Or, Reading is Bad
Or, A Tale of Two Storytellers.
My Philadelphia childhood was marked by the image of my mother under lamplight, bent over a book, studying to become a folklorist. She was always studying children's games and rhymes and reading weighty, scary, assigned-tomes like “The Sex Lives of Savages”. She came to folklore through this fascination she'd developed with the voice of a man she met in Benin, West Africa in her late twenties. His name was Nondichao and he was a skeletal tall old griot before whom she'd place a boxy tape recorder time and again over the course of decades. I remember his grainy French-African voice very well, as if it runs through my dreams without my knowing. With a gravelly lilt Nondichao told her, over many a sweaty bottle of Fanta, and all from memory, the bloody and amazing histories of the kingdom of Dahomey as they had been relayed to him by a series of griots, all now dead. In the meantime I played with the village children chasing hoops and petting goats, and we all were recorded in the background static.
She came to that fascination–with his storytelling–because she was a storyteller herself, and had worked for a friend's children's theater group in Connecticut called Oddfellows Playhouse. And that fascination started from an even more direct seed–she'd been a devoted theatre-person. She'd been the kind of older sister who is constantly organizing her siblings into little backyard productions, who grows up into a theatre major…
So for me there's always been this narrative that explains how one could get from theatre to storytelling to folklore to history (and perhaps back again) all by following a fascination with the human voice.
Of course my mother has a lovely, expressive speaking voice. But in retrospect I see that that voice is partially responsible for the fact that I nearly failed second grade. When we left Benin I was six and she was thirty; and by the time I was eight, despite the best efforts of the Philadelphia public school system, I still couldn't read.
So I often thank my stars that I wasn't born in our current era of over-diagnostic tendency, as I'm sure I'd have been shunted off into various sad special rooms and my life might have gone quite differently. But my academic problem was pretty basic. I didn't have a disability. I preferred to be read to.
These days I admit to being a person who has devoted her life to paper, but this stubbornness about wanting words to live in the air has never entirely left me. The following poem about zombies reflects my experiments with what one can do with an oral tradition:
I never particularly wanted to do this kind of thing on video because, like Nondichao's stories, the words aloft in the air are best spoken from one person to a small group of listeners, preferably in a circle. I really like a small circle. The green light glinting from my computer-camera is sort of weird and hard to perform towards, though I'm working on that.
I suppose its obvious that I ultimately learned to read (thanks, largely, to Archie comic books) but even in graduate school I found that I was uncomfortable handing out stacks of poems for other students to read silently in their heads. I worried that they wouldn't hear it right. But I never had the guts to perform full-out in those workshop classrooms. I've spent years now, as have many of my compatriots in what they call “spoken word” circles, trying to write poems that work on page and stage. The zombie one is one I exclude from my manuscript because I don't know how it works on paper. Here's a quick shot at it, though. Any advice on line-breaks from paper-poets are welcome!
Maybe It Is I Who Am the Zombie-
Zombie sleepwalking through the dirty street with my head of paper. my stomach of paper. . .I'm busy eating paper with my paper gut. Maybe It is I Who Am the Zombie-Zombie sleepwalking through the dirty street. All the bodies in this train-car are haloed in white/soft-white like lightning, like heads ripped out from magazines and pasted by me to keep a zombie company (company for zombie! very good company!) but maybe it is I.
“I was in love with a place in my mind in my mind. . .”
I pilfered all your blood. I stole, I snuck it I tucked it in my coat I had to have it
for my very own heart. to swell and swallow and explode all over
(oh my greedy-greedy heart. oh my greedy-greedy heart.)
nobody can feel any feelings but me! So maybe it is I. . .
“But I love the way you say good-morning and you take me the way I am.”
This poem, by the way, is about how reading is bad–though that's sort of tongue-in-cheek. Given that I now teach reading and writing I probably shouldn't say things like that. But at the base of the poem I'm worrying about my own ability to twist narratives (making myself into the hero or martyr of any story is pretty easy for me) and how that instinct for epic narrativizing is not always the best skill to have when it comes to relationships. Particularly romantic ones. But what a boring thing to talk about. I prefer thinking about that topic in a comic-book way–by picturing a sort of paper-love-zombie who walks around the city thinking everyone else is made out of magazines, and stealing the life-essence and blood of the sweetheart in order to make better stories. A zombie made of paper who eats paper to make paper. Something like that.
In any case, like this guy, I have a complicated relationship with paper.
Post Script: The art images are from Peter Callesen. And my mother is still better at reading aloud than I probably will ever be. It occurs to me that I should record her.