Stories for grownups and older kids

The first time I told stories to adults in a performance in 1989, I was wearing silk parachute pants. I was nervous. My knees shook and my trousers shimmied. My palms were sweaty. Still, I kept the story strong in my mind and in my voice. The story I told then is one I still tell.

I grew to love performing for grownups. I mix it up, telling personal stories (often personal fiction), folktales and stories from books. My puppets stay home. I seek to connect emotionally, of course, but also to surprise the listeners, open a door to other points of view, offer shelter. I hope to delight. Often, listeners are surprised at how much they enjoy stories.

I gave a house concert not long after 9/11. One of the audience members said, "Thank you. For two hours, I wasn't thinking about world events." Often adults take stories in without showing emotion. For many performances, I thought one of my regular listeners was bored because of the way she sat, face static and arms crossed. At the end, she would come up to say, "That was great!" I now watch for this listening stillness. If the listeners are fidgeting, I consider why I'm not connecting. Maybe my story needs tightening, maybe I have left out a crucial piece of information that seemed obvious to me, maybe there's a problem with the venue.

With the advent of storytelling events such as the Moth, the general public is getting used to hearing stories for adults, specifically personal stories. Some of these are excellent, some are deadly therapy on stage. The best take a personal event and make it universal. To those who have just discovered personal storytelling, it's new. To the rest of us, it's as old as the hills.

On Tuesday, Valentine's Day 2/14/17), I'll tell true, slightly true and absolutely false stories to grownups, in a performance called "And they lived happily ever after...Or did they?" here in Lawrence, Kansas at the Union Pacific Depot at 8:00 p.m. Admission is a love offering,of course (passing the hat). Come see what I mean by stories for grownups.

My new friend Roman

I've made a new friend or at least acquaintance, down the street from where I live. Roman sits on a stoop most days, playing harmonica for whatever stotinki people will toss him. At first, I thought he wasn't playing songs, just breathing in and out. Then one day I heard the strains of "O Susannah." I usually have a harmonica with me, so I pulled mine out and played along. 

Since that day, I've stopped a few times to jam with Roman. He plays an echo harp (a harmonica with two rows of notes together), is a monarchist, speaks a little English, loves Scotland and Tom Clancy novels, and had part of his thumb bitten off by a dog so can't play the guitar anymore. He's generally cheerful, despite the lack of coins in the styrofoam box that sits at his feet. He's clearly gobsmacked to be playing harmonica and gabbing away with an amerikanka. We've played "Amazing Grace," "Auld Lang Syne," "O Susannah" and a few others. He promises to work on "When the Saints Go Marching In." Today I asked if I could take his picture. 

(Since I first wrote this, he asked me not to use the pictures. He has agreed to the following.)

He wasn't certain about this. I suggested that he might prefer one of us playing harmonica together:

A friend of his showed up and Roman took a cigarette and coffee break. He told me a story I've heard before, Feeding the clothes. Here's his version, roughly (he told it to me in Bulgarian): 

Clever Peter was invited to a wedding, invited to be the best man. He went to the restaurant for the party, but it was raining and on the way, his trousers got spattered with mud. When he arrived, he was completely ignored, see, he had all this mud on his pants. He saw what the situation was, you know, he was clever (Roman tapped his head here). He went home and changed his clothes. When he came back, everybody said, "Clever Peter! Great to see you, come on in!" Clever Peter asked what there was to eat and drink. "Roast lamb, whisky, rakiia, whatever you want!" He was served and began to pour the whisky on his clothes, smear the roast lamb all over. "Peter, what are you doing?" "Feeding my clothes. Obviously, you invited them and not me."

It in no way matters that I knew the story. What matters is the joy that Roman took in telling it. 

 

 

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

Happy Granny March

In English, we say, "In like a lion, out like a lamb" when we describe March. In Bulgaria, the traditions around the first of March are more dramatic. Baba Marta, or Granny March, ushers in spring--if she feels like it. She's a cantankerous character, so we need to find ways to please her, so she really will bring in warmer weather and flowers. I was at a school on Friday where Baba Marta came to visit. The elementary school kids had made videos with songs, dances, pictures and chants to please her. If she is, she'll smile and the sun will come out. I read that the last snow of winter is Baba Marta shaking out her feather bed in her spring cleaning. 

Bulgarians give each other martenitsi, red and white tasseled bracelets, pins and decorations, to celebrate March 1 and Baba Marta.

Many of these have two figures, a boy and a girl, Pizho and Penda. Starting in the second or third week of February, martenitsi are available from stalls on the streets and in stalls. These days, many are made in China. My favorites are handmade. I bought some from a charity the other day, with lovely felted figures, including a bumblebee, a flower, a lemon wedge. My friend Tzveta and her children make them, just as I used to make Valentines for friends in elementary school. She told her children that only unfortunate people have to buy them. They're given to friends, family and coworkers in the first few days of March but especially March 1, with the phrase "Chestita Baba Marta!"

Here are some on my wrist:

After martenitsi are exchanged, people wear them until they see the first flowers of spring or a stork. Then they hang the martenitsi in a tree or hide them under a rock. Here are some that are still hanging in a tree near my house from last year (I'm guessing):

The red and white are symbolic of health, growth, fertility, good luck and happiness. Children compete to see how many they can collect. 

Честита Баба Марта! Chestita Baba Marta, with wishes for health, happiness and luck!

Disclaimer: This is not an official Fulbright Program publication. The views expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations. 

Goldie

Don't worry, this isn't going to become the story poem blog. I'm on a roll, though, so here's the second in my series. Story poems don't have to be only about familiar folktales. For me, this was a natural jumping-off point. 

 Jessie Wilcox Smith, Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Jessie Wilcox Smith, Goldilocks and the Three Bears

Goldie

 She saw them go out,

Bumbling, mumbling, stumbling.

Took a gamble.

What it would be like

To live another life?

Not tall, blonde and angry,

But short, dark and─

Hungry.

For porridge, clawmarks and all

For marriage and children or none.

Honey, sugar, sweetie.

Satisfied.

Dawdle into the den

Crochet hook near the ladderback,

Fishbones under the rocker,

Jug of mead by the recliner.

Relaxed.

Clamber up scarred stairs,

Drifts of fur, scuffed treads

Past the clawfoot.

To the bedrooms.

Mothballs and cedar.

Futon, feather, trundle,

Bundle

of

dreams…

Exit, pursued by a bear.

©Priscilla Howe 2014

 

Comments? Which familiar stories would you like to see a poem about?

Story poems

I've got a new rabbit trail I'm following these days. I love that my work allows me to do this. I'm playing with story poems, leading to a residency with third through fifth graders (ages 8-10) that will take place this fall. What's a story poem? Exactly what you'd think, a poem that tells a story. Have I ever written a story poem? Not that I can remember. One of my goals, in preparation for this residency, is to write one narrative poem each week. I'll also be looking at advice on teaching poetry to kids, which I'll meld with my own teaching techniques, honed for the last 25+ years.

Here's the first one:  

 Little Red Riding Hood, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1

Little Red Riding Hood, by Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1

If Little Red Had Followed Her Intuition

Feet tap,
tappity tap

Down the street.

Crack, back,Wolf pack.

Wait.

There—By the wall.

Skinny, tall

Whiskers twitch.

Sharp teeth.

Pants sag.

White tee.

Dirty paws.

Nothing to do.

Nothing to be.

Nothing to lose.

"Nice hoodie!"

Look away.

"What's the matter?

Cat got your tongue?”

Head shake.

“I’m not the bad guy.

Just looking for fun.

”Run, run!

Fly, fly!

to the gate

to the steps

to the door

find the key

"Gran, it's me!"

Wham, slam

Safe.

©2014 Priscilla Howe

I'll keep you posted on how this project develops. Suggestions?

How many donkeys?

Many years ago, I translated stories I'd found about Nasruddin Hodja, the Turkish trickster, from Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Croatian and French sources. I've begun playing with these folktales again, reworking them for performance. My idea is to put one up here on the blog every now and then.  I've only done one all-Hodja show but I'm considering doing more. If you tell them, it would be great if you give credit.

This one is from Bulgaria, the home of Clever Peter (Khitur Petur), who is the wise fool of that country. I especially like the stories in which the two tricksters appear together. Because the Ottoman Empire ruled in Bulgaria for 500 years, it's understandable that Clever Peter always gets the better of Nasruddin Hodja.  I've heard this story in other versions; this one was retold by Angel Karaliichev. Here's my take on it:

How many donkeys?

The Hodja was taking his five donkeys to market. He counted them to make sure he had them all. Good, five. He got tired of walking and climbed up to ride on one. After a bit he counted them again. Only four! He must have lost one. He got off the one he was riding, looked on the side of the road, in the ditches, in the trees, then looked back and counted once 

more. Whew! Five. After a while, he got tired again and rode for a while. When he counted, he only found four again. He got down, looked around, counted and found all five. This happened over and over.

His friend Clever Peter came along. "Clever Peter, can you help me? I keep losing one of my donkeys. When I'm riding, I have four, when get down and look back, I have all five. Would you count my donkeys?" Clever Peter counted, "One, two, three, four, five...six! One of them has only two legs."