An ode to the late poet Jake Adam York comes to life through Matt Smithson’s sketches of his native Southern landscape.
Changed by the Fact of Him
We talked with "Undersong" poet Stacey Lynn Brown and filmmaker Matt Smithson AKA man vs magnet
Interview with Stacey Lynn Brown
by Jeannie E. Roberts, Motionpoems Citizen Journalist
Stacey Lynn Brown’s “Undersong” gives elegy and ode to poet Jake Adam York. Brown transports her readers into both sonic and visual landscapes as she masterfully weaves her words into a note-rich litany of admiration. Through descriptive imagery, Brown pays tribute to Southern regions, places and reminders of the South, which she and York share in origin. Within the depth, texture, and eloquence of her stanzas, Brown takes her readers on a relatable journey as she sings stories of loss and bereavement with heartfelt voice and lyrical finesse.
Tell us more about the person for whom “Undersong” was written.
“Undersong” is both an elegy and an ode to the poet Jake Adam York, who died at the age of 40 in December 2012. Jake was a poet of extraordinary depth, courage, wisdom, and empathy. His life’s work, a project entitled “Inscriptions for Air,” was an excavation of race and involved writing an elegy for every single man, woman, and child who were martyred in the Civil Rights Movement. He was a white man from Alabama who confronted the challenges and implications and devastation of racism head on, and the literary world is so much richer for his work—and so much more bereft for the work that will not follow.
Poetry is, in many ways, the only language I have at my disposal to say certain things, and this poem is an example of that. As a poet from the South, I wanted to pay homage to the visual landscape that connected us, to evoke the places we’re both from in an effort to encapsulate origin while memorializing just how far from there we journeyed in our thoughts and actions and words.
Your use of assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme created a song within a song, so to speak. When you began writing “Undersong,” was this your intent or did the poem find its own voice and direction, its own song? Please describe the process.
The poem was very much written in the throes of grief, which, I think, is both about the person who is lost but also about those he leaves behind who are forced to muddle their way through without him. In considering the poem, I wanted to evoke the landscape in both a visual and a sonic way, using the physical descriptions and details that would make the place recognizable as well as those musical techniques you pointed out to convey the undulations of dialect and the lazy sway of a Southern accent. That was how I intellectually approached the page. But in the actual writing of it, the poem picked up its own steam and breath, becoming a litany of its own making. I was thinking about loss, about all the things he would never again see but that we needed to witness on his behalf and about all the places he would never again be—and how those places have been irrevocably changed by the fact of him. The images piled up, and the song beneath the song, or within it, became the breath you take before you begin to sing and the sigh you exhale when the last held note fades away.
“Undersong” is a relatable poem on the subject of loss. It is universal in its ability to evoke what most of us experience. Is there anything else you’d like to add about “Undersong” or your writing in general?
I believe ours to be a culture that (mis)handles grief in a fairly dangerous way. We don’t know what to say to the bereaved, or how to help, so we often don’t say anything at all. When a child dies, our own secret relief that it wasn’t our own renders us full of guilt and remorse, speechless. We’re impatient for healing, for this notion of closure we have constructed. We don’t want to see the messy strands of bereavement, the ugly, howling, wailing, retching, writhing. Instead, we script orderly stages for grief and expect those bereaved to fall into line. If not, it’s considered unseemly. Our collective discomfort translates into telling the bereaved they should get “over it” and “move on,” when grief isn’t anything linear or surmountable, when there is no point of entry and exit. I think this attitude is really unhealthy. We need an open space to keen, to wail from our most animal places. And we need others to witness this so as to make our loss, and the work of living through it, known. Maybe that’s why the poems end up being relatable. Language is given to the unspeakable. Their suffering stands for ours, and we, in turn, stand for them.
Interview with Matt Smithson aka man vs magnet
by Jeannie E. Roberts, Motionpoems Citizen Journalist
Matt Smithson’s film adaptation of Stacey Lynn Brown’s poem “Undersong” is not only a piece guided by Brown’s and York’s Southern roots, but of Smithson’s as well. With imagery inspired by Southern landscapes, Smithson presents unfettered line-drawings that evoke a childlike and lyrical sense. His footage moves swiftly across the screen with stylized illustrations as Yaa Asantewa narrates Brown’s poem in a deep, rich “afterburn of good bourbon” voice. Smithson’s film version of “Undersong” is charmingly rendered and beautifully understated in its hand-made feel.
After you read Stacey Lynn Brown’s poem, “Undersong,” what was your overall sense of it, what about this poem inspired you the most?
Stacey Lynn Brown’s poem “Undersong” pays homage to poet Jake Adam York whose work “eulogized the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.” York’s childhood in rural Alabama colors his poetry, painting a picture of the American South that struck a familiar chord. Having grown up and lived in the South for most of my life, “Undersong” stirred memories of my own childhood and gave me a unique opportunity to revisit some of the places that shaped me as a person and artist.
The poem is a song itself that grows in volume and intensity as it crescendos to its final climax, a haunting gathering of voices that were given life by both poets. Having the opportunity to hear Stacey read the poem, to hear her voice speak the words, gave me an excellent feel for the piece as a whole and a deeper understanding of the overall themes and motifs.
How long did it take to complete your Motionpoem? And briefly describe the process from beginning to end.
The process of creating the Motionpoem for “Undersong” was two-fold. Once I had decided on a direction and concept, I spent quite a bit of time researching specific locations that I felt best captured the visual quality described in the poem. Traveling through the South, through rural Virginia, North and South Carolina, West Virginia, and Kentucky, I filmed a variety of places, people, and details that I planned to use in the creation of this Motionpoem. Not every piece of footage was used, but this process helped further connect me to many of the places Stacey Lynn Brown describes, places echoing with a storied past.
The process I used to create the visual style of this Motionpoem involved the labor intensive process of tracing each image by hand to give the piece a handmade quality. Using the filmed footage as a starting point for most of the scenes, I merged the reality with my stylized interpretation, taking creative liberty in the development of each moment.
Jeannie E. Roberts lives in Hallie, an inspiring rural setting near Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. Her second book of poetry, Beyond Bulrush, a full-length collection, is forthcoming from Lit Fest Press in 2015. She is also the author of Nature of it All, a poetry chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2013), and the author and illustrator of Let’s Make Faces!, a children’s book (Rhyme the Roost Books, an imprint of JR Creative Studios, 2009). Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, her work appears in print and online literary journals and anthologies, including Blue Heron Review, Festival of Language’s Festival Writer, Misty Mountain Review, Off the Coast, Quill and Parchment, Verse Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets’ Wisconsin Poets’ Calendar. She draws, paints, and often photographs her natural surroundings. Learn more about Jeannie at www.jrcreative.biz.