Story Quilt: Poems of a Place; A Library's Social History Project Turns a Community's Stories into Homegrown Poetry

Article excerpt

Most days, you'll find John Mechanik, 81, outside his family homestead in Galway, a tiny village in upstate New York, tinkering with his tractor, splitting wood, or making cider in his homemade apple press. If you catch him in the right mood, he might stop what he's doing and tell a story about Galway in the old days, when it was 90% dairy farms. Where you wouldn't expect to find John is at a poetry reading--he hadn't read a poem since high school--but there he was on October 15, 2005, in the third row of the Galway High School auditorium, as poems from the Story Quilt were performed onstage. He even wore his brown corduroy sports jacket for the occasion.

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Mechanikwas among an audience of 150 of his neighbors that night who had come to hear a new brand of homegrown poetry, straight from the memories and experiences of the people of Galway them selves. Each poem in the collection represented a "patch" of the quilt that composes the story of Galway. In the audience were retired farmers, like Mechanik, schoolteachers, children, merchants, professionals, tradesmen, newcomers to Galway, and those descended from the town's first Scottish settlers, who arrived back in 1774.

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The performance that evening was the culmination of the first year of the Story Quilt, a social history project of the Galway Public Library, funded through a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts administered through the Saratoga County Arts Council. It had been a year of challenges and revelations. The very uniqueness of the Story Quilt created a conceptual dilemma. It wasn't an actual quilt, but a collection of poems, or little stories, comprising the symbolic quilt of the town's collective history: People could write a poem or provide the material for a poem; the poems were about the present as well as the past; the poems would not rest quietly on paper or be relegated to archives, but would be performed for the entire community to share and celebrate.

The two greatest challenges were getting people over the hump of their poetry bias, then encouraging the town's older residents to share their stories to be turned into poetry. The library's partnership with the Galway Preservation Society was key to gaining the confidence and participation of its membership. Through a story harvest, jointly sponsored by the library and the preservation society, members of the society were invited to come share their stories with members of the Story Quilt committee--a group of volunteers who had taken on the task of recording their stories, then shaping them into poetry. In many cases, the storyteller and the interviewer had never met.

"I was certain that no one would be willing to sit down with me, a complete stranger, and share their story," said Story Quilt committee member Rhonda Pray. "I had lived in the area for 28 years, but many who came to tell their stories had lived here for generations and to them, I was a newcomer. I didn't realize the powerful draw the project would have, especially for the older members of the community. They came, ready to talk."

By the end of the year over 100 poems had been collected through story harvests, personal interviews, and by involving both young and old in the gathering of stories. To help people turn their stories into poems, a series of workshops was held by professional poets in the school and at the library.

But the test was the first performance of the poems at the school. The school auditorium is a big place. If it flopped there, it would be a huge failure. But people came and the applause was thunderous. To see all those people in the audience laughing, wiping away a tear, applauding their hands off, we knew we had something special, and that we had only scratched the surface. …