Dan Driscoll, Kathleen Volk Miller
Always hungry for good stories, PBQ took a break from reading submissions and went out to listen to a few instead. After attending several of First Person Arts Story Slam’s, PBQ was smitten: we wanted to work more closely with the great people at the organization and with their performers.
The plan—or experiment, really—was that we would attend their bi-annual Grand Slams as a judging team, and once the winner was chosen (10 performers each time/3 judges or judging teams) we would publish the winner.
There would be, we knew, discrepancies in the way stories were received and judged—listening for stories that would appear in print often meant listening for two stories at once: the story that played to the room, and the story that would sit on the page. We expected that we’d sometimes be at odds with other judges and the audience (and we were right!), although we hadn’t necessarily understood how painful it would sometimes be to hold up one score for a story we were hearing in two ways. Oral story telling relies so much on persona and the storyteller’s presence in the room—gesture and good timing, dissonance between attitude and literal meaning, these can be incredibly compelling. The ability to speed up, slow down, pause for effect, demonstrate astonishment or fear or incredulity… All of these things have analogues in the text, or course, but their appearance and execution can be wildly different. Literal transcription from one medium to another can change or even destroy the story. Humor “sells” and can be sold in a performance, while the page’s silence can cause some humor to fall flat. Sex sells, too, in a live performance, but the very salaciousness of being “dirty” in public, and therefore the pleasure of it, can disappear when reduced to text. Sometimes the performance was like another story playing alongside the words of the story.
And we had attended enough story Slams to know that stories we might call “anecdotal” if submitted via regular channels are often hugely successful and enjoyable on the stage, just as the opposite is true: we saw stories we thought were incredibly literary and wonderful fall short of connecting to the audience. So we crossed our fingers and went forward, happy to celebrate the work of First Person Arts and become the archivists of their story tellers. Our goal was to work with the winning storyteller a bit, helping him or her coax the story from stage to page. Our first time out of the gate…failure.
Caitlin Hellerer brought the house down with an incredible performance and won the slam, but after some work, agreed that the transition from to the page wasn’t going to work—she had brought to life a moment within a much larger story, but the moment didn’t play without her animating it. Luckily, we had fallen to pieces over Kokugonza Kaijage’s story, “Out of Place,” which earned her the audience favorite award at the same slam, and we had also asked her to contribute to this experiment. The edits made to her story were merely explanations of emotions she had gestured on stage. Her story can be found in the Displacement issue.
The next Grand Slam winner, Ben Drinen, is a frequent attendee of our monthly interactive writing competitions, so we knew him, but didn’t know “Britches,” the winning story you’ll find in our costume issue. On this night, the audience, the judges, and we at PBQ were all in agreement, and Ben took home the championship. We had an odd moment when we read a text version of his story and fell into a debate about whether all of it had been in the performed version (it had)—some of what Ben carried the audience through in his performance felt oddly paced on the page. Since none of the New York staff has met Ben or heard him perform, we sent it up to them—with a bit of tweaking, it works.
At this point, Liz Green, formerly of First Person Arts, suggested another approach—we would continue to participate as judges, but publication in PBQ would become another award, so we would simply pick the story from each Grand Slam that we wanted to see in print. We liked the idea: no constraints for us, and we could judge the stories as performances on the stage while also listening for which we thought would be the best on the page. We’re still at odds with other judges at times and the audience (which is part of the fun for all of the judges), but First Person Arts Grand Slams now have a winner of the Slam and a winner of publication in PBQ.
At the next Slam, Diana Spechler’s “My Boyfriend, Jesus” seemed a perfect fit for PBQ, though a different storyteller was named winner of the Slam. It was a great performance, and it sounded to us like something that could live also on a page. It’s probably no coincidence that we later found out Diana has two novels and many, many publications. Her story slid right into PBQ without any edits.
Each story has its own story. The stage has its conventions, and so does the page—but crossover happens.