The second poem from my collection Breakdown: Banjo Poems is the 11th to get the videopoetry treatment — not because I don’t care for the text, but because it was damn hard to figure out how to do it. I hope I got it right. (The title in the collection is actually “Medicine Show (1).”)
Video footage is courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. I still think the International Space Station is a colossal waste of money, hardly justified by the few science experiments they conduct. But it sure is a great source of imagery of the earth, and all in the public domain! I downloaded many more videos than I needed, then looked for those that were shot in the same or similar ways. Since the space station orbits in the opposite direction from the rotation of the earth, the direction of travel in those that cross the Americas or the Atlantic is back toward Africa, though I don’t expect that point to be immediately obvious to viewers. Mostly, I was looking for images of calabash- or banjo-type things, epic voyages, the suggestion of sails or oars, the suggestion of dancing, a certain whiff of the hereafter…
“Down to the Valley to Pray” is played clawhammer-style by Tim Hosgood on SoundCloud, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. He’s kind of self-deprecating about his playing, but the track was just what this needed, I thought. The heartbeat recording is from freesound.org user GrimmjowJ, who released it into the public domain. My first draft of the video used a recording of my own heartbeat that I’d made on a sudden whim just before recording my first take of the reading, but the H2 digital recorder was not the best instrument for that, and I realized I had to find something more recognizable. I did numerous takes of the voice recording, trying to keep from sounding too melodramatic and to speak from the diaphragm. I also experimented with increasing the volume of my intakes of breath during the reading, but ultimately felt that was a bit too much. I wanted to make the soundtrack feel as embodied as possible so as not to reinforce the footage’s ethereal spaciness.
As an American writer, I feel that the Middle Passage is a part of our history we absolutely must grapple with — especially if we’re white (and in my case, the descendent of slaveholders). I’m not entirely satisfied with the way Breakdown: Banjo Poems deals with slavery and racism, but all the more reason to keep working on it with some of these videos. I hope also to make a video for the poem “Dueling Banjo,” which quotes a former slave’s recollection of how banjos were used to take revenge on especially cruel masters.