- The Poetry of Everyday Life: Storytelling and the Art of Awareness by Steve Zeitlin
The dust jacket of Steve Zeitlin’s The Poetry of Everyday Life says that the book is “partly a memoir.” The book is not a memoir in the usual sense; that is, it does not attempt a continuous narrative of things remembered. It does bring up bits and pieces from the author’s past, ranging from the dishes eaten at Ubol’s Kitchen, a Thai restaurant in Astoria, Queens, to his extended family’s weeklong sojourn at the beach in South Carolina. These memories are all related to each other in that they are memories remembered through stories, but many are just memories, or so they seem to the reader. This is not to say that the book should not be of considerable interest to the folklorist. Zeitlin is a folklorist by training and has developed his own personal approach to folklore that combines a folkloristic perspective with a creative one. He is a poet, which he defines as someone who writes poems, not as someone who necessarily publishes his poetry or is recognized by the public—though Zeitlin certainly has published poems and has achieved a measure of recognition. He clearly is interested in culture and in its subgroups, which are of special interest to folklorists, and at times, he has used poetry to explain culture.
It is not until we reach the final section of the book, the “Permissions” section, that we realize that some of the book’s chapters have appeared elsewhere, including several written for Zeitlin’s regular column, “Downstate,” in Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore. As such, the pieces in this book have been pulled together from a variety of sources, and their relatedness may not always be obvious. What, after all, do ping-pong and ethnic meals and poetry recited on the porch of a vacation house have in common?
According to Zeitlin, these stories are linked together by what he calls “the poetics of life” (p. 6). He emphasizes the poetry over the folklore to extend the book’s appeal beyond traditional forms by focusing on a more personal form of expression. The topics of all the chapters relate to the ways in which we “artify” life (p. 6), if we choose to see them as Zeitlin does: as modes of dealing with everyday reality that present an inherent beauty. Zeitlin would like us all to be aware of these modes, and that ultimately is the purpose of his book: to call attention to the things in life that we may overlook. Hence, it becomes important to see how the flavors of [End Page 236] ethnic food mingle and how sex creates language. The poet Bob Holman provides a fore-word to the book, which is useful to the reader in that it not only provides insight into Zeitlin’s conception of poetry but also helps us to understand more of how the book must have been conceived and put together by Zeitlin.
For the folklorist, the book is of considerable interest because it shows us how one prominent public-sector folklorist approaches his materials in a manner that is somewhat distinctive. That Zeitlin is a folklorist does come through. For example, though he looks at the flavors of ethnic food as giving us poetry, he also takes on a folklorist’s viewpoint toward the restaurants and chefs he discusses. He notes, for example, how a Filipino chef incorporated West Indian cuisine into his repertoire and how West Indian cuisine is itself an amalgam of influences from various cultures. Though ping-pong is not a game to which folklorists have paid much attention, Zeitlin does pay attention to the language surrounding it, both that of the players who devise terms to refer to the way the ball behaves and that of a former player turned announcer as he refers to players. Elsewhere, Zeitlin discusses how modern science and the stories devised by the...