“Tell Me a Story” Rafe Martin makes magic with ‘sounds on air’, by Joseph Sorrentino
City Newspaper, October 15–21, 2003
Rafe Martin creates entire worlds out of simple words, or, as he puts it, “sounds on air.” He’s not one to run around on stage during his storytelling performances, preferring to simply sit or stand in one place, using gestures or a change in tone to plant his audience—of children and adults—firmly in a different time and place. In the midst of a crowded auditorium, he makes you feel as though he’s telling the story directly to you.
Although his published work, which now includes 19 books, is based on native and traditional tales, he brings a freshness to the stories that enables them to speak to us today. Last winter, after a benefit performance Martin held for the Cobblestone School, I came away feeling like this is what people are supposed to do on cold winter nights: We’re supposed to get together and listen to stories.
Martin’s the kind of guy you want to spend time with. I first got to know his work years ago when he told stories at the Rochester Zen Center, where he’s been a member for 30 years. Our occasional meetings at the Zen Center grew into regular get-togethers at the Rochester home he shares with his wife, Rose. We’d meet in his office, which looked pretty much how you’d expect a writer’s office to look: books everywhere (at least a few of them organized in some way), manuscripts in various stages of completion, a computer. But there are also small animal figures, Buddhist images, eagle feathers, and, more recently, photographs of Martin with his beloved motorcycle.
Martin and I recently spent time talking about the role of the storyteller --- today and in traditional cultures --- and how he has approached storytelling throughout his 20-year career. What follows is a distillation of those conversations.
City: When I first met you and got to know your work, it was as “Rafe Martin, Storyteller.” But you’re really both a storyteller and writer. Which came first?
Martin: Actually I was a writer first, but then I kind of lost touch with it. It wasn’t until I had children that I began to get into children’s literature. I was looking for books for them and eventually I find things and I go, “Wow! This is really interesting stuff.” I began to realize in reading aloud to them that what had been missing for me had been voice. I had forgotten that stories are transmitted with voice. It was like rediscovering this missing world, like a hidden door to a hidden room was opened and I began to get a sense that the telling of stories was really how they were passed on, and the power lay in finding voice and sharing stories.
City: A lot of people think children’s literature is really, well, kids’ stuff.
Martin: Children’s literature isn’t “kiddy.” It’s really about universal structures of the imagination. And in children’s literature you can go directly to the myth; to imagination. I think the highest point of language is to get us to experience a sense of wonder. And what we call children’s literature is one of the real refuges for that mature inner state. Wonder is not childish. It’s a very mature condition to live through the bitterness of experience and to come out in a state of wonder, which mythic traditions tend to emphasize over and over. We think of traditional peoples as primitive, but this is a very serious mistake because they’re dealing with states of awareness and imagination that are very mature. Children’s literature and traditional tales are really records of wonder, which are not childish at all. Children have access to it but adults often don’t.
City: What’s the difference between the story you’ve written down and the story you’re telling?
Martin: When you’re telling a story it’s like you’re always in the process of rewriting, which is really neat. You’ll never come down to a final text. That story will continue to grow and change until you die. You’re changing it and it’s changing you, it’s a mutual relationship. Native peoples think of stories as living things, not a bunch of words on a page or thoughts in a person’s mind; they’re a living being and you kind of experience some of that when you’re telling a story.
City: Almost all of your work is rooted in traditional tales. Why is that?
Martin: I think it’s because they deal with fundamental configurations of the psyche. They’re not just about a particular time and place. They’ve been worn down to the nub over thousands of years of being told and shared and moved from culture to culture. So what we’re left with is the absolute core structures of the imagination. In traditional tales, it’s not so much about the minds of the individual characters but the experience in ourselves. They’ll be relevant no matter what the time is.
City: How can they still be relevant today?
Martin: You’re dealing with issues every human being deals with, like impermanence and dignity in the face of the degradations of time. How do our actions affect ourselves and our communities? What is walking down the right road going to look like? And what is walking down the wrong road going to look like? This is all stuff we all know and we forget. We forget what makes life dignified and meaningful, and I think these old stories speak exactly to those questions that every person is born with. I’ve told the "Rough Face Girl," which is an Algonquin Cinderella tale, to inner city kids and in the beginning they had their arms crossed and were staring me down. In the end they were wiping tears from their eyes.
City: How long do you think these stories have been around?
Martin: I have a feeling that these patterns are as old as the human race. And that if you go back to Lascaux --- the cave paintings --- what we’re seeing there are not just images but stories, and if we knew those stories, they’d ring familiar. I think we’d have narratives that would be oddly familiar.
City: And what would those narratives be?
Martin: I think they’d address: Where are we? Who are we? Where did we come from? What’s our purpose? Why are we born? Why do we die? I think there’s something very mysterious going on in narrative. In any story, you’re dealing with a beginning, middle, and end, and somehow the patterning of the story makes sense. When you started out, you didn’t know what was going to make sense. But when it’s done, it makes sense. It’s a model of our hope for life. Somehow, narrative is a statement of immense faith that in the end, the human story will make sense and each individual life story will make sense.
City: Are there any modern equivalents to these stories?
Martin: I have my doubts, which is why I’m drawn to traditional tales. They’ve worked for thousands of years. It puts a kind of food in the psyche that no other kind of story can. It’s like a vitamin for the imagination, a building block. These stories tend to be about actions and consequences, thoughts and consequences. So if a child grows up with stories, and they’ve created those places and people in their own psyches, they know what good and evil are. So when they have choices in their life, they can actualize that territory and say, "This looks like that road and do I want to go down it?" If you don’t grow up with those kinds of stories, then there’s a missing place in the imagination, and we’re always unsettled.
City: So why this need for spoken stories? Why not just read them?
Martin: First of all, spoken words are a realm of power. When you’re telling stories, you’re entering a realm of power, of life and vitality. Most of our communication is really not in words, but in tonal and gestural language that surrounds the words. Every telling of a story is in some ways the repetition of some ritual or ritualized awareness. Traditional tales deal with community. They always deal in the end with casting out selfishness, ill-humor, greed, cowardice... And they always seem to uphold courage, perseverance, good humor, and a kind of respect for living things. At the very least, the selfish and greedy get tossed out of the story.
City: One role of the storyteller is to bring people together.
Martin: Listening to a story is a communal act. When you think of the role of the storyteller in our culture, one responsibility is to keep a gateway open to the imagination. I think we’re hard-wired to respond to live images in a very profound way. Traditional storytelling used to go on all day and night. It wasn’t for children. Children were allowed in, but it was really a way to restore the values of the community. Imagine living with a certain group of people, depending of the land, and you’re all hearing the story brought to life in told form. Instead of getting it in someone else’s images, you’re all seeing it together, and you need each other to be there to make it happen. You’re each creating your own images in your own mind, which is a very mysterious thing. Storytelling is a realm where old and young, inner and outer, communal and individual, these worlds all intersect.
City: It seems that people feel safe when listening to a story in a group.
Martin: There’s a magic circle --- magic in the sense of a ceremony --- where you’re in a protected space. You can see the patterns without fear of what’s going to happen. You see the good and evil unfolding, and in a good story it’s somehow held in balance. I think stories give us access to our fullness as people. The good and evil characters are all going to be ourselves and our own possibilities. A story gives you a shape and a path to hold the good and evil in yourself in balance. Art is providing a protected environment that if you explored them in actual life, it’d be too dangerous or risky. It allows us to play those possibilities in the mind and see where they lead, and we come out knowing why we need to be decent people.
City: Traditional tales differ from the usual fiction because you try to take people out of their everyday experiences.
Martin: Right. It’s not the world of bills, cars, or buildings. You’re coming to an open place in the psyche, first of all. And second, they’re simple states; not simplistic, but archetypal. In a way our minds have become so intellectually complex that it’s harder to access these simple states except in times of extremity in our lives. Remember, these old tales are meant to be told over and over. You don’t claim to understand them, because new things and new levels always appear.
City: Many of the stories you tell and write take place in this region.
Martin: You live in a place long enough, things begin to speak to you. I think some of the most mysterious, beautiful stories come from Rochester. They’re Seneca tales. And no one seems to know them. No one who isn’t Seneca, anyway. I felt like it was a responsibility to give something back to the imagination of the place I live. It’s like spiritual ecology. You give something back. I felt I should know Seneca stories if I live here. And if I know them, I should share them. I was fortunate to be invited to tell stories at Ganondagan and part of that request was to tell a Seneca story in the longhouse there. Peter Jemison at Ganondagan supports what I do, and I’m honored by that. I think Native stories are important because children growing up in this place don’t even know their own stories; those of the Americas. Also, Native stories remind us that all living things are connected. It’s very important to know the stories that came from these hills, these rivers, these trees. These stories allow us to dream ourselves back into very old places in the psyche, places we’re cut off from today. There’s a healing power in them.
City: Have you had any problems with Native groups thinking you don’t have a right to tell these stories?
Martin: No, not really. I’ve actually had a lot of support. The stories I may tell from other cultures aren’t stories I’ve taken from another storyteller. They’re not so much retellings as recreations based on stories published long ago which I found and was moved by, but came to feel hadn’t yet brought the potential in the story fully to life. At least not for our time. I think if you respect the story and you love the story and you’ve researched it, then you should tell it; especially if you’re working with children. One of the reasons I was originally invited to tell stories at Zuni Pueblo [in New Mexico] --- and I’ve been back for 10 years running --- was because they liked my books and the way I handled the story.
All I can do is tell the story with the most respect I can. I try to live with a story for years before I tell it. In part, I think of the tradition of Zen practice. That was part of the Zen tradition: to take things from the culture and find another level in it. Old Zen guys used to tell folk tales and songs and turn them into something else. Some koans are drawn from old tales.
City: You’ve been a Zen practitioner for something like 30 years. How has that affected your work?
Martin: I don’t think I could have become a storyteller or the kind of writer I am today without Zen practice. Not because it taught me anything specific, but because it took away so much else and I realized that was all I had left: storytelling.
City: Beyond that, are there any similarities between the teaching of Zen and storytelling?
Martin: The teaching is oral. I think that Zen is a part of the old ways. It’s essentially an apprenticeship program to spiritual life. With traditional tales, you’re hitting places in yourself that are really about you as a universal human being. So when you think of it from Zen practice, storytelling seems connected to an insight of emptiness. Everything is interconnected.
City: Has working on koans, which are often called Zen puzzles, affected your storytelling?
Martin: I think that it totally affected my storytelling in that I worked on stories as koans. The stories of the world are the koans of ordinary life. My job was to demonstrate the life of the story. Not to think or analyze. The real job was to embody it. That’s why storytelling became so important for me. So much of it is gestural language, not about the words at all. It all began, in many ways, coming out of that oral tradition, from the old ways that lie at the heart of Zen.
City: You’ve got this grounding in traditional tales, in the old ways of Zen, and now you’re on this motorcycle going fast.
Martin: It’s going fast, yes, but more it’s going. Motorcycling is getting out into the hills and the rivers and the sky and those things are the traditional elements of a story. I don’t get that in a car. In riding, you feel the earth moving, shifting; the angles of the earth, the curves meld. You can feel the weight and spaciousness of the sky above you. Hawks swoop down. When I was a kid I really wanted to be a knight with a horse and a suit of armor and ride over the earth. With the motorcycle, you’ve got the helmet with the visor that flips up, armored gloves, boots, and you’re riding your horse over the earth. It’s very primal. It’s an imaginative act and a very sensuous one. I tend to have good ideas when I’m riding. They may not always be the right ideas, but they’re interesting.
Plus you really have to pay attention. You let go of the ghost world, enter a primal world. Your mind full of stuff is that ghost world. When you’re riding, you have to pay attention and that ghost world disappears. You’re in a primal world again; the world of stories. It’s an actual live, world. Rochester is a fantastic motorcycling area. You can be out on empty roads, gorgeous roads. Plus there’s a sense of community. There are a couple of guys I ride with, all different backgrounds. But there’s this sense... I don’t know maybe it’s kind of this primal hunting band, an old ways kind of sense of this group of guys traveling together over the earth. The only danger is that I’ll forget about working because I like it so much.