Storyteller weaves tales at Poetry Center

By Kelsey Block

robin

Michigan storyteller, musician and educator Robin Nott visited the RCAH Center for Poetry last week as the first guest of the 2014 Fall Writing Series.

The 64-year-old said he first became interested in storytelling as a child at camp, but didn’t explore it in depth until he saw Storyteller Donald Davis speak at Ferris State University in 1981. From there, Nott said he combined his love for folk singing with storytelling.

“For me, music fits in as a part of the common cannon of our heritage. The story of our tradition is as musical as it is story-like … To me, they’re equal in appeal and age,” Nott said.  “All communication is negotiation, and oral tradition is the first negotiation … It’s really fundamental to our existence. Our lives are narratives… People sometimes perceive story as purely entertainment, when actually it’s fundamental communication.”

Nott teaches oral tradition at Gull Lake Community Schools in southwest Michigan. Many of his lessons and workshops incorporate movement as well as music and storytelling.

RCAH students Josh Schriver and Elsa Finch follow Nott's instructions during a workshop in RCAH professor Estrella Torrez's civic engagement class.

RCAH students Josh Schriver and Elsa Finch follow Nott’s instructions during a workshop in RCAH professor Estrella Torrez’s civic engagement class.

“When I educate on a daily basis in public schools, I educate utilizing the whole person, and I make sure that all of their domains of learning are covered – the sensory as well as the intellectual,” Nott said.  “The body is a huge learning device, and a mistake a lot of people make in education is that they view the body as only something to carry the head around from class to class. The body is a very powerful stimulator for learning. It fires people up to move, to touch each other, to express with their whole body. It really activates their depth and range of learning.” 

Also prominent in Nott’s work is a sense of place.

“It’s about me being able to invite you to a place so that you’ll join me there, and proceed to also involve you in what happens there and who’s there, so a sense of place is huge,” Nott said, adding that the listener is just as important as the story itself.

“It’s a two-party system. You’ve heard ‘if a tree falls in the forest’? It’s very similar. If a story is told in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it, is it really a story? In one sense, it is, because of the need for the person to tell that story, but in another sense, it isn’t, because nobody heard the story,” he said.  

Nott said one of the biggest challenges storytellers face today is our increasing reliance on technology.

“Oral storytelling has a lot to do with people getting back to evaluating their story and realizing its significance,” he said.

Poem of the Week: “The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

The Waking
By Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

Poetry Potluck: Baked Pumpkin Oatmeal

Food and poetry have long been a perfect pairing. In this reblog of a section in our newsletter, we share a recipe and poem duo to feed all the senses. To submit your own pairing, e-mail cpoetry@msu.edu with the subject line “Poetry Potluck Submission” and include the recipe, poem, and a brief introduction as to why they are meaningful to you. This week’s pair is brought to you by Center for Poetry Assistant Director Linnea Jimison.

I love pumpkin, and I started making this recipe with a college roommate who had a gluten allergy. It’s easy, delicious, and great leftover. (I love it as a midnight snack as much as I do fresh out of the oven in the morning.) I tend to accompany it with coffee, which is why I chose Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “My Uncle’s Favorite Coffee Shop.” The image of a hot cup of coffee ordered at the local greasy spoon becomes the focal point for a meditation on family, home, and memory, all things that we tend to think about at this time of the year.

- Linnea

Baked Pumpkin Oatmeal
2 cups rolled (old-fashioned) oats
2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice or cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
1½ cups milk
½ 15. oz can pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup maple syrup or honey
1/3 cup dark or white chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°F. Spray an 8×8” pan or small casserole dish with nonstick cooking spray. Combine all ingredients and pour into pan. Bake for 28-30 minutes; oatmeal will be slightly moist in the middle. Variations: substitute dried fruit or toasted nuts for the chocolate chips; replace milk with apple cider.

Adapted from a recipe by The Oatmeal Artist

“My Uncle’s Favorite Coffee Shop”
By Naomi Shihab Nye

Serum of steam rising from the cup,
what comfort to be known personally by Barbara,
her perfect pouring hand and starched ascot,
known as the two easy eggs and the single pancake,
without saying.
What pleasure for an immigrant—
anything without saying.

My uncle slid into his booth.
I cannot tell you—how I love this place.
He drained the water glass, noisily clinking his ice.
My uncle hailed from an iceless region.
He had definite ideas about water drinking.
I cannot tell you—all the time. But then he’d try.

My uncle wore a white shirt every day of his life.
He raised his hand against the roaring ocean
and the television full of lies.
He shook his head back and forth
from one country to the other
and his ticket grew longer.
Immigrants had double and nothing all at once.
Immigrants drove the taxis, sold the beer and Cokes.
When he found one note that rang true,
he sang it over and over inside.
Coffee, honey.
His eyes roamed the couples at other booths,
their loose banter and casual clothes.
But he never became them.

Uncle who finally left in a bravado moment
after 23 years, to live in the old country forever,
to stay and never come back,
maybe it would be peaceful now,
maybe for one minute,
I cannot tell you—how my heart has settled at last.
But he followed us to the sidewalk
saying, Take care, Take care,
as if he could not stand to leave us.

I cannot tell—

how we felt
to learn that the week he arrived,
he died. Or how it is now,
driving his parched streets,
feeling the booth beneath us as we order,
oh, anything, because if we don’t,
nothing will come.

Via Poetry Foundation

Poem of the Week: “Blood” by Naomi Shihab Nye

Blood
BY NAOMI SHIHAB NYE

“A true Arab knows how to catch a fly in his hands,”
my father would say. And he’d prove it,
cupping the buzzer instantly
while the host with the swatter stared.

In the spring our palms peeled like snakes.
True Arabs believed watermelon could heal fifty ways.
I changed these to fit the occasion.

Years before, a girl knocked,
wanted to see the Arab.
I said we didn’t have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
“Shihab”—“shooting star”—
a good name, borrowed from the sky.
Once I said, “When we die, we give it back?”
He said that’s what a true Arab would say.

Today the headlines clot in my blood.
A little Palestinian dangles a truck on the front page.
Homeless fig, this tragedy with a terrible root
is too big for us. What flag can we wave?
I wave the flag of stone and seed,
table mat stitched in blue.

I call my father, we talk around the news.
It is too much for him,
neither of his two languages can reach it.
I drive into the country to find sheep, cows,
to plead with the air:
Who calls anyone civilized?
Where can the crying heart graze?
What does a true Arab do now?

Poem of the Week: “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” by Billy Collins

Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes
BY BILLY COLLINS

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer’s dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women’s undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

10 Great Quotations about Poetry for National Poetry Day

Originally posted on Interesting Literature:

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. – Emily Dickinson

The first man to compare the cheeks of a young woman to a rose was obviously a poet; the first to repeat it was possibly an idiot. – Salvador Dali

A poem begins with a lump in the throat. – Robert Frost

It is a part of the poet’s work to show each man what he sees but does not know he sees. – Edith Sitwell

To find beauty in ugliness is the province of the poet. – Thomas Hardy

Poe2

There is no money in poetry, but then there is no poetry in money, either. – Robert Graves

A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms to be struck by lightning 5 or 6 times. –

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