STORYTELLING SOLSTICE: Porchlight’s (and my own) Family Secrets

Mon Dec 20 10, Verdi Club

(Evan Karp)

We are all searching for something more important than our own stories, something bigger and more interesting, uncanny, symbolic. Stories remind us of the universality we each contain in our bodies, how the details both define and transcend who we are and what we are part of.

My first experience with Porchlight Storytelling was the third installment of their Open Door series, in November of 09. I hadn’t even been in the city for six months yet and it was my first time meeting Beth and Arline. It was still a month before the first Quiet Lightning and I thought two things: 1. If I’m going to be running a reading series I better get comfortable in front of a roomful of people and 2. I am desperately poor and could use the $50 prize they offer for (audience-voted) best story.

So I told one. The ladies introduced me as a writer for The SF Examiner—you can watch our hilarious back-and-forth on this matter (but you have to watch this one too). I corrected them: I only wrote for, which wasn’t nearly as meaningful. Beth retorted that I had implied my association with the former in my email to her, saying “The Examiner,” which I did not and do not deny, though I think it curious.

The next time I made it back to Open Door was 7 months later, by which time I had written another 7 articles for The Chronicle, and was introduced as a writer therefore. The sound guy came up to me afterward and told me how proud he was of me; that he had seen the first introduction, and could tell how far I’d come. That felt really great. Wow, I thought. Yes. That’s what I’ve been feeling (growth). But perspective is such an appetite-whetter, and as proud as I was, talking to Arline and Jack Boulware (who had stepped in while Beth was in some other country doing something amazing), it was with far more pride that I accepted their offer to tell a story for the annual Holiday show.

It wasn’t until I went to my first traditional Porchlight—synchronously it was last year’s Holiday show—and read through the program did I develop a real hankering to be involved with Porchlight as one of the anointed tellers. Not for the act itself—I am still often completely nervous in front of a microphone—but for what the act signifies. Beth and Arline ask a full spectrum of people to tell their true stories; the tellers represent the many voices of our community. I wanted the honor to be a chosen representative, to be a part of something I valued. But of course I wanted to deserve it.

Timing seems to be my boon here. It’s so space-dependent. My timing was terrible in the Southeast; I was moving at all the wrong speeds. Here, however, things have consistently lined up. It’s uncanny that my first client here was astrologer/writer Rob Brezsny, to market his book Pronoia is the Antidote to Paranoia: How the Whole World is Conspiring to Shower You With Blessings. Right? This is how I’ve felt.

We had just celebrated one full year of Quiet Lightning on Nov 30. The next day the New York Times published their article highlighting the SF literary scene. I was quoted to support the efficacy of a social approach to literature, and the Times called this website one of the three go-to guides to the area. The New York Times linked to Quiet Lightning. That sentence seems so ridiculous to me, but there’s a reason for it (and maybe a really good one). What’s ridiculous is that in one year this thing created on a whim is fit to print. Three weeks later, Porchlight.

But my story wasn’t about what I’m doing here, or what’s going on in my life. “What’s the theme,” I asked, but not before I accepted their offer. “Family Secrets!” Oh no, I thought. What have I done?

When the piano started playing I was nervous, and everyone started clapping as Arline and Beth took the stage with their ebullient greetings. I couldn’t help but think the crowd was clapping for Santa Claus, who had just walked into the room. It was true. John Toomey took the stage and told the story of how he, a local institution, had been forced to retire.

Santa was followed by Tuneyards (moniker of Merril Garbus), who we did not film (Charles did me the favor of taping so I could relish my anxiety). Garbus was introduced as a recent opening act for Yoko Ono. She brought out a loop machine because she had more LIVE to offer than her body could do on its own. As I listened, I thought: It’s not a matter of namedropping / it’s testimony / it’s I’VE BEEN HERE straightfaced into the audience / my thing / to make of it what I will / I know you’ll give me at least attention and permission to be legitimate. Introductions are sometimes good, I mean. Earn your credits and then grow into them in as many ways as you can.

But Porchlight isn’t about accolades. This is just where these people are coming from. Claudia Holm, a professor at The Academy of Art, told a story about helping her unnamed family member remove a 3-inch candle from her anus. We met beforehand; we were nervous together and hugged.

Stephen DeZordo, who bartends at the Verdi Club, told Beth he was “finally ready” to tell a story. It turns out he invented one of the toys I cherished as a child (and maybe you did, too). It also turns out that our stories are shockingly congruent.

Merril Garbus was screaming “freedom that I’ve never understood” into the audience, her eyes closed. I saw Tara Jepsen, who I haven’t met yet but who has been a pillar of the literary community here for many years now, and I imagined people thanking her for everything she’s done. I guess, to be honest, I imagined myself thanking her … instead of thanking her (Thank you, Tara. Anxiety is such an easy excuse!). I imagined her response, too: “But what I do for the community is something I need to do for myself. I’m confused and a little embarrassed about people’s praise. This is just my need manifested.” And of course I had this conversation for my own sake; this, Litseen, Quiet Lightning—is my need manifested.

That’s what my story was about. Our needs are just products of where we are coming from. I was proud—although somewhat stunned—to be onstage at the Verdi Club representing the Karp name. In a very real way, my parents raised me for this moment. My 15 might have only been 10 minutes, but you get what I’m saying: it’s not often that a community asks you to present yourself and share your values. Isn’t that what storytelling reveals?

At every show you can put your name in a hat and during intermission the ladies pick one name and that person gets to tell a 3-minute story to start the second set. This was a man whose father was a judge and a crack addict, and who therefore learned that all things should be secrets, no matter what they are. “The other people will find out about us,” he says to his wife (even today). He tells her to cut it out when she tries to get personal, even when she’s being mundane. But he got onstage and told his story. He signed up for it. Why?

“She’d sing with her heart,” she said. “We’d eat the best Mexican food ever … And when that time ended it was time to go home, and we’d start to cry. And my relatives always thought, Well, it’s because they’re going to miss us. And really we were crying because we had to go home; we knew what we were going home to.” I was never beaten or abused in any way. But everyone knows this feeling. There are times when we don’t realize how lonely we are until we find ourselves in a place we probably wouldn’t otherwise go with people who we maybe don’t even know, not wanting to go home. The washing away of the individual by the uber-individual … the specifics of your story allow me a portal into my own.

Sandy Salas

“It’s time to make the silence speak.” The audience clapped for the accomplishment of telling the story—championing the raw undeniable pathos that comes from experience, making that more real, more resonant, by sharing it with others—putting the personal into the social sphere, where it can take on a different meaning.

Davyd Figler

What else do you want out of literature beyond the community that live storytelling creates? These performances are providing us a remedy for something much-needed, however vague. The depersonalization of maintaining, of forward-pushing, of the idea of life as a linear movement. Take us away and bring us back! Most romantics know that the best relief from a personal life is someone else’s.

Storytelling is something much-needed, granted; but what is our abundance? If it doesn’t have the community, the human narrative and shared history we all may use to move forward, what good is it? The answer is not “no.”

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the following sentence: “Poetry is what happens when narrative stops.” Poetry is a roomful of people clapping. Poetry is something I walk back into with my head down, humble.

Come see me do something different @ 2.o. It’s the opening of a new chapter to something that is happening right now. There are so many parts of me that are not yet story. I’d love to share them with you as they happen and get your take on what they mean.