Triolet for Laika, First Dog in Space
They made no plans to bring you home.
My Life as a Dog
Interviews with poet Ann Eichler Kolakowski and filmmaker Emory Allen
By Will Campbell
What inspired you to write a triolet for the “first dog in space”?
While I knew who Laika was for many years, I heard a radio segment on the 50th anniversary of her ill-fated flight. The details of her short life, most notably that she had been a stray and was chosen because she was so trusting and eager to please, haunted me for a few years. Finally, I decided to honor her in my own way through poetry.
A lot of your poems tend to center on animals, usually as literal or symbolic figures. Laika herself acquires a tragic significance throughout the poem, which reads more like an epitaph than a song. How did you go about writing it?
I have always loved animals, and I include them in my work whenever possible. Sometimes I choose them for their whimsical quality. For example, I once wrote a terza rima about spring peepers that likened them to tiny opera singers. In this case, though, I hoped to elevate and honor her by comparing her to mythical dog figures. Anubis is the Egyptian jackal-headed god of the afterlife; Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. They seemed like the right company for Laika. Humans have the ability to volunteer to undertake a voyage into space; animals don’t. These eight lines make it clear that her sacrifice wasn’t her choice.
The poem started as a villanelle. With its repetition and strict rhyme and meter, that form seemed like an appropriate vessel for the story of a small dog circling the earth in a confined space. Someone I shared the early draft with, however, challenged me to recast it as a triolet. I wasn’t familiar with the triolet, but it was even more confining and compressed. Almost suffocating. Once the initial two lines are cast, the poet has only three more original lines to work with.
Your work also exhibits a firm grasp of poetic form, from longer, complex structures to shorter, simpler ones like the triolet. How do you think the poem’s structure informs its meaning?
I didn’t write formal poems (not counting the obligatory haiku and limericks of second grade) until taking a required class in my graduate program. I went to form reluctantly, but discovered that it can be a terrific catalyst for creativity. The triolet was certainly the right form for this poem, just as the terza rima’s leapfrogging structure gave an additional level of meaning to the poem about the spring peepers that I mentioned above. The challenge, of course, is to avoid having the form call too much attention to itself.
What do you think about your poem’s adaption to film? How do you feel the poem’s meaning will change being put on the silver screen?
I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of Motionpoems, and I love what Emory Allen and Alicia Reece have done with my work. I think it was probably quite a challenge for them to work with such a short poem. The absence of a voiceover makes it that much more poignant. I’m happy for Laika that more people will know about her. She deserves that.
Interview with Emory Allen
By Will Campbell
What were some of your influences that helped you interpret Kolakowski’s poem as a short film?
I was familiar with the real story of Laika prior to reading Kolakowski’s poem. I had first heard of Laika through the film My Life as a Dog. The main character, a 12 year-old boy, is going through a very difficult time in his life. He gets through it by reminding himself that it could be worse, referring to Laika’s story—a dog sent into space with no way to return home. She died out there, alone. I did more research on Laika after seeing the movie and I found that she was important in paving the way for human space travel. Since then, Laika was a hero to me, not a hapless victim. When I read Kolakowski’s reverential tribute, I knew it was my chance to portray Laika as I had always imagined her.
As a director and an illustrator what were some of your favorite moments working on “Laika”? What were some of the challenges you encountered?
Whether it’s an illustration or an animation, my favorite part is the concept phase. That’s where the most freedom is, the most discovery. When I was storyboarding the film, it was exciting to find various ways that the visuals could relate directly to the text. Some parts were literal, e.g., showing “steel sarcophagus” in the same frame as Laika’s space shuttle. Some moments, such as the scene with the cigarette smoking character and the text “and let you burn,” weren’t as direct.
You mentioned on your website OcularInvasion.com that this was your first animated film. What was it like transitioning from graphic work to animation?
It was nerve wracking! Part of the beauty of illustration is the short time from concept to completion. A typical illustration from concept to completion takes one to two nights. “Triolet for Laika” took almost three months of nights and weekends to complete. A longer production timeline, of course, means more time for reflection, which leads to overanalyzing, which leads to self-doubt. It requires a different level of confidence.
For those of our readers who don’t know, this is your second time working with both Motionpoems and Alicia Reece. Last season saw your work as an illustrator on “Western Civilization.” What was it like coming back to Motionpoems as both a director and an illustrator? What was it like working with Reece again on “Laika” compared to “Western Civilization”?
Working with Alicia is super easy because not only do we work together at NEIGHBOR but we’re also dating. We really motivate each other to make the best work possible.
She had started working on Western Civilization before we started dating, so I came in and just helped out where I could (even so far as playing the main character). This being our second Motionpoem together, we thought we knew what to expect as far as workload. We kind of brazenly thought “Oh yeah, we’ll just make my drawings move. No problem.” That really ended up surprising us. Because this “Triolet for Laika” is deliberately paced, we ended up spending a lot of time laboring over the details. Thankfully, we had the full support of NEIGHBOR. This gave us more time to get everything just right.
If you had to choose, what would you say is your favorite part of “Triolet for Laika”?
I love how expressive and descriptive the poem is without being overly verbose. It gave me a great foundation for building the film. It was a big goal of mine that the film work with the poem rather than independently of it. To drive that point home, I made the decision to integrate the poem itself into the film.
As a child, Will Campbell dreamed of greatness. When greatness fell through the roof, he took up writing. A student at Mary Baldwin College, he studies English literature and Shakespeare’s theatre. Between classes, work, and rehearsals, he writes.