Wednesday, 27 June 2012

GETTING DREAMT: An interview with Martin Shaw

Dr.Martin Shaw is the director of the Westcountry School of Myth and Story in Dartmoor national park in the U.K. Author of the award winning ‘A Branch from the Lightning Tree’, he is currently completing a further two books that compromise a trilogy of ideas around myth, wilderness and storytelling.

Why is storytelling important?

Well, storytelling is a huge word - spreading out into movies, theatre, fabrications. If we narrow the field a little, and think of it in the context of an oral telling to a group of people then my thoughts get clearer.

Stories that have roots before the invention of the printing press are forged in the crucible of many generation’s consciousness; and those ideas have been elevated to the form of images: a bird coming to a castle window with a strand of blond hair, a woman asleep by a deep pool of water - they are possessed of a lively intelligence that sweeps past the normal frame of intellectual questioning, but do not deny hard thinking either. A story well told is to do with waking up, not an ‘enchantment’, we wade through that most days already as a consequence of being out of step with our own story.

The stories that we once told that linked us to the elegance of a leopard or the breasts of an Irish mountain now become an unhelpful, mantra-like ‘narrative’ of our own damage and disappointment - in other words a story that is maybe not useful to be carrying. Grief is important of course, but beauty needs to ride alongside. Within a deep story they become the same, they have a container.

So it’s important because it’s a kind of praying.

It lifts up our worry and rapture, and crafts them into an art form and the whole thing seems to edify more than just our neurosis. Myth is a crossroads place where divine winds mingle human concerns with animal patterns with storm clouds with the erotic life of the old gods. What’s not to love?

Myth reminds us in age of constantly implied scarcity that we are secretly a cosmos, if only we have the eyes to see it. I am absolutely at odds with academics and philosophers who imply that myth is a form of societal control - i would suggest that they are referring to a kind of toxic imitation that we see in a great deal of politics and media spin. But that’s not arising from the ground, from the earth, but out of drastically polluted human beings who know how to manipulate emotion through the realm of symbolic image and subliminal ritual.

So there is some odd remembering going on. Tears often come hearing a deep story and a teller alive to its mysteries. Many energies we think are dead and buried within us through shame or dis-connect are frequently just exiled or asleep. Why do we have such big weddings at the end of a story? To invite them back to the feast! We drag our half-dead ass through life with many empty seats at our Round Table. It doesn't have to be this way. At their heart myths are psycho-active, they do to a person what a dream usually does. We lead such busy lives we have to wait till we are unconscious for the dream-information to come through. When you engage with story consciously then you open a door in your waking life for a great torrent of insight to come through. After three days working with a story, i often find with students that we have entered this kind of lucidity. This, more than anyone working alone in a study, is a key to that question ‘what stories do we need right now?’

Can’t we just make up new myths?
No. The conviction of the soul - the ground of where these images eventually become stories - requires time that can’t be sped up to be convenient for modern consumers. Sorry. Myths have no author, they are collectively confirmed through the prophetic power of images that arrive through groups and over generations. And groups that have vivid and daily relationship to the wider living world. No single imagination, no matter how elaborate, can speed that up.

What one imagination can do, is hold a mythic (rather than myth) thread - they can remind us of the power of myth. Jeanette Winterson, Tolkien and many others have been involved with this, and i think it’s great. They are like a beautiful scent from a cafe window that leads you into behold the meal, but they themselves are not the main dish. That's not meant to diminish their stature. So they take images that start to stir and remind us of what stands behind them. I'm really trying to talk about a world that is beyond entirely human motivations.

That is not to say that creative work around myth should stop - far from it. But the setting for real myths to emerge need to be deeper than the environment of the lecture hall. Wilderness, animals, dreams, sex, poetry, singing, delicately constructed ritual can all set the scene for this deeper environment. But, ultimately, we step back to behold the myth that emerges. It comes from some other place. We don’t create it - but we try and induce as much beauty as we can that the images that are ready to come will arise and make themselves known.

I guess what i am trying to say is that we need to Get Dreamt, instead of thinking we control the dream. We belong in a wider, gloriously tangled psyche of liminal culture - the psyche is not entirely within us. That’s a kind of unhealthy anthropocentric worldview. So i think new myths can emerge, but they need a specific environment, a kind of efficacy, for their birthing.

What would you say to encourage emerging storytellers?

Your Character Is Beautiful: Forget agism. You could be eighty nine or fourteen years of age, each has its charm. Also that storytelling can hold many different atmospheres - introversion and grace as well as big flourishes of language. As they say, ‘there are many ways to kneel and kiss the ground’. A certain confidence is useful and a loyalty to your true character, even if that is naturally quiet and undemonstrative. To speak from that position is far more attractive than hastily cobbled together techniques to dazzle and audience with showmanship. In times like these, a little humanity tuned up to an art form is far more powerful.

In the U.K. there is a whole wave of women who have come through the School of Myth here on Dartmoor and have continued deepening their practice as storytellers, dancers, artists. They are not waiting entirely for the next trip over to England by someone as wonderful as Marion Woodman, they are stepping up to the plate themselves. They are all very different thinkers, but give me a sense of tremendous hope for new information flooding into this re-emerging art form. In my wider travels it has been a very tender experience to see an Alaskan fisherman tell his first Grimm’s story at seventy five, or a Miwok Native American work deeply with a Russian fairy tale.

Remember that stories choose you, not the other way around. Just as the migrational patterns of animals are changing, so are the patterns of stories, and both have something to say about the other.

Shadow-Boxing: If there is a character within a story you want to tell that you are utterly repelled by, or who’s motivation you could never relate to, then you aren’t ready to tell it. It will lack the authentic. Storytelling requires conscious knowledge of your own devious, un-faithful, bizarre, jealous, teeth-gnashing and hobbled character as well as the one we place on the job C.V.

Tight-Rope, No Net: Practice learning stories not from lines on paper but from hearing them orally and sketching the images in a kind of line. Tell the story without notes, as if you were talking to a dear friend. Get out into corn fields and high deserts and underneath indigo night and tell them to the wind and the crow. Seeds have a longing to be courted by true human story-language down there in the dark soil.

Most folks don’t want flawless recital, they just want to know that you have a heartbeat. Weird gaps, sudden laughter, openess to the ‘music of the room’, these are all good things. You, in all your nutty beauty, are quite enough.

This is Art: Never leave a story in quite the shape you found it. Don’t mess with the details but add some subtle flourish that makes it real to you and the life you and your audience are having - this gives energy. Don’t cut and paste, don’t add huge sections, don’t remove the difficult, but let it settle in a truthful rhythm. Why else would it want to told by you?

Be Warned: certain people will complain about this. Let them. They are pedantic preservers of an often ‘written’ version of the story. Their motivations are complex, and are best avoided. Ultimately, i think that dwelling in the paradox of the tradition bearer and the innovative artist is a fine tension to work out of.

Why are you so insistent on poetry?
Because poetry is the natural expression of any mythic experience. Because poets are usually the best mythologists - they don’t choke the images they encounter, they honour them. Because, for thousands of years, to deepen in either disciplines you had to be in love with the other. They are two salmon leaping in the foamy curls of life’s great river, catching moonlight in their jaws. For the storyteller, knowledge of poetry is good bread: one poem known by heart equates to three months on a degree program. More possibly.

How relevant are these ideas to the contemporary revival of oral storytelling?
Well, that remains to be seen. One thing i do notice is the level of competence in much storytelling i have seen recently. There is an overall polish and a kind of linguistic pre-meditation that ensures the whole experience goes down quite smoothly thank you very much.

The message for aspiring tellers seems to be: apply for an arts council grant, script a piece of work and carry it round the art centres in an unchanging shape for six months, then do it all again. A question i would have is: what separates that from a one person show - a piece of theatre? Why is it regarded as storytelling? Does this distinction even matter?

One of the joys of this revival is that it is so recent that these questions can be asked in a genuine spirit of enquiry. I’m not trying to shame anyone.

There are some folks suitably weathered by life that have turned this approach into a deeply moving art form. But you only have to look at them to see crows in their hair, and bones round their neck. In other words they already have their hand in the well of dreams. They’ve earnt it. They’ve arrived there after a long journey and incredible views. But what happens if you try the ‘pro’ model without the disappointments, hallucinations, grandiose failure and bland success that lead to that position?

I also wonder what gods are being served in this arrangement - the deity’s of conscious revision and memorization, the written word rather than the improvisational, the strategic rather than mystic. I guess it’s partially the difference between regarding a story as something you can wander around the country on a lead and a muzzle, and clambering on the back of some winged beast with a sense that it has an inner-directive that you are best to follow.

I woke up in the middle of the night at storytelling festival recently gabbling ‘too much Apollo!’ over and over in the dark - so i guess i have a desire that we keep the story gods polytheistic.

At the same time, someone like Trickster needs other energies to rub up against, otherwise its boundary transgressions have no vitality, it needs an organised centre to bounce against. So as storytellers we could examine in which temples are we leaving our story? What are the energies served? In this regard monotheism would be a disaster.

In ‘A Branch From The Lightning Tree’, i wrote a great deal about the difference between the pastoral and the prophetic within myth and its telling. Whilst the prophetic can be glimpsed to an extent in risk-taking and dramatic new turns in the organizing of a story, i think if it entirely anchored to a script then we muzzle the powers of what arises in the room in that moment.

This will be laughable if you regard a story as a psychological device, or allegory, or entirely under your control, but, if you, like almost every tribal group that has ever existed, regard story as ultimately an independent energy that sweeps in and out of the human condition, than it’s worth some serious consideration.

Don’t get me wrong - i value technique, engagement, eloquence, as much as anyone - i think a certain sense of quality control is crucial in this art form, and all this can denote it. But what i love, and what i long for in storytelling, is psychic depth.

In England we are sceptical of myth being co-opted by psychology as a superficial garnish for the client’s inner states, or just lost in the self-help quagmire of the new-age movement. But the fact remains that story activates deep, troubling, occasionally healing rumbles in the psyche of the listener. And knowledge of those tremors, and why they affect you so deeply and not your neighbour, is part of the business of becoming an adult, and, i think, a decent conveyor of stories. To imply that all of that can be conveyed within the story without deeper exegesis is a cop out - we are not mythically literate enough as a culture anymore to do that. But god help us from most dusty academics who claim they can do just that.

I am interested in some other route. Herme’s ‘third ear’ or the blue in the magpies tail. It’s a route that is clearly not for everyone, and i make no claims that is essential for all the wider forms of storytelling.

I am interested in what Francis Ponge calls ‘the new encounter’- “hope therefore lies in a poetry through which the world so invades the spirit of man that he becomes almost speechless, and later reinvents a language...true poetry is what does not pretend to be poetry. It is in the dogged drafts of a few maniacs seeking the new encounter”

So i guess this is high stakes poker i’m talking about. That a storyteller could crack open the sky on a level of Georgia O’Keefe or Ted Hughes. Why not! (laughter)

So yes! to focus, technique and some self-criticism within storytelling - we really need it, but we also need the dark ecology of wild eruptions, spontaneity, listening to a wider community of information than just the human - something of the bardic spirit i suppose. Not bard as tenured poet of court, but bard in the fantastical sense of one alive to the wider mysteries.

Twenty, thirty, years ago in the U.K., storytellers like Ben Haggarty were toughing it out on the frontline of this re-emerging form and asking difficult questions. His essay ‘Seek out the Voice of the Critic’, is just one of several suitably uncomfortable reads for anyone assuming this is ultimately an art form without teeth. His inventive sweeps of thinking are bracing but informing. The call for standards and his distinction between roads of teller (i.e. hearthside and professional) cut through alot of mush. So i think some questioning, some brooding, is vital within this revival. Where is it lacking? Does efficacy still ride alongside entertainment?

As professionalism becomes more distinct within the art, my interest also moves towards the inner-literacy of teller, the tangled connections between myth, speaker and wider world. It's that which i have a longing to see more of, and develop in my own practice.

Copyright School of Myth 2012

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