Friday, March 30, 2012

What is this StorySlam stuff anyway?

My friend and fellow storyteller Andrew Panebianco convinced me to participate in the First Person Arts StorySlam back on March 12th. Despite suffering from an inconvenient and down-right evil headache that would last four days, I managed to construct and perform a story that netted me a ticket to the Grand Slam (as well as the Audience Favorite tag, something my ego quite enjoys). The Summer Grand Slam takes place at The Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets can be purchased here. I will be there, as will 9 other fantastic storytellers. It's a saturday night in May, so you have nothing better to do!

But what the heck are these Story Slams?


5 minutes + 1 true story inspired by the pre-determined topic + microphone + audience = Story Slam. 

There are three judges, randomly picked, who judge on content and performance. The entire audience gets to vote on their favorite storyteller of the evening. The judge's scores determine who gets to go to the Grand Slam, an event where the ten finalists get to compete for the title of Philadelphia's Best Storyteller.

The events take place at two different locations on an alternating basis: the World Cafe, over by UPenn, and Le'Etage a hip crepery/cabaret bar on Bainbridge (down by the fascinating putridity that is South Street).

But really, this is about 5 minutes + 1 true story + microphone + audience.

I'm not a non-fiction storyteller, in any professional sense. I started with fiction back in 2nd grade with a story called "My Trip to the Moon." It won the best story award, beating out everyone else in the 2nd grade classes. (I consider it my greatest achievement, since I also drew the pictures that went with the story.) I moved to poetry in HS, a natural move since I was full of anxiety and liked the way words sound. I returned to fiction in college, then went through a non-productive lull before earning an MFA in fiction as a last-ditch attempt to be a writer before I gave up and got a real job.

Still, telling stories is telling stories. In some ways it's harder to mold the truth into a story shape since life does not always offer beginnings, middles, and ends. Fiction lets you do all sorts of crazy things without concern. Nonfiction is flexible, but at the StorySlam events, there's an honor system. The stories being told are true. And it's a challenge to take the truth of my experience and shape it into a 5 minute story without violating that rule. Sure, the storytellers conflate, reduce, restructure, add dialogue, remove people. But no one is (or should be) telling fiction.

The topic on Tuesday was "Best Ever." Despite being full of all sorts of random stories, Andrew and I both found ourselves at a loss for stories that fit this topic. While walking from the train to L'Etage, though, we had a shared epiphany -- the topic was too good, too positive. We're not positive storytellers! We want to make people feel bad about the world and thus earn cheap emotional points! We want to tear people down, because it's really easy to bum people out. As that wise philosopher Homer Simpson said about the band Smashing Pumpkins: "Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel."*

[*EDIT: It might have been Bart or Lisa Simpson, actually. My memory for Simpsons quotes used to be better.]

To declare something the Best Ever was to affirm that the world had good things in it! At the very core of our being, we shuddered. Best Ever? The horror! The horror!

In addition, and perhaps less juvenile, the issue with the topic (for me) was that it kept pointing me to anecdotes not stories. And instead of putting my MFA and awesome storytelling brain to work, I kept retreating and declaring the topic to be crappy. Of course, the topic was just as good as any other -- it was meant to frame and inspire an evening's worth of stories and nothing more. All of the topics for the StorySlams are just suggestive enough to get people going. Duh.

So, we arrived at L'Etage with nothing.

Creperie Beaumonde is downstairs, L'Etage is upstairs. Either way, it's hip because it serves delicious crepes.
I had practiced my prior story 6 or 7 times; this time, I had spent the afternoon driving to and from work practicing stories that had no endings or, worse, no middles. But inspiration struck as I sat drinking one of the most normal tasting bar-sodas I've ever had (seriously, can bar soda be any worse? Only those of us who don't drink suffer from this issue, but it's an impotent issue). I'm not sure the soda had magic powers, but some alignment of the stars, the lighting, the soda, and Andrew's own anxieties about storytelling caused me to dredge up a story. A full-blown story -- beginning, middle, end. (Well, the end is a bit weak, but it feels enough like an ending.)

Left for a few moments to ponder the best ever things in my life and, after striking lines through sappy but truly best ever things like my son, my wife, my recent book deal, my dog, my sister, Radiohead concerts, etc. I realized I should just embrace my negativity and tell a story about how something that was supposed to be the Best Ever was in fact pretty mediocre and, thankfully, really weird.

I'm not a cynical jerk, I just can't change how I'm hardwired.

And at least we can all laugh together, right?

Enjoy my tale of the Best Ever Hotel that was not the best ever.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

My Victory at March 12th StorySlam 2012

This is a bit overdue, but I participated in the First Person Arts StorySlam in Philadelphia back on March 12. The topic was "Around the World," so I couldn't help but describe the time my first real job required that I go overseas to help train Filipino graphic designers in order to save my company money without affecting productivity. Ah, the global economy. Despite my reservations -- not just due to the fact that the trip occurred a few months after 9/11 -- I agreed to go. The experience changed my life, but also confirmed that my ethics were not well defined or, even, strong enough to guide my decisions.

Enjoy this slightly NSFW video of my performance, which earned FIRST PLACE and got me a spot at the GRAND SLAM, which occurs on May 19th at the Annenberg Center.

NOTE: longtime, observant fans will note that a heavily fictionalized version of this experienced appeared in part of my short story "When You Know You're From Somewhere Else" in StoryQuarterly back in 2009

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Springsteen, Women, and why artists are always looking in from outside

Here's a blog post responding to a blog post about a blog post. I love the internet!

Monica D'Antonio over at X Rated has an excellent essay about Bruce Springsteen's song presentations of men and women. Read it as well as the original article by Rebecca Bohanan ("The Only Three Women in Bruce Springsteen's Music"), which sparked Monica's analytical fury.

Then, because you have an hour of your life reading 3 articles about Bruce Springsteen, consider my additional thoughts here (with very inadequate summaries of Bohanan and D'Antonio):

Rebecca Bohanan acknowledges that Springsteen's a man and is thus entitled to write about men; but she accuses him of stereotyping females as saviors, objects, and/or goals. She cites lyrics (many of which are from 70s/early80s). She says she's a huge fan of his music, but that he's writing about a male type that's 50-60 outdated; and his women are barely present.

Monica's analysis (why didn't you read it, fool?) does an excellent job of citing lyrics to contend that Springsteen has plenty of male-female relationships that are about friendship; she also points out that the damaged men are often unhappy regardless of what the women do, which I'd like to expand upon a bit.

With music and poetry, people often fall into the trap of equating narrators with the authors. Some singers/poets invite that merging; others exploit that mistake.

I contend that Springsteen is not even writing from HIS perspective in most of his songs (especially once he achieves commercial success -- you think he's really knocking girls up, robbing banks, working at factories, etc after BORN IN THE USA?)

I reiterate, first, that the artist always views the world from the outside. Thus, they are from the world but disconnected. That disconnection comes before the artwork can flourish. The art is as much an escape as getting into a car and driving to a new town (and then writing songs about the old town). But there is a difference between the man who yearns of a chance to drive away from his burdens and sadness and the artist, who truly escapes but still suffers -- as the Marxists of the Harlem Renaissance learned, the working class doesn't have time to write stories and poems and songs about their own plight if they are working 12 hours a day. The artist is privileged in that they have opportunity to create, power to create, or the will to sacrifice time to create. This does not make the artist a better human being than a man or woman who works, raises kids, etc; this simply makes the artist an artist. The artist chooses the nontraditional path -- the chance to communicate something, but still suffer.

Remember: the artist is always outside looking in.

Springsteen, an artist writing from the outside of a world he knew first hand, is writing about a perspective that still exists, despite what Bohanan wants to admit. The alienated male stuck in ideas/communities does seem socially and politically 50-60 years out of date, but one cannot wish it away. It still exists. Nor can you fault the artist for shining light on it, unless they seem to be celebrating the suffering or championing the old ideas. Springsteen is not championing the class struggles of the men he sings about; at worst he's not writing songs about the class struggles of women. But is that really worth criticizing him for? (Consider: would he be able to satisfyingly represent the female perspective? maybe. Or, more interestingly, would Bohanan critique a singer who sings about the pain of racial divides? Even better, why isn't she critiquing Bruce for focusing on white men?)

According to Bohanan, these songs miss the opportunity to champion her ideology that men and women can achieve both happiness and equal power in relationships. I happen to agree with that ideology. But -- and this is what irritates me about her article -- not all men and women think that way! Springsteen is singing about the men that don't think that way; or, more accurately, he's singing about the men who are discovering that they don't think that way, but don't know how else to act!

Springsteen sings about these men and women and, while he champions their ability to survive, he never cheers the culture that allows their situations to exist! (As Monica points out, Springsteen doesn't seem to think their outdated/traditional perspectives will lead to any type of happiness.) It's a career-spanning critique: the struggle of men raised to accept traditional gender roles, struggling in near poverty (and worse). And maybe he's a Romantic, but Springsteen seems to think that Love (yes, with a capital L) still exists and can make the pain bearable.

It's here that I'm reminded of a quote from James Baldwin's story "Sonny's Blues," where the narrator confronts his brother Sonny about his (Sonny's) heroin addiction. They begin to talk about what's really important to them -- the nature of surviving in post-War Harlem when drugs and music offer a way out for guys like Sonny who cannot achieve middle class success/happiness.

"But there's no way NOT to suffer, is there Sonny?"
"No. There's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem--well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you're suffering for it. [...N]obody just takes it!"

Springsteen's men use love the same way Sonny uses jazz and heroin -- they still suffer, but they feel like they're doing something if they don't suffer alone. In the climax of James Baldwin's classic story, the narrator watches his sober brother play piano with 2 of his friends and the connection amongst the musicians is foreign (to the narrator) but beautiful. It's the thing that will keep Sonny alive, even if he suffers. Springsteen is talking about the same thing, as far as I'm concerned. Love, even if it can't cure suffering, makes suffering bearable. Love makes the working class man, who's brought up with the traditional male gender role of silent suffering provider, feel less alone.

Bohanan basically comes across as an elitist citing sexism when she misses that Springsteen is a class critic.

Does Springsteen focus on the way class destroys men more than women? Yes. Are there female artists who focus on the way class destroys women? Yes. Do we need one artist to do both? No. Bohanan would have done better to find the complimentary artist that highlights the struggle of working class women, instead of blaming Springsteen for doing something he clearly hasn't been trying to do!