Noah Saterstrom is a visual artist who’s also my neighbor here in Tucson; he’s a good friend, and I’ve known him since he collaborated with Noah Eli Gordon and me some years ago when the three of us lived in Denver. Saterstrom made some wonderful pieces for a book that Gordon and I wrote called Figures for a Darkroom Voice. We gave him the finished manuscript after Tarpaulin Sky Press offered to publish it, and he did half a dozen line drawings quickly. He made a painting for the cover too, and it came out beautifully. Four or five years went by. Then late last fall—after we’d both moved to Tucson at different times for different reasons—I found myself over at his studio with a bunch of drawings and paintings under my arm, telling myself I was “Christmas shopping.”
That’s how I got a hold of Saterstrom’s drawing called “Rurnt.” To describe: I guess it’s an old mansion in the woods encircled sloppily in what could almost be a thought bubble. I suppose it looked like something I’d write towards. And it seemed plenty haunted to me. I just loved it right off.
So, I took it home and put it directly above my desk in my office. In the drawing, underneath this old house—in a separate part of the canvas—are eight or ten words: Rurnt, runt, ruined, rent, sknt, skint, skunk, shant, shard. They’re hand-drawn in the same pencil that’s sketched the walls and pillars and half-forest above them. It’s scribbly. The handwriting looks quick—not childlike exactly, but scrawly, messy.
A few of the words don’t look like words at all. Actually, they look almost like words: sknt and skint, for example. And it reminded me of Dickinson: those words (synonyms? anchors? possibilities?) hanging out low on the pages of her fascicles. They speak to the body of the poem, but they’re outside it. And being “outside” makes us re-think what the world of the text itself is. With “Rurnt” there’s a lovely, patient pressure between this list of words and the drawing above them.
When John Bresland kindly asked me if I’d like to contribute a film to this project, I immediately thought of Saterstrom’s “Rurnt.” I wanted to find some language that could be a counterpoint to it—not quite speak to it directly, but walk in stride with it. I love how “Rurnt” is sketchy and clear at the same time. It seems to shift between these simple marks and a starkness of image somehow. I'm not sure how. You can see the scribbles, and yet the outline and shape of the structure is impossible to see past as well.
I discovered a bit of my own writing that I thought might perform that same type of sketchy starkness. And the excerpt (in my voice) that comprises the film’s audio track is from the final work in a five-book sequence called No Volta I’ve been working on since 2006—around the time I met Saterstrom, actually. It’s called Shimoda’s Tavern.
Anyhow, I like it when you hear the writing of the language—feel the subjectivity of the author in the rhetorical moves of a text—and yet can’t help but wander into another world with the writing. I love a stark mystery. I love how clear, clean language can map that unfolding, unfurling thing. And I think the questions (“Now, who is that in the river?” “What were their names?”) perform that weird finding-out-ness. The intimacy of "who" or "what" questions (i.e., that “yes” or “no” answers won’t suffice) is compelling to me. It implies that the speaker and addressee know each other well enough to engage in this way, but apparently not well enough for the asker to already know the answer to these particular questions.
The text doesn’t mirror Saterstrom’s “Rurnt” as such, but there is a ghostly familiarity there that I tried to toy with as I tested out different ways of revealing the drawing’s lines through the pan over/out apparatus on iMovie. I made the film quickly and intuitively, and I re-recorded the audio a few times to try and get it in under two minutes. The words at the bottom of “Rurnt” remain off-screen phantoms. That seemed okay somehow.
To my mind, there's something in that reveal of intimacy that's electric. Yet there’s also something conversational, easy, and sort of unhinged about it that drew this bit of language together with this drawing. This is what I’m hoping, anyway.
I didn’t tell Saterstrom that I was going to do it. I just made the movie late one Friday night and figured I’d show it to him afterwards to see if he liked it. If he wasn’t down, I’d start over some place else. I put the first draft up on Vimeo to show Bresland, and I emailed the link to Saterstrom too. He wrote back the next morning: “Oh Hell Yes….I love a sleeping collaboration.” Meaning, I guess, that while he was asleep we were collaborating nonetheless.