Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
Whew! That is a lot, packed into that sentence! Let me start here:
The Telling Room is a Portland non-profit that encourages kids to write, mostly by writing their own stories. They get a lot of local writers to lead workshops year round, and hold lots of exhibits and special projects and publishes anthologies of student work aimed at getting kids to tell and write stories. One series I remember was about “Play.” I have the anthology! Another, “I Remember Warm Rain,” was an evening of storytelling by kids who described their experience in coming to America and living in Portland! Portland, even though it is a very whitebread New England place, has a fairly large (1000 in a population of 60,000) Somali community, and a strong Fur community from Sudan as well (including the Aserela Youth Choir under Alfred Jacobs who sing in Acholi), and a group of 15 kids told their stories, how they ended up in Maine from all kinds of places! It was very moving! The Telling Room is an excellent program! They just had Ann Beattie in to talk to high school kids!
So they sponsor SLANT, a storytelling series, about once a season, this was the sixth session! SLANT is named for the Emily Dickinson poem quoted above, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (and yes, like most of her poems, it can be sung to “The Yellow Rose of Texas”).
There were only four storytellers in this session so they could take longer with their stories! The idea was to tell about a moment in your life that changed everything at that time, recognizing that most people have many such moments.
The first was a woman who told about the moment she knew her husband did not love her! That is so sad! (Do not worry, they are not all sad) Her husband had taken photographs at an event and there were only slivers of her in it, a piece of her arm or her hand, but no photos of her, and she realized that is how she was in his life, she was not something he wanted to see! The problem is she went on and on about her early life as a fashion model jetsetting around and it was kind of hard to have a lot of sympathy for her, though her point was she married the wrong man just to get married, I guess. But I liked the way she said there were only slivers of her (that was her exact phrase) in the photographs!
Another storyteller was Maxwell Chikuta, a local Portlander who came here from The Congo as a young man. He had been orphaned in the war and his grandfather went looking for him in The Congo and got him to the US where he lived in a shelter, went to Portland Adult Ed to learn to speak English better, got his GED, then went to a local community college to study HVAC, then got his B.S. in Industrial Management at USM, then got his Master’s in Public Policy at USM and now work with the United Way and Maine Medical Center! That is a pretty dramatic story! All in a little over 10 years!
Then there was the former Orthodox Yeshiva boy from Georgia who decided maybe cheeseburgers were not a sin and ended up a lawyer in New York partying his ass off, and at age 26 a routine company physical found he tested HIV-Positive! Of course he decided it was punishment from God which he had been expecting all along, though he thought it would come in the form of choking on shrimp! He called his father, who was completely supportive and said he would move to New York to help him if he needed it, any time! That is so sweet! He said they had this long conversation where he admitted all the sex and drugs and it was a conversation he never expected to have with his father so he was surprised at how well it went! Then the doctor called and said there had been a mistake, the lab had messed up and the follow-up test was negative, and he was not HIV-positive after all! He told us he was standing on a certain corner in New York by a store with a sidewalk fruit stand and he collapsed into the fruit, and of course the store owner just thought he was another crazy New York person and asked him to please get out of his fruit!
The last storyteller was Cheryl Della Pietra, a journalist and writer who, in 1992 at age 22 worked for Hunter S. Thompson as his assistant. She wrote of her experience in POV Magazine in 1998 (it is reprinted here in SMITH Magazine) and says that HST called her father (because he could not locate her?) at 3am to tell him he liked the article.
All in all, the session was a little like a 12-step meeting minus the round of “Hello”s and the chips. I can see this being terrific for kids, especially “reluctant writers” like the Telling Room specializes in, but with adults it got old pretty quick even though each story was interesting! I am not sure I would go again, but maybe, depending on the focus. Still, I am a big fan of The Telling Room and their programs, as well as the SPACE gallery, which holds all kinds of fun events from a toy train exhibit to movies to the Steve Almond reading I went to a few months ago!