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  • Writer's pictureLoren Niemi

Where Are We Now?

My scattered friends and beloveds,


The long dark night of the winter solstice is upon us. 9:27 PM Central marks the arrival and to tell the truth, it also marks a moment to pause and catch my breath. Not that I have been doing so much as to be exhausted, but as I noted when I wrote my little piece for the American School of Storytelling’s Hearsay, we have done a lot more than we expected to do this year.

 

Here is that note with a bit more texture:

 

Coming to the end of 2023, the question of what has the American School of Storytelling done this year comes up. The answer is surprisingly much, including the finding and opening of our physical space at 1762 Hennepin to house in-person classes and performances. That fact – finding a space and opening it – marks a real shift in how the American School of Storytelling functions and my role in maintaining/expanding our capacity.

 

What began as a pandemic project is growing in scope and value, It is not simply that in my so-called retirement, I have not stopped teaching or producing storytelling events. I have not stopped performing though now touring and out of town performances are measured against what is on the School calendar. The fact is having a physical space adds a degree of “legitimacy” to the enterprise. Now that we are paying rent, I have been told that we have “skin in the game”. When we were primarily online it was easy to think of it as a “hobby” but having a place you can go to denotes (for many people) the seriousness of intent. It is a tangible location with a stage and someone has to open the door, sweep the floor, and shut off the lights at the end of the night. At this point, that someone is The Christine and myself.


The American School of Storytelling has offered 14 classes or workshops in 2023. Nine of them were online from an “Introduction to Storytelling” and “The Role of Storytelling in Community Building” to “Storytelling Summer Camp: Ghost Stories” and Regi Carpenter’s “From Memory to Memoir”. Our intention is to offer at least one online class every month, usually in a three or four session 90 minute format.


We also offered six in-person classes or workshops including the “Difficult Story Workshop” which I co-taught with Elizabeth Ellis in Atlanta, GA, a “Reading Poetry as Performance” workshop at the Briar in NE Minneapolis, a “Point of View” workshop at the Toronto International Storytelling Festival and three offerings in the 1762 space:  “Eulogies and Funeral Orations”, Bowen Lee’s “Environmental Stories”, and Debra Ting’s “Story Beads: Introduction to Storytelling”. Again, our intention is to offer at least one in person class or workshop every month, whether it is here in Minneapolis or around the country.

 

I should say that the “Eulogies and Funeral Orations” workshop was especially touching as it included a couple who created and offered such heartfelt eulogies for each other that everyone in the room was in tears. That moment is the beauty of being in the room and not on the screen. I am going to offer it again, but before I do, this spring (probably April) I am going to offer what I think of as its companion – a “Wedding Toasts and Roasts” workshop. This will fulfill a promise I made to the maintenance guy who asked if I could help him prepare a toast for his brother’s wedding.

 

I will also say that if you want a particular class or workshop, whether online or in person, let me know. As an example, I have just scheduled two days (March 23rd and 24th) in Duluth for the Lake Superior Writers to do companion workshops on “Plot” and “Point of View”. Make a weekend of it and head to the Zenith City to take one or both.


On the performance side we began the year with our ongoing residency at the Briar and produced seven events there including offering our tiny portable stage to Jules Nyquist and John Roche (visiting from New Mexico) to celebrate her award-winning poetry collection - “Atomic Paradise” and his two volumes of “Joe” poems. 


Then came the shift.

 

After two years of looking, we secured the 1762 Hennepin space in June, built the 8x8’ stage in July, had the official “First Night” launch August 18th and by Winter Solstice have presented 13 storytelling and poetry performances in that intimate 40 seat theater. This included two performances of Jim Stowell’s autobiographical “Rio Bravo/Rio Grande” stories of growing up in Texas. Jim will be doing two more performances – “October 1963” in March and stories from his years as a National Park ranger in May. Also Robin Bady, Pam Faro, and Bowen Lee “trod the boards”.

 

We partnered with Cracked Walnut / the League of MN Poets and initiated our 4th Monday of the month Poetry Open Mic series as a part of their October Poetry Festival. We also partnered with Story Arts of MN for the November national celebration of storytelling, "Tellabration!" and our 3rd Monday of the month Storytelling Open Mic. 

 

Those open mics are just that – unjudged, unscored, and welcoming of any style of orality at any level of experience. Intimate, informal, without the clatter of a bar in the background. First time on stage? Good on you. A seasoned pro testing new material? Yes, bring it on. At November’s Poetry Open Mic we had a girl scout troop came by for a little cultural exploration and after offering them a content warning, they heard original poems, Italian and English sonnets recited from memory, and when I asked if any of them wanted to step on stage, one of them read her own material off her phone.

 

BTW, if you are a poet or storyteller who will be coming to the Twin Cities and are interested in performing on our stage or doing a workshop, let me know when you’ll be here and we can see if we can get something on the schedule. Right now, in addition to Jim Stowell’s next two performances, we are going to offer a three performance series of ‘Not Your Mother’s Mahabharata with S.P. Jayaraj’ in February and March, a workshop and performance with Laura Simms in April and a workshop and performance with Megan Wells in May. Is it any wonder that I am pondering how much touring can I do as we ramp up the workshops and performances at the 1762 space?


On a personal level, I performed or conducted workshops every month here in the Twin Cities and around the country:

-       Tejas Storytelling Festival,

-       NEST’s “Sharing the Fire” conference where I did the “Erotic in Stories” workshop, which I am going to offer again at the 2024 National Storytelling Network conference in Seattle.

-       Stone Soup Storytelling Festival,

-       Toronto International Storytelling Festival where I did a heartfelt “Finding Gregory” as well as two library gigs. I owe a debt of gratitude to Dan Yashinski and Michelle Urbano for all they did to make that week both a pleasure and an adventure.

-       National Storytelling Festival’s “Exchange Place”

-       The Bemidji Story Slam where I managed to win 1st place in the presence of good local tellers.

 

This fall I did a corporate oral history project with the Jasper Group, an Indiana furniture manufacturer that holds the original 1872 patent for the roll top desk. That was a wonderful experience, as in interview after interview, the Jasper crew told one story after another about the company’s commitment to its people and the community it has been a part of for over 160 years. It stands in contrast to the stories of big firms buying out smaller ones and closing factories, sending small towns into economic distress.


On the literary side of the ledger, I finally managed to get “Circus Rex”, my novel of misadventure, humor and a happy ending, into the world after forty years of telling some of the stories of that particular circus tour and twenty years of writing nine versions to shape them into a coherent whole. I am proud of this book and grateful to Mike Sommers for the cover and Kevin Kling for helping me launch it. I am equally grateful to all those who have bought it, read it and sent me a note or wrote a review on Amazon to say how much. they have enjoyed the journey. In the requisite promotion statement, I will say that you can buy a signed copy of “Circus Rex” or any of my other books directly through the American School of Storytelling’s web site (https://amsstory.square.site)


The Christine, besides being my great partner in adventure, is the glue holding the American School of Storytelling’s space, website, and social media presence together. Besides doing all that, she found time for the Minnesota Northwoods Writers Conference in Bemidji, MN and after injuring her shoulder in a training accident still managed to ride the 500 mile, week-long ‘RAGBRAI’ bike trek across Iowa. My girl has grit.

 

If you’ve read this far you might be wondering where are the lyrical memories that I am prone to in these missives. Well, this is what it is now. Here in Minneapolis, winter is arrived but not the snow. Not even the cold. With climate collapse we are fast becoming Cincinnati. The politics of the moment is increasingly polarized (tribal / cult) without a bit of poetry but plenty of unintended irony on each side. As comforting as memory of what was might be, reality intrudes and the accounting for joy rests not in the past but the present.

 

In the present, I am between cataract surgeries. The first went well enough and my corrected right eye is dominate in a brighter world. The next surgery which will include a retina repair is scheduled for the new year. As I trudge from doctor to doctor doing the prep, they keep telling me that I am in good health "for a man my age". Yes, and I intend to stay so. It has taken me many years to find a balance between my few and carefully moderated vices and those things that promote those compliments.

 

As always, I am looking for more “work” at storytelling festivals, conferences, cabarets, author readings, teaching personal and organizational workshops. Consulting and coaching are part of the mix and affordably priced. As always, I am looking for a publisher to take on any of the three chapbooks, two short story collections, and a poetry manuscript follow-up to the “Breviary for the Lost”. If you are inclined to have me on your stage or working with you or your organization, do not hesitate to call or send me a note.

 

As always, at the turning of the season, I wish you all the best. May your health and vices be cherished. I like to say, be well, and by that, I mean not just physically, but emotionally, culturally, financially, and spiritually. As my late friend and mentor, Gregory used to say, “We live in the present with an attitude of gratitude.” And so I do and wish the the same to you on this first day of the fallow season.



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