only a few people really try to understand relativity like my father...
We talked with “Albert Einstein” poet Matthew Zapruder and filmmaker John Akre.
Interview with poet Matthew Zapruder
by Anne Geske
Matthew Zapruder is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Sun Bear (Copper Canyon, 2014) and Come On All You Ghosts (Copper Canyon, 2010), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He has received a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship, a William Carlos Williams Award, a May Sarton Award from the Academy of American Arts and Sciences, and a Lannan Foundation Residency Fellowship in Marfa, Texas. An Assistant Professor in the St. Mary’s College of California MFA program and English Department, and an Editor-at-Large at Wave Books, he lives in Oakland, California.
MOPO: When I read your poem, Albert Einstein, I felt present with specific moments and images, then instantaneously transported to different places and moments in time. Can you talk a little about what you were thinking when you wrote the poem, what the spark was for you?
ZAPRUDER: There are times when a phrase (or in this case a name) occurs to me, and then immediately after I think, “that is a truly terrible title,” usually because there’s already so much said about it that it seems hard to find a place of not-knowing out of which to write the poem. But in the end, sometimes those moments in language around which we think we know so much, actually have room for speculation. That seemed to be the case here.
Determinist and “beautiful guesses”: These are tantalizing ideas together and within the context of the poem. It brings to mind the wonder and complexity of each moving part of the universe, the order and chaos. Could you say a little about the line, “beautiful guesses”?
The word determinist, which I’m not even totally sure is a word, and the phrase “old determinist,” just appealed or maybe better to say appeared to me, and seemed like it “belonged” in the poem, and then when I thought more consciously about it, I realized that it did. I know almost nothing about physics, but determinism (the idea that things are pre-ordained to be a certain way) seems like it would be one likely response in trying to figure out why things are the way they are. There’s also a certain arbitrariness to being determined to do anything at all, a kind of faith that it will all work out in the end, that one needs when writing poems or coming up with ideas in theoretical physics. I’ve never thought about it this way until now, but in a way the instinct to put a certain word (like “determinist”) into a poem is a kind of beautiful guess, because it’s based on beauty and music and not knowledge. Only later can a poet decide if that’s really the right word, but in the process of composition you just have to just as Frank O’Hara said go on your nerve. As far as “beautiful guesses,” there also seems to me to be something about science that is aesthetic: whatever the instinctive part of scientific insight is, is related to a sense of a “beautiful” solution, i.e. one that works. It seems possible that in both poetry and science beauty and function are interrelated.
In a previous interview, you compared a line of Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha” to a very short film. That’s very descriptive of what a poem can do. I experience Albert Einstein something like a cross between a spirit flowing between worlds and a bird swooping down on continents—like I’m actively dreaming it. I haven’t yet seen the film for your poem, and it will be interesting to see the filmmaker’s vision—a different dream. Has working with the film changed your own experience with the poem in any way, as the author?
What I was saying about the Hiawatha lines was that the way the line moves, in time, is a bit like a film: dark behind it rose the forest. Each word succeeds upon the previous one, visually and/or conceptually, in a way that is like (though not exactly similar to) how the frames of a film proceed in time. Film of course is only visual (and also auditory): words can summon up visual things, but are also conceptual and sonic and historical and personal. So again, words in a line don’t work exactly the way the frames of a film do, but there’s some overlap between the two that can be interesting to think about, both in the process of composition as well as in reading.
As for whether the film has changed the poem for me, I think only in that it was weird and exciting to see the way that the lines of the poem visually manifest in someone else’s imagination. I don’t see things and write about them: I write them and then see them (and if something is not see-able but presents itself as something that should be, I will work with it in the revision process to make it see-able, though of course not everything a poem needs to be able to be seen). So visually, I’m in the same position as anyone else reading the poem. One of the many things I love about the film is how the filmmaker sees the characters in it as these wooden figures. That seems like a brilliant filmic insight that manifests something that is true emotionally about the way the speaker is feeling. I also love how he will occasionally have photographic moments in a mostly drawn film, that felt kind of shocking and very emotional for some reason to me, I can’t say exactly why.
What other experiences have you had with the convergence of your writing and another art form?
To my great gratitude, a lot of those kinds of experiences. That has in fact been one of the nicest and most unexpected things about being a poet. For instance, I have written poems based on paintings, particularly the work of Chris Uphues. Also, Martina Hoffman did a pretty incredible version of my long prose poem The Pajamaist, which was published in a German edition, translated by Ron Winkler.
Recently, I’ve been fortunate to have two amazing young composers use my work separately for performances at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. Gabriel Kahane has put several poems to music, including three in a piece titled Come on All You Ghosts, after the title of the book previous to Sun Bear. And Missy Mazzoli used parts of poems from both Come on All You Ghosts and Sun Bear as the words for a piece called Vespers for a New Dark Age, which also premiered at Carnegie Hall. I love both these artists and their work, immensely, and was so honored to be at all involved in what they do. Really though in those cases I just watched it happen, in awe of their work. It’s great to be a poet in that way: poems seem useful sometimes for musicians and visual artists and (as in this case) filmmakers and others, and you’ve already done all the work, so you can just sit back and watch them do something else very cool with it.
Interview with filmmaker John Akre
by Anne Geske
MOPO: How long have you been a filmmaker?
AKRE: I started making movies when I was 9 years old, shooting goofy movies with my friends and brother and sisters on a wind-up 8mm camera. Among my first movies were also animated cartoons, which I made with paper cut-outs and then with clay.
You have a background in both art and journalism–how do these mesh in your life/current work?
I went to film school in college and focused on documentary, and spent two decades creating that kind of work for community television. But I also felt like I had left something important behind when I gave up animation in college. So around 10 years ago, I started drawing again and learning animation software. The animation is something somewhat new, or something that is old and new all over again. Lots of people have been finding wonderful intersections between documentary and animation and I am excited about those possibilities too.
What have you been doing this year?
One thing I have been doing is running what I call the Street Animation Station, a mobile stop motion animation machine that I set up at public events. I create stop motion animation with whoever wants to linger a while and help, and I can play it back on a screen right away, so we can all see what we are doing while we are doing it. I also like old things, especially old places that are gone, and have been working the last couple years on an animated feature set in the long-ago demolished Gateway District of Minneapolis. I have been trying to support myself as a video-maker and artist, so of course what I have been doing for twenty years, the community documentary work, is what I have been doing mostly to make money, but recently I have been getting some paid projects that involve animation in them, which is exciting to me. I work with my partner, Beth Peloff, in a company we started last year called Green Jeans Media. I also am getting ready for the animation festival I am organizing for the fall. This will be the third year of MinnAnimate, a festival of animation from Minnesota.
Could you talk a little bit about how you came to be involved with the Motionpoems project?
I loved the whole Motionpoems thing and was often wondering how I could get involved with it, but I never did anything but wonder about it and I actually got asked if I wanted to do one. So I jumped at the chance to do it.
Did Motionpoems select this poem before approaching you?
After I was asked to do a motionpoem, I was given several poems to choose from. I was excited to see “Albert Einstein” among them because I had read it in The Believer and loved it.
Did you feel a sense of connection to the poem as you worked with it? How did you relate to the poem and what was the creative process like for you?
My father passed away three years ago, so I took the poem personally. Often when I read something, I have images in my head that accompany it, my own movie. I expect many people do this. My creative process was really just being aware of those images and drawing them out. The image of the elevator in space is something from Einstein that has always resonated with me. The idea of someone being in a windowless elevator in outer space and dropping things is not only a great illustration of relativity, but is also a great image of loneliness. When I hear anything about Einstein, I get that elevator image, so it was natural that I saw it when I read the poem.
What it was like working with Matthew Zapruder, and how much did you collaborate for the film?
I had already created much of the animation when I began to email Matthew Zapruder. I wanted to hear the poem in his voice, and wanted to use that voice for the soundtrack. The Motionpoems people hooked me up with him, and that was great. I was a little startstruck. We sent some emails back and forth and then did an interview on Skype.
I tried recording him reading the poem on Skype, because I wanted the voice in the reading to be coming from that elevator in space, or somewhere far away. That recording wasn’t as good as one he recorded himself and sent me. I didn’t show him the animation until I had it nearly all done. He was comfortable with me doing what I wanted to do with his piece, and that is really a great responsibility. Everybody has their own images of something when they read a thing – in this case the images in my head got a special privilege, and that’s really a special honor.
And then after the interview, I spent a lot of time on the soundtrack. The folks at Motionpoems and Egg Creative helped me on this, as I battled between my desire for a certain amount of incomprehensibility and noise in the soundtrack with the audience’s need to actually hear the reading. For much of the soundtrack I used surface noise from an Edison 78 rpm disk from 1907 that I found in a box of records left for the garbageman in my neighborhood a few years ago. The music is almost completely buried under the noise of all the scratches, and it’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.
Anne Geske is a Minneapolis writer.