To kick off 2016, Preti from Visual Verse emailed me to ask if I would write a poem in response to their image as a commission to sort of prime the pump. Do ducks swim? I was delighted to complete the challenge: 50-500 words written within one hour of viewing the image.
Last night I participated in a truly unique poetry reading sponsored by Ekphrasis. A dozen of us poets dispersed ourselves amongst installations in the Sensing Spaces architectural exhibit at the Royal Academy. As patrons wandered through the exhibits, we read poems to them, which we had written in response to these very spaces.
It was challenging. Bursting into poetry as the spirit moved me felt a bit like trying to be a one-man flashmob. Having never done any busking, I was unaccustomed to people wandering into or out of a room while I was reading a poem. Based on their responses, I think it was challenging, too, for the patrons. I saw many a bemused and bewildered smile.
Often, when we encounter something surprising like a provocative art installation, we seek guidance — in the placards on the walls, or the words of a knowledgeable guide. Yet we poets were the opposite of guides — raising yet more questions in response to their questions, bringing our own thoughts, music, and imagery to bear. The patrons were therefore simultaneously experiencing their own responses to the installations, and responding to ours. Challenging, indeed.
It is hard to know how I got here,
now that we cut the sled dogs loose,
and went our separate ways for help,
hard as pack ice in the footsteps
I crunch into, wondering whose they are,
following a herd of anxious commuters
doubtless on their way to warmth,
raising what look like pitch forks
against the white buildings ahead,
their black tongues crying, “Murder”
as I laugh into the snow-licked wind,
glad not to be the foreman on that rig,
glad to see the thousand-pair kind eyes
blinking out in front of me, soft-nosed
welcome party, parting ways as I approach
the city centre, flushed and sweating,
under this maniacal sun, I skip forward,
breathing heavily, pulling off my clothes.
I found a film of reindeer in the archive.org 35mm Stock Footage collection and, after watching it several times, I began to develop a narrative about a man lost in the Arctic Circle. The poem came from there, followed by the video and effects editing and finally the music and sound effects.
Learning the Letters
Britton, South Dakota, 1939
“F” is for future, bright as a lens,
bubbles in the scrubbing basin,
thin as the skin on aunt Agnes’s hand,
the breakable surface of a pollywog egg.
It’s no shame to be poor, but a shame
to be dirty, since soap is cheap
and water is free, and hats last a lifetime
for those who can’t afford the ribbons and pomade.
One day you will be gee-whiz gone,
just like “T”, like “that”, the last
Cracker Jack in the box, the last farrier
in a town full of town cars — the touchdown
you scored, the gloves, plaques, and blue ribbons
boxed up for safekeeping, which is never quite
safe enough. Outside, it is bright. It is “B”
and you are abuzz at the start of things,
though you “H” and mother says he who “hesitates”
is “L”, which you were once, at the fair,
“lost” in a petrified forest of trousers and skirts,
and will be again job-seeking in Des Moines
or Detroit, the hot, big “D” of Dallas, looking
to make a name that will make the town paper.
There is always a way, when you square up
straight, “F” is for facing the music, the camera,
looking up eye-to-eye as your portrait
gets taken, showing yes, you were “S”
you were somebody, looking, direct and uncertain
down the long barrel of whatever is ahead.
Children of Britton, South Dakota
Filmed by Ivan Besse in 1938
Courtesy Prelinger Archives
8mm projector sound courtesy nemoDaedalus
Music by Valerie Kampmeier
Poem by Robert Peake
Well, not quite. For all I know, we may be related.
But imagine my frustration at being beat in search engine results for my own name by someone who has been dead for almost 400 years. I decided to channel that frustration into a tribute in the form of a digital experiment.
What follows is the poem I wrote for Robert Peake the Elder, an English painter in the court of King James I. I have added links on various phrases in the poem to images of portraits that inspired the text. I have also included audio of me reading the poem, and a gallery of images at the bottom of the page. [Update 3/2/15: We have now produced a film-poem based on this poem as well.]