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Voices Fall-Winter 2006:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Downstate column, “Of Clothespins and Cottonball Lambs” by Steve Zeitlin here.
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Voices FW2006


Volume 32

Of Clothespins and Cottonball Lambs by Steve Zeitlin

Downstate Hovie Burgess, a renowned juggler, once told me that when he teaches his New York University classes in circus arts, he has the students say their names and then balance a pole on their index fingers. From the way it teeters and tips on their hands, he can remember their names. For my class called Writing New York Stories in Cooper Union’s continuing education program, I’ve developed my own approach: a “list poem” in which each student writes lines beginning, “I am from . . . .” The poem that spawned this wonderful assignment is by Kentucky-born poet and children’s book writer George Ella Lyon. It begins, “I am from clothespins, / from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride. / I am from dirt under the back porch. . . / I’m from fudge and eyeglasses, / from Imogene and Alafair. / I’m from the know-it-alls and the pass-it-ons, from perk up and pipe down / I’m from He restoreth my soul with a cottonball lamb.” Exquisitely selected details and phrases reveal worlds about her rural family, their language, and their homespun religiosity.

In the assignment, my students, too, reveal their distinctiveness. Alicia Vasquez, from Brooklyn: “I am from ducking bullets by the bedroom window with Mom in 1974 . . . / I am from controlling the flow of fire hydrant water through a can of Chef Boyardee . . . / I am from waiting for Mr. Softee’s beautiful symphony / I am from getting beat up in the girl’s bathroom at Public School 221 when I was the only Spanish girl there.” From the suburbs, Caitlin Van Dusen: “I am early winter mornings waiting for the bus at the end of the long driveway in the dark, gusts from the heater vent and the rising, silvered world outside, the hiss and puff of my father’s pipe, curls of sweet smoke mixing with heated air, watching for the reliable yellow lights to round the bend.” The Jewish experience of Ellia Bisker: “I am from a Bar Bat Mitzvah every weekend and that awful naked feeling of chilly pantyhose at thirteen, inexpert makeup, braces for years and years before I was pretty.” And a rural experience from a teacher we worked with in Louisiana: “I am from the death scent of wild rabbit, dove, and quail in my father’s hunting vest.”

From Trinidad and Tobago, Tracylyn John- Howell: “I am di Bake and Saltfish, Crab and Dumplin, Calaloo and Pong Plantin / Coconut Jelly, Mango Chutney, and Tamarind balls all sold when the island have Boat Racin’.” Or from Daniel Firestone at Yeshivah of Flatbush High School: “I am from technology / the microprocessor as a gateway to life.” From Stacy Morrison’s fragile spirit: “I am from porcelain figurines . . . too close to the edge of the table.” The I Am Froms encapsulate family dramas. Richard Storm: “I am from my mother’s chatter and my father’s silence.” And Barbara Rothman ends hers; “I am from longing. I am from loving. I am from leaving.”

The I Am From poems encourage students to reveal elements of their cultural backgrounds and worldviews, inviting them not just to report on their traditions, but to evoke them in resonant details. But as my students write these pieces, I often think about the reluctance of folklore and folklorists to draw within our fold so many forms of creative expression. These poems, they might argue, are not ballads, folk songs, or proverbs, and they are not “artistic communication in small groups,” Dan Ben Amos’s 1960s definition of folklore. That’s why I prefer Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s broad definition of the field, which looks at folklore as the “aesthetics of everyday life.” Too often folklorists have imposed definitions that have led them to shun outsider art or prison art or visionary art as illegitimate folkloric expressions. Even cowboy poetry was slow to gain acceptance as a folk art.

These poems speak to the need for folklorists to recognize that personal expression is part of every individual even before communities and traditions, that beauty needs to be perceived and expressed before it can be shared, and that personal expression is as valid a subject of folklore study as traditional expression. These poems suggest how worldviews are captured in the details of our dailyness. The new interest in personal expression by folklorists such as Margaret Yocom, who recently founded a creative writing section of the American Folklore Society, acknowledges this and helps build bridges among folklorists, poets, and journalists. In much of our work folklorists are writers, and our work rises or falls on our ability to make the traditions we study come to life on the page or the screen—just as writers become folklorists as they seek to convey the cultural milieu in which their stories unfold.

I don’t usually do the in-class writing assignments along with my students, but one occasion, I found myself jotting down a few lines along with them. Not surprisingly, perhaps, given my role as a folklorist, mine was a particularly folkloric iteration of the poem, drawing together family expressions in my own and my wife Amanda’s families, a number of expressions I had collected in my folklore research, and a few lines that have become traditional in my own family from the films Willow and The Princess Bride: “I am from ‘Yo Sire’ / And ‘jumping off the fifteenth-story window for a breeze on a hot day’ / From ‘Tell Ma the boat floats’ / To ‘Too tired to tuck’ / From a long story tucked into a family expression / Where to sing the hundredth psalm means to fetch a glass of water / From the movies we internalized / The timing that puts us in sync / ‘You were expecting something a little more grand?’ / ‘Get used to disappointment’ / Conversations that move from prose towards poetry / From alliteration, rhythm, hyperbole / ‘Thank God for the guts and the gristle’ / ‘Putting on down to Gourda’ / ‘Gone, Garfield, gone’.”


Photo of Steve Zeitlin
Photo: Martha Cooper
Steve Zeitlin is the founding director of City Lore. George Ella Lyon’s poem, along with considerable background information, can be found on her web site, www.georgeellalyon.com.

These poems speak to the need for folklorists to recognize that personal expression is part of every individual even before communities and traditions, that beauty needs to be perceived and expressed before it can be shared, and that personal expression is as valid a subject of folklore study as traditional expression.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 32, Fall-Winter 2006. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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