Can the imagined woman satisfy anything but the imagination?
We talked with “The Imagined” poet Stephen Dunn & filmmaker Matt Craig.
Talking with Stephen Dunn
by Michael Dechane, Motionpoems Citizen Journalist
Stephen Dunn is an educator and author of 15 collections of poetry. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his book Different Hours (2001). His other awards include an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and numerous fellowships. Dunn’s poem “The Imagined” will be featured in the forthcoming fifth season from Motionpoems. In this interview he fields a few questions about “The Imagined” and his work from guest interviewer Michael Dechane.
MOPO: You’ve written some about the realities and costs of keeping secrets in your own family and story. In poems like “Instead of You” and particularly in “A Secret Life” and now again in “The Imagined” you almost spill the beans about secrets all of us are walking around and sleeping with. What do you think about your work and poetry: are you more often a secret keeper, or a secret teller?
DUNN: I have a rather closed personality, though it may appear otherwise. Only in failed poems do I divulge more than I should, and I try to keep those out of print. I only tell you enough for the poem to work. I love it when people consider me an honest poet. I wish for the reader to believe the poem.
What are your thoughts about a more general or universal relationship with poets / poetry and secrets? Has this changed for you over time?
Honesty is largely a technical achievement. I think I’ve gotten a little better at it over time. Secrets, in the broad sense, are the stuff of poetry, the things we feel and think, but don’t have words for. Good poetry says the unsayable, as I’m sure you know. One needs not to be interested in self to do it well. My secrets in poetry are made events; they transform, not utter experience.
This feels like the kind of poem that may be the impetus for some four-alarm fights. I read it to my wife and we both paused, expressed what a good and strong poem it was, and then took the advice (?) in the closing question and she went back to doing something in the next room while I kept quiet in mine. Do you give this poem at readings? If so, what can you say about how people respond to hearing it read?
I often read that poem at readings. Women in the audience usually frown at me when I talk about the imagined woman. When I give them an imagined man in the second half of the poem, they are delighted, it seems, full of smiles.
I’m wondering about the whole idea of taking a poem and making a short film out of it, and this sort of hybrid art that Motionpoems is pioneering. Is presenting a work in a different medium akin to the difficulty of linguistic translation in your opinion? What would you share with us about why you consented to be a part of this Motionpoems season and growing body of art — what were you hoping or wanting?
I have no expectations. My poem itself is a translation of experience. I would hope that you all would try to be true to the poem’s spirit and tone, but I also know that another medium will interpret in ways I can’t foresee.
Talking with Matt Craig
by Michael Dechane, Motionpoems Citizen Journalist
Matt Craig is the Creative Director at Squeen, a collective of designers, directors, animators, illustrators, and VFX artists located in New York. Here, he fields a few questions about his film adaptation of poet Stephen Dunn’s “The Imagined,” poetry, and his work from guest interviewer Michael Dechane.
MOPO: Do you remember your impressions after reading The Imagined for the first time?
CRAIG: The first thing I remember was the perspective in the work. It begins very introverted, and then, midway, transitions into this place where he’s wondering about the other person and what they are experiencing. I loved that transition from the natural selfish state into the wider non-self-centered state.
How much did you interface with Dunn throughout the filmmaking process? What was that like?
I asked myself early on exactly what I wanted that involvement to be. Do I want to talk to him about the work, have him go through the poem with me? I decided against that because I wanted freedom to do my own interpretation that was based purely on the words that are in the poem. You think about the craft of writing a poem. It’s not led by a group. If possible I wanted to do something similar with the animation. Outside of him recording the voice over, I was on my own. Bryan Hanna was on his own doing the score after I created the visuals. I knew I wanted to stay away from illustrating the words or being too literal with the imagery. I wanted to create something that would be its own thing but would be a perfect companion to the poem. I spent a lot of time making these decisions before I got into the work, and I’m glad I did it that way. I was able to steer my own direction because of the rules I had laid out for myself early on.
What are some of the stylistic influences you saw coming to bear on the film?
I had been watching a lot of really early animation films, one in particular called “The Idea” by Berthold Bartosch. It was based on a woodcut graphic novel by Frans Masereel. I had been watching that kind of work coming into this project. When I start a project I tend to pull a lot of artwork, paintings and things that I can respond to in some way. That helps me get towards ideas I like.
Can you walk us through the creative process for making this film?
I began by writing out a treatment of what would be happening visually in each part of the poem. I was trying to craft a companion story that would have an impact and make narrative sense. That was my starting point, to write stuff. The written part of it, at some point, had a lot more details and nuances—it wasn’t pared-down. One of the original ideas when I started was how the poem is about this imagined better-than-your-ordinary-life person that, in and of itself, is in stark contrast to reality. It doesn’t exist outside of your imagination. That got me thinking about how to contrast this imagined person with reality.
I had done visuals a couple different ways but when I looked at them, my reaction wasn’t right. That’s when I started moving in the direction of using minimal color in the reality visuals and contrasting that with colorful non-reality visuals. I began by doing sketches. I moved from sketches to drawings of frames, and then I just dove into the animation. I animated a few scenes and started to make style changes until I got it to a place I was happy with.
I was trying not to make decisions based on thinking “What would look cool?” I didn’t want that for this work. I wanted to stay in the territory of the poem. I animated things like the water several ways until I found something I was satisfied with. Every revision I made was getting closer. These things never look exactly like what you have in your head, but this one looks very similar to me.
I love Dunn’s voice and reading for the piece. How did you record him? Did you begin with a voice track and build to it?
He called my cell phone and left a voicemail on my phone with the scratch recording and I worked off of that. I didn’t know as I worked on it if there would be some visual pauses that I would need to address. As it turns out, the way he read it was perfect. All the timing felt really comfortable and right. He has an NPR affiliate near him that allowed him to come in and do the final recording. I feel like Mr. Dunn’s voice has emotion in it, but doesn’t feel fake or exaggerated. It feels very genuine and conversational. I’m very happy that I had him read it. I had looked up some recordings of [Dunn] reading his poetry, and as soon as I did, I knew that was the way to go.
What is your favorite moment in the film? Why?
I don’t think I have a favorite. The sketched piece with the legs was something that I knew I wanted in there from the beginning, and it was an interestingly complicated thing to do. I didn’t want it to feel obscene, but I did want it to feel honest. This is a part of the poem that to me was about visual desire. I made a very detailed ink sketch and then worked from that and gradually lost some of the details and modified it, to the point that I hope it conveys this idea without taking you into a completely different place.
The abstract waves toward the beginning were also important to me: for whatever reason, when I’m thinking of imagination and imagined things, my mind goes nautical. Maybe because the sea is this vast alternate world. I wanted it to be a progression, moving through the thoughts of this character. I wasn’t setting out to make a face that looks like pure beauty, just a face that this character might imagine, and then move through different levels of his psyche. [Dunn] has left out all these details in the poem, which is why I think it has such an impact on everyone who experiences it. Everything is purposely non-committal to one person / idea / fantasy. I wanted to create something that would express this visually and allow more people to experience the poem.
Are you a poet and / or poetry lover?
I’m an avid reader. Growing up I read a lot of poetry, and my father was writing it pretty often. It was something that I was always around, and I’m a fan of the form. I think Motionpoems is a really excellent way to get poetry out there: a form that, in my mind, is being threatened. The poetry sections in most bookstores around the U.S. feel like they’ve gotten smaller over time. As a reader it can be difficult to find new poets, unless you’re in an academic setting where people are constantly discussing these things. Making a companion film is a way for more people to experience a poem they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Michael Dechane studied literary interpretation and performance at Berry College and has spent more than a decade working as a writer, videographer and photographer in and around Higher Education. He is an Assistant Online Editor and guest blogger for Relief Journal.