Art Works Blog

That Time I Went to the National Storytelling Festival

While winning the title of Poetry Out Loud (POL) National Champion is quite an accomplishment, for many of our champs winning top prize is only the beginning. Since reciting her way to the 2014 POL national championship Anita Norman--who was Tennessee's state champ--has recited at the National Book Festival, taken part in the annual Poet's House Brooklyn Bridge Walk, and, most recently, taken the stage at the 2014 National Storytelling Festival hosted by the International Storytelling Center. Today Anita--who's now ISC's first-ever youth advisor--is joining us to share her story about, well, telling her story. And she'll be joining us again on the blog periodically in the months leading up to the 2015 POL National Finals (April 28 and 29) to offer tips, answer questions, and tell us what it's really like to wear the (metaphorical) crown.

In certain situations, we can never fully recognize the magnitude of what has occurred until the moment is gone. Then we are left to reflect on every detail. One such moment for me was being invited to participate in the 2014 National Storytelling Festival as the youngest performer. I have spoken at a variety of venues and hardly ever know what to expect, but this particular festival was an event like no other. Thousands of people drifted in and out of tents as storytellers weaved words into memories both dramatic and humorous. It was intimidating to think about my place in this scene.

I stood on a stage with a single microphone. All eyes were on me, a feeling that was quite overwhelming. The challenge in that moment was to conjure up authentic emotion--to be vulnerable and fearless. In a tent filled with expectant listeners, it was crushing to think about being so open, but I understood that the only real disappointment would be not showing my true passion. So, I gave the audience everything I had, and in turn they gave me support, encouragement, and stories of their own.

This sort of communication is responsible for the smallest and largest connections in life. The National Storytelling Festival is centered on communities coming together to listen. Not to hear, but to truly listen. I think of the lonely people of the world, the misunderstood, the uncelebrated. Listening to their stories opens up doors and relationship possibilities that are far more peaceful in nature than arguing or ignoring. I learned that good communication is often hidden to my generation, even though it is a historically verified avenue to creating change in our communities.

The most powerful part of the experience was not the fact that I spoke or that the most brilliant storytellers in the world were there, but that I witnessed first-hand that people do in fact understand and desire intimate communication. There is a community rooting for a lost art form and the mental images it creates. People understand the struggle and soul behind words. They understand the sacred and the humorous, the tragic and the triumphant. I left the stage having shared pieces of myself, and I was grateful for the connection I shared with my many listeners. I finally understand that the educational world is very much in need of spaces like these where truth comes to be heard. Now more than ever, I hold closely to the belief that storytelling connects individuals. It heals. 

Want to learn more about the International Storytelling Center? Here's our interview with ISC executive director Kiran Singh Sirah.

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