An Interview with Gioia Timpanelli

Gioia Timpanelli

While the bones of the story stay the same, the art is in the telling, in the uncovering, in creating the form.


Gioia Timpanelli is one of the world’s foremost storytellers. Timpanelli doesn’t give readings; rather, she performs her work, quickly and deftly weaving between personal anecdotes and folktales from a variety of cultures and traditions, including her family’s own Sicilian tradition. Timpanelli moves about a room as she performs, not only commanding the audience’s attention, but also encouraging their participation. Timpanelli’s inclusion of the audience in her storytelling emphasizes her stories’ timelessness. This timelessness is a quality referenced at the beginning of her new novel What Makes a Child Lucky, as she constructs the setting: “Sicily at the end of the nineteenth century or anyplace at anytime.” Gioia Timpanelli, welcome to The California Journal of Poetics.

Thank you for your welcome.


You started out writing poetry, correct? What was the transition into story-telling like for you? How did the switch come about?

I have always written poems, but I have also always told stories. As a very young child I heard poems and folk tales told to me in Sicilian. I loved these poems and stories, and so I learned them easily and, when asked, could recite them back. They were a hidden treasure, a secret cache, which, because they had been learned by heart, put the forms and possible expressions of poems and stories inside my own memory. I have never forgotten these early teachers.


My work in Educational and Public Television provided an outer emphasis that inspired my shift from poetry to story. (I want to emphasize the word “outer” here. To me the inner place has no hierarchy––it is where the love of things accrues. The outside person may pragmatically make lists while the inner one does something else.) One of my first series, Come, Read to Me a Poem, was comprised of 30 programs on poetry. Next, while researching for a series on world literature, I began and ended with African literature. During this research I found the Yoruba novelist Amos Tutuola. I felt the outer / inner emphasis, the shift, while I was reviewing an interview tape of Tutuola, taken in his village home in Africa. On the tape, the door behind him had been left open, so outside, in the background, ordinary life was going on: a woman with a basket walked past, chickens pecked at seeds. Inside Amos Tutuola was talking about Yoruba folk tales and their influence on his novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard. The village community, perhaps Abeokuta, was going on behind him, and suddenly I realized Africa itself, the very place, was sustaining the entire story––I was overcome with an intense feeling. I sat there alone in that dark editing room quietly crying. I was twenty-eight, and that image of Tutuola had shown me what I loved, what I truly cared about. My Eros was for poems and stories and place and nature and people and creatures––for a unity that spoke to me.


After I completed that series, African Anthology, I did the next series on stories, called Stories from My House, featuring world folk tales and contemporary stories. Later, I went out to tell stories as a form of public and communal art. (I always said that St. Francis had dragged me out into poverty.) You know, story-telling of either the hearth or of the public kind is a communal art form so the audience is with the teller, and in essence the teller is speaking for the community, telling what the community wants to hear. You can always tell when the community is out of balance––their folk tales tell what is missing at the beginning, and you know it will be there at the end. It is about balance and unity.

Two Novellas of Sicily


The transition to fiction came during a similar moment of realization after years of storytelling. While translating a folk tale from Sicilian into English, the sentence which begins Sometimes the Soul just came to me. I wrote it down, and I knew it was not a translation, but rather I had written the beginning of a piece of fiction. I began to write fiction spontaneously, and I have never stopped. After I hear and write down the first sentence of a story I begin writing, relying heavily on the sound and placement of words to the extent that my stories fill with prose poems. (In Sometimes the Soul, there’s a hymn to Venus at the beginning of Friday, Venerdì). I hope my fiction has the sensibility of a poet. So really there is no losing anything. Take for example this excerpt from one of my novels. It describes an Elder of the Canarsie Clan who was living in a shack in an alley in Downtown, New York City in 1905:


The old woman had done many things in Downtown but was known in the neighborhood as an occasional ragman, not a rag picker, but a buyer and seller of used clothes and small objects. It was through her that these things got a second, third, and even fourth chance. In a way, you could say, she kept treasures in circulation. Even the hopeless rags and abandoned debris that made up the enormous garbage heaps on every street got her attention. There was nothing truly lost, only hiding in unlikely places.


When you perform for an audience you weave anecdotes from your life with folktales and also with the stories in your books. How much of your life ends up in your books?


Not many actual anecdotes or events in my life are in the books, but it is essential for me to imagine the events in the story from as complete an understanding of experience as I can muster. In that sense everything I have lived is in the books, but I make up characters and stories.


To what extent do you collect tales from other cultures? Do you often find tales from different cultures telling essentially the same story, and as a modern American storyteller, do you adapt those stories for a modern American audience? If so, how?

What the essential stories and old tales say can never be exhausted. They are simple and direct and come from our experience in life. I respect the tales from other cultures, and I would not assimilate them or weave them with my own background. It is this background that I see as the important “local” details of our lives, and when they are respected and seen as different from ours a great courtesy and appreciation is born. I have studied folk literature and tell folk tales that especially speak to me. You can only appreciate a story when looking at it as the mysterious nexus of the natural and the perennial, not exclusively as one or the other. While there is no final understanding of a story, the fact that they are amazingly woven together is where the gift is given. A story you hear at age five acquires new meaning when you hear it again at age twenty-five. A good story is never exhausted––it is really as “open” as possible.


The part that is familiar or universal of course we can identify with. I might tell a string of stories that have the same motif from Native American, Japanese Zen, and Hassidic culture just to show this “local” and “universal.” I was raised in a New York City neighborhood with people from many cultures; I saw how different but basically alike we all are.


In Tales from the Roof of the World, I collected stories from Tibet. The Venerable Khenpo Kathar Rinpoche told the stories, and he only told what a general audience might appreciate, yet we got some great stories. One is a Tibetan version of the folk tale where a father asks his daughter, “How much do you love me?” That is an impossible question for a conscientious daughter to satisfactorily answer. What does “how much” mean? How can you give a satisfying answer to a question that might want too literal an answer? Nothing but trouble can come from it––the father has to gain the understanding of the non temporal. That is the same beginning folk motif that Shakespeare used in King Lear.


How important is audience interaction for the modern storyteller? What do you want from an audience? What do you expect from an audience? And what do you get from an audience?

The event is always a surprise and I accept whatever it is. This is not because I am afraid of being disappointed but because my faith is not in reactions to the stories but in the continual learning and joy the stories bring. To be not attached to things does not mean you are not connected; you are all connected, just not attached. There’s a unity and harmony then.


Sometimes I tell five or six stories in an evening which subtly express a theme that is common to many of them. I tell some timely anecdotes around the theme. Because the audience and I are together in the telling I can see visibly see when people are questioning or when they completely get it––so I try to be as appropriate to the moment as possible. These old stories are not about the past but are primary ways of seeing our story. Many varieties and many possibilities present themselves.


You’ve said you’re one of a handful of people in the world who still speaks Medieval Sicilian and that enhances your pride in being an outsider / artist. Indeed, it is a pleasure to hear you slip into Medieval Sicilian as you perform. How do the patterns and music of that language affect your storytelling techniques, not just as you perform, but also as you write? How does this endangered language help you shape art in a new, modern way?

I don’t know how many people still speak the old Sicilian, but there are still some in the USA, in Canada, and in South America––anywhere that the grandchildren who learned this old language are still alive, but we are becoming fewer. There is an interest in teaching it again. It is true that when I read an old ethnology text, like the great Giuseppe Pitrè’s collection of Sicilian tales, I feel the story and I are home again. Thirty or forty years ago I told a story from my town in Sicilian to Sicilians and a man from the audience, when he heard the name of a family farm in our neighborhood, he jumped up and embraced me saying, “Soruzza soruzza…” [which translates] “Sister, sister I am from Barafranca,” which is the next town so he knew the story and the place before I even told it. It was very moving. So many things came together in that one moment.


A poet once told me that stories were the Mappa Mundi of the world, and I know he’s right. If I tell a Sicilian story I always tell it in both Sicilian and English. Something comes across even in the Sicilian, and because of the absolutely clear structure of the tale the audience gets the parallelisms and in the end understands the story through the structure. I have said to audiences that they are going to understand Sicilian by the end of a story, and they do. I love the idea that we might dare to cross language barriers with this kind of experiment.


Aside from the words and phrases and cultural contexts that cannot be translated easily, there is the question, as you say, of rhythm and language patterns. The old language carried in its forms and sounds the insights and ways that are difficult to translate. They can’t always be found in written language. Sometimes it is only in speech, in sound, that real communication between and among people happens. Improvisations are based on this understanding. James Hillman begins his essay “The Thought of the Heart” with this quote from Paracelsus:


Speech is not of the tongue, but of the heart. The tongue is merely the instrument with which one speaks. He who is dumb is dumb in his heart, not in his tongue. As you speak, so is your heart.


The nous (intuitive wisdom, “belly knowledge” in Greek) that springs from the mind and heart joined in spontaneous speaking dared me to bring mind / heart understanding and improvisation to the form of storytelling. While the bones of the story stay the same, the art is in the telling, in the uncovering, in creating the form.


You say that in English there is only one word for love, whereas in other languages there can be many. In Greek, for example, I believe you have listed four types: Eros, Storge, Philia, and Agape. Would you please explain these different types of love?

Love is the understanding that all things are connected and nothing is separate. It works on the premise, therefore, that there are no “opposites.” Eros is thought commonly as physical, passionate attraction, but Eros is also the part of creativity and beauty essential to many human endeavors, not necessarily physical. Storge is family love and all its branches and emotions: devotion, duty, etc. Philia is the love between friends: one mind in two bodies. Agape is respect and unconditional love for all; it is fair and spread wide to all. This is a very small definition, only a beginning, a rumor, so to speak.


You speak of the danger surrounding thresholds and the blessings given by your family to people coming and going. This risk of the threshold exists for poetry and art as well as for human bodies––poets must push their language and take risks, but can they go too far? Can a poet or storyteller ever go over the edge of that threshold? As a storyteller-artist, where do you find that threshold in your own work?


Thresholds can only be crossed if the person knows the world first by its common shared understanding of reality––what is safe––what is not. That is for openers a very important distinction. I’m a practical, and I hope, judicious person. After that, the difference between material reality and spiritual or psychological reality also needs to be understood. One of the ways to cross quietly is by not using concepts or reduced language but instead by using metaphors and rich images––poetry essentially. And then there’s also the language of unsaying. At the moment, those are my ways.


My piece “The Sacred Does Not Shun the Ordinary” from the collection Sacred Stories, edited by Charles and Anne Simpkinson, explains the power of metaphor:


Our profane stories speak extemporaneously from the moment, from personal experience and understanding from error and mistake, from a windfall picked up after a storm. These ordinary stories are good, bad, or indifferent teachers, uncommon treasures boxes of the human mind and mirrors of its soulful life. The old folk tales especially have a sneaky logic found in poetry, metaphor, and dreams. We can be thankful that they are not given to large statement of meaning, for like the heart, to whom they speak, they prefer experience to discussion, unity to separation. Everything in them has weight, even a feather blowing here and there. They live in the particular while trying to talk politely about everybody. Full of lively images, these old tales carry with them the magic of the created world. Although humble, they hold the possibility of experiencing the miracle of an ordinary day.


You mention string theory sometimes when you perform. Why are you interested in string theory? Does your study of it inform your work? What are you working on now? What can we expect from you in the future?

I’m not greatly informed, but I love reading popular books on new physics (for example, Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe). There’s a great divide in our minds and hearts and in our culture. Science, technology, and mathematics rest in one hand, and humanities, poetry, stories, and philosophy rest in the other. The time has come for systems of thought and ways of being to come together––not to incorporate them into one glob––but to be together like two hands clapping. I sometimes think of science and philosophy as married. I can’t talk about the experiments or mathematics of string theory, but I like to imagine the possibility of vibrations and the possibility of a unified theory.


I’m finishing a novel, and I’m starting a long poem / narrative from the 15th century. I never really think about future work, only what’s happening now.

What Makes a Child Lucky


More Gioia Timpanelli:

Timpanelli at PRX

Timpanelli’s radio series

Timpanelli at Blue Flower Arts

Video of Timpanelli and Phil Ochs

Buy Timpanelli’s books on Amazon



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