you will share with friends.

So to begin...

Starting where I am.

I'm compelled to begin with the death of a recent poet, W. S. Merwin. I have struggled with what to say in this essay in part because I am grieving him.

Few poets have done so much to bridge the consciousness of our time with the gifts of our poetic tradition. He was a translator and teacher of poetry — from Italian, Portuguese, French, Spanish, even Occitan — because he saw the value of the Renaissance traditions and their intensely focused forms. Yet he also studied the poetry and philosophy of Japan. He, too, felt both the yearning for beauty that feels familiar and the need for silence in an all-too-noisy West.

Eventually he became involved in peace protests and conservation work. He devoted the last years of his life to creating a haven for rare species of palm trees at his home in Hawaii. He has almost mythical proportions in my mind — a wise, silver-haired sage, singing poems on the mountaintops. I'm almost certain he tasted freedom.

Here's one of his poems:

Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.

When I first encountered this poem, I sat in stunned silence. In three simple lines it resonated with my lived experiences of loss, grief, and heartache.

Poetry formulates our experience of difficult and ineffable subjects — the divine, the mysterious, and the overwhelming. In writing about the changing of seasons, Merwin wrote that “There is no season / that requires us” (p. 103). That urges the question, then why we are here? If no season requires us, then our presence — each of us — is an answer beyond simply requirement. We are here for some greater purpose. For me, and I believe for Whitman and Merwin, that is why they turned to poetry. In other words, if there is no part of earth which requires our existence, then how do we justify our place in the world?

Whitman's Questions

Let's turn back to Whitman's questions. Here again are those lines from “Song of Myself” (Canto 2):

Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much? Have you practiced so long to learn to read?

First, Whitman asks us to consider the space of a thousand acres. I don't know about you, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen a thousand acres in a single glance. If I ever have, it's from the window of an airplane. I can only reckon the entire earth in one look thanks to photos from space. It's possible because of human genius. Without that technology (planes and space shuttles), reckoning the whole earth is only possible in the human imagination. But, that's precisely what Whitman poses in his next question. By practicing to learn to read, by expanding our powers of imagination, we can indeed understand and behold the world.

Moreover, “to read” here is not simply the act of comprehending words on a page, but also the entering of the mind of another author. Reading is an invitation to another world.


The German language has a word for this: Sonder. Sonder is the name for the feeling of realizing that you can never fully comprehend the inner life of another person.

I'll pause a moment to contemplate that. We can never completely reckon the experience of another human being. Their inner life is too rich, too complex, and so unique.

Then, if poetry gifts me the experience of Sonder as I encounter the words of another poet, I am at the same time driven to gift others Sonder of myself. That is why I write. My words only come into being because of my reality and nodes of experience. My own poetics help to form and inform myself.

That is why each of us in an existence beyond requirement. Each of us has a unique inner landscape (our “thousand acres,” if you will). No one can offer the world what you offer.

Sonder is a way of reading the world, and being ever aware of its mysteries.

Green things.

Take an imaginative leap with me. That sense of poetry being Sonder-ful.... does it also apply to the natural world? What is it like to be a tree?

Research has shown that part of why trees sway back and forth, even on a calm day, is that they have a pulse. (See In the Company of Trees, p. 51). Their networks of roots to move nutrients and sap is in some ways not too unlike the human person. Perhaps that is why so many mystic philosophies draw the human body as a tree?

Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran (author of the book The Prophet, among others), said that “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” What would we do if we applied that idea of Sonder to the whole earth? How then would we “reckon a thousand acres”? If the earth writes poetry, too, what experience of the earth can we glimpse in beholding the natural world? To again hint at Whitman's questions, have we “practiced enough” to know how to read the world in this way?

Vincent van Gogh wrote in one of his letters, “How right it is to love flowers and the greenery of pines and ivy and hawthorn hedges; they have been with us from the very beginning.” (quoted in In the Company of Trees, p. 22). How right indeed. Like Whitman, like Merwin, like Gibran, our reading of the world, and our understanding of our place in it, seems to require a love of things beyond ourselves — and especially a love of the things and the people giving us the experience of Sonder.

Merwin planted trees. He yearned for our society (and not just America, but all of our earth) to grow great. Whitman, too, contemplated the trees — and knew that to learn to read was as valuable as reckoning the vastness of our world. These poets hungered to understand the world while paradoxically knowing that complete understanding is impossible.

I'm ever more convinced that the world needs poets and myth-makers. Our world — both the human and the more-than-human — is poorer with those encounters with mystery. So I will end with an invitation: go and contemplate. What mysteries are calling you?

Works cited: Fereshteh, Andrea Sarubi. In the Company of Trees. Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. Merwin, W. S. The Essential W. S. Merwin. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.

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.