Shackleton’s Banjo (videopoem)

This entry is part 3 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


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My tenth banjo videopoem is for one of my favorite texts from the collection. It was prompted by a story on the BBC (which also, incidentally, spawned an effort to manufacture replicas of Shackleton’s banjo for sale in the UK).

The footage is from a silent, color documentary of Admiral Byrd’s 1939-1941 expedition to Antarctica, filmed by unspecified cameramen for the National Archives and Records Administration. There was a great deal of footage that could’ve worked with this poem: seal hunts on the ice, lots of shots of icebergs and other maritime and Antarctic scenery, even scruffy guys clowning around in close quarters. But after much agonizing I decided to stick with penguins, because penguins and banjos just seem like complementary concepts.

For the soundtrack, I blended an atmospheric, experimental piece called “Arctic core samples” by someone who goes by the name of admiral bellybutton on SoundCloud with a digitally altered version of my brother Steve playing “Shady Grove” on clawhammer banjo. Usually finding the right music is the most time-consuming part of making a videopoem, but this time I found it immediately with “arctic” as my only search term on SoundCloud. “Arctic core samples” was made in response to a weekly prompt for the experimental music group Disquiet Junto. The instructions were simple: “Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.” Admiral bellybutton says:

For some unknown reason, my brain thought of scientists taking core samples from glaciers and ice shelves. So, I sampled ice in four different glasses to create the bed. Then I took discrete samples from ice in a wine glass as it melted (a longitudinal study?).

The samples for the bed were processed through paul stretch. The longitudinal samples were put in chronological order (meltiest to most frozen) and then routed through Guitar Rig’s Ice reverb. All mixed in Reaper.

I then thought of making a time-lapse video of icicles melting on my roof.


In a comment on my last videopoem, British poet Dick Jones writes, “I have yet to venture into video poetry. Could you point me in the right direction?” My response: I guess my list of free online resources would be the best place to start. I’ve been doing these banjo videopoems exclusively with found footage, and also using the quite primitive video editing software on my machine, Windows Movie Maker, which I believe is slightly less advanced than iMovie if you have a Mac, or Quicktime. I use Audacity, which is free to download, for audio mixing. I have a somewhat pricey microphone, a Zoom H2, for recording my readings, though the first three were done just with the microphone on a Logitech webcam, and I thought they were adequate, if not terrific. (I’ll re-record them eventually.)

I don’t think these videos actually sell many books; that’s not the point, for me. The point is they represent a new form of creative endeavor involving poetry, and they’re a blast to make!

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