praise aviophobia / from 35,000 feet

...some turbulence will pull at the body from within...

"I’ve witnessed some of the most beautiful sunsets while suspended in that fear."

Carrie Ann Golden interviews poet Geffrey Davis and filmmaker Chad Howitt

Geffrey Davis is the author of Revising the Storm (2014). Listed among his many honors and awards include winning the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, the Wabash Prize for Poetry as well as being a finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. He teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

What prompted/inspired you to write “From 35,000 Feet/Praise Aviophobia”?

Like a lot of Revising the Storm, questions about what is and is not negotiable with one’s own emotional truth—in this case, my anxiety with flying—prompted the poem that became “From 35,000 Feet/Praise Aviophobia.” I think I had maybe been on three flights (with multiple years between) before going to grad school in central Pennsylvania, which was several states away from where I grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Going back and forth twice each year during breaks (and often

Photo by Andrew Kilgore

on a smaller prop plane for the first leg) quickly forced me to confront just how deeply I quietly dreaded flying. In my experience, it’s had less to do with a fear of actually dying and more to do with a distinct (and distinctly awful) sense of disconnect while in the air. Were it not for the bizarrely comforting and focusing effect that major turbulence tends to have on me, I might just call that another way of saying “I’m afraid to die,” but I really do struggle with how intensely I feel that detachment—from people, from place, from time, from perspective, from language—which, in theory, dying would solve, right? The poem, in part, grew from a challenge to wring something more from this truth, starting with the easiest and plainest admission: I’ve witnessed some of the most beautiful sunsets while suspended in that fear.

As a professor at a college, how much does poetry influence your role as a teacher, and vice versa?

Quite a bit, actually. Just the other day I was talking with a dear colleague of mine (who teaches fiction) about the professor’s role as modeling how creative writing influences the various arenas of our lives. More specifically, we were talking about the importance of getting student writers to entangle who they are on the page with who they are in the world—sometimes a poem or story fails because we haven’t worked out the everydayness issues of voice, or place, or conflict, etc.

I also teach a lot of poetry, so there’s that too. But I often begin by confessing one of the biggest bets that I personally place on poetry (both the reading and the writing of it): poetry works for and on me by altering and/or adding to the vocabularies and linguistic structures that I depend upon for crafting meaning. Sometimes that’s through challenges or disruptions to the existing language models used for thinking. Similarly, in the humanities, I consider education an endeavor in challenging students to interrupt a culture of the status quo in order to realize new critical tools for reaching or building nuanced (and even uncomfortable) conclusions about subject matter.

And then there’s the fact that, in no small way, I learn so much from my students—that’s the how and why of my falling in love with teaching. They challenge me (often without even knowing it), which makes me a better person and, in turn, a better writer.

So, would you say that poetry tends to mirror life?

Hmm. Some poems mirror, for sure, but I would say that poetry tends toward a relationship to life that’s pivotal—re its ability to shift (the nature of its reflection), as much as its ability to impress. You never know when you’ll need a poem to offer you a plate or a coat or a hammer instead of a mirror for navigating life.

What are your thoughts and feelings about From “35,000 Feet/Praise Aviophobia” being made into a short film?

In addition to being honored by Chad Howitt’s belief in this poem’s potential to translate within the medium, I’m deeply interested in how literary texts enter an ongoing legacy of adaptation. Really, I have my academic wife to thank for that perspective. She works on adaptation studies and, primarily, on the emergence of the entertainment industry in the 19th century. Through my proximity to her scholarship, I’ve learned and come to appreciate just how central adaptation has been (then and now) in preserving and circulating our cultural narratives to audiences, across places and across times. So, yeah, this has been an intriguing process for me.

How difficult do you think it would be to adapt a poem to a film? Should a film be a literal interpretation of a poem, or rather should it explore the essence of the work?

I think that would depend on the poem, and on the vision of those involved in the adaptation. I can imagine that translating a conceptual poem would present very different opportunities and challenges than, say, translating a documentary poem. And though full-length films tend toward adapting prose, there are those that have turned to poetry: epic poems like Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey; Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. That said, off the top of my head, I can’t think of an example written more recently, though I’d like to see people trying full-length film adaptations of a contemporary poem or an entire collection (which might be today’s counterpoint to the epic poem). In terms of adaptation’s relationship to the source text, again, I’m going to pull from what I’ve gleaned from my wife’s work: there are several “types” of adaptation, and not all of them practice what’s known as “fidelity discourse,” or the notion that a text cannot (or should not) be separated from its original form. Adaptation runs the gamut—from historical loyalty to contemporary reimagining, from celebration to parody, from loose allusion to critical deconstruction, so on and so forth—and this diversity is what makes adaptation such a rich and abundant site for understanding and/or participating in cultural production.

L.A. native Chad Howitt has always been interested in the moving image. With a degree in Graphic Design from the Art Center College of Design, he has worked in various areas in the creative industry most currently as a Creative Director creating commercials for distinguished corporations such as Google, VW, Honda, Marvel, Ubisoft, The Grammys, and Westin Hotels. His recent short documentary, The Last Bookstore, earned several awards and participated in festivals worldwide.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be interested in filmmaking.

I’ve been interested in the arts since I was a kid, but I never saw myself working in film or television. Being born and raised in Los Angeles, it always seemed like an industry that only out-of-towners came to pursue. I’ve been fortunate enough to have found film through a natural progression. I took my art classes seriously since I was a kid. I worked at video rentals, record shops, and tattoo parlors as a teenager. I studied music and illustration at community college, then got my bachelor’s in graphic design at Art Center, and worked in visual effects after graduation. I eventually became a creative director and began shooting commercials, which was my lead into film.

Working through these varied range of artistic skills, it really helped me feel more comfortable with directing. Music helps me understand scoring, graphic design helps with framing, composition, and balance. Visual effects helps me with timing, color, and edit. And tattooing gave me a lot of life experience. Unfortunately, I’ve never been great at any of these individual things, so I’m glad it’s able to supplement my filmmaking.

In the past there were two screens: the movie screen and the television screen. Now there are also computers, tablets, and phones. And screens are everywhere: the home, the bus stop, the elevator, the taxicab. As a creator how does this affect the stories you tell and how you tell them?

There aren’t any hard fast rules for where your work will be seen anymore. It could be on any size screen in any location. So I just try to work with the medium I’m given and create something engaging regardless of the framework. A good story is a good story, and people will be inclined to watch it and share it if it fits the criteria. But utilizing the format is what’s important. I think it would be a fruitless effort to attempt to make something that worked in a movie theatre as well as on vine.

What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities that make a film better for you?

For me, after seeing it, I’ll know it was a great film because I’ll be envious that I didn’t come up with it. It can also push me into two extreme directions. I’ll either get inspired and want to make something of my own, or it’ll make me want to quit because I’ll never be able to hold a candle to it. But whether it’s a documentary or a narrative, a slapstick comedy or a period based drama, a great film totally absorbs me. Makes me temporarily forget about everything else but what’s on that screen.

How would you describe your directing style? 

Since I have a background in visual effects, most of my work was focused on the image. Creating eye candy to give the piece visual interest. Over the last year, I’ve been trying to make a concentrated effort to focus more on performance and emotional storytelling. Working with actors to understand what they need so that they can create. But I love to have both at the end of the day.

Can you describe the creative process behind adapting “From 35,000 Feet/Praise Aviophobia” to film?

It was one of those moments where, immediately after reading Geffrey Davis’ poem, I saw the movie play out in my head. I knew that was the story I wanted to tell. I contacted my good friend Jens Jacob over at Sypher Films to help me develop the piece.

In reading the poem, there were moments that I knew I had to stay true to what was written. At the same time, the structure and eloquence of the language allowed me some freedom to create visuals that were connected to it, without being literal.

While some directors like to play and be very organic about their filmmaking, I’m a planner. I spend every moment I have doing homework, so I know what I’m going to get. So I spent forever researching, boarding, and eventually putting together a director’s treatment. That process usually forces me to make decisions about how I see the project going. When you have to put your intent into words and pictures, so everyone else on your team understands what movie they’re on, you realize there are creative aspects you didn’t consider or details that you didn’t know needed your attention.

The treatment helps me outline my plan, but I try and remain flexible. Everyone on the team has their own strengths. I may not always take everyone’s advice, it’s great being able to see what everyone else can add to the process in a collaborative environment, during both production and post-production.

Did you find it more difficult to create a “poem in motion” as compared to your other films? 

I think every project I’ve been on has its own unique challenges. While commercials have some initial creative, and films can often have scripts that are adapted, Motionpoems is one of the few outlets to allow filmmakers to reinterpret poetry. So while I’m trying to make something I’m happy with, I do hope the author feels that I’ve been able to add to his existing story, rather than diminish what was already great about the original work.

Carrie Ann Golden grew up in the Adirondack Mountains and now lives on a 14-acre farmstead in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. She’s a stay-at-home mother, wife to a former Navy officer/meteorologist/now program manager for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, writer, and animal-lover. Her short fiction and poetry have been published with GFT Press, Doll Hospital Journal, The Hungry ChimeraPiker PressAsylum Ink, and Kids For Literature.