Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Michael Sedano

Ancient Latinos subscribed to an educational system based upon what they termed the trivium. Fundamental schooling subjects included rhetoric, grammar, and logic. On the principle that nothing’s as practical as a good theory, I've adapted the ancient trivium into my view that communication competence in our modern society should pursue a trivium of Oracy, Literacy, Numeracy.

Numeracy includes skill with mathematics and electronic devices. Computer operating systems and software, like spreadsheets and multimedia, give the artist-writer, or job holder in post-industrial economies, essential competencies that enhance or determine their productivity and competitiveness.

Ditto the rest of the modern-ancient trivium.

Literacy includes reading and writing. La Bloga and similar places exist because we endorse, support, create things to read. The internet illustrates how numeracy and literacy intertwine. Writers must manage technology to create physical representations of their ideas.

Oracy includes varieties of speaking and listening, such as conversation, storytelling, reading aloud, and performance. Here is the sine qua non of the well-rounded, fully competent modern communicator. I think of speech as thinking made loud. Look back to Aristotle's day, when it was unthinkable a person would be unable to defend oneself in a swordfight. It became equally unthinkable the civilized person would be unable to defend oneself with speech. Is it only ironic, or causal, that the warmongering outgoing U.S. president has an unparalleled reputation for execrable speech and thoughtless wars?

In yet another irony, speaking or reading before an audience creates fearsome obstacles for many an otherwise competent communicator, like a writer reading her or his own stuff. Así es. Yet, a formalized oral presentation requires only a little extra effort--plus confidence and poise--to become suitable for an audience. Fortunately, skillful oral presentations can actually be easily produced: just sit in conversation with friends, hang a microphone around your neck, and share your stories. A public reading is much like that, simply an enlarged conversation. I look forward to the upcoming National Latino Writers Conference where I’ll be conducting a workshop on reading your own stuff. I love Oracy and look forward to seeing literate gente develop an equal regard for the spoken word, both as consumers and producers.

Spoken word consumers find numerous resources. Conversation--the good and the desultory, purposive and phatic--permeates our every waking moment. Too bad we cannot recycle wasted words and hot air. Ni modo. More worthwhile resources abound. Book release parties featuring writers reading their own stuff give opportunities to acquire a warm memory as well as a signed volume. Wondrous recorded resources come to one who seeks them. Calaca Press, for example, is a champion of spoken word performance, offering such precious resources as Raza Spoken Here, parts I & II, or When Skin Peels, among a library of eight spoken word titles. A unique aural resource—it comes with a book—is Poetry Speaks, edited by Elise Paschen and Rebekah Presson Mosby. It includes three CDs with in-their-own-voice poets from Tennyson and Yeats to Langston Hughes and Sylvia Plath. But at fifty bucks, the volume might be out of range of many, unlike a Calaca CD, whose prices run in the $15.00 range. I don't enthusiastically recommend the Poetry Speaks to Children series because parents and friends, not some record player, should be reading aloud to kids. But such a book is a model of what you can do on your own.

Aside from stagefright in public performance, producing spoken word recordings for public uses is relatively easy for someone with access to the internet and a good computer. Such technology may be available free, at a public library.

I used to lament how the internet has become increasingly like television, instead of the text-heavy screens of yesteryear. But there’s a lot of good that comes with this ill wind. In fact, the internet may be today's last bastion of Oracy, provided gente have the skills to produce files that work on PC, Mac, and other devices, and website owners do not take down their sites.

Such a site is Joseph Puentes’ Nuestrafamiliaunida.com. Puentes started the site with high hopes of attracting large numbers of people who would record oral history, cuentos, lectures, any variety of audio material, to make available, free, via the internet. Puentes includes tutorial material on making your own Podcasts, and makes the site freely available to anyone with a voice.

Sadly, the site is not easily perused. Some links go to a text screen where links to Podcasts lie somewhere on the page; other links suffer from lack of bookmarks that force the user to search the screen for the desired result. In every case, navigating the resource would be more convenient with a single mouseclick linked directly to the aural target file.

Such shortcomings are not great, but people, I suspect, desire something that works more efficiently. Owing, perhaps, to these technology deterrents, and despite Puentes’ vision of a public access resource, relatively few contributors emerged to populate the site.

Turnout has been so limited, in fact, that Puentes has turned his energies to environmental causes and has let the Nuestra Familia Unida site go dormant. Via email, I asked if there had been a specific day or event that led to his decision. Puentes responded, “there was a lack of interest and my conviction grew about doing something for the environment. I shifted my energies to what I determined to be a more important project. No critical incident or day. I had been beating my head against the wall to get folks to participate and decided that I wasn't interested in trying to talk folks into doing something that I felt should be something they would jump at the opportunity to do.”

I hope people will jump at the opportunity to browse through Nuestra Familia Unida, and make the added effort of recording Podcasts and depositing them to the site. Every voice has something of value to add, if not a visit with an abuelo, an interview with a three year old about her favorite books, if not a winning contest speech then a collection of poems read at sleepytime to one's child. Think of the memories ten years hence!

One exception to the limited public use of Nuestra Familia Unida has been Frank Sifuentes. One of the organizers of the 1973 Festival de Flor Y Canto (pictured here is Sifuentes greeting poet Juan Felipe Herrera), Sifuentes is producing an extensive collection of cuentos and oral history recordings. A number of other recordings add value to the site; Sifuentes’ is one of several who will provide hours of listening enjoyment.

To find Sifuentes’ work, navigate first to Oral History, where the titles include, “Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation,” “Cuentos De Kiko - Frank Moreno Sifuentes,” “Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul (http://www.latinosoul.com),” “Chamuscando & Abuelita Virginia,” and “1953 Boronda Family History: Francesca Abby & Emma Ambrosia.” Sifuentes is Kiko.

Puentes introduces Sifuentes, noting, “I'm so happy to introduce Frank Moreno Sifuentes to the Nuestra Familia Unida podcast community. In this series of Oral History Cuentos expect to hear about one family, but the experiences are those of an immigrant nation.” Sifuentes adds a biographical note, “Frank Moreno Sifuentes, 74. Born in Austin, Texas when its population was only 38,000 (now around 1,000,000!) In 1950 joined the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. After getting out fell in love with Sarah Diaz; and married in Compton, CA. We had three daughters and three sons; and now have 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren.”

Frank Sifuentes read his story, “The Bean Contest,” at the 1973 Festival de Flor Y Canto, which I append below for an audiovisual sample whose updated, extended version you can enjoy--ears only--at Nuestrafamiliaunida.com. (Video ©2008 University of Southern California. All rights reserved.)

Click here to view Frank Sifuentes reading "The Bean Contest"

So goes the final Tuesday of the year 2008. ¡Increíble! Here comes 2009, and right around the corner, will be 2010 and the year of El Festival de Flor Y Canto 2010. This year ends with me still searching for those original artists from 1973. Frank Sifuentes, I found. Juan Felipe Herrera, I found. They weren't hard to locate. Last week, I think I located Enrique La Madrid, at UNM (if he'd answer his email). But you / those others? Nothing on the horizon, as far as I can see, even on a clear Califas winter day.

Have a happy new year! Celebrate sensibly and cerebrate with unrestrained abandon! 

Do remember, La Bloga welcomes your comments on this and any column. If you have a lead to those writers who performed back in 1973, email me. Click the Comments counter below, and share your thoughts. Guest columnists make regular posts on La Bloga, too. To inquire about your invitation to be our guest, click here and tell us your idea for a book review, an arts or cultural event critique, some key thoughts from your writer's journal, or something you'd like to share.

See you in 2009.


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