A Day at the Mall Reminds Me of America
I wonder if Kanye knows that these girls are experimenting.
Chill Weather is Upon Us—Prepare the Fire, Take Cover
We talked with “A Day at the Mall Reminds Me of America” poet Sarah Blake and filmmaker Ayse Altinok.
Interview with Sarah Blake
by Arisa White, Motionpoems Citizen Journalist
“A Day At the Mall Reminds Me of America” appears in Sarah Blake’s debut
collection, Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West. A New York Times review points out that the book’s main strength lies in the “central connection that Blake makes between herself, as impending mother to a son, and Kanye’s mother.” That strength is apparent in “A Day At the Mall Reminds Me of America.”
As a poet myself, I was interested in Blake’s process, the moments that led to the artifact, a poem that speaks to those tender feminine aspects of our nature, inclusive of the violence and micro-aggressions in our relating and what we inherit from each other. The last line of “A Day at the Mall” turns my attention to cultural inheritance and the environments that nurture who we become: “And if my child has a vicious tongue, it will take shape lapping at my breast.” Blake admits that “We are mean—and it’s our responsibility to not be mean, to apologize after we have been, and to ask others not to be mean,” furthermore it is poetry’s role to “start discourse.”
In the Q&A that follows, Blake talks more about Kanye West as inspiration and the crafting of “A Day At the Mall.”
This poem is the expressive product of an experience, which most likely included several experiences/encounters, on different levels, from diverse and varied spheres of influences. What were those experiences that intersected to bring this poem to form?
Three things intersected for this poem: walking through the mall as a woman early in her pregnancy; seeing my sister’s friends write horrible things on her Facebook wall when they were all 12 and 13; and thinking about all the backlash Kanye West was getting for interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
With almost all of my poems, the first few lines come quickly, and then I let the rest of the poem follow the instincts of those lines. Long, short, endstopped, enjambed, etc. Even if those first lines get cut later, they still leave their effect.
What kind of conversation(s) is this poem having with Kanye West, within and outside of the poem?
Kanye West had a pretty huge reaction to the backlash [he received from the Taylor Swift incident]. He left the country, spending time in Japan and Italy and doing an internship at Fendi. I wanted to spend a poem talking about how young girls were stuck communicating in this land of extremes and were not worried about being hurtful even to a friend. I wanted to lessen the blow. Though I only felt comfortable doing that because this poem appears in a section of the book that also highlights and condemns the worst of the backlash.
Where was the struggle for you in this poem? At what point did it teach you?
As I imagine is the case for most poets, the struggle came in the revision—cutting the handholding, trusting the reader, trusting the poem, finding the ending. When I did find this ending, I realized the poem had been missing my accountability, which it really needed. Initially the poem talked about the girls being mean (and the implication was that they could also be hateful and racist), and I didn’t tie myself to them. But the truth is that, by living in America, we live in a country with racist infrastructures and so we are somewhat complicit. Just because I’ve never written something racist, doesn’t mean I don’t partake in racism and its privileges. So the last two lines gesture towards that—in this moment where I am maybe the most privileged I will be in my whole life (pregnant but not a mother who can be judged, treated as some sort of sacred vessel), in this moment I acknowledge my place in the lineage that creates and perpetuates hate.
Interview with Ayse Altinok
by Arisa White, Motionpoems Citizen Journalist
“I grew up with lots of structure, from school to family, with traditions and taboos” says Ayse Altinok, “filmmaking allows me to recharge in many ways.” Born in Turkey, now based in Oregon, Altinok is an award-winning film director, who’s worked with such companies as Nike and Coca-Cola, and the visual poem, for which she also wrote, “Hortum,” was selected by The Cannes Film Festival. “A Day At The Mall” becomes recharged with Altinok’s vision, allowing the film to be its own expression and an expression of its many influences.
Sarah Blake commented: “I love the film. I felt like [Ayse] made me a version of Kanye West’s music video for his song, ‘Flashing Lights’—a version of it just for me and my poem.” After rewatching Altinok’s film “A Day At the Mall,” in addition to the music videos “Katie,” directed for the artist Beedy, and “Flashing Lights,” I see and feel the resemblance.
Altinok opens with a road for “A Day At The Mall,” and the two music videos’ central visual theme is a woman (or women) prowl-walking, in full feminine authority, sexual (and sexualized), and on a mission. Like my grandma would say, She’s up to no good. Altinok and her crew perfectly translated the tone of the poem, the gaze offered intimacy without judgment, the colors and light, the sense that chill weather is upon us—prepare the fire, take cover. The beauty of it makes you pay closer attention, like how you would pace yourself if you had a day to spend at the mall.
In the Q&A that follows, Altinok talks about her adaptation process, identity and branding, and avoiding clichés about America.
What drew you to this poem?
When I went through the poems, I wanted to work on a very short one, but one with lots of potential. “Less words, more story” is very interesting to me in any discipline. I didn’t want to explain the poem, I wanted to duet the words and the meanings explored in the text. When I read the poem, I immediately saw the 14-year-old girl and her world. It wasn’t a struggle to bring her to life. It was a very relevant subject to me. I love youth culture and also visual poetry; this was a heavenly project.
What was the process (or philosophy) for adapting this poem into a film?
After I read the poem I immediately started writing a script. It was more of a shot-list at first. I didn’t bother writing the happenings in a poetic way, I thought the poetry was already written by Sarah Blake, so I only put ideas on paper in a very practical manner. It was literally a list of scenes. I definitely knew my character needed to be the 14-year-old, rather than the woman who is the pregnant narrator. She didn’t seem too interesting to me, like myself—I can never make a film about me, but I want to make films about things I like. Rather, things I find fruitful (story-wise). I also thought my writing sucked, so at that point, I turned to photography. I started looking at pictures, mostly portraits, and created this character, and give her an identity. I felt very free—that was the best part of working with a poem.
In terms of script, though, I had to structure it in a way that felt compelling, and with a sense of beginning, middle, and end. It was a fragile story, I didn’t want to make a big statement, but I didn’t want to create just fluff, with a bunch of beautiful images and no thread, either—it was a gentle balance, not too much story that kills the poem, but not too freestyle that loses its meaning. I wanted people to feel what it’s like to live this character’s life, rather then me telling them how to.
I see the bureau with the boy trapped inside as striking a parallel with the poem’s (pregnant) narrator. Tell us your thinking on this particular conceit.
There was a young boy trapped in the closet. I didn’t want to put too much meaning into the closet because I knew that would be an expected approach but the aim was to create a semi-violent moment to help the backstory. The closet incident starts innocently and you don’t know where it’s gonna go, ‘cause kids are being kids. Not knowing exactly what’s happening to him helped me to build the tension.
The poem doesn’t specify race or region, so I wonder about your choices in this area.
I am from Istanbul where Asia and Europe join. I also lived in Holland for 10 years before the U.S., so where I lived people were always from everywhere—I didn’t pay too much attention to people’s differences in that way. I always focus on characters without the region and race in mind. Race and region felt like a very complicated and political subject to me, especially with so much happening in Europe when I was growing up, and also around the world—the news on TV made me angry. With my stories I want to focus on human behavior, psychology, culture and beauty, and not make race and region the focal point.
There is certain “innocent” violence that you allow to surface as the film progresses. What story did you want the film (as well as musically and cinematographically) to tell about America? About girlhood and womanhood?
Talking about America, I wanted to stay away from the clichés and wanted to approach it from my foreign perspective. I thought this would create a fresh approach. It was about describing the Wild West in a modern way—youthful innocence but still wild. I really liked the juxtaposition of this girl’s life with such a sleek brand like Hollister. I think as a brand, the dream they are selling is so sweet looking, but the reality of someone being associated with a brand like that can be very fragile. I wanted to explore that relationship. Who are the people working in such dreamy places and what does it mean to have a dream for a young girl today?
I liked the heavy handedness of the classical music but we remixed it in a way that feels more today and more relevant. The aim with the cinematography was to create something cold, timeless and sleek. I also loved treating those messy environments like a classical paintings, I used the pinks and the baby blues and pastel colors as a thread in the color palette. I spread those innocent colors around the dirt, the trash, the wasted places.
Arisa White is a Cave Canem fellow, an MFA graduate from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is the author of the chapbooks Disposition for Shininess and Post Pardon—which she is adapting into an opera—as well as the full-length collections Hurrah’s Nest and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. Member of the PlayGround writers’ pool, her play Frigidare was staged for the 15th Annual Best of PlayGround Festival. One of the founding editors of HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, Arisa has received residencies, fellowships, or scholarships from Headlands Center for the Arts, Port Townsend Writers’ Conference, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Hedgebrook, Atlantic Center for the Arts, Prague Summer Program, Fine Arts Work Center, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation, an advisory board member for Flying Object, and a BFA faculty member at Goddard College; her poetry has been widely published and is featured on the recording WORD with the Jessica Jones Quartet. Arisa is a native New Yorker, living in Oakland, CA, with her wife.