I started making films when I got a Mac, and learned to use iMovie. Outside of family stuff, the first projects I took on were short silent films to use during poetry readings. In my experience, I had come to understand that poetry, read aloud, is intense, and demands a great deal of attention. Poetry readings are usually unpleasant events, of course, but not always—sometimes they can be unlike any other event in the world. This is because (good) poems dwell outside of narrative. One might even say that they dwell in the moment of narrative’s failure. Emily Dickinson famously called poetry a “banquet of abstemiousness.”
WHO never wanted, —maddest joy
Remains to him unknown:
The banquet of abstemiousness
Surpasses that of wine.
Within its hope, though yet ungrasped
Desire's perfect goal,
No nearer, lest reality
Should disenthrall thy soul.
The “want” she is talking about here is poetry, or at least whatever it is that causes poetry to be written. And she is suggesting that poetry’s response to this “want” is an inverse response—inverse, that is, to the expected response, or maybe even inverse to the natural response. The natural response to hunger is eating food, a meal—in a best case scenario, a banquet. A banquet of abstemiousness is a banquet of lack, but we’re obviously dealing with a metaphor… so we have to ask: lack of what? Lack of narrative?
To think about lack of narrative, we must understand what narrative is. Narrative is what one typically inhabits, whether it is the implicit narrative of one’s own life, or some peripheral narrative that offers itself up for your inhabiting (radio, theater, television, etc….). Narrative is layered, moreover, the story of oneself intertwining with a great variety of other stories. Psychologically, the function of narrative is to provide repose. It does so by way of its presumed scene(s), character(s), plot(s), which work to conceal the subject’s want of orientation. A “banquet” of narrative implies profound repose—the repose that orientation allows for and develops. (At the height of this repose, a person will assert that “everything happens for a reason.” This is to assert that the whole of the universe, at every point in its (constant) transformation, is basically a massive bundle of intertwined stories, each one of which is as it should be. This is the least poetic state a person can enter into.)
A “banquet of abstemiousness,” on the other hand, is an event productive of profound disorientation (and consequentially, a decided lack of repose). A banquet of abstemiousness is preservation (rather than destruction) of want. Such a banquet suggests both the inevitability of disorientation (lest reality/ Should disenthrall thy soul), and the impossibility of orientation (though yet ungrasped/ Desire’s perfect goal). At the same time, Dickinson suggests that it is this banquet, the banquet of lack, that might lead to “maddest joy.” Poetry, by virtue of its foundation in disorientation, allows for a knowing of the world that is “mad.” The intentional preservation of lack… is crazy, but that is because it moves not toward any established narrative, but toward that which resists, and continually disrupts, narrative. That which cannot be presumed. Dickinson is suggesting—and she is persuasive, in my view—that a person can only approach “Desire’s perfect goal” outside of narrative, in experience not yet fitted into any of the existing narratives. The desired goal’s being “ungrasped” is not what disables it—to the contrary, it is what endows it with its potency. “Maddest joy” is not the grasping of orientation… but the desire of orientation, which is only possible—and which indeed is at its most potent—when orientation is most lacking. By leaving want intact (i.e. unsatiated), she implies the visceral presence of a whole person, which is to say, a person who is both aware of narrative and of that which makes narrative impossible.
I mentioned that I got into making films to use during poetry readings. My initial idea was that I could use silent film clips between poems, allowing the audience a time to zone out—a kind of cleansing of the palate, perhaps. Most poets read too quickly, and are difficult to follow for that reason. Between poems, they either don’t allow enough time, or they fill up the time with social speech. Such speech is the antithesis to poetic speech (though of course poems sometimes disguise themselves in social speech), and it is hard for an audience to veer from one sort of speech to the other. Thus, when I do readings, I darken the room as completely as I can, and I refrain from social speech altogether. The next thing I began to think about was the space between the poems. Silence works well, especially in a very dark room. I tried singing, too, thinking that maybe it would be interesting to alternate between voice as speech and voice as sound. I played audio clips, too: sounds of animals, sounds from porn—all kinds of sounds. And then I started to use film clips, as I said, without sound.
I should stress that I did not use anything—audio or film—during the reading of the poems. The proximity of these films, then, to the poems… was always just that: proximity. Thus, if I read first a poem about a need for “new beasts,” and follow it with a film clip in which two women fight, in slow motion, in a 7-11 parking lot… the audience encounters each work as its own separate entity, which may or may not be thought to exist in relation to the other. Eventually I did wonder what it would be like if the audience was seeing a film while hearing the poem. Would this inevitably detract from the poem, i.e. take attention that might have been devoted to the poem, and give it, at least in part, to something else? What we are talking about is really the question of how you decide to deploy the definite and indefinite articles involved: seeing a film while hearing the poem; watching the film while hearing a poem—each combination seems conceivable to me. A poem might occur within a film. I’m not sure, though, that a film can be an aspect of a poem. But I don’t know. I really don’t know.
To make a film is to take on a variety of challenges: the appearance of the film (the visual component), the sound of the film, and the story (narrative, in at least some sense) of the film. I am suggesting, here, that one might conceive of narrative as an essential component in a film. Perhaps it is a question of what we are more vulnerable to: narrative, or lack of narrative. In any case, I think that I approached this project, “Send New Beasts,” as a film. The poem, “Send New Beasts,” I decided, would be but an aspect of the film. I wanted the poem to be read by my daughter, so I sat with her and helped her through it. Then I put the recording into GarageBand and cut it up so as to make the whole of the poem. It was actually more complicated than that, as my daughter read the poem very quickly, so that I also had to create space between lines that wasn’t there in the original. Rather than delete the audio clips I wasn’t using, I dragged them on to another track and muted them. This way, I could have them to make use of if I ever needed them.
The audible speech of the first version of the film I made was, with a couple of small exceptions, just a straightforward reading of the poem. I used the first five or so minutes of Henry Threadgill’s “Grief” also, and some sounds I made on our (exposed) piano in the backyard. I also left some of the film clips’ audio in there (sounds from my backyard, or our visit to the Oregon coast), and the clips sound very strange because they have been slowed way down. One of the distinctive qualities in both of the “Send New Beasts” films I made is the high pitch beeping that underlies the whole soundscape (I don’t know what it is—though I would guess it might be the generator that is attached to the solar panels on our roof). It is a discovered sound, in the sense that one cannot hear it in real time. In real time, it is so fast that—given the sound of the aviary in my neighbor’s yard—it can’t be heard. It is the slowing of the clip that changes the whole sound dynamic, privileging anything occurring regularly. Also, by separating the beeps in time, they become more discernible to the human ear.
It may be possible to turn film into the mad joy of poetic disorientation, but it is always a struggle to do so, as one is always working against the audience member’s inclination to construct narrative. Narrative can perhaps never be completely disallowed. There is always that sad beeping: time, time, time. The second version of the film came about when it occurred to me to unmute the unused tracks in the audio file. I never moved anything around—I just let it lay where it fell. Then I could think about the visual component of the film as not necessarily wedded to the progression of the language—I could think about it instead as simply a specific span of time. The struggle of the film, for me, was to mesh together the visual “narrative,” the soundscape (just piano in the second version), and the voices (the language content/narrative) so that they do the work of the poem, undermining narrative and restoring want to its inherent “mad” dignity. Easier said than done.