Updated: Oct 26, 2018
by Amy Alexander
When they hear the term folklore, most people imagine ghosts, gnomes living under toadstools, spells, roots used as medicine, and all sorts of obscure things we enjoy but have little use for in our daily lives.
At least, that is what I thought it was.
That was a few years ago, at the beginning of my studies in literature and creative writing at the University of Louisiana, which happens to have one of a few folklore programs in the country. At the time, I signed up for a folklore in literature class, thinking about all of the quaint, old-fashioned tales I would be reading over the course of the semester.
It didn’t take me long to start feeling like I was walking in a hall of mirrors each time I tried to understand or articulate what folklore really was.
Turns out, it included the way I dressed when I went to ride my bicycle, how my friend’s mom arranged the centerpieces on her holiday tables, how to make a biscuit, weird stories told to a friend of someone’s friend, dance, theatre, lectures, the strange habits of my professors, Virgin Mary statues in front of the traditional Cajun healers’ homes, flags at Jazz fest, cheers, schoolyard taunts, and pick up lines.
In other words, anything that people use to transmit meaning to one another and themselves. Author William A. Wilson says that folklore is, “"Things people make with words (verbal lore), things they make with their hands (material lore), and things they make with their actions (customary lore).”
Using that broader definition of folklore, then, and it becomes a multi-tool for understanding and interpreting life, and also for writing literature.
I was hooked.
I ended up abandoning creative writing altogether and earning a master’s degree in English with an emphasis on folklore. I have never regretted it. Along with learning how to detect folklore, my training included learning how to gather folklore in its rawest form through interviews. I am looking forward to talking to many writers about their use of folklore and the folkloric elements that most inspire them.
In this column, we will be exploring how writers use folklore, in its broadest definition, to bring energy and gravity to their work. When a writer describes his mother making tortillas, that is folklore. When one recalls a chant they shared with their friends at midnight during slumber parties, that is folklore. When a poet tells a story passed from his grandparents, down, that is folklore. When a slam poet gathers with others to figure out the best way to deliver her poem, the rules they follow to uphold the tradition of their art form are folklore. The way a person peels a label off of a beer bottle, carefully, and what it means? Bingo! Folklore again.
The title “Campfire Wires” reveals a fascinating truth about folklore: It can happen and is transmitted in real life and also through the internet. We are just now understanding the impact of the web on folklore and folklife.
To get us started, I wanted to share a poem I wrote that draws heavily on folklore. If you find examples of folklore used in interesting ways by writers you admire, feel free to send them to me @iriemom.
My grandmother’s quilt, heavy, secure
like a beast, keeping me in the here,
I’m always flashing forward to what I’ll do,
the for moving of the china fro and to,
the washer, then the meal, then the sink,
and back again, as if it’s a spell. I think
I wouldn’t conjure it, anymore, if I lived on ideals,
a single plate of glass held fast above the trees
would also hold me. For I don’t ask
for purses, fancy heels, flashing signatures. The task
would be in letting myself let go,
seeing the butcher block, the knives, the polish, and saying no
Amy Alexander is a writer and artist from Baton Rouge whose work has appeared most recently in Anti-Heroin Chic, Cease, Cows, The Mojave Heart Review, and Dirty Paws Review. She holds a master's degree in folklore from the University of Louisiana. Her chapbook, "The Legend of the Kettle Daughter," is forthcoming in April of 2019 from Hedgehog Poetry Press. Follow her on Twitter @iriemom.