Things I Carry Into the World
when I was small I thought my body held all the elements
Yes, life is hard, but it's also beautiful.
Arisa White interviews poet Cynthia Manick and filmmakers Pat Heywood and Jamil McGinnis.
Cynthia Manick is a poet and storyteller. Her debut collection, Blue Hallelujahs, in which the poem “Things I Carry Into the World” appears, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2016. Moved by the ecopoetic elements of “Things I Carry Into the World,” I asked Cynthia to imagine her poem as a kind of house. When asked what is given to the reader when they leave this ‘house,’ she says: “Emotion. A journey. Wonderment. Sadness. Storm from the X-men. Lightening. Mist from waterfalls. Women. Power. Self-Love. Worldview. World-Love.”
What events and experiences informed the making of this poem?
I wrote this poem a couple of years ago. I was thinking about how children think they control the environment around them. They think they can make it rain if they wish hard enough for it or have superpowers. Anything is possible and it’s only in time and with life experience that you learn what you can’t do. But even in learning the words “can’t” or “impossible,” that doesn’t mean you can’t hope or look for new things. In addition, I have relatives who have fibroids and when one finally had surgery to remove them, there were over 20 in her body. This happens to a lot of African-American women, the ability to get used to pain. For some, it stalls them and they can’t move forward while others learn to grow around it.
How did you create (craft) “Things I Carry Into the World”? What came first, what came last?
The line “rain shaped like spoons” came first. I really liked the tangibility of the image because when you touch rain, the drops are miniscule. But from a child’s perspective if I was seeing it for the first time, I would relate it to a shape or emotion. From that point, came the elements followed by what I wish was in body, then the reality of what’s in the body. For this poem, the ending came last, which is surprising because sometimes for me that isn’t the case. Also my poet mind is a weird place, I still wonder what the body and what the world can do. I think we all should.
Which poem do you imagine “Things I Carry” to be in conversation with?
In Blue Hallelujahs there’s a poem called “hunger” which is in the voice of a child who would ” swallow/ pits of plums wanting to grow/ a garden inside.” I actually remember thinking that when I was little, if I ate apple seeds could I grow a tree? If a child grew an apple tree from their body, what would they do with it? Would they try to swallow a peach pit next? So both poems have an innocence they want to share with others. In contrast I think of Lucille Clifton’s poem “Homage to my Hips.” There is confidence in the lines “they don’t like to be held back./ these hips have never been enslaved,/ they go where they want to go.” You can tell this woman has lived and maybe she had a body full of elements when she was young. If the poems could talk, it would be a self-assured girl turning into a self-assured woman.
I recently watched a 1986 recording of Lucille Clifton, and in it she says that black women poetry is universal. When you think on this, what comes up, what gets shifted, what comes into view?
When I think of “universal” poetry I picture the Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays” and its themes of family, apathy, childhood, work, and sacrifice. Those themes resonate with a huge section of the population. To me the phrase “universal” is linked to emotions. If a poem can make everyone recognize hope or anger, then it can be universal. The poetry I’ve read from black women poets are universal in that recognizable emotions are there as they tackle themes like caretaking, evoking memory, connection to ancestry, power or lack there of, body ownership or lack there of, beauty, joy, etc. but the experiences reflected in those poems are specific to gender and race.
How do you want this poem to be read? (It can be read as a list, taking one line at a time, as its own distinct unit of sound and image, not regulated by punctuation. Then there’s that flow of enjambment where you pause in the stanza break . . . )
Once a poem is out in the world, I release expectations on how it could/should be read. I want the audience to experience the poem in any way that makes sense to them. It can be read as units building on the one before it like an evolution of sorts, or it can be a list where each item has its own flavor that ends in the culmination. A teacher once said that poetry shouldn’t have fluff. Every word is important and must connect, move backward, or forward. The enjambment in the sixth stanza “earth-/ ly things” was very deliberate. To me aspirations aren’t limited to what we can see. Motionpoems always arranges one conference call between the poet and the filmmaker, and I remember saying “who knows what the stars are doing when you can’t see them?” It’s a reminder that there’s still more to discover and a little kid from Brooklyn can do that; nothing is stopping your mind. When did we stop asking questions? As kids get older, we discourage them from being fanciful when it should be promoted. Yes, life is hard, but it’s also beautiful.
This poem is ecopoetic. There is wildness that lends itself to such innovative beauty. A distinct world is being made here, with it own tensions and edges. I recently read an article by Christopher Arigo where he defines an ecopoem as a “house made founded on the tension between the cutting edge of innovation and ecological thinking.” If we see ecopoetry as a kind of house-making, what houses are you making here?
Arigo goes on to say:
In fact, much of the ecopoetry being written seems to take place more in the realm of the innovative, as opposed to more mainstream poetries. Perhaps this is because innovative poetries are loci of resistance to mainstream poetic practices (and values) which presumably reflect larger social paradigms. Thus innovative practices and ecological thinking/being/feeling combine to produce a site of resistance, of politics, of political resistance. Perhaps, given the postmodern world in which we live, a world in which we are fully aware of the interdependence of the body upon its world for its health, a world that is now inextricable from the body, an ecopoetics is an inevitable outcome or byproduct: perhaps poetry as a practice is the best means of directly addressing an environment in crisis.
Firstly, thank you for complementing the work. There’s a fine line between innovative and slightly crazy. In terms of ecopoetry, I’m making a house full of controlled and uncontrolled growth where those two things aren’t in opposition of each other. And isn’t that true of the environment? The speaker exerts control throughout but also realizes the things she can’t control. In terms of the “ossified fruit,” I wonder what qualifies as an epidemic? Fibroids is so common in African-American women, it can lead to infertility and other things, yet it’s rarely talked about. When I think of all the young black women who don’t have insurance, and have to make tough choices about their care, it worries me. In the political sense, if fibroids affected Caucasian women to the same degree, I believe there would be more awareness. In terms of addressing an environment in crisis, is poetry the best way? I’m not sure but it’s a start, a way to reframe the message and work. I work at a nonprofit where I recently discovered the Union of Concerned Scientists and I immediately thought, we need a Union of Concerned Poets.
What is in crisis in “Things I Carry”? What is being resisted?
The crisis is the things we hide inside or hold too close: fear, silence, past hopes, past dreams, pain, and a child’s ability to marvel. The poem resists darkness and the idea that this situation, this present, is all there is. There is always more to get, look for, and accomplish.
Filmmakers Pat Heywood and Jamil McGinnis “were able to capture the darkness and light of the poem, but also made room for wonder as well.” Noting that she was impressed with the cinematography and casting, Cynthia goes on to say “Every person in the film had a strong presence that drew the eye and worked in tangent with the voice over. The lighting had everyone’s skin looking luminous, so when a person of color smiled or were in deep thought, you were able to see that throughout their features.”
I enjoyed the contemplative nature of this film and seeing young black people in contemplation. There is a sense of looking closely, looking deeply, and finding
the uncanny. For instance: the shot of the old appliances in the “woods,” a fake butterfly embedded in bark, which I see again in the young man doing a perpendicular move on a pole—those juxtapositions of manmade and natural that push you to question what is real and what is impossible. I asked Pat and Jamil, who met working in an advertising company and this project is their first “informal creation of the director duo,” what is the film teaching us to see with these black young bodies?
Pat responded: “That dichotomy between the manmade and the natural is a strangely one-sided relationship. I think about it broadly. We’ve already lost something like 50 percent of the world’s original forests because of deforestation. Most of that is humans. So, when I see one, I can’t help but think it’s there because humans decided it’s OK for it to be there. It’s almost catered. There’s such a fragility that comes with that. We thought about that same principal in terms of racism in America. I don’t think racism is a natural phenomenon. Slavery was not natural. Jim Crow laws were not natural. None of it was. It was manmade. When we looked at our film through that prism, we figured just observing the four of them through the confines of their own creative work would have a huge amount of depth. With the image of the butterfly you mentioned, and many others, we wanted to explore this world in between the manmade and the natural, which, to me, is humanity. As we were juxtaposing these images together, we realized some of it ended up feeling kind of surreal. How odd, humanity feeling surreal!”
Here is the rest of the interview with Jamil and Pat:
How did Manick’s poem inspire how you creatively approached this film? (Your point of view; its feel; the composition and arrangement, music, etc.)
Pat: Her poem was always our creative backbone. We didn’t get going on any sort of film development until Jamil and I both felt we had a complete grasp on the text. We spent hours talking about the poem, breaking down each line, each word. We had many other people read the poem and give us their perspectives. We spoke to Cynthia on the phone and got the background. Once we had all of that, we made this color-coated one sheet, breaking down the poem’s movement through thought and time. We began every key conversation we had—from pre-production, through post-production—by giving that sheet to the people we were collaborating with.
I mention all of that to say: We always knew if we did all of that, the film would always have a center of gravity.
Jamil: The poem has so much depth and complexity that sparked the inspiration for subtle but powerful shots. The over arching feel of the poem starts off with a sense of optimism towards the world. A young and innocent perception of how the world is this perfect stomping grounds. The realities and hardships of life start to set in the middle of the poem and as it tails off toward the end, there is a sense of coming to peace with how the world works and questioning the unexplained beauty of life. So it has this 3 phase structure of optimism, facing realities, and a glimpse of hope.
From the score to the feel to the structure of the poem, we wanted to tread the line of a nice, organic build as the journey of the poem takes its course. The organic growth of this project came from collaborating with the poets and seeing how their stories/work tied well with the message of the poem, which it truly did. Our editor was essentially our fresh set of eyes who built this beautiful structure, creating a nice field of both reality and this surreal world. Our colorist was the individual that brought life to the piece in a subtle way. Our music house help create this beautiful build and release of energy, helping shift between feelings. Our mixing house gave it the beautiful sound touches that took it over the top for us.
The poem thematically deals with the body, nature, and the feminine—as two male filmmakers, what does this mean to you in this moment in time? (Essentially, why do you care about such themes?)
Pat: We can’t tell you how many times the two of us said some version of: “We know that we are two men making this film.”
Speaking for myself, you know, it’s complicated. I care very deeply about issues of race and gender in this country. I recognize the systematic issues for women and persons of color that need to be brought to the forefront and addressed. We need more diverse stories to given opportunities to be showcased in filmmaking. Yet, I have to constantly remind myself that I am afforded many privileges because I am both white and a man. That’s a fact. So, balancing those two things is complex.
We ended up partnering with this incredible nonprofit called Urban Word NYC. They teamed us up with Esther, Nkosi, Makayla, and Trace. Those are the talents you see featured in the film. They’re also four of the most talented poets you’ll ever meet. The scene you’re seeing snippets of in the film, are actually adaptations of their own poems. They wrote them with us, helped find locations. It was amazing.
What we ended up with was four individual films, staying true to their works, under the umbrella of Cynthia poems. Dealing with those themes—the body, nature, the feminine—we needed those additional creative voices and perspectives to get the most authentic version of the film we wanted to make.
Jamil: Because these themes shape our lives even if they do not happen physically to us. Everything in this world directly effect us in some form or fashion. Many things in this poem exposed me to the pain that woman endure that I’ll never understand the feeling of, later to find out that these were the very things I had family members battling with. Every person should have a cognitive empathetic understanding of what another has to go through because of uncontrollable variables that each individual has. The core of the many problems come from the lack of understanding and what that means in regards to their own life.
In order for us to start to feel for one another, it first comes with us having to understanding one another.
Referencing your film treatment for the poem, how does the “struggle to live in your own skin” affect how you two approach filmmaking?
Pat: I’m a very reflective person. At least, I like to think so. I’m always thinking about my own standing in the world, and how my actions affect others. My grandmother was a social worker, and she raised me to have a lot of empathy—especially for experiences outside of my own. So, I suppose the struggle to live in my own skin means I’m constantly wondering and thinking about others.
Jamil: I think the struggle to live in my own skin does not only affect how I approach filmmaking, but also how I approach life. I say that because an artist’s work is influenced by the environment in which the artist lives so both the artist and his/her work go hand & hand. Whatever you do in your personal endeavors will be reflected in ones work and that’s what artists style or voice comes from in my opinion. I approach filmmaking in a very organic, gentle and true way; finding and cultivating real stories that we gain from living day by day.
There were striking moments when phrases from the poem matched up with visuals. Profile, following Makayla: “Rain shaped like spoons.” Shot from trees/leaves to Esther: “Power to grow/ fibroids ossified fruit.” Solitary white chair in the tall grass: “to hold lightning inside” and then cut to a Classroom: chairs piled on tables: “Grow daughters among shifting currents.” Close-up on Trace: “I don’t stray far from earthly things.” How intentional were these moments? And what were you intending by creating those moments in the film?
Pat: While we were shooting, we didn’t necessarily say: “Let’s get that shot of Makayla walking down the hallway to go with ‘Rain shaped like spoons.’” Those shots were storyboarded to service the four poet’s individual films. I think we were all so tuned into what we were trying to accomplish with Things I Carry Into the World, so not having enough of these moments was never a concern.
So much of the final film was constructed in the editing room; sort of putting together a thematic puzzle, you know—juxtaposing images, building mood, observing, asking questions. The film is pretty dense and abstractness, so we wanted to find moments of meditation. For example, the pile of classroom furniture. That shot comes immediately after a chaotic fast-cutting sequences highlighting New York. It’s giving the viewer a beat to digest Cynthia’s poignant language. The images we used in those moments were very intentional.
As for what we were intending—we didn’t want to be literal with our depicting of her words. It was more about staying true to the feeling behind them. I think the moments you detailed are emblematic of that.
Jamil: Those were very conscious moments that we pieced together because of how the poem spoke to us. These specific moments were golden because the poem uses a beautiful connection of real human experiences with very natural environments. Our intention with the film was not to be very specific with the words you hear to the visual you saw. For example, if we were to depict “Rain shaped like spoons” by using a shot with rain falling down, we felt as if we wouldn’t do the power in those lines any justice. It was much deeper than that for us and wanted you to feel what those moments meant versus seeing & hearing it at the same time.
There are moments in life that can depict the very words Cynthia wrote and we wanted to stay very true to that. With other moments, we would juxtapose very beautiful imaginary with lines having heft & depth, for example, the shot from trees/leaves to Esther and hearing “Power to grow/ fibroids ossified fruit.” A very ambient sound design/score helps stretch the power of those lines in that sequence which played out beautifully with the picture.
Cave Canem fellow Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst, and is the author of Black Pearl, Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. She teaches in the low-residency BFA program at Goddard College and is a lecturer at San Francisco State University. Arisa is on the board of directors for Nomadic Press and will be the distinguished visiting writer in residence at Saint Mary’s College of California in Spring 2017. You’re the Most Beautiful Thing that Happened is her newest collection from Augury Books.