Sometime in February, I braved the cold and snow to see Xavier Jordan tell a story at the Jazz Showcase. It was a true story about someone who is a school teacher and also a horrible person. He reveals himself to be a horrible person through a series of escalating incidents, starting with kicking a student out of his class for sneezing. Now, four months later, that story continues to stay with me. Of course, it’s not surprising that a story told by one of Chicago’s live lit performers is memorable. What is surprising is that this storyteller is seventeen years old. You may know a number of teenagers who can spin a hell of a good yarn. I certainly do. But how many of them tell stories on stage alongside local literary celebrities? Xavier Jordan is one of a kind. The son of The Moth Grand Slam Champion Lily B, he has come of age at the epicenter of the live lit movement and has performed at a variety of the city’s reading series so many times that everyone has lost count. He’ll be leaving Chicago for college come summer’s end, returning to perform only during breaks. But he’s a tireless storyteller, so keep an eye on the calendar for show announcements or come out to the Printers Row Lit Fest this weekend, where he’s featured at a special installment of Stoop-Style Stories taking place at the Guild Literary Complex tent at Dearborn and Polk on Sunday at 11am. This week, he performed at The LitMash on Monday, graduated from high school on Tuesday, and got together with me for an interview at Fabcakes on Wednesday. We ate triple berry cheesecakes because, as he put it, “Why would anyone get raspberry cheesecake when you can get triple berry cheesecake?”
What was your first public storytelling experience?
My mom had been doing Grown Folks Stories for a couple of years and she said, “You have to come.” She always wanted me to tag along with her. That’s just one of those things where you’re like “Ahbehghhh. MOM, just let me do my own thing.” Because she was taking me to all these art shows and stuff, and I never really liked it. But I went. And the people and environment, it was amazing, all so welcoming. I didn’t perform that time. But I said, “We’re coming back.” When we were there, in the moment, I was like, “I have to go up there.” And I did. I loved it. I told a story about when I was on a camping trip with a few friends of mine.
So how old were you when you told this first story at Grown Folks?
I was fifteen.
Not really a grown folk.
Not really a grown folk, no. Not at all. It took a while for them to even pretend that I’m a grown folk. But after a while, they warm up to you. I think Here’s the Story is where I really caught on. Just great people. I just got to know everyone and those connections just bring you into the rest of the community.
What made you want to do this?
The things I was into before, they were just go-with-the-flow kind of things, or math and science, which I love and I’m good at, but there was no real conviction. I wasn’t happy about test scores, they didn’t bring a light to my day. But something that I was into that actually interested other people? Just talking? Something that’s so fluent and easy, like I’m doing now, you know? Something that I could tell people I do, and actually get a spark of interest? People have a set idea of, like, a doctor or a veterinarian, and it doesn’t matter what you tell them—they just have their idea, what they’ve grown up with. But with a storyteller, you gotta explain. And I like explaining things.
It sounds to me like, for you, audience is key.
Oh, definitely. It’s such a great experience, to have friends be part of your work, basically. They are a part of it, they really are.
What’s your writing process like?
It took me a while to get the process. My mom, she’s a wonderful storyteller. I always say that she’s been a storyteller all her life, life only decided to give her a stage just a few years ago. She doesn’t write her stories down. Rarely. She just knows them by heart and then she improvises on stage every time.
Is that what you do, too?
I used to. But then I started writing, and I realized I tell a much better story if there’s a set order, and if I don’t write it, I forget many points. It’s hard to notice that you’ve missed things while you’re telling a story, and not kick yourself for it—and that affects the performance—so you’ll start over, or you’ll say it at a different time and it won’t fit into the context at all and you’ll just sound like some old guy saying, “Oh, I forgot this one part…” So I would write it with an order, edit this, edit that, get the wording down, read it out loud a number of times, get the timing down, realize when the laughs—when any sort of reaction—would come, because Scott Whitehair, my favorite performer of all anything, he knows every time someone is going to react, he knows, and he knows how long to wait, he knows when to cut the audience off.
And you actually plan for that? You mark it on your pages?
Yeah, yeah. Laugh here, quiet here, pause, hand gestures—I write all that down. I type the content and then I write all this other stuff with pen.
Is this just your instinct? You just thought to yourself, “I need to start marking these things?” Because it’s something that’s taught. I took a class called Story and Performance at Columbia College, and they taught us to mark our pages in a similar way—where you’re going to pause, or place emphasis, or go for direct address. And you’re doing all this instinctively.
Yeah, it’s weird. It’s like that kid who invented calculus. It just felt intuitive. I’ve just been in it so long that I started to get the types of things that people would have to go to class for. Just like with anything, really, like being a scientist, or writing a book—you write enough crappy books, you’ll realize what’s wrong and what’s right. People improve. But only so much. You have to have some talent at your core. I’m not going to be a chef. I can’t do it. I burned things as a kid. I’m okay now. I can make a good omelet. But I’m not going to be Ramsey or Cordon Bleu or whoever the hell.
How do you think you’ve improved as a storyteller?
I’ve developed more of a character, or, uh, not a persona, but sort of an attitude across all my telling, a voice. When I was starting out, it was just—tell a story. Whatever comes out, comes out. Whatever doesn’t, doesn’t. But after a while, you realize what people expect, and when it’s okay to meet those expectations and when it’s not okay—when you don’t have to, when you shouldn’t. There’s a thing I do sometimes where it’s just organized chaos, just fast, a beat here, a beat there, just keep going through. I love when I can do that, where I just roll through a story like a freight train. That’s something I developed over time—the story part became easy, the ideas, just getting each piece of detail, knowing how order works, and everything in between is what took a lot of time, but that’s why the freight train thing is my favorite part, because it’s just concentrated everything, and I feel like I’m in hyper mode, like when I told the story about being on the swim team. I got to play the serious here’s-what’s-going-on, and the funny little details, my time there, and then I go into the race, the time when I won the city championship, that’s when I can go really fast, pump though—it’s a race!—detail, detail, as fast as possible, what I saw, what I heard, what I thought, what I remembered at the time—all in, like, thirty seconds—relive it, just hit everything.
It sounds like you really understand how a story works. Do you ever submit your work?
Never to be published. There are a lot of storytellers who are great, but not published. Like my mom, she doesn’t have a lot of published work. She just tells. She won at Grand Slam, man. That’s like, you’re a man now, spread your genius to the world—in a different way, not in the Bar Mitzvah kind of way…
Did you say “spread your genes” to the world?
GENIUS. GENIUS. GENIUS. Genes is good, too. Ha.
Ha! So a good story, is that all you need for a good reading series?
If you’re hosting, you need to publicize well, you need a good attitude, you need to know your performers, to experience them before you just say, “Come to my show.” There are some shows where it’s a mixed bag, but the wrong mix. People try to mix environments, like poetry and comedy and stories, and you just end up getting people who are there for a show that it’s not. LitMash is an event that’s on and off when it comes to the audience. It’s a good bag of people, when, you know, they’re completely objective: “I’m here for a good show, doesn’t matter what it is. I’m gonna watch it and I’m gonna enjoy it.” But sometimes a bunch of people come and they’re just there for poetry, and the performers who are there to play music or do stand-up or tell stories, they get less of a reaction, and they end up feeling a lot less competent. I had a friend who told a story to poetry fans and it seemed sub-par, but she told the same story at The Moth and it killed. Those are the types of experiences that lessen the artist and the audience. It’s not good for anyone. A bad audience is bad for everyone.
You performed at LitMash on Monday, and that show, it claims to present the city’s “literary elite.” Are you the city’s literary elite?
There is a higher group of people. I am probably the worst of the best. Stephanie Douglass, Scott Whitehair, Cara Brigandi—MY MOTHER, Lily B, of course—Don Hall, there are so many, so many—I haven’t even—Dana Norris, there’s so many, they’re just up there, they’re so great, you know, and they realize they’re good at it, and they publicize it so well, that they become stars, just meteors. I love it. I love being part of that set so much, that circle of just, like, amazing people.
How can other teens get into this circle?
Just by going outside. Just going out. Seeing people, watching them, enjoying it. Of course, a big challenge is just physically attending events. It’s hard to make a name for yourself when half of the live lit scene belongs to clubs or bars. It’s hard to find any storytelling show in general for teenagers. I was just put into it. I just found one that was all ages, Grown Folks. But the thing that got me into more all-ages events was just talking to the people there, just asking. Nine times out of ten, the hosts will know ten times more about everything in the city than anyone else in the room. That’s how they have their own show. They went to all these other shows. You just have to ask. And they’re willing to help, ‘cause they’re not, like, snobs. They want everyone to be part of this. It’s not dog eat dog. Let’s just have all the dogs eat food. And if you can’t do it, support, you know. Being a part of live lit doesn’t mean you have to be on that stage. Everything will come full circle. People notice. There are people who don’t care, but you don’t want to be involved with those people, anyway. And then there are people who do care, who do notice, and those are people who will support you eventually.
Any chance you’ll start a reading series for underage performers and audiences?
Absolutely! I would love to do that. Yeah, that’s my plan. I would love to have a show where we get stories from anyone, seriously anyone, anyone who wants to spread some sort of message, whether it be about something they did two weeks ago or whether it be about their entire life story—people who have a voice and maybe haven’t been heard, I would like to have that microphone for them.
Do you think a lot of teens would show up? Or are you rare?
No, I’m definitely not rare. I’m just someone who happened to have a mother who was a catalyst, which some kids just don’t have, you know. And there should be a show for teenagers, specifically, so there is no subtle ridicule or condescension. There has to be some sort of transition into lit for kids. It’s very hard. Anyone who’s done it knows it’s an unorthodox way of becoming a performer, even for adults who’ve gone to school to study this for years, until, finally, they say, “Screw it, I’m gonna do it.” They could have already been doing it for years and been amazing by now. So it would be great for any kid to be like, “Oh, hey, you want to go to this show? This thing is happening next week, wanna go?” I would love that. And I know so many young people who would want to go, people who listen to NPR, Whose Line Is It Any? and all that stuff. But there’s not a show for them. It’s hard. It’s very hard. Whenever you have a kid on a show, like on a talk show, there’s not a lot of momentum, it’s just, “Hey we’re talking to a kid!” and everyone knows that, instead of, “We’re talking to a person who has something to say.” Some people have experienced this for so long that there’s a stigma in showing your voice, and kids feel that stigma, and that just prevents them from talking at all, it keeps them in a box of their own. I’m glad I had people who told me to speak.
Have you gotten any of your friends into the live lit scene?
There are those who aren’t into it, or are like, “Alright, that’s cool. Tell me a joke.” And then there are others who are like, “That’s wonderful. I want to come see you,” and they do. I try to get as many as I can to come see me.
And how does it affect your love life?
My love life affects my live lit more than the other way around. I never pressure myself to do a billion performances in the same week, so it’s not like I ever get so crazy busy that my relationship can crumble. I keep my lives separated—family, school, friends, sports, clubs, relationships—so when I get to perform in front of all of them, it feels very cathartic. Also: ladies like a dude who can talk real good.
All in all, then, would you say it’s worth it?
It makes me feel better about anything I say or do, it validates it, or invalidates it, in a way that this is stupid, I don’t know why I got so bent out of shape about things like this. It invalidates your fears. Academically, it makes me a better writer, a better speaker, and gives me confidence in everything. It just taught me that if you have something to say, just say it, don’t worry if it’s wrong. A lot of kids, if they’re not sure, if they think it might be wrong, they’re not gonna try—why bother? Have a smarter kid do it. But why? We’re in the same room. We’re both here. Why am I less than you? I’ll say what I think, and if I’m totally wrong, I got to say something, and some people got to hear me say it. Even in the most right-and-wrong contexts, like even in a math class—I was taking calculus—who cares? Just say it. And English lit—is—a—breeeeze. Just! Ohhh! I can write a ten-page paper during lunch, you know? If you have twenty minutes, you have a world of thought! A world of ideas! And I love it. Because it feels so natural to put my words on paper.
What about college? Has it helped you with that?
Oh!! Ohhoho! YEAH.
But it is a lot of work, isn’t it?
It’s not the grindstone. It’s a break from everything else. In my room with my laptop or a sheet of paper, no sound, no noise, maybe some classical music, or jazz, nothing with lyrics—it’s just a place to be a human being. Because so many people suck. It’s like death. It’s inevitable. You’re going to suck eventually. You’re going to get older and something is going to happen to you that will make you suck for a while, maybe make you a really mean person. There’s always the danger of sucking. But the great part about it is that, unlike death, you can not die, you can come back up, rise from the dead, and not suck for a while. Oh, I used to suck so bad! When I was a kid? I was such a smart-ass piece of crap, and I know I’ll suck again soon. It’s a rise and fall, it’s a sine curve, you know, up/down, up/down—life, you know? But just take a look at what’s happening around you and find things to enjoy. If you enjoy what’s happening now, and know that you can never know what will happen later, good or bad—that helps to keep you from sucking. And having that thing in your brain—“Oh, I’m going to do something crappy today”—I don’t have that, not when I’m enjoying my work, and enjoying my performance. Because so many people don’t suck. Oh, so many people are great. And I get excited knowing that someone, anyone, may hear this, that I will have a voice that’s not just in my head. That’s exciting to me.