Cigar Box Banjo

The heart may be a trashy organ, but when it plucks its shiny banjo...

BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON and the ACORN OF POSSIBILITY

KIM ADDONIZIO and the ACORN OF POSSIBILITY
by Robert Eric Shoemaker

Right now, in a deep pocket of a politician’s brain, a bad idea is traveling along an axon…”

Kim Addonizio is a performer-poet who ensures that the work many call “edgy” stays fresh and relevant. Her poem “Cigar Box Banjo” has just become a MOTIONPOEM, but before it was on film, it was already a poem full of sharp modern imagery and locomotion.

The poem is musical in tone and style, finding patterns in the ridges of dark and “edgy” imagery, like the bag of heroin, or the gravelly voices of the singer and of the first person narrator. It is easy to hear the darkness of a side alley in Kim’s poem, and it remains a portrait of seediness and the beauty inherent to the flip side of life.

As passionate and “now/relevant” as Kim is, she is equally impressive on paper. A Guggenheim Fellowship, Pushcart Prizes, and other lauds dot her resume and bio. She has a provocative voice full of deep images that ring through her poems. Once you’ve read “Cigar Box Banjo,” you don’t easily forget the musical ring of her style. And once you’ve spoken with her, you find it equally hard to forget her personality.

“The heart may be a trashy organ,
but when it plucks its shiny banjo
I see blue wings in the rain…”

MOPO: Can you explain your process and inspiration for writing “Cigar Box Banjo”?

KIM ADDONIZIO: First, I desperately wanted one. I still do. Maybe the poem will help it materialize…The end words of the lines are all words that can be made out of letters in the title, a strategy I took from poet Terrance Hayes. The words determined the direction of the poem. I like having some language and letting it lead me. It’s like those words were the notes I had to hit in the right time, and in the right order.

For fun and recommendations, can you give us the names of a few other poets working in a musical and poetic style similar to your own?  

Well, I like Kevin Young’s sense of music. He’s got a cool book called Jellyroll. He also edited two anthologies, Blues Poems and Jazz Poems, that are great inspiration for anyone wanting to write music-infused verse.

In a previous phone conversation, you used the word “adapt” to talk about moving a poem to the screen. What did you expect from the process of page-to-MOTIONPOEM for this piece? What of “Cigar Box Banjo” do you think lends itself to film?

Films are their own art form; the poem, then, is the raw material that I figure the filmmaker will use for his or her own ends. There’s a lot of auditory imagery that would be fun to hear–orgasm, gypsy song, aria, ocarina. Lots to see, and to put in motion. But I don’t expect a literal translation. I can’t wait to see it all transformed by someone else’s vision.

Can you explain what you meant by “everything containing the seed” of itself?

Yeah, what I was thinking about was the way the oak exists in the acorn. Only in hindsight, though, when you think about it. The acorn just contains the possibility of the oak; maybe it’ll burn in a fire or get eaten by a squirrel or a woodpecker. It’s only looking backwards from the end point that you can see the beginning. Of course, the seed isn’t the beginning. If you really wanted to go back to the source, you’d have to go back to the Big Bang and trace a path from there. Maybe it’s linear, and maybe it’s circular. The tree produces an acorn that produces a tree that produces an acorn… What’s all that got to do with music? I dunno. The banjo is a circular instrument…

We also talked to Addonizio after she saw the film.

What was your first reaction to seeing the film, and how would you describe the resonance of the film with your poem? Are you pleased with the result, and would you recommend others allow their work to be adapted?

I was really pleased to hear Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” –a song I know well– as the soundtrack for this film. That, combined with the reader’s sensuous voice and the imagery, created a beautiful mood and pace that all worked in concert. Every poet should have the experience of having his or her work interpreted, spun, and expanded by a filmmaker.

 

DANNY MADDEN hears BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON
by Robert Eric Shoemaker

Danny Madden understands the link between poetry and image. His body of work includes EUPHONIA, a film about a boy who obsessively records the ambient audio around him, as well as many animated shorts Danny designed himself. “Cigar Box Banjo” is his first foray into a true “MOTIONPOEM,” but his articulate film style is well-suited to working with poetic language. 

This MOTIONPOEM features a series of images overlaid with the poem, as voiced in a breathy whisper- the “long groan
of orgasm in the first kiss.” It’s hard not to see and hear Kim Addonizio’s original poem in every moment of the film, from its bluesy-toned imagery to the background noises associated with each darkly spun word.

Danny Madden is an experienced filmmaker, having worked with the camera since a very young age, when his father encouraged his habit. He now dabbles in the relationship between sound and image in experimental filmmaking, and takes his time articulating some answers for “why ‘Cigar Box Banjo?’”

MOPO: In what sense do you believe you fulfilled Kim’s expectations from the following statement: “Films are their own art form; the poem, then, is the raw material that I figure the filmmaker will use for his or her own ends.” How did you approach the adaptation of the poem?

DANNY MADDEN: Ha, that is certainly not a hypocritical statement from Kim. She was totally open to me taking it and running off in my own direction. The first step in visualizing this, for me, was to put the words in a place. I decided to place it in the mind of a girl who was waking up in the afternoon- a little hungover, a little regretful. She hears the shower from the other room and it sparks this train of thought. It felt like the right context for the things Kim explores in the poem.

How was your artistic approach to this MOTIONPOEM different than other filmic work you’ve done in the past?

The big difference is that I’ve never really directed something I hadn’t written before, so from the start it was interpretation rather than raw creation. Also, this is tonally different than most of what I do. And I typically make things with a strict and clear narrative, so this was a good break from that. We could cut in shots that play abstractly, but support the words.

There are many powerful images in your film, as well as a breathy and resonant reading of the text of the poem. How did you reconcile text and image in your film adaptation of Kim’s poem?

Again, going from my initial reading, it felt like the words should be sober and dry. I had my friend Johanna lay down on the floor to read it. We did about twenty takes, and although I had a cup of water standing by, I never offered it to her. After a while, she slowed down and a bit of raspy-ness rose in her voice. The images really came from that. I think the reading called for some crunchy, lo-fi, slow motion images to compliment it.

smallRobert Eric Shoemaker is a Chicago based poet-playwright, director, and arts journalist. He was awarded the 2014 Olga and Paul Menn Foundation Prize for his musical Plath/Hughes, as well as a 2015 DCASE grant from the City of Chicago for his project “Lorca In America”. In addition to making theatre, Eric is an arts journalist and poet published in Newcity, Evanston Now, Rollick Magazine, the Chicago After Dark Anthology, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Upcoming publications include a book of poetry from Thought Collection Publishing. Follow his work at reshoemaker.com.