The gathered crowd let out a collective sigh of excitement as the teen poet’s words seeped into their ears and their hearts. For a moment, during the pause before the start of the next poem, children leaned up and whispered excitedly into their mothers’ ears as people glanced around at others in the assembly with satisfaction.
The audience was responding to the work of Hannah Laga Abram, a 2019 graduate from the Santa Fe Waldorf School who will soon attend Middlebury College, who read her poetry to an audience gathered at op.cit. books last month. The former Generation Next reporter recently was named Santa Fe youth poet laureate, and her talent for writing and storytelling is evident in the poems she shares. It was clear from the audience’s response that a true sense of community was forged among those listening to a poet reciting her thoughts, feelings and emotions through words.
“Poetry is telling the story of the present moment in such a way that whoever is reading or listening can live into that moment with their imagination in a way that’s applicable to them. It can be relevant to anyone and everyone,” Laga Abram said.
That description could apply just as easily to the art of oral storytelling — an art that many believe will never die, despite the advent of technology and the internet and a heavier reliance on using film, digital video or graphic arts to tell stories.
Elizabeth Jacobson, Santa Fe Poet Laureate, award-winning author and founding director of WingSpan Poetry Project, a program that teaches poetry to people in shelters around the Santa Fe area, believes “storytelling will never die until our species dies.” She argues that almost everything we do is linked to the “story.”
“You can have the story of an instant,” Jacobson said. “One line or phrase can create the story of a particular moment in time, and that’s what poetry does.”
Jacobson references examples from texting to social media to passing on family stories, arguing that each one is a form of storytelling, although some exist on much newer platforms. “Story is the kernel of everything,” she added. “We feel something and we want to communicate it.”
But does that mean that our society values storytellers as much as it did in our past? Or has society and technology moved so far so fast that some components of old-fashion storytelling are being discarded along the way?
New Mexico author and painter Anita Rodriguez says that because younger generations have greater instant access to knowledge, they have developed much shorter attention spans. As a result, Rodriguez believes many young people are too impatient to listen to a story and thus have more difficulty accumulating knowledge and skills that previous generations have mastered.
“[Older generations] tell stories about heritage and survival modes like how to cook or how to fix things,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve noticed as I’ve aged, the level of manual skills in young people is incredibly declined. Younger generations don’t know enough about tools to survive if the internet were to come down.”
In her culture, Rodriguez says older generations have the important responsibility to pass down knowledge, traditions and survival modes. “Old women are probably the most important depository of evolutionary knowledge,” Rodriguez said. “Somebody has to carry things down, especially now. We need to tell the stories of how we screwed up. But more importantly, we need to pass on the stories of how we survived and rebuilt.”
Laga Abram agrees. “Elders have the responsibility and joy and honor of holding stories and passing them down,” she said. “But often in our society, we completely push elders to the side, and there’s no respect for the stories they carry. Storytelling in this way is such a huge passing on of a cultural torch, and we’re so unbelievably lacking that.”
Santa Fe is an incredibly diverse community, with people who trace their lineage back before the early foundations of our city to those who have just moved or migrated here. In a complex community such as this, many believe the sharing of stories is a necessary aspect of life, especially for policymakers, artists and those who seek to nurture and strengthen those in our community who are struggling or feel left behind or undervalued.
Chris Jonas, Santa Fe artist and co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit artisan collaborative Littleglobe, said storytelling can be used to draw in and unite the community to political and policy-driven issues. “There is something about oral storytelling that has intrinsic cultural value, but it also has a real value in terms of leadership and how we as a community change and evolve over the years,” he said. “It is through storytelling and empathy-making that we can cross the boundaries that divide us as people.”
Despite her belief that younger folks may not be leaning or appreciating the finer points of passing on oral histories and tales, Rodriguez said storytelling is embedded in our DNA: “It came with the discovery of fire.”
Laga Abram is optimistic about the future of storytelling, be it the passing on of a cultural fable or the presentation of a new poem expressing the thoughts of a teen.
“Clearly, [the art of storytelling] has transformed, but we still grow up with stories in so many ways,” she said. “When you hear a good storyteller, it completely changes the way you see the world.”
Emma Lawrence is a senior at Santa Fe Prep. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.