Poetry is not only a dream and a vision; it is the architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
Stories circle around me constantly, they whirl inside my head, they skip with my heart, they weave in and out of my life moment by moment. I am not sure where the particular point is that stories stop and I start. Collecting stories became something that I did when I was very young. I would dive head first in other people’s stories, often getting lost, trying to find myself. I realised quickly that I wasn’t like ‘other people’, which started a quest, to find my own story.
The stories I was exposed to growing up featured good girls with white skin who stayed clean and played with dolls, I had brown skin, always wore a smudge of dirt and scrapped knees and spent my time watching reruns of old Westerns, crying every single time the cowboys shot the Native Americans. The story books I had growing up featured porcelain white princesses who fell in love with princes and had babies and sat in sitting rooms living some version of happily ever after that I couldn’t quite comprehend. Of course I wanted to be a princess, but I wanted to find another princess, hitch up my pretty skirts, kick the villains ass and for everyone to live happily ever after regardless of any type of difference others perceived.
I was about 6 years old when I hosted my first (informal) forum. I gathered a group of school peers together and asked a series of questions and find out; Why adults talked about how I was different? Why they would ask me questions about my big fuzzy hair, and about my skin colour? I wanted help to find out why people would point out my being different. Collectively we put together our shared knowledge of the world and the ethnicities we knew and we came up with the wrong answer. But it started me on a path of engaging my curious nature, of asking questions, gathering collective knowledges and trying to find out as much as I could about the world hoping try to discover myself in the process.
I have hosted quite a few forums around Melbourne. They were called, Queers and Answers and it was a great way to continue to happily immerse myself in my curious nature. Searching for knowledges is still key to helping me understand myself and the world around me. I am much clearer about the role stories play in my life. I understand that the dominant myths we are exposed to are used to reinforce cultural norms, and that to change the cultural norms of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism etc., we have to change the stories that are told, we have to hear different stories, we have to understand the power of stories and use that power to create the world we want to live in.
The main genre I use for my storytelling and poetry work is biomythography. It's is a term created by Audre Lorde who wrote, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. A simple definition comes from Ted Warburton: “Biomythography is the weaving together of myth, history and biography in epic narrative form, a style of composition that represents all the ways in which we perceive the world.”
When I say that story is the central theme of my life, I mean that dismantling myths that oppress and re-creating liberation myths, is my life’s work. I ask questions to unravel myths, and writing continues to be key in dismantling those stories that once or still continue to oppress. For example, the myth that as a bi-racial person I am destined for loneliness and sadness; the myth that family consists of a male father, a female mother and children; the myth that being a lesbian is unnatural; the myth that being a woman means being weak; that being emotional means being weak; that being an emotional woman means being illogical and less deserving.
I’ve been writing in journals for longer than I can remember and it continues to be an important part of my life. It supports my health, my wellbeing, and nourishes my creativity. I continue to look to people like Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag and Anis Nin as dedicated diarists for inspiration of how personal stories can create opportunities for growth. More importantly, journaling for me is a process I use to continually check in and ascertain how I understand my world views and draw out themes to use in my storying. I can ask myself, what stories about myself or the nature of my identities keeps coming up that creates barriers to becoming the best person that I can be? What stories limit my thinking? What stories feel urgent to explore in my writing? What stories should I share so that other people can see how these grand narrative play a role in shaping their life too? What stories do I need to tell to disrupt the ones that hurt me? And it is here in my journaling, that I often get the material to write my biomythography poems and stories.
I get really nervous when I perform new work, the nature of the genre of biomythography means that the work is by necessity deeply personal. I try to remember that when people hear my work, they aren’t thinking about how that story fits into my personal life, but how the story fits into their personal life. That people will be thinking, “does this story reflect my experiences? Do these stories fit into the narratives I use to know and understand the world? What is the same and what is different?” I keep the knowledge that this is how people approach my work at the forefront or I would never be brave enough to share it.
One of the unexpected outcomes of writing and performing work that is so deeply personal is that I am confronted with my own vulnerability often. In this context I understand sculpture and diarist Anne Truitt, who says, “I am always, and always will be, vulnerable to my own work, because by making visible what is most intimate to me I endow it with the objectivity that forces me to see it with utter, distinct clarity. A strange fate. I make a home for myself in my work, yet when I enter that home I know how flimsy a shelter I have wrought for my spirit. My vulnerability to my own life is irrefutable. Nor do I wish it to be otherwise, as vulnerability is a guardian of integrity.” I guess for me it is important to clarify that artistic integrity doesn’t mean that I don’t want to make a living wage from my work. I am not a martyr for my art, but it is very important that my work is aligned with my personal values. Those things that give meaning and depth to my life.
I suspect people become confused thinking that everything I write about is a personal experience of mine alone. The nature of biomythography means that the stories I share are often not a completely ‘true’ chronological accounting of my life. I take out details here and there, and replace them with the grand narratives of collective lived experience. Sometimes I will change a narrative to reflect emotional or psychological journeys rather than physical experiences. My work becomes a weaving of many stories and memories rather than a linear accounting. There are a few reasons I do this, firstly, I tell only what needs to be told for the work to reach its full potential. I’m not interested in confession. I’m interested in revelation. I am interested in the necessity that comes from telling the deepest universal truths as I see them at moments when I have full command of them. Secondly, for myself, the most powerful strand in this genre is not expressing my originality, it’s tapping into our universality. This isn’t to say that I don’t try to be original in my writing, but for me, it is about using stories for the greater good.
The most profound lesson I have discovered in writing biomythography, is the falsity of the initial premise I had as child, that I could somehow find myself in stories. I realised what a ridiculous endeavor this is, and how it would continue to rob from me the joy of continually becoming my story. How can I ever know who I am? for that implies that I am a finished static being, and these days I am much more interested in the ceaseless active mystery of who I shall become.
Lana Woolf is a stage and page spoken word artist and the co-founder and artistic director of Sparks: Storytelling for social change. She has been performing for about 5 years, is the author of the collection, Reasons You May Think She’s My Lover (2014), was one of the women in 2015 Melbourne Fringe Festival’s sold out season of ‘I Am That Woman’, has worked with multimedia artists to bring ‘Scenes on the Yarra’ to Docklands, was a part of ‘The Ultimate Lesbian Double Feature’ which had a sell out 2016 Midsuma season at La Mama, and a two week run at Mardi Gras at the Old Fitz. She has won a couple of poetry comps in Melbourne, produced a couple of radio shows on JOY 94.9 and now resides in Sydney hosting monthly storytelling nights, running workshops and related events and generally trying to re-story the world to celebrate all the misfits, rebels, and fringe dwellers like her. www.sparkingchange.com.au