The Long Deployment
Love letter to a husband deployed overseas, feat. a VO by The Newsroom and AHS: Freak Show‘s Grace Gummer.
the incense, the smoke and oak, the resin
In this video interview, producer Amanda Miller reveals what she overheard about “The Long Deployment” in the ladies’ room after our Season 6 premiere.
Scroll down for interviews with poet Jehanne Dubrow and filmmaker Nicold McDonald that cover the bittersweet magic of scent, the longing for someone no longer present, and how to translate rhyme and repetition of a villanelle into film.
Jehanne Dubrow’s confident, seeking, vulnerable voice first came into my home through the crackle of public radio. Her reading and interview just before the publication of her third book, Stateside, tracked the plodding rhythm of domestic life tapped out beside the rumble of a distant war.
Her work is formal, feminist, striking, and led me dashing for her earlier volumes, and then, in turn, her later ones. Her most recent book is The Arranged Marriage (University of New Mexico Press, 2015)—and tells a chilling story. “The Long Deployment” first appeared in The Book of Scented Things, an anthology of poems inspired by small vials of perfume that Dubrow organized and co-edited. She is now working on fromsmoke, “a booklength essay which parallels [her] experience of falling in love with poetry to that of falling in love with fragrance.” She is also at work on a sequel to Stateside, a manuscript tentatively called Dots & Dashes. Dubrow is Associate Professor in creative writing at Washington College, Maryland.
Jehanne Dubrow’s poems speak to a woman’s resiliency. She tell us what it means to stay home and live, ghosted by a dangling connection.
You’ve referred to this as “an exploded villanelle”?
“The Long Deployment” has two extra tercets embedded in it; traditionally villanelles are 19 lines, but this one is 25. I hope the form mirrors the content, the poem lasting longer than it should (just as deployments often feel a few months too long).
Do you have a favorite villanelle?
There are some terrific examples in th[e] recent anthology, Villanelles, published by Everyman’s Library. Weldon Kees’s “Villanelle” (“The crack is moving down the wall”), and Julia Alvarez’s “Women’s Work” (“Keep house as if the address were your heart”) are favorites. And I adore the complete silliness of Austin McCrae’s “Mowing” (“The man across the street is mowing…/ He has no clue his crack is showing.”).
Using “body in the sheet” as a refrain begins (to my ears) to echo with the speaker’s fear of her spouse’s death. There are several elements in the poem that feel vaguely sinister to me. Am I imagining things?
You’re not imagining it! The poem’s A1 refrain is “For weeks, I breathe his body in the sheet.” And while the refrain is often enjambed in the poem—which helps to mitigate the presence of death—there remains that tension between syntax and the line. Even the kinds of scents the speaker smells become increasingly menacing: the incense, the smoke and oak, the resin. The “bottle almost empty in its case” is unnerving too, the shape of the bottle perhaps echoing the shape of a body, the case a casket.
Was there any contact between you and the filmmaker in the creating of the motionpoem? Does making a motionpoem feel like a collaboration?
I didn’t have any contact with the filmmaker until I saw the film a few weeks [before the premiere] (at which point I emailed her to say thank you thank you). A composer once turned a group of my imaginary Yiddish poems into a song cycle. Watching the film of “The Long Deployment” reminded me of when I heard that music for the first time. An artist transformed this thing I made into something entirely new yet also familiar; there’s both distance and intimacy here. Plus, it’s incredibly humbling to know that another artist has made beauty out of my words.
I was thrilled that the filmmaker created a visual vocabulary for the villanelle form. She repeats and overlaps images (particularly of a woman who often uses the same gestures or movements again and again) to embody the musical refrains and interlocking rhyme schemes of the villanelle. In this way, the film is a great teaching text; it offers a visual representation of the fixed form, enacting the villanelle’s obsessive rhetoric, its maddening desire to solve the unsolvable.
I was interested in the relative-extent to which love and war came into play in this video.
That didn’t surprise me. The title—the use of the word “deployment”—provides a context and narrative for the poem. But, split from its title, the poem is about absence, loss, and desire. This could be any couple, separated by time and distance.
Nicole McDonald describes herself as “a storyteller of linear and interactive narratives”. Though she works in many channels—from advertising and game development to film—she is at heart fascinated by layers and textures, an expert at getting the feel just right, and a seeker, who wants to unlock the aesthetic possibilities within different technologies (from NASA imaging to sonar-sensing smartphones, to 3D).
A visual artist who learned through doing, working and collaborating everywhere she could, Nicole also is a thinker—devoted to other arts and to artists. A team-player and a visionary artist, a collaborator and a narrative storyteller, Nicole grew up in a small beach town in Massachusetts, and attended the Massachusetts College of Art.
What first struck you when you read “The Long Deployment”?
I immediately connected with [it]. The poem conveys those moments in life that feel as if the pause button has been pressed, a waiting room of sorts. To me it describes a sensorial chronicle of longing, the longing of someone who is no longer present.
The video is so lush! How did you go about creating that rich sensory experience?
The poem itself is so lush, so I experimented tremendously…I felt texture and light was key. A balance of dreamy, stark, and intimate shots. And so the wardrobe also needed to be balanced with this thinking. I adore the dress Britt Bogan wears in the last section, as it captures light so beautifully in its delicate textured details, just as Britt’s character does.
The poem’s relationship with fragrance as memory reminded me of a box of scarves I have tucked away in my closet, that were once worn by my grandmother. She taught me unconditional love, and when she passed away I felt split in a million pieces. Every now and then, I open the box and can smell her iconic perfume and am filled with the bittersweet memories of her light and beauty.
Your motionpoem uses music to set a mood but it doesn’t overpower the poem’s own music. That’s pretty amazing. How did you achieve that?
Fortunately, I had two great pieces to work with, Benji Lysaght’s gorgeous song and Jehanne’s beautiful tempo. But to be honest, they didn’t fit together that easily at first. So I did test reads with myself and with Grace Gummer…re-recorded with different inflections …. I wanted it to feel like the poem and film were one.
Is the literary lineage of Penelope in The Odyssey at work in your motionpoem?
“…There is the heat of Love, the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper, irresistible—magic to make the sanest man go mad.” Homer, The Odyssey
Homer has always had an impact on my art, especially his use of Dawn as a character (“rosy-fingered dawn…” I adore those visual transitions.). And Penelope of course was the role model of undisputed patience and blind faith. Buuut, I’ve often wondered what kind of life she lived while she waited? What did she miss out on because of those virtues? Are they virtues…? When do we release the pause button and press play?
When I was first developing the concept, I wanted to represent Jehanne’s relatable and honest narrative and balance it with a sense of individual self. Who is this girl? Where is she in all this waiting? Why the hell is she waiting? I didn’t want it to read pathetic or too sad or too heavy. And so my greatest influences were actually Vera Chytilová’s “Daisies” and Jon Brion’s song ‘”Overture” from the movie Punch Drunk Love.
I love how both kind of celebrate the eccentricities of being human. It was important to me to create a sense that her “core self” was very much present even though her “other half” was missing.
Do you remember the first poem you ever loved? Could you please tell us some things about your connection to poetry?
Oh gosh, I used to write selections of poems I was in love with on my art table in high school. The surface was covered with dreamy stanzas of love, and heartache, and resilience. I’ve always been a tortured romantic. The one that pops out in my memory and is appropriate to this film and poem, Adrienne Rich’s “An Honorable Human Relationship.”
“An honorable human relationship – that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” – is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other…”
This project has actually reconnected me with poetry and the respect and love I have for the craft.
Jenny Factor is an archaeologist of object and mind; she is also a feminist, a mother, and a dog-lover. Her poem collection, Unraveling at the Name (Copper Canyon Press), won a Hayden Carruth Award, an Astraea Grant, and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.Factor’s poems and reviews have appeared in more than a dozen anthologies, including Poetry 180 and The Best American Erotic Poems (Scribner, 2008). Jenny Factor received her B.A. in Anthropology from Harvard College. She serves on the Core Faculty at Antioch University Los Angeles, the only MFA program with a dual focus on literature and the pursuit of social justice.