I once told a friend of mine, a playwright, that he was the creation of the world.
It wasn’t that he was any such thing, or that he was a great playwright (though I thought him great), but that in the beginning was the word.
Now, I’m more a fan of “And God said Let there be light” because I believe, as the architect Louis Kahn said, that light is the ultimate goal. And after all, film, video, TV – it’s all light, and light is that thing that dispels darkness, doesn’t it. And that’s an admirable avocation.
However, I knew that this documentary needed at least one subject who was an author, and I thought a poet best because a poet is a great distiller of expression. A poet boils it down to essence and somebody needed to do that in this show. As I planned to never have a narrator, or written track for this, all the talk that would shape the final show would have to come from the artists. Better have a poet in the mix.
Allison Joseph had the disadvantage of being entirely unknown to me when we started the project. I was familiar with the other three to varying degrees. There was time for impressions and expectations and desires to be formed. With Allison, it was all new. The double disadvantage was distance. She was hundreds of miles away and that necessitated very focused and limited shooting. It had challenges built in from the beginning.
We literally met Allison and started shooting her. Tracye Campbell, the associate producer, did pre-interviews on the phone. We read lots of her poetry. We looked over the literary review she edited with her husband. But we’d never met. While game to whatever we requested, it was clear this was not something Allison was all that used to. Separate from the issue of whether I ever possessed the talent to become a writer, I knew I lacked the love or comfort with solitude I imagine is necessary to writing. Allison was fine with it. And with the relative social neglect accorded a poet. That meant a TV crew full of requests to bring her work and self forward in public and visual arenas (for example, reading her work to a camera by the side of a lake) was uncomfortable for her. On our second trip to Carbondale, she politely asked us if we could not do something like that again.
The second trip down, which included a side trip to New Harmony, Indiana, where Allison was leading a workshop for poets at the Ropewalk Conference run by folks from the University of Southern Indiana, was the more amazing of the two. Allison’s request that we not shoot her in odd public spaces reading to no one was followed up by her desire to be taped reading to an audience in New Harmony (something we did, by the way). My desire was to have her read selected poems twice, each in a different camera angle, in a visually alive and intriguing location. I explained this and she suggested she was at home reading in a lecture hall nearby to where we talking this over. I took a look in the hall and it was white walls and dim lighting. I said this wouldn’t do – it was visually dead. We reached a compromise – we shot the second set of readings in an atrium area in Faner Hall, the English Department building at SIU where her office was located.
The other challenge of the second trip was her reluctance to let us shoot in her house. We needed to show Allison writing. Without that we really had no footage of process, though the writer’s process is less visually external than a theatre director or sculptor’s obviously. Still, to see a pen to paper, to witness concentration, was essential to the story. And Allison wrote at home. But she wouldn’t let us in her home. I again explained our need and hope she’d acquiesce.
When we were down in New Harmony, Allison let it be known that was taking a walk to do some writing and we could follow if we wished. We did. She took a seat in a stunning enclosed space designed by modernist architect Philip Johnson called The Roofless Church. It was basically a walled in garden, but it’s proportions and massing was stunning. Allison set to writing. The sky was shifting from blue to gray. Winter leaves were rustling in the cool winter air. She was alone in an immense space that was at the same time remarkably intimate. And we did our best to quietly stalk her with the camera, capturing her from distant and close angles.
I consider that action a gift, the acquiescence I desired. Without a direct acknowledgement or negotiation, she gave me the visually alive environment I desired, she gave me the action I needed (writing) and she let me see creation.
This quiet gift, which neither of us discussed, seemed in character. The interviews with Allison are singular in their precision, cleverness, thoughtfulness and lack of revelation. While she wasn’t evasive or disingenuous, she never offered anything personally surprising. It might have been our questions. I’m not sure. She was generous enough with her time to give us two extended interviews and I take nothing away from her in that regard. But I came to believe an interview wasn’t the way you came to really know Allison. It was in this other way, which I only had a small taste of, that I think Allison works.
And it is in her poetry. Allison’s poetry is formally strong, but it’s also terrifically personal. Tales of her grade school, high school and college years are worked into beautiful lines and reflections, into terrific ironic metaphors, into titles like “Translating My Parents” referring at once the challenge of having parents who spoke a variant of English so unusual as to be a foreign tongue to the work every child has of translating what their parents mean by anything said and the greater work of actually translating, or making sense of parents at all, of people much older than you that you know well and don’t know at all. She writes stunningly of adolescence and the discomforts and confusions of her own experience. She writes about her life. If you want to know Allison it’s in the poetry. Go there. She’s working to figure out who she is there, and she’s making it available to anyone with the patience and interest to read it.
For us, getting the audience close to her meant finding finally a poem that would do that. We chose “Numbers” and we chose it very late in the editing process. The poem is about her father’s disappointment in the choices she made for herself as she matured, choices that really were about her sense of self. Her father’s sense of self was deeply wrapped up in his sense of himself as an African American man in a white world. Allison, as she writes in other poems, didn’t experience herself specifically as black in the same way. That paternal disappointment, expressed powerfully in the poem, was key for us to Allison. I only regret we didn’t find a way to get closer to her in the time we had.
I of course have to thank Allison the poet for the documentary’s title, pulled from her succinct and elegant definition of a writer’s work – “arranging words, so that beauty rises out of the chaos or chaos rises out of the beauty, take your pick.”