Postcard to My Third Crush Today
The Heart’s a big chain; there’s one everywhere you go...
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night . . .
Interview with poet Sean Hill
by Athena Kildegaard
Sean Hill’s second book of poetry, Dangerous Goods, from which the motionpoem “Postcard to My Third Crush Today” is taken, travels widely, in space—from Georgia to Houston to Bemidji, Minn., with stops in the Bahamas, London, and Cairo—and in time, exploring the history of Liberia, a twentieth century lynching, and the importation of starlings. Two figures from two of the longer poems in the book are the brothers Eugene and Henry M. Schieffelin. Henry helped to “export American-born negroes to Liberia,” as Hill puts it. Eugene imported the European starling to the United States as part of an effort to bring “every bird that left Shakespeare’s quill to fill this land.” Now starlings number in the hundreds of millions and are considered an invasive species. Dangerous Goods asks about belonging—who belongs and where? What do exile, nostalgia, homelessness, forced migration and slavery, native or non-native have to do with one another?
Hill lives in Bemidji, Minnesota, and teaches at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks.
When you think about the poem and how it could be made visual and oral, what do you imagine for it?
When I think about the poem visually, I’m stuck visualizing the scenes—the travels, the sidewalk with the crooners, the pond with stones skipping across its surface—the things from my life and imagination that I draw on to create the images the poem’s speaker relates. I often think cinematically when I write poems, but film is not my medium, so I’m much more interested in what a filmmaker will make of the poem. The poem still exists in the world, but so does the film. For me, part of the pleasure of this kind of collaboration is the surprise of seeing what another artist creates using my work. Here’s a link to other collaborations I’ve been a part of. I recently collaborated with a musician on the Postcard series, and he rendered “Postcard to My Third Crush Today” with a kind of bossa nova feel. I didn’t imagine that, but I think it works really well, and I find the possibilities of a new artistic engagement with the work exciting. And it’s another way for someone—a reader/viewer/listener—to engage the work.
Many of the poems in Dangerous Goods address a you—often it’s Lauren or another specific “you,” but sometimes it’s a more general you, the everyone that includes the reader. Can you comment on the role of “you”?
You’re right, the “you” is often Lauren, and in the case of a couple of the postcard poems it’s a specific person (friends)—Eduardo Corral in one instance and Anna Potter in the other. For the rest of the postcards the speaker and the addressee are means for me, the poet, to work out or explore a concept or relationship. With these poems I’m interested in the ways concepts like regret, nostalgia, listlessness, reconciliation, etc. Poems can be thought of as speech acts that are a part of a particular rhetorical situation; these postcard poems are correspondences—means for bridging distances—in which the speaker’s relationship with the “you” is the way of exploring and experiencing these concepts that I’ve been invested with human characteristics, lives, backstories, and families. The “you” is whom the speaker yearns to communicate with, but the reader is the incidental addressee—the eavesdropper. Or rather I like to think of the postcard poem as these little epistles sans envelopes that are get read by the reader—the nosey postal worker who can help but turn the postcard over and read the back as it makes its way in the world on its way to the “you.”
Do you think poems are or should be dangerous goods? In what way? How are yours dangerous goods?
This question requires a little parsing of the various ways of thinking about the term “dangerous goods.” “Danger” is the possibility of something harmful happening often as a result of proximity and interaction. I mean rattlesnakes or fire or tornadoes aren’t exactly dangerous until one gets too close and interact with them. So I think poems, when interacted with, can be a danger to the status quo, to familiar ways of thinking and being. In the poem “Dangerous Goods” the speaker says, “Praise be unto the alchemical Canadians / for turning Hazardous Materials / into Dangerous Goods,” and he goes on to say he is “thrilled by the sign, by the recognition / in the turning unfamiliar of a phrase.” The speaker is genuinely excited by this unfamiliar wording that makes him think differently about a phrase and thing he is familiar with and doesn’t think about often—“hazardous materials.” Again, this is one of the things poetry does. In Canada there are highway signs on the way into cities that refer to “Dangerous Goods,” and having never come across the phrase “dangerous goods” the speaker isn’t sure what the sign means for a couple of seconds. He has to think what would make something good (one of the definitions and uses of the word “good”) dangerous. Then it occurs to him that the sign must be referring to what he’s seen on signs in American cities referred to as “hazardous materials.” Another definition of “goods” as it is used in the language of sign is “merchandise or possession.” I like to think of poems as “something good” rather than commodities. And ultimately poems should simply be, and when those poems are read/interacted with then maybe they will become dangerous goods.
One of the themes of this Dangerous Goods seems to be nostalgia; there are speakers and characters who seem to be nostalgic for homes they’ve left or pasts they’ve had. Could you comment on the way you see nostalgia operating in this collection?
I think in my first collection, Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, I was exploring home, family, and community, but in Dangerous Goods I am indeed exploring nostalgia as a concept. I am drawing from my experience moving from the South to Bemidji to explore this idea of homesickness, but it’s not exactly my nostalgia on the page, or rather it might be a rendering of that one afternoon when I felt homesick for Georgia right before quickly got over it and going for a bike ride around Lake Bemidji. Something like that. I also imagine and explore nostalgia through the experience of African American emigrants to Liberia. At some point while writing Dangerous Goods I realized that I was exploring home, travel, alienation, and desire. I think those are the essential ingredients of nostalgia.
Historical threads weave through the book. Could you comment on that and maybe touch on the connection you see between the history of African Americans and European starlings in America?
Well, I made that connection one sunny summer afternoon in Bemidji a few years back when I saw a mother starling feeding her fledglings. I remembered that they were imported, and that made me think of the way Africans who would become African Americans were brought to this continent. That was the beginning of the poem “Still Life with Starlings and Man.” It wasn’t until I was researching the establishing of Liberia at the American Antiquarian Society a few years later that I made the connection between Eugene Schieffelin and Henry Schieffelin. Henry was a benefactor of the American Colonization Society, the organization that established Liberia, the colony of African Americans who would become Americo-Africans. And Eugene, a member of the American Acclimatization Society, imported the European starling. Exploring these connections seemed important to my larger exploration of travel, alienation, home, and desire. They figure into the idea of home and finding or making a place for oneself at play here that seems to tie into nostalgia.
One of the aspects of your poetry is a delight in language—in words and word play and the music of words. Can you comment on the importance of this in your work?
Language is my medium; I love language—the sounds they make (rhyme, assonance, consonance, alliteration, rhythm), the stories each word holds, the ways they play together. I’m not musical; I mean don’t sing or play an instrument, but I do listen to music most of the day, and I have go-to writing music, so I think I’m conscious of sounds and the way words sound together. That’s one of the reasons I write poetry—for the pleasure playing with the sounds brings me. It’s a big part of my engagement and one more way to engage the reader.
The film-maker says the poem “felt like a confession.” I love that in light of the idea of “dangerous goods”—one confesses because it’s the right thing to do, it’s virtuous—but what we’re confessing could be dangerous. Maybe I’m making too much of this, but I wondered how you might respond to the idea of the poem being a confession.
It’s interesting that the film-maker thinks it felt like a confession. I wonder how that’ll effect the film. Again, that’s the surprise and pleasure of this kind of collaboration. I’m interested in the ways people read poems and what they find there. I hadn’t thought of it as a confession on the part of the speaker. As a speech act, besides thinking of it as a yearning epistle to the object of the speaker’s brief desire, I thought of it as an exploration, explanation, and expression of the speaker’s way of being in the world, and maybe there are flashes of confession, but I didn’t think of it mainly as a confession. But that’s just what I thought.
Interview with filmmaker Sam Hoolihan
by Athena Kildegaard
Sam Hoolihan is a Minneapolis-based visual artist and teacher blending photography, film/video, and performance. His films have screened in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Sam has been a resident artist at Elsewhere Artist Collaborative in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Art of This Gallery in Minneapolis, MN. In 2012 Sam was lead actor in the film The Sound of Small Things which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. He is co-founder of MirrorLab, a studio, film lab, and project space for explorations in integrated art forms. Sam is currently teaching handmade cinema focusing on the photochemical processes.
How did you and the poem meet—was it assigned to you, did you pick it? If you picked it, why this one?
There were a couple poems that stood out to me from the stack I read through, this was one of them. I think I was drawn to how sincere and honest the text was, it felt like a confession by the poet, a confession many of us could resonate with. There was something very sweet and down-to-earth about it.
Have you done a motionpoem before? What attracts you to this form?
The majority of the films I’ve made in the past are non-verbal, and rely on the visuals alone to tell the story. I wanted to challenge myself in making a short film that started from a text. Most of the time when I’m creating films I allow the imagery to slowly and organically generate the overall piece. Starting with a text written by someone else was a first for me.
How did you go about deciding just how to treat the poem, visually? Or, another way of asking this: what was the poem saying to you and how were you responding to it?
The first time I read the poem I imagined it as being the inner monologue of this sensitive and endearing character, and I wanted the film to be a portrait of this person’s daily walk through life with the lines of the poem being like private epiphanies. It was a challenge to find a good balance between the words and images, I didn’t want the images to overshadow and take center stage. The poem always felt like an introspection for the main character.
The video is pretty white — your brother, the other people in the neighborhood of the film. And Sean is a black man. Was this intentional?
I find the content of the poem very universal, and it could be the thoughts of anyone regardless of race, sexual-orientation, age, etc. I live in South Minneapolis and my brother Nick fit the character I had in my head perfectly. We interpreted the poem in our own way and applied it to the character my brother and I created that felt the most realistic.
Why is the guy in the video wearing big headphones?
I find that listening to music with headphones can create a bubble for self-confidence and daydreaming. When the music is good it acts as a soundtrack for what you are taking in visually as you walk through a physical space. I enjoyed imagining the main character using music as a type of salve to open his heart and allow himself to fall in love with several people he encounters throughout his day.
Did you imagine the guy listening to any particular sort of music in his headphones?
I definitely wanted the music to be instrumental, as in, no singing or words so the text of the poem was the focal point. I imagined the overall vibe of the music creating a sense of lighthearted confidence in him, mixed with the slightest bit of melancholy and loneliness.
Tell us about the music at the end of the film.
The music at the end of the video was written by my brothers Nick and Mike (they are twins) and they record these beautiful little songs in their living room on a small cassette tape recording machine. I listened to a recent batch of songs they are working on and picked the one that seemed to resonate with the overall mood of the poem and visuals. The music feels very sincere and endearing, and that is how Sean’s poem feels to me.
Athena Kildegaard is the author of three books of poetry: Rare Momentum (2006), Bodies of Light (2011, Minnesota Book Award Finalist), and Cloves & Honey (2012). She has been a recipient of grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board and the Lake Region Arts Council. She teaches at the University of Minnesota, Morris.