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Folklorist ponders the poetry of the everyday

By Jackie Lupo

Steve Zeitlin outside the Hastings Station Café.


Steve Zeitlin is the kind of scholar who doesn’t believe everything worth reading can be found within the pages of a literary journal or a glossy bestseller. What he finds far more intriguing is the way everyday folks turn to storytelling, time and time again, to record and respond to the events in their lives. That’s the idea behind the Hastings resident’s latest book, “The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness” (Cornell University Press).

Zeitlin, 68, is a professional folklorist as well as a poet. The founding director of City Lore, a nonprofit center for urban folklore in Manhattan, he has been studying the creative products of “just folks” for his entire career. After graduating from Bucknell University with a degree in literature, he went on to earn his Ph.D. in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania (where his wife and colleague at City Lore, Amanda Dargan, also earned her doctorate in the same subject).

“What inspired me was the possibility that you could make a career out of listening to different people’s stories,” Zeitlin said. “I was a baby boomer trying to avoid selling out, and to do something that was fun and unique and beautiful. When I heard there was such a thing as folklore and you could get a Ph.D., I signed up.”

He spent eight years as a folklorist at the Smithsonian Institution and has taught at George Washington University, American University, NYU, and Cooper Union. He established City Lore on the Lower East Side in 1986 as a center that would collect urban folklore and disseminate it through educational programs and public events. He has also authored or co-authored several books, including volumes about folklore around the world, Jewish folklore, and stories for children.

The Zeitlins settled in Hastings in 1991; City Lore’s POEMobile, used for the organization's special events, can often be found parked in their Hastings driveway. Their children, Benh and Eliza, work together in Benh’s film production company in New Orleans. Benh is best known for his Oscar-nominated 2012 film “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” The siblings are both graduates of Hastings High School.

Becoming a collector of stories was a natural job choice for Zeitlin.

“I was always struck, even as a child, that there’s art and poetry all around us, and certain art forms are privileged to be considered contemporary art or literature or classical music,” Zeitlin said. “But folklore exists to make sure great art doesn’t slip through the cracks and go unnoticed, because it’s too ephemeral to exist on its own. There is so much art all around us, which is tied to the way we give meaning to our lives — folklore. Somebody needs to celebrate and document all that stuff.”

Anyone who associates the term “folklore” with people living in rural backwaters misses the point of the term: people are just folks wherever they live, and lore exists in every urban neighborhood and suburban village. To bring home his point, Zeitlin includes many local characters in the engaging anecdotes he shares in his book. He introduces his readers to Avi Schwartz, owner of Hastings Station Café, who says he’s in show business, and his coffee counter is his “stage.” Zeitlin visits Michelle Mosca, owner of Visual Difference Hair Salon in Hastings, who tells a story about the aftermath of a death in the family, and haircutter Sheila Ortiz, who never forgets a head of hair once she has cut it.

From Rabbi Eddie Schechter of Temple Beth Shalom, Zeitlin passes on a tale that might make even a skeptic think twice about the power of prayer. Zeitlin also takes a stroll through Untermyer Gardens, the nearby Yonkers park with a folklore of its own: it has been visited by characters as varied as John Lennon and the serial killer Son of Sam.

Zeitlin said people express their personal mythology in many ways, “when they write to express themselves, or whether they’re amateur painters or folksingers, that’s folklore too. It’s a broader way of looking at what folklore is: to look at how people give meaning to their lives in terms of how they create, what they cook, the jokes they tell, the expressions they engage with when they’re being creative.”

Zeitlin created a durable memento for his family’s lore when he decided, at the age of 50, to build something with his own hands. He proceeded to erect a stone wall in his backyard, and in the process of making every rock fit together just so, he realized that building a wall was a lot like crafting a poem.

Verses by Zeitlin and by other authors, both famous and unknown, pop up every few pages in his new book, demonstrating how poetry, far from being an art that’s removed from real life, serves to amplify it.

“People often turn to poetry at critical moments of their lives, or their collective lives,” he noted. “City Lore was very active after September 11 documenting the shrines and memorials. We got to catalog a lot of poems left anonymously, and did an exhibit at the New-York Historical Society. I also did some work with the Greenwich Village AIDS Society, where there was a creative writing teacher who taught poetry to... people [dying of AIDS]. Their poems about their mortality were very touching to me.”

When interviewing people for his book, Zeitlin found many of them had turned to writing poetry because it was a higher-impact mode of expression than a story or essay. “Poems are so layered,” he explained. “They’re not just moving in one direction. They move back and forth. And I feel like the way in which people use poetry does have a meaning that elevates the subject they address, by using metaphors and comparisons and other kinds of alliteration and sound.” He has found poems connected with every rite of passage, from baptism to death. “Those moments which are really what defines our lives, are often marked by poems,” he observed.

Zeitlin urges people not to let their stories, whether in verse or prose, go untold. “The most important part is collecting the stories of your family and trying to find creative ways to tell your own story — and your own story includes those of your parents and grandparents. I can think of no more important task of old age than being sure your stories can be set down, so the next generation can remember them if they choose to.”

Zeitlin will give a talk about “The Poetry of Everyday Life” at the Hastings Public Library on Sunday, Dec. 11, at 2:30 p.m.; copies of the book can be purchased and signed by the author. It is also available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers for $26.

Read more local coverage of your hometown in this week’s issue of the Rivertowns Enterprise. Newsstand copies are available at several locations listed above, or subscribe today for convenient home delivery.


October 21, 2016

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