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Apologia Pro Vita Sua, with Footnotes *

by Matthew-Daniel Stremba

I've tried, God knows. I've even glimpsed the rich possibilities inherent in folktale materials. And I diligently sought out collections of East Slavic folktales. First acquisitions were American editions for children. ** Later, I bought Soviet translations in rather wooden English. Then I found versions in Russian and Ukrainian. Some of these are an ethnographer's transcriptions of oral sources. It was one such, a Soviet edition of tales taken from folks in the Pokuttya region of western Ukraine, that focused my attention, brought me to the verge of making definitive storytelling plans. ***

Oh, those folks in Pokuttya. In several stories a band of thieves takes pleasure in committing horrible things, then, finally they get their just deserts at the hands of a peasant youth. In others there are Baba Yaha crones plotting to nab lads and lasses — yummy ingredients for a gourmet supper the old witch is always intent on making in kettles and an oven big enough to accommodate her captives. But in and among the gory details of, say, the young hero's methods in outfoxing some Baba Yaha or overcoming a gang of bandits — in that edition I found ellipses galore.

You know, that row of dots signifying something's missing? Here an ellipsis .... there another .... and later .... and again .... Plus a bracketed editorial comment to the effect that civilized decency prevents printing this detail or that action or certain words from the mouths of the Pokuttya folks. The old issue of expurgating "the good parts"?

Wow. Now, what I could do, I figured, would be to locate all that non-PG material and have fun putting all of it out in front for everyone to see. Or I could be creative and fill in the gaps myself. The first option required a PhD-motivated researcher. The other alternative appealed to the storyteller. I have several script-drafts reflecting work according to this second alternative. But enthusiasm for the assignment didn't last long. Because I remembered the successful folktale work of Jackie Torrance and Robin Williamson.

Robin Williamson, not to be confused with Robin Williams, is a Scot, who for a large part of his career performed in something called The Incredible String Band. Yes, he's a musician, too. When I saw him years ago working solo in Jonesboro, Tennessee, he told his tales to the accompaniment of a Celtic harp, which, unlike those concert-stage stringed pieces of furniture, can sit on your knee easier than a kid on Santa's. And his stories featured monsters and heroes that only Gaelic-speaking folks know about, and knights and kings, and Ireland's "steely-eyed Saint Patrick." Nothing sappy about the folktales he told. I actually came away convinced a Celtic voice (Scot or Irish) could transform the dullest material into a masterwork of hilarity, a meandering story into a songful saga.

Jackie Torrance, a large woman when I last saw her, is an African-American born and bred in the South, and she can captivate you with the fun that captivates her when she calls up something from her folktale repertoire. Nothing sappy in her storying, either. For their artistic success, neither she nor Williamson needed to restore expurgated parts. Well, if I couldn't have a Celtic voice to hammer out a tale's best inflections, I could regret not being blessed with an African soul, which would certainly have been a great anvil for reshaping old things into ringing pieces.

The truth is, I just can't ever get anywhere near to what Torrance and Williamson find possible with folk materials. My best solo efforts were dense, visibly contrived, basically joyless. What did I expect? Lord, just reading through the folktale supply is a pain. Only occasionally will that kind of story raise up some mild interest — the Pokuttya collection — and that in part only. A disturbing reflection. After all, isn't storytelling and folklore all the same show?

The only success I have found in working a folktale is when it's somehow choral and widely participatory. In short, I need a working audience — actually a small audience — willing to help get the story told, generously taking direction, giving their all to doing scripted stuff on cue, and wanting communal fun. And such groups are few. I cannot work a folktale solo. Don't want to.

And, forgive me my bluntness, I can barely bear sitting through someone else's folktale solo, unless it's someone with the presence of Torrance, or Williamson, or — I almost forgot, all these years later — Doug Lipman doing Hasidic tales. If I couldn't be a Celt, couldn't be an African-American, well, why not a Jew, which would've given me a natural ear for all their marvelous story-stock. And that's when I decided to try embracing all the East Slavic folk stuff that was my birthright. And what did I find? That it just doesn't come naturally.

What's a storyteller whose forefathers and foremothers told tales and sang songs in hard-scrabble Rusyn villages on both sides of the Carpathian mountains, whose church community widened the folk heritage to include the songs and stories of greater Ukraine — what's he do when, without thinking about it, he's grown into a secular and urbanized American and, now thinking about it, finds he can't do the folk stuff as if it were natural, can't make it his? For material this poor soul looks elsewhere — why, he looks to his own city, to its other side. There, oddly, he feels at home. **** God help him.

Matthew-Daniel Stremba

1 February 2004


* Footnotes

I love footnotes. And footnotes should be footnotes, that is at the foot of the page, not in the back somewhere challenging a reader's eye-hand motor skills. Unfortunately, an HTML page is no page at all, so the footnotes here may as well be simply at the back of the book.

** American editions of East Slavic folktales.

Many "authors" of these books, which are basically reworkings of very old public pieces, have Englished for children foreign treasures with just enough individual artistry that the publishing establishment manages to mislead not a few into believing the copyrights protect these translations against even the most derivative uses any English-speaking storyteller might make in preparing a program. It's only a copyright infringement, ladies and gents, if you memorize the translated text. But who would do that?

*** Books shelved by subject

When a good number of your books are in Russian or Ukrainian there's a real problem in organizing them by category along with your American editions. Why? The way the vertically displayed book title is stamped onto the spine by Soviet publishing houses is — and it almost seems spiteful — is opposite to the way American titles appear on the spine. Of course, you soon discover it was no Cold War provocation, but rather a continental norm the Sovs and now the Russians complied with. We, however, follow the British custom. The pain of it is this: you're running your eyes over your shelves, say, the folktales section, and naturally you are inclining your head to the right to do this, until you get to your Russian or Ukrainian titles; then you've got to yank your head over to the left shoulder. Now, there's a logic to both norms, but it's maddening when the two logics collide among your books, jerking your head this way, that way. Your only solution for having the spines all reading in the same direction entails having one linguistic group standing upside-down, an indignity to any book.

**** An Afterword.

If you're curious about some untold-till-now old Baltimore stories that I found through the Great Fire gateway, treat yourself to TOD HALL AT CITY HALL and LADIES IN BLACK, LETTERS IN BLUE and HARRY & BLANCHE and LUNCH WITH EDGAR ALLAN POE.

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