What it’s like to have videopoems made of one’s work: an interview with Peg Duthie

This is the first in a series of interviews with poets and remixers who have provided or worked with material from The Poetry Storehouse — a website which collects “great contemporary poems for creative remix.” Anyone who submits to the Storehouse has to think through the question of creative control — how important is it to you, what do you gain or lose by holding on to or releasing control? Our first interview is with Peg Duthie, who shares a thoughtful and very interesting take on these issues.

1. Submitting to The Poetry Storehouse means taking a step back from a focus on oneself as individual creator and opening up one’s work to a new set of creative possibilities. Talk about your relationship to your work and how you view this sort of control relinquishment.

PD: When I was ten, The Hound of the Baskervilles showed up in my life as a graphic novel. The resulting obsession with Sherlock Holmes led to encounters with dozens of adaptations (some sublime, many banal) — including the original Broadway cast recording of Baker Street — and acres of analysis/speculation (some of it illuminating, much of it ludicrous).

So I learned early on that an author has little control over what a reader brings to a text or where they go with it. This lesson was reinforced when I won a state writing competition, and — I presume because I was still in grade school — a local newspaper summed up my work as being primarily about being a child. My winning entry was a multi-act play about a one-armed flute player, so I found the reporter’s mischaracterization both infuriating and instructive: some readers are gonna make your work be about what they’re looking for, even when it’s not, and it’s fruitless to fret about them.

On the other side of the coin, one of my favorite poems is Francis Thompson’s “The Hound of Heaven,” which I would have found wholly indigestible if I’d been introduced to it on paper. But my first collision with it was via a recording by a man whose voice closely resembled Ian Carmichael’s, the actor who’d portrayed Lord Peter Wimsey on BBC radio. So here’s a sprawling, emotionally extravagant poem reaching my ears as narrated by an urbane, Bach-playing detective — a man who cherishes order and precision. Twelve years later, I’m chanting “The Hound of Heaven” to myself while trying not fall off the back of a motorcycle zipping across Mississippi. You can’t dictate that kind of bone-deep connection — or any other type of connection, really — into existence. All you can do is to encourage multiple points of entry and then hope for the best.

2. There is never any telling whether one will love or hate the remixes that result when a poet permits remixing of his or her work by others. Please describe the remixes that have resulted for your work at the Storehouse and your own reactions to them.

PD: At this writing, there have been three, all of “Playing Duets with Heisenberg’s Ghost”: an audio recording by Nic S., a video by Nic S., and a video by Othniel Smith. Both videos use Nic’s reading of the poem.

The camera in Nic’s video travels up and down a series of shallow, wide steps, in what looks like the middle of a forest. It’s a sunny day, but the vegetation is so thick and messy that many of the steps are almost entirely in shadow. In the background, a guitar softly plays Axel Rose’s “Shy Dreams.”

In Othniel’s mix, the camera alternates between two sets of black-and-white footage: scenes from a performance by African American musician Martha Davis (probably with her husband, Calvin Ponder, in the background — we glimpse hands plucking at a bass behind her), and scenes of an atomic bomb at several different stages of detonation.

What these remixes do for the poem is (a) accent some of its preoccupations and (b) bring new layers of potential resonance to the reader-viewer. Nic’s film highlights a juxtaposition of the man-made (the concrete steps) and the wilderness. The blurring of the already fuzzy boundaries between the path and its surroundings (look at those vines and branches and fronds encroaching on the trail) echoes the turn in the poem, where the narrator admits she’s not wholly down with how porous the divide between death and life seems to be.

Othniel’s film radiates energy: Martha Davis is brimming with it. She’s a big, beautiful woman in a ballgown, playing among the potted plants and sateen curtains of a mid-twentieth-century hotel or nightclub. Her eyes are bright and so’s her smile. You can’t hear what she’s playing and it doesn’t matter, because you can see how dialed in she is both to the music and its unseen listeners — sometime she’s leaning into the piano as if it’s just her and it and what her fingers are saying to it, and sometimes she’s giving the audience the “you and me, we’ve got a happy secret between us” look. She’s so alive.

So, juxtaposed against her effervescence, you have the bomb and its pouffy poison-clouds. A different kind of bigness and brightness, in what looks like the middle of nowhere. Out of context, it’s rather abstract and arguably beautiful — but you can’t escape from the real world for long, so Martha and her piano get the last word, so to speak (even though her audience may well have included scientists from UChicago or UCLA seeking a night’s break from their work).

Or do they? After I watched Othniel’s video, I looked up Martha Davis and found that she’d died of cancer at the age of 42. I’d figured that she might already be dead, given the period nature of the footage, but that nonetheless spooks me, watching someone who is at once so vibrantly alive and yet fundamentally isn’t. The landscape of Nic’s video reminds me of Heisenberg’s love of hiking, as well as the walk in the woods with Bohr that torpedoed what was left of their friendship (another narrative I first encountered as part of a graphic novel, incidentally). The reflection of Martha’s hands in the piano’s mirror strip has me wanting to sketch out new poems about fallboards and flirting and fumbling-for-words-for-what-fingers-do.

3. Would you do this again? What is your advice to other poets who might be considering submitting to The Poetry Storehouse?

PD: Absolutely. Truth be told, my first reaction each time I learned about the videopoems was an “Eeeeeeeeeeee!”-filled happy dance. There are so very many other things that people could be that it’s impossible not to feel honored when someone chooses to spend time with something I’ve written. And then when they choose to revisit that something, and to invest time in the recording and research and editing — that’s an amazing feeling.

There’s also that thing about providing multiple entry points: some of the people now telling me how much they like the poem are longtime friends who connected to it via Othniel’s video. I’m certain Martha Davis drew some of them in (“What in the world does she have to do with quantum mechanics?”); some of them really dig videos; some of them haven’t bought my book (which is fine! I don’t get around to buying or even reading/watching/hearing everything my friends make, either!); and some of them read my blog or tweets maybe once every four months, so whether they hear about a poem at all depends on schedules and stars aligning just so. So again, I’m acutely conscious of the attention as a gift.

Sort-of-advice-wise, I feel that different authors will have different thresholds for what they’re comfortable having other people play with, and with their ability to handle the interest (or a lack thereof) to what they offer — I say this not from my experience with the Storehouse, but from general observation — so I think things are more likely to be fruitful when writers are candid with themselves about their boundaries, their expectations, and how much self-promotion they’re willing to do on behalf of the republished work.

That said, I also think the selection-for-submission process can be a fun exercise whether one eventually hits “send” or not. Allowing myself to imagine where a remixer might go clarified some aspects of where I am now (e.g., “hmm, not ready for a stranger’s spin on that” or “Good lord, pretentious much?”), as well as suggesting some riffs I might want to pursue myself.

4. Is there anything about the Storehouse process or approach that you feel might with benefit be done differently?

PD: To my knowledge, everyone else involved with the Storehouse has way more experience in collaborating and remixing than I. I’m still taking in the possibilities.

5. Is there anything else you would like to say about your Poetry Storehouse experience?
 
PD: I’ve enjoyed peeking at some of the other republications and remixes. Jennifer Swanton Brown’s collage on Erica Goss’s “Afternoon in the Shape of a Pear” is nifty, especially in how its links take the visitor to other remixes. Sarah Sloat’s “Dictionary Illustrations” is captivating. I’m looking forward to browsing around some more and offering remixes myself at some point — probably audio. Possibly calligraphy/collage. Possibly translation (probably in French). Quite possibly launching off a line or two into an entirely new poem. I wish I had the chops to produce comics: I can storyboard Kate Marshall Flaherty’s poems in my head, but actually drawing the panels isn’t in my skill set. Alas.

Also, I confess I get a kick out of the connections that led me to the Storehouse and have since been created by my being a part of it. I first heard about the Storehouse through Rachel Barenblat, who is another native of Texas, although at this point I think she’s spent over half of her life in Massachusetts, and I’ve spent 88 percent of mine east of the Mississippi. But we both grew up as minority women in the South (she’s Jewish, I’m Taiwanese) and sometimes I know she just gets my lover’s quarrel with my home region when there being love (or quarrel) at all has other people furrowing their brows. And then for a poem to be read by Nic, whose accent is primarily English (I think? I’m terrible at placing accents) but who has lived in Virginia longer than I’ve been in Tennessee, and then for that reading to inspire a playwright in Cardiff…

Nic S.

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