Remember Sputnik and piano lessons? Bongo drums and beatniks?

Telling, not Showing / Cracking Eggheads

We talked with "Eggheads" poet John Koethe and filmmaker Rob Perez.

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Telling, not Showing

John Koethe on “Eggheads”

by Will Campbell

If one were to list the great language poets of our time, John Koethe’s name would fall close to the top. His work has been praised, among other things, for its music-like quality and lyrical excellence. Throughout his work, Koethe focuses more on conveying through the written word emotions and impressions instead of images or ideas. For these reasons, Koethe’s poetry tends to focus on the conceptual over the concrete, using language itself to achieve its desired effects.

When Koethe speaks, he speaks with a sense of significance, as though every word he’s trying to say is an attempt to reorder the ordinary in a meaningful way. This is Koethe’s signature voice, best heard throughout his poetry, especially in “Eggheads” where memories reshape the poet’s opinions of the present and also the past.

John-Koethe448Koethe explained that the poem came to him one day when a segment of NPR triggered memories of the early 50s. As Koethe put it, he had been listening to Terry Gross interview David Brubeck when the word “eggheads” popped up in their conversation (Terry had used as a descriptor for Brubeck, regardless of how well it actually applied). For Koethe, that word brought with it a “memory trip” back to an age of Sputnik, Beatniks with bongos and coffee and poetry, “quaint / Old fashioned Republicans and Democrats”, and of course “those eggheads of yore”—a time, as Koethe puts it in the poem, “which made being smart / Fashionable for awhile (so long as you didn’t look smart).”

The result was a poem part flashback, part critique, and finally part elegy. Given the scope of its criticism, “Eggheads” is more than a political or cultural piece. When Koethe says that the reason for his memory trip “was the realization / That stupidity was in style again, in style with a vengeance” he makes it clear that he isn’t just talking about contemporary politics but contemporary life in general. Moreover, the politics of “Eggheads” stand second to the poet’s own process of remembering and response. His references, both past and present, are either general or fairly obscure. The result is a political atmosphere crafted from names and lables.

It’s clear to see now why Koethe was so curious at the prospect of an “Eggheads” film. The poem’s strength comes not from what it shows, nor even from what it doesn’t. Rather, the power of “Eggheads” stems from the power of its own language. Koethe’s lines convey just what he feels in language both memorable and beautiful—that poignant longing for a flawed, but familiar world, already gone and steadily fading beyond the poet’s reach. In an inversion of the image-driven missive to “show, don’t tell”, Koethe excels in telling where others fumble to show.

Cracking Eggheads

Rob Perez’s film adaptation of John Koethe’s poem 

by Will Campbell

What drew Rob Perez to work on “Eggheads” was the challenge that came with adaptation. “I was interested in the idea and challenge of lifting a poem off the page and putting it on the screen” Perez said. That meant more than simply giving face to Koethe’s words. The film’s biggest challenge came in finding a way to preserve the quality of Koethe’s language while still making a film that uplifted the poem itself.

Perez’s solution to this dilemma was ambitious to say the least: let the poem speak for itself—supported, that is, by a narrative. His film adaptation of “Eggheads” combines a cool, crisp reading of the poem with jazz-tracked footage of a couple moving through the charmed humdrum of ordinary life. Their words are muted, leaving only their actions and something like “Take Five” to tell what they’re up to while in the background “Eggheads,” read by a separate narrator, gives meaning to the pair and their everyday world.

For Perez, the challenge of the film became finding just the right amount of narrative to support the poem without overburdening it. After all, “the poem is good enough to stand alone—otherwise it wouldn’t live like that. Therefore, my job is to find a story—of moving pictures—that allow the poem to say the same thing in a new medium. The screenplay, the actors, the frame, the score, sound effects, etc. are all tools to lift the poem off the page and onto the screen.”

Koethe’s wit and wisdom shine from beginning to end, not with the solid brilliance of the poem by itself but with varying levels of intensity. The poem speaks at the center of “Eggheads,” a critical quality in a world where showing tries to trump telling most of the time. Such films like this one become necessary then in the way they present poetry to new viewers, something Perez considers to be his greatest work: “if I can bring a few new eyeballs to the rabbit hole which is poetry, I’ve done my job.”

WCAs a child, Will Campbell dreamed of greatness. When greatness fell through the roof, he took up writing. A student at Mary Baldwin College, he studies English literature and Shakespeare’s theatre. Between classes, work, and rehearsals, he writes.