A video collage by multi-media artist, Donna Kuhn, set to composer David Hahn‘s piece, “Make America Great Again”, addressing the contemporary political and cultural landscape of the USA, while alluding to historical ideologies of identity that have led to its present condition.
In a rhythm reminiscent of beat poetry, Hahn voices his own text in a rapid stream of hackneyed national slogans, turned upside-down and inside-out to powerfully convey the deranged zeitgeist experienced by so many US residents, and by masses around the world. His feverish mantras climax in the distilled and obsessive chant, “America, America, again, again, again, America, again, again”.
The video is made up of a kinetic array of visual elements including animated text, digitally-drawn art, abstracted numerical sequences, cartoon images, and superimposition of iconic movie clips with footage from World War II.
Hahn has been composing for 30 years, beginning as a performer on lute, guitar, and mandolin with groups such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the San Francisco Symphony and Opera Orchestras, Boston Musica Viva, the Seattle Symphony, Musica Nel Chiostro in Florence, and the City of London Festival. He served on the faculty at the New England Conservatory, where he co-founded the Boston Renaissance Ensemble, which toured extensively in the US and Europe.
Donna Kuhn’s experimental videos have exhibited internationally since 2004 at film festivals, museums, art galleries and online on literary and poetry sites.
The title of the piece is given on its Vimeo page as “Make America Great Again”, with the titles on the video itself suggesting the alternative name, “Slogan”.
This is Semi-Automatic Pantoum, directed by Matt Mullins, made to accompany the collection Semi-Automatic Pantoums: A Collaboration on Gun Violence [PDF] by the Chicago-based collective Poetic Justice League. According to their origin story,
In 2018, in the season of Donald Trump and longing for another time, Chris Green was driving down a Chicago road to see his poetic super heroes Jan Bottiglieri, cin salach, and Tony Trigilio. He proposed The Poetic Justice League, a group for poetic non-silence on the big issues of the day. They dreamed up PJL to unfold group poems, to wake up poets and readers to a sense of newborn responsibility. [links added]
The pantoum is one of those forms with repeating lines, which makes it a good if macabre fit for the subject of semi-automatic weapons and the semi-automatic reactions of various political factions to the American epidemic of mass shootings. Matt Mullins added some lines of his own to the video, but otherwise the text is the same as “There Are Bullets in This Poem” (page 5 of the collection). As Matt said in an email on Monday,
It’s intensely disturbing that these horrific mass shooting events just won’t stop happening (I write you this the morning after we realize that families can’t even go to a food festival without being murdered by someone with an assault rifle.) American gun violence has gone far beyond insanity, and yet, as we all know, the politicians in the palm of the NRA will do nothing.
To write your own semi-automatic pantoum, see the collective’s instructions for teachers.
The Poetic Justice League hopes that high school students form their own PJL chapters! You will receive a PJL hat and will be included in all publishing and promotional ventures . . . and we will continue to include you in all future PJL political poetry adventures.
The only requirement is that students contribute their own collaborative political poems modeled after PJL projects. For now, we’re seeking semi-automatic pantoums–we will post the pantoums on our site.
What better way for Moving Poems to return from hiatus than with the latest video collaboration between artist Cheryl Gross and poet Nicelle Davis? And as a nature lover, the subject matter is close to my heart. I feel that way too few poets really grasp the severity and horror of the extinction crisis, let alone the threat it poses to the human imagination and, arguably, our very souls. I found this cycle of poems so moving, especially accompanied by Cheryl’s inimitable, unsettling animation.
Nicelle has a brief column about the collaboration up at Cultural Weekly:
Death is a charmer; nothing makes us feel more alive than brushing shoulders with Death at a bar, in our cars, or at 5,000 feet in the air. Every time we risk and survive there is a thrill. We feel like we won more life because we are not the one dying.
There is something sexy about Death, how when poachers take a machete to the face of an elephant, the gaping wound resemble a wet vagina, how sex is always better once it’s gone, or when whalers take a grenade harpoon to a whale—even more so when an entire species is gone, how life looks for life even inside a zoo.
But Death is a trickster. We can never win at Death’s game. We remain alive, while our humanity is dying. Soon, there will be nothing of our lives worth living for.
Commit to Memory: The Precipice of Extinction is a multi-platform project that addresses the eventual disappearance of our culture using animals as metaphors. We explore issues of global warming, displacement, assault and poverty.
I just shared H. Paul Moon‘s adaptation of “America” and mentioned the trilogy of Walt Whitman poetry films of which it is a part. But that’s not all that Paul’s been getting up to. This wonderfully comprehensive and personal video essay takes a chronological look at the use of Whitman’s poetry in film, embracing a multitude of movies and TV shows good and bad, high-brow and low. It’s the centerpiece at Paul’s site whitmanonfilm.com, and will be part of the May 31st Whitman bicentennial screening in Washington, D.C.
This video essay is an analysis of Walt Whitman’s every appearance in cinema and television, leading up to his 200th birthday on May 31, 2019. […] As explained at the end title, this video essay was created for non-commercial educational access, in the spirit of fair use for analysis, with gratitude to these filmmakers who have honored Walt Whitman.
Go to Vimeo for the clickable timecode list of cited films, but really, you should just watch the whole thing straight through. I’ll paste the list in below.
I should mention for the benefit of any newcomers to the film poetry genre that the 1921 film Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand was not only the first real Whitman poetry film, but also arguably the first American avant-garde film and the first proper film poem. (Watch it in full here.) For this reason alone, fans of poetry film and videopoetry need to pour one out for old Walt on May 31. Long may his poetry live and continue to shape art and literature around the world.
02:30 Intolerance (1916): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
02:49 Manhatta (1921): A Broadway Pageant; Mannahatta; Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
03:39 Street Scene (1931): Passage to India
04:25 Now Voyager (1942): The Untold Want
05:18 Goodbye, My Fancy (1951): Good-bye My Fancy!
05:54 The Twilight Zone, Season 3 Episode 35 (1962): I Sing the Body Electric
06:46 Fame (1980): I Sing the Body Electric
07:16 Sophie’s Choice (1982)
08:12 Down By Law (1986): The Singer in Prison
08:59 Bull Durham (1988): I Sing the Body Electric
11:17 Dead Poets Society (1989): O Captain! My Captain!; O Me! O Life!; Song of Myself
15:17 Northern Exposure, Season 1 Episode 2 (1990): When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
17:12 Quiz Show (1994): I Hear America Singing
17:33 Doc Hollywood (1991): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
18:14 With Honors (1994): Song of Myself; One Hour to Madness and Joy; Song of Myself
19:49 Little Women (1994): Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun
20:24 Beautiful Dreamers (1992)/Song of Myself (1976)
21:19 Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Season 5 Ep. 21 (1997): Song of the Open Road; I Hear America Singing
25:31 Love and Death on Long lsland (1997): The Untold Want
26:15 L.I.E. (2001): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
27:25 The Notebook (2004): Spontaneous Me; Continuities
29:19 Leaves of Grass (2009): To You
31:10 Breaking Bad (2011-2013): When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
32:57 Whitman Trilogy by H. Paul Moon (2016-2019): America; The Wound Dresser; Civil War poems
33:21 Short Film by Sara Wolfley (2019): Poets to Come
A recording of Whitman’s own reading of “America” is juxtaposed with shots of demonstrators in Washington, D.C., minutes after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, to great and moving effect. This is part of a trilogy of Whitman poetry films by H. Paul Moon, “a filmmaker whose body of work includes short and feature-length documentaries, dance films, and experimental cinema, featured and awarded at over a hundred film festivals worldwide.” Paul tells me that he’s currently shooting the last part, a setting of Civil War poems, in the Richmond, Virginia area right now, and based on what he did with “America”, I’m guessing that that film may not shy away from contemporary political references. But we’ll have to wait until May 31 to find out. That’s when the whole trilogy will be posted to whitmanonfilm.com, to mark Whitman’s 200th birthday. They’ll also be screened the same evening in Washington, D.C. as part of a week-long Whitman bicentennial celebration. If you’re in the DC area, check it out.
Moon’s description at Vimeo is worth quoting in full:
The confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was politically divisive, but Walt Whitman’s 19th century wisdom is timeless. In 1892, the poet wrote in prose:
“I have sometimes thought, indeed, that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman.”
Towards the end of his life in 1888, he added “America” to his collection “Leaves of Grass,” and then recited four lines from the poem, onto a wax cylinder recording, before he died (it is the only record of his voice in existence):
“Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love”
And the written poem proceeds to say:
“A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.”
This poetry film combines my documentation of the minutes after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, with Whitman’s own voice, and original music by composer James S. Adams. I used the new Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K at 120 frames per second, and color graded using the FilmConvert emulsion/grain simulation of Fuji 8563 RL film stock.
It has been presented at the 2018 Rabbit Heart Film Festival, the 2019 Beeston Film Festival, and the Walt Whitman 200 Festival.