AMERICA – reframed … ‘an identity falling apart’ an interview with Matt Mullins by Pamela Falkenberg and Jack Cochran
American poet, videopoet, writer and educator Matt Mullins has been edging towards this memorable poem and poetry film – america – (i wanted to make you something beautiful but I failed) – for some time now. The deep rift between the USA’s founding democratic ideals, and its more historically recent downward slide into a very visible right wing, self-implosion has provided a toxic supply of raw material. Subjects such as the ‘right to bear arms’, and whipped up, scapegoating alongside blatant falsifying of truth and accountability, have been taken on through such poetry films as Semi-Automatic Pantoum, and now an updated version of the famous eponymous 1956 poem by Allen Ginsberg.
‘You’ve made all truths relative’
Some might say that it was an ambitious idea – no, a crazy idea – but Matt Mullins has pulled it off! Matt’s poem is a compulsive, propulsive, passionate read (and thrilling when read live, as I heard it declared by Tom Konyves). It stands alongside old film footage that layers the innocence of a 1940s home movie trip to the White House with the famed Trump supporter riots on the Capitol, January 6th 2021. It really gets to the heart of ‘a concerned American’ (who shares some of Matt’s experiences) and his despair at what is happening to his country. Mullins’ voice, in short, stands healthily next to Ginsbergs – not an easy feat.
‘I will write my poem because I am in my wrong mind’
From a British perspective, it feels more and more as if we are presented with a version of America via our screens and papers, and as such return the favour with a type of cynical realism. As Matt says, the mind is a mirror of the political State. And, although on a miniature scale, the UK is sucked in, and is experiencing the same misgovernment, or what appears like gangster government (crony capitalist benefits). We feel as if we are also being played. We hear one thing that means another. They present as honourable, listening but … At this most dangerous of times we need leaders who are more than just concerned for the future. We need our leaders to be rapidly adapting our industrial and economic systems to actually have a future. This last year, with all the climate warnings, the average voter, in most places on the planet, feels like a kid in the back of a car with a drunk parent careering towards an abyss.
But, by exposure and grabbing the wheel, poetry can voice discontent from all of us, locked into battle with cannibalistic economic and political systems. Thanks Matt for saying it how it is, helping to lance the boil of what is happening in America (and let’s face it, everywhere today) and standing up for the need for Truth – and from there we have a much better chance of well, – survival.
Pam and Jack with some Leading Questions
Inspired by his work, leading eco activist American poetry filmmakers Pamela Falkenberg and Jack Cochran (see more of their writing under eco poetry films) have conducted a highly detailed and fascinating interview with Matt for Liberated Words, finding out more about the making of poem and film, and what it means to create such a powerful revisioning of Ginsberg.
They also have provided me with a line-by-line comparison between the original and Mullins’ version, which actually creates a third, intertextual cross-temporal poem!! Like a ghostly political reminder, you can look back to Ginsberg’s post-World War II historical emphasis and find its current counterpart sitting right alongside. The lines reverberate the role of the isolated speaker, yet one who speaks for millions. This also makes for some fairly sad, but salutary thinking, whilst our minds flip and dive through time.
The Naked Truth Interview
JC: Imagine you showed the film to Allen Ginsberg. What would the conversation be afterwards? What do you think he would say? What would you ask him? How would he reply?
MM: I’ll marinate on that Ginsberg question, but my first thought is that he’d smile and respond with a Zen Koan.
. . .
The screening room lights come up:
Me: So Allen, what’d you think?
Allen: (beatific smile) How many insurrectionists do you believe it takes to suffuse the bowl of Heaven with an eerie glow?
Me: As many as necessary, I suppose.
Allen: Rumi once said, “Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Me: Can I bum a ride with you?
Allen: Of course.
PF: Loved your answer – serious fun! You’ve created a high bar for the next question. We hope we’re up to it! At some point in the early back and forth after we saw your videopoem in the Cadence Videopoetry Festival, you said it was a poem you “had to write.” That might be a good next question — why you felt you were compelled to write the poem — and follows rather naturally, since you volunteered to add “something more serious” as a second part of your response to Jack’s first question, and we were already thinking about asking you next:
PF: What compelled you to create “america (i wanted to make you something beautiful but i failed)?” Do you think Ginsberg felt the same way when he wrote his poem? Feel free to surprise us!
MM: At about 12:30 PM on January 6th 2021, I sat down in my living room with a sandwich and a glass of milk to do what was previously one of the geekiest political things possible – watch the certification of the electoral college votes by Congress. Throughout most of American history, this has been a rubber stamp event that no one pays attention to. The vote tallies have already been certified by the states and the official electors sent to congress. Congress signs off. The VP gavels the count as official, and we’re out.
I’d been following the election and the electoral vote certification process very closely, more closely than I’d ever followed it in my life (to be perfectly honest I’d never really followed it before because it had always been a political afterthought), but I saw early, many months in advance, that the MAGA wing of the Republican party had become so treasonous and deluded and Trump so desperate and autocratic that Republicans were likely going to try to exploit the certification of electoral college votes via the cracks in the certification process that no one had ever been brazen enough to consider exploiting previously.
However, I felt the outcome itself was assured. We’d gotten over what I believed was the real hump, getting the true electoral votes certified by the states and the true slates of electors sent to congress. As a result, the VP was constitutionally obligated to accept the certified electoral count, and I knew the Republicans didn’t have enough leverage in congress to truly reject the certified slates and throw the election to the House, where their actual state by state advantage would truly enable them to overturn a legitimate Biden win. So, I felt the outcome was assured, and I sat down to take in what I assumed would be a bunch of pointless bloviating challenging the certified electors by the morally craven Congressmen whose sedition was and is so obvious.
And so the bloviating and challenges to the certified electors began. Arizona is right near the top of the list, so we came out of the gate hot and were off to the races. But the news coverage kept switching back and forth between those bloviating Congressmen and the Trump “rally” at the ellipse. It was indeed beginning to get “wild.” Fascist propaganda video backdrop. Calls to violence. A shitstorm of lies and rage. And so we went back and forth. A Republican congressman talking utter bullshit.
CUT TO: A neo-fascist president whipping up a crowd with seditious lies. Another Republican congressman talking more utter bullshit.
CUT TO: A neo-fascist president telling his deluded stooges to take back their country. Yet another Republican congressman talking even more utter bullshit.
CUT TO: A neo-fascist president concluding by telling his dupes to march down to the capital and “take back” the country that he had ironically stolen from them right before their glazed-over eyes. And then we left the bloviating behind as the coverage
CUT TO: and stayed with the insurrectionists pushing against barricades and held at bay by a thin police presence, the crowd swelling, seething, the stars and bars and Gadsden [a historical flag of a rattlesnake ready to strike, co-opted for right-wing causes] and Trump flags. A makeshift gallows going up. Tear gas and smoke. Chaos. Rioters scaling walls, smashing windows. Using flagpoles like lances. Surging into the hallowed halls of our democracy and figuratively and literally smearing their shit on the walls.
I erupted from my chair. I started screaming at the TV. WHAT THE FUCK! I feverishly paced my living room. I texted friends who I knew stood with me. I texted friends whom I’d distanced myself from in all caps. GODDAMMITT!!! HAPPY NOW!? HAPPY NOW!? LOOK AT WHAT THOSE MOTHERFUCKERS HAVE DONE! YOU IGNORANT FOOLS! THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU BELIEVE THESE FUCKING LIES!!!
I watched TV for the next 12 hours, all the way into the next day when Congress came back into session and certified the electoral college vote. I watched those craven moral cowards, who I will not bother to name, disavow in long heartfelt speeches a (now literally fascist) wanna-be dictator, and I was actually twinged by a hopeful thought, “Wow, is this America’s come to Jesus moment?” (It was, of course, not, as we would all soon see within a week or so once the Mar-a-lago ass/ring kissing began). I went to bed very late, slept badly, and woke up disturbed and forever changed.
All Americans of sound mind and good conscience were altered by that day. We’d watched our already desperately ill conspiracy-theory poisoned nation flat-line, then get jump-started back to shaky life. How does a patriotic American (in the actual sense, not in the sense hijacked by the MAGA right) move on from a day like that? How do you incorporate a treasonous insurrection and its continued justification into your social and political life? How do you look at anyone who supported or still supports Trump or the Republican party in the same way? How do you try to live on in a nation in which nearly half of us labor under the delusion of an alternate reality constructed by and for the benefit of those who would seek to subvert and destroy the core principles of our democracy and the notion of a nation governed by and for the people for the sake of total authoritarian control?
You take to the streets, perhaps carrying the shotgun you bought right before the election, the first and only gun you own (a shotgun I did indeed buy), or you try to sort your shit out through art. You look for a way beyond a bullet or a fist to speak the truth. You walk into your study one day and see a book of poems by someone you’ve read often and long admired and because you know that sometimes it’s only poetry that makes any sense, you take up that book and you read. And you come across a poem you’ve loved for years, but hadn’t thought about for a while, and suddenly it dawns on you that a truth spoken then can perhaps become another truth spoken right now. A truth that needs to be said in a different way as it speaks to new challenges, inner and outer, that have somehow changed while somehow still remaining the same. So, you use that truth as a spine, and from it you try to create something honest and hopefully useful that calls out the present through the past that got us here.
How else can you face the eternally ugly and ever-evolving yet ever constant forces of all those people and things that would have us lose ourselves and our human truths in their lies? You rise to the occasion in your own way. It’s that or let our freedom die.
[click on the following if you wish to learn more about the American electoral process ]
PF: Let me just say that you did surprise us, and your answer was brilliant, powerful, and revealing. This is exactly why we wanted to include “america” in the group of “activist poetry films” we are curating for REELpoetry 2023. But since “america” is already part of the REELpoetry competition curation, we’re happy to have “Semi-Automatic Pantoum” in our curated group instead. “Pantoum” is just as powerful as “america.” In times such as these, (as Thomas Paine wrote in 1776) “that try men’s souls,” this is what poetry can and should be! Your passionate explanation of why you felt you “had to write the poem” was everything we could have hoped for, and more.
PF: Jack thinks it would be interesting to see your poem side by side with Ginsberg’s. What do you think?
MM: I had two primary goals when it came to emulating the poem:
- To in some way express yet advance/evolve what I thought was the original sense/meaning of a given line. (To express what I took as its original intent in a new way.)
- To emulate the rhythm/breath/grammatical feel of a given line.
So, in that sense I think in a visual, side-by-side comparison they should look very similar. In terms of how well I evolved the sense/intent, I guess that’s more subjective.
[Here follows an example of a section. For a side by side comparison see further down]
by Allen Ginsberg
America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
AMERICA (I Wanted to Make You Something Beautiful but I Failed)
by Matt Mullins
America I’ve given you nothing and now I’m all.
America 12k in credit card debt mortgage at 3% January 6, 2021.
I don’t know my own mind.
America are you still winning the cyber war?
Come fuck us all with your false equivalence.
I don’t feel anything I need more.
I will write my poem because I’m in my wrong mind.
America is your excuse that the devil is in the details?
When will you admit the naked truth?
When will you look at yourself beyond your screens?
When will you be aware of the million cognitive dissonances in your binary thought?
America why are your libraries empty?
America when will you stop sending your garbage to the Third World?
I’m trying hard to leave well enough alone.
When can I go to the doctor’s and buy what I need with the fact of my humanity?
America it is you and I who are broken because of the next world.
Your world is too much for us, late and soon.
You made me want to be an assassin.
PF: Putting the two poems side-by-side was somewhat arduous to achieve, and your poem is a little longer in lines, but in words … it’s close. I think Jack was right to want to see the poems side-by-side, and for me it makes it clear just how brilliant your poem is on its own. Your poem is powerful even if readers are unfamiliar with Ginsberg, and in creating a dialogue with/updating of Ginsberg’s poem in relation to the chilling events of January 6, 2021. Accomplishing both things at once is quite a tour-de-force. On top of that, the word play across the two poems is really delightful and yet deadly serious.
JC: I want to ask you about Ginsberg.I first came in contact with “Howl & Other Poems” when I was a high school dropout in the ‘sixties, hippie times. It really hit home then, and honestly it has stayed with me through the years. It still speaks to me. Can you tell us about your first encounter with “Howl & Other Poems?” What was your response to it then, and how has that changed through the years?”
MM: It’s difficult for me to speak to the first time I encountered Ginsberg because honestly, I don’t have a specific memory of encountering Ginsberg for the first time. It was at some point in my undergrad, beyond that I have no specifics – but I do have vague impressions of my awe toward the poem itself. Perhaps that’s how I’ll approach it, with an honest answer that leans on my vague impressions. I’m not sure if my Swiss cheese brain can dredge up a first encounter with much of anything across the course of my entire life, beyond the birth of my two daughters and my wedding day. But the circumstances of when I first came across Ginsberg? Perhaps through the recommendation of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, via my Beat to the soul buddy Jeff Mick (a great outsider collage artist that you’ll never hear of because he has no interest in being known) or maybe by way of On the Road being assigned for some college lit class I took during my undergrad years at Michigan State. I truly don’t know.
Either way, I’m fairly sure that On the Road was my introduction to the Beats. I grew up in a very Irish Catholic family (I am now a kind of neo-transcendental agnostic quasi-Catho-Buddhist, if there can be such a thing), and have always loved road trips and imagine myself to be a bit of a free spirit, and a deep lover of all things musical and spontaneous/improvisational, so that book spoke to my early twenty-something mind in a profoundly Romantic way (Oh how I longed to roll with Jack as part and participle of the quivering meat wheel of true thought and mad compassion spinning now beneath the endless starry dynamo of night…). So, I’ll just pretend toward some kind of certainty here, and say that one way or another I first encountered Ginsberg through Kerouac.
Once I was hipped to Ginsberg, it was “Howl” (which I first read in the little, square Pocket Poet Series edition from City Lights) that exploded my thinking about poetry. That poem’s amazing opening lines, those incantatory repetitions, the rawness of the imagery and the brutal honesty of its observations, it shook me. There was also the legend of the Six Gallery and skinny, nervous Ginsberg tearing the roof of the place with a barbaric, yawping poem unlike anything written or heard before while Kerouac slugged wine, collected dough, and whooped his approval. When “America” specifically came into that mix for me is hard to say. I absorbed it like I absorbed the rest of the poems in that book – I saw it as something fresh and brutally introspective while also being pointedly critical of certain aspects of our culture and politics (the same aspects I was also, and still am, pointedly critical of). What I gleaned from it (and “Howl”) was the power of repetition and that free-flowing sense of line. I was all hung up on tight little lines and stanzas back then. Ginsberg ripped apart that notion for me. He was speaking from a deep part of the human spirit – a kind of profound truth, sometimes sad, sometimes enraged, sometimes delivered with a buddha wink. So, it’s more the book as a whole that I recall being influenced by and “America” (which I saw as a kind of “Howl” articulated via direct address rather than incantational rage) was a facet of that overall awakening. It was part of that first blast of Beat thinking that hit me around age twenty – On the Road, Naked Lunch, and Howl and Other Poems. What I guess could be considered the Holy Trinity of beat literature.
‘Ginsberg is the one you want to talk to and listen to’
In terms of how “America,” and more specifically Ginsberg’s poetry in general has changed for me over the years – he has become, to me, the most interesting writer of the three. Kerouac’s light has dimmed a bit for me (though I still think he’s great!). I haven’t read On the Road since it was on my reading list for my area exams for my PhD twenty-five years ago, though I did reread Dharma Bums a few years back and liked it well enough. Burroughs, that Holy Crank, I can only take in small doses now. I always liked him more for what he stood for (junkie queer outsider defiance filtered through his inimitable approach to prose) than for his work overall.
Naked Lunch is more like a flavor than a book. All you need to do is to open it at random and read a few pages to get a good taste (and an acquired taste at that). His shorter pieces and spoken word stuff, the cut ups, his work with Brion Gysin, that’s what appeals to me the most – the mixed media. I tend to lose interest in his longer fictional works.
But as I get older, it’s Ginsberg who has deepened for me in terms of meaning. His raw emotional honesty and vulnerability. There’s a certain degree of macho posturing to Kerouac beneath the Zen cover, and Burroughs, when you get down to it, is just not of this world. Ginsberg had nothing to hide and fully inhabited that revelation of self. He’s naked with joy and sorrow and the joy of sorrow and the sorrow of joy. Kerouac and Burroughs both had personas, and it’s not that Ginsberg didn’t have a persona, but of the three his persona was in no way a construction. It’s who he truly was. And that’s reflected in his poetry, the laid bare truth of it.
So in my 20’s it was the energy and movement of Kerouac that appealed to me. Likewise, it was the strangeness and rebellion and otherworldliness of Burroughs and the raw emotion of Ginsberg. Now that I’m older and spending time thinking about the good and bad I’ve wrought and what living is supposed to mean, it’s Ginsberg’s honesty and craftsmanship and self-examination that appeal to me. Kerouac’s the one you want to spend your mad nights with. Burroughs is the one you want to explore the queasy underbelly of the world with. Ginsberg is the one you want to sit down with among the dual-edged workings of this life and talk to and listen to.
PF: Your answer is both revealing and insightful, opening the curtains and giving us a window on Matt, the young poet and musician, as well as Matt, the mature poet and filmmaker, confronting events that are pivotal, and yet whose full consequences have yet to be seen. It’s interesting how Ginsberg’s work continues to be a relevant prism for America’s ideals, shortcomings, and blind spots.
PF: When you went to your bookshelves, why was it Ginsberg’s “America” that you pulled off the shelf?
MM: I mentioned my Swiss Cheese of a memory in one of my previous answers, so I’ll offer another slice here. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but here’s what I think happened (or what I’ve convinced myself actually happened). In my home office I have a reading chair with end tables next to either arm, both tables piled high with books I mean to read and am currently browsing. Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems was on/in one of those stacks and has been for a long time,as it’s one I’ve always liked to reread.
At some point in early January 2022 (yes, the date of 2021 is for poetic effect, I really did not write that poem on the day of the insurrection, but rather a year later), likely around the 6th, I went in there and sat in that chair and reached for one of those piles of books. Howl and Other Poems somehow ended up in my hands. I started flipping through. I landed on “America.” Politics being on my mind (as it always was at that time) I read the poem, and it punched me in the face, this idea: “What’s in this poem needs to be said again in a different way that speaks to this current time and place.” It was just something that hit me, this notion that what Ginsberg said was so true and right in that moment that it was worth saying again in a new way for a new moment. It was as if I had read an eternal blueprint for a statement about where the personal meets the political to speak to our situation as human beings who are struggling to be human beings in the context of the larger political systems that influence our lives.
So, in that regard it wasn’t so much a “why I pulled it from the shelf” moment as it was the poem finding my hand and perhaps – if I want to get Blakean/Ginsberg mystical about it—some essence of Ginsberg pointing toward me through the Other and saying, “Hey, do you see the universal truth I laid out for you in this poem? Good. Now what the fuck are you going to do about it, my friend?”
PF: Sometimes Jack’s poems come all at once. Other times, a poem might sit for years before he comes back to finish it. Sometimes, he forgets that he wrote a poem, until he rediscovers it in a notebook or a folder in his file cabinet. This is what happened with “The Eternal Footman,” Jack’s poem that uses T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” as an intertext, but in a very different way than “america”.
PF: So, what was writing the poem like? Was it a whirlwind of a poem that wrote itself, or more like a dialogue – a call from a line or lines of Ginsberg, followed by your response? Or was it perhaps a kind of struggle? Take us behind the scenes and reveal a little of the poetic process that resulted in “America (I Wanted to …”
MM: The poem wrote itself and didn’t write itself. Once I’d hit upon the idea of emulation it was a matter of taking each line from the original, the rhythm and sense of it, and filtering it through my own experience and outlook—channeling and translating and re-interpreting Ginsberg through my own characterized version of the self – because despite the illusion, the speaker of that poem is me but not me. It’s to some extent a character; that’s not my life as is wholly spewed onto the page, though parts of my life and experience are there, certainly, but the speaker of that poem is a concerned American wondering what America has wrought and seeking the self to understand what America’s consequences mean on both the intimate personal and larger political levels.
I wrote the skeleton in two or three sessions of about five hours each over the course of a week. Most of the lines just came to me. I looked at a line, sought its sense, then respoke it on my own terms. They emerged whole from within. I liken the process to those Japanese ink monochrome paintings that are often associated with Zen. The artist cannot linger with the brush or it will seep through the paper, so the mode is one of long meditation at the blank slate followed by deliberate decisive strokes. The vast majority of the composition happens subconsciously through the osmosis of life’s experience before the brush even touches the ink. Such work is a culmination of the artist’s whole previous existence expressed in the instant, not something labored over in the moment.
That’s not the only way I work, to be sure (I have been known to “worry” over some pieces for quite some time. The videopoem Monster Movie is a good example of painstaking meddling to get the result I was after.). But the spontaneous mode tends to result in things that feel innately powerful to me, and it’s also appropriate to the vibe of creation for the source material—I have a feeling Ginsberg did not labor over the original much, either; it just doesn’t have that feel, and I wanted his feel for my own poem. My videopoem Our Bodies was created in the same way – a culmination of thirty some years of thinking about art/writing/music/spirituality/life as a facet of my daily existence that came together in the subconscious and emerged whole as an idea/draft. Does that mode often require some tinkering after the fact? Yes. Which is why I’m not a Japanese ink monochrome painter (at least not in this life). A work may emerge in a rush, but I still feel the instinct to revise and polish. Regardless, when I create something in this mode it often just feels “right” to me when it’s done. Will others feel that way? I hope so, but also, to some degree, I don’t care. It’s the process of the doing that’s most important, cathartic, and enlightening for me. The end result is just an aftermath.
So, after that initial outpouring, I set it aside for a few days and came back to it, working the phrasing, revising lines that weren’t doing what I wanted them to do. I recall that I played with that very last line quite a bit. “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” is how Ginsberg has it, which is of course perfect for Ginsberg, but I was having trouble finding my (adjective) shoulder. Was my shoulder broken, slumped, playing Atlas under some kind of unbearable weight, on the verge of collapse? I didn’t know, and I struggled to find the right word. Then I had a bit of a revelation that I think cast its light back over the entire poem: the big picture here is that it’s not about me putting my whatever type of shoulder to the wheel; I’m putting a shoulder to the (karmic) wheel regardless through the fact that I even care enough to do what I can to push things forward toward the positive in my life as an American. The big picture is that the wheel itself, the idea of what America supposedly is and means, the entire notion of our forward motion, and subsequently my identity as an American, is falling apart before my/our very eyes.
PF: What was your creative process in making the film, for example your reading of the poem is very compelling – deadly serious, and yet somewhat wry, as well as witty, playful, and free. You’re also a musician, and the soundscape in contrast is restrained, but off kilter, and quite sinister. Do you think of the soundscape you added to your reading of the poem as a kind of musical score – a rather spare one, to be sure, but still ominous and disturbed/disturbing? Also, what can you share about your visual strategies and editing patterns? Your image tracks in your other poems often employ found footage – in this case, you employ archival film footage of the U.S. Capitol and layer in found video footage of the Jan 6th Capitol events (from “the internet,”). Did you have this in mind when you wrote the poem, or did that come afterwards?
MM: I do a bit of a breakdown on my creative process for “America (i wanted to…) in a talking head presentation I did for a symposium on videopoetry that Tom Konyves held in Vancouver in November of 2022. In it, I spend about fifteen minutes discussing the composition process for three of my videopoems (Our Bodies,Semi-Automatic Pantoum and America.) I tried to have a bit of fun with it in that I wanted to make a presentation about videopoetry that perhaps also felt a bit like one of my videopoems. I’m not sure how well I pulled that off, but it was fun to make and fun to think about my composition process in that way, which is usually less conscious and more intuitive. In that regard, some of the things I say in there point to what I’ll say here.
In terms of the reading. I try very hard to not read in that “poetry voice” that has a cadence that lilts up at the end to make every line feel like a question? A reading style I’m trying to give you a sense of right now by having these three statements end as questions? Which they are not? You get the idea.
For me the idea behind a recitation is to always try to be dramatic in a way that plays toward the inflections and sounds of the language while also getting across the right tone, whether that tone is light or world-weary or intimate. (As an aside here, I think the greatest reader/narrator of videopoetry I’ve ever heard is Nic Sebastian. I’ve never worked with her and have never met her, but I truly love the sound of her voice. She could read a grocery list and make it sound incredibly profound). The key for me is to read the words honestly and without artifice or pretension. So, a big part of my delivery was to just get what I was feeling in the poem across honestly. On another level I was also trying to emulate/imitate Ginsberg’s reading of the poem. Before I recorded my recitation, I listened to his recitation a number of times. You can really tell he’s feeling the texture of each word. It’s a beat thing. Words are sonic; they are notes and they need to be caressed or bent or cajoled or spat out according to meaning and intent. It’s like he surrounds each word with meaning before he lets it out. And there’s also his phrasing and tone. So, to an extent I was trying to sound like him – or at the least, I was trying to use what I felt was his approach to sonic delivery, which includes those things you mention – his reading is wry, witty, playful and free. So, I’m glad that came across in my recitation as well.
In terms of the score, I did want something ominous and a bit discordant and disturbing because that’s definitely the vibe here. Attempted coups and the near-death of democracy qualify as disturbing shit. So, I mean a lilting ditty wouldn’t cut it, unless I was going for irony/sarcasm, and the poem is far too earnest for that. It’s deadly serious, if pleading and direct. Spare also seemed the right approach because there is so much sonic weight to the language. It’s a wordy poem with long breath lines, which is one reason I knew from the start that I’d deliver the poem via recitation rather than titles. It’s a poem that needs to be heard. In that regard, I didn’t want the music to get in the way. I wanted it to color the background, to create something ominous and almost sub-textual, something you hear that drops into the background to leave you feeling uneasy as you indirectly absorb it. To create it I used a home-made instrument called a canjo, which is basically a really primitive banjo made out of a coffee can. I recorded a simple riff then dropped the pitch way down to make it sludgy and then layered in some effects to add a bit of grit then I put it under the recitation and kept it low in the mix so the recitation would sit on top of it.
Visually, the videopoem originally had a much different look and feel. That vacation footage, from the 40’s I believe, is something I pulled from the Prelinger archives. It was what I’d call the backdrop. And it has all the greatest hits of a family vacation to Washington D.C. (The Lincoln Memorial, The Washington Monument, The Capitol Building, The White House, etc.). On top of that I had four other types of footage appear sequentially over the course of the videopoem/recitation. Each of the four had its own quadrant on the page, so by the time the fourth type of footage appeared, this backdrop of vacation footage was entirely “taken over” by a split screen of four screens each playing something different. My thought there was to show how the contemporary overpowers and distorts our nostalgia for the past and twists our sense of history. I also wanted to say, I think, something about triviality, consumerism and digital culture.
The four types of footage were: a close crop I made of Trump’s smarmy, snearing mouth while in the midst of giving a speech (ripped from Youtube), a TikTok montage of teenagers in baggy pants doing synchronized dance moves (ripped from Youtube), a rather psychedelic TV ad from the early 60’s (Prelinger archives), and a montage of news footage from the Capitol insurrection (ripped from Youtube). As I mentioned, the approach had each type of footage appear one at a time then remain on screen as the others subsequently appeared. I can’t recall in what order I initially had them appear. The end result felt okay to me, but I wasn’t fully happy with it. It seemed scattershot. So, I layered in the score and the recitation and sent it off to Tom Konyves, whose opinion I very much respect. His reaction was basically: The poem itself is excellent. The videopoem is okay. You need to be ruthless.
And he was right. I was not being ruthless (and I really think that was great open-ended advice and exactly what I needed to hear). I realized using the four quadrants was a mis-step and, at points, off theme. Trump’s smarm and image were sucking up all the air, and he was already the unspoken sickness at the heart of all this, so his image or words did not need to be directly brought into the matter. The TikTok kids and the ad felt frivolous, like forays into other issues rather than being to the point. But I felt there was something to that vacation footage and that insurrection footage. I thought into it for a while and decided that visually I wanted to comment on how what had happened on January 6th had poisoned both the idea/idyll of Washington D.C. in particular and also of America in general in ways that we still needed to process. It was not lost on me that traitors to the United States of America, lied to and urged on by an aspiring fascist dictator, threatened the tradition of the peaceful transfer of power and carried the Confederate battle flag and flags bearing this would-be dictator’s name into our Capitol building. Such a thing had never happened before in the entire history of our nation. People smeared their shit on the Capitol’s walls. I mean, come on, man. What kind of person does that? You might as well start shitting on top of the graves at Arlington because desecrating our capitol means desecrating the memory of every soldier or public servant or honorable politician who has ever given his/her/their life for the sake of American democracy. That’s how deep this poison goes. And that was something I wanted to speak to directly. The distraction of those quadrants was not the way to make that statement.
So, I decided to keep the vacation footage – footage of that archetypal American family/school kid pilgrimage to our nation’s capital – as the backdrop or underlayment of the piece. The footage is already wonderfully distressed with flaws and dust and hairs and burn marks, which I thought hinted nicely at what was to come. Being from the 40’s (I think?) it also had that wonderful anachronistic visual tone to it, i.e., the “good ol’ days (which never really were the good ol’ days in the first place). So, I didn’t do much with that visually. Then I took the insurrection footage, ran it through a filter to make it look more “sickly,” sped it up to make things both more frenetic and more cartoonish (because although there was a deadly serious element among the insurrectionists many of them also literally came off as idiots and clowns – such is the pathetic level of their ignorance and delusion) and then I ran the footage backwards overall. I did this because although I wanted to show that their infection had risen up to forever taint America, they had also failed in the end to install Trump as dictator, and I wanted to show that failure by having them visually sucked away from their goal by the end of the videopoem. I guess this is my little hope-flame saying, “Yes, you traitors did take things to the brink, but you could not take us over. The system held. For now.” From there the plan was to have that insurrection footage rise up and bleed through that idyll to infect our history/our past with the treasonous actions of the present, which is what gradually happens over the course of the videopoem – the idyll is infected and replaced by the insurrection which is then sucked away at the end to leave us with the idyll again, though now we see that idyll through a different, tainted, context. The idyll from the beginning is forever changed.
PF: Your poetic interplay with Ginsberg’s poem creates an intertextual dialogue as well as a new work that dares to confront the alarming state of American democracy and civil society, in the light of Donald Trump’s fomenting of the January 6 insurrection (under the false flag of a “stolen election”), and the perhaps even more dangerous continuing aftermath. This underscores what an impressive accomplishment your new poem is in itself, and how much it needs to be heard and heeded. Ginsberg’s time was perilous, but this seems worse than anything we’ve experienced, except perhaps the Civil War. How worried are you? Where do you find hope? (We ask ourselves these questions, too.) What do you want viewers of your film to take away after watching the film?
MM: I’m going to try to talk around that idea as much as possible because I am not one to pin things down when it comes to the messages or meanings in my creative endeavors.
After years of making myself sick in thought with worry, I’m lately trying to be as meditative as possible about our current American (and global) situation and take the long view by embracing the idea that all things are ephemeral and constantly in transition, something which our relative perspective to time often prevents me from considering as fully as I might. We see time pass and our bodies decay, but usually get caught up in the shit and fail to remember that the mountain also crumbles to the sea as the fly laughs at the clumsy sweep of our clutching slow-motion hand.
And so I keep trying to convince myself that a useful approach to art and life brings the most positive possible impact to others in each moment as it arrives. This is something I constantly fail at doing, but keep trying to do regardless, because I’ve come to feel it’s truly worth doing. And this is what making the videopoem taught me. Due to the last few years I have finally realized that if I think too much about the politics of the moment I lose my sense of how to make the best possible now for myself and those around me. But I also have my doubts. Sometimes I believe that might be a rather selfish way of thinking on my part, and it does truly grieve me to watch the American Experiment flail with what I hope are not its death throes. So, I’m torn between this path I’m seeing and my urge to try to “save” things with art and rants and videopoems and “messages,” but then the Mobius strip glides me back to cyclical ephemerality and suffering, etc. Perhaps if I’m ever able to fully incorporate what I’m thinking into my life (inner and outer) I can then try to address the astounding depth of ignorance and delusion currently at work in this world and in our ridiculously contorted nation in particular.
At its core, the insurrection was evil. Autocracy is evil. Fascism is evil. The desire to replace democracy with such things and in such ways is born of ignorance, fear, selfishness, and evil. There’s no other way to put it. But I wonder at times if hating evil poisons me with hatred regardless (because I really really really hate evil in all its forms, and hatred is a feeling I know I have to surrender) which then makes me wonder how I should wrestle evil in the first place – with videopoems? Better perhaps to do so with acceptance of evil’s reality and the intention to in some way work to bend evil toward the good. On my better days I can see evil as merely a consequence of ignorance and fear and good as a form of knowledge and courage. And then I see knowledge as a form of truth. Only to get tangled up in the idea of what truth actually is or isn’t, and that knowledge isn’t necessarily truth – at least not Truth, which is of course not facts, but how we feel about the facts. Or is it that Truth just is what it is? Literally. I don’t know.
My mind is too small and untamed to figure it out at this point. I just know that compassion is severely lacking in this world and the compassion of Ginsberg’s poem struck me with its unflinching look at the self and the state of the place wherein that self dwells (America, 1956). I am trying to take that unflinching look yet again, in my own way, while I’m also trying to help shoulder that wheel, and I suppose that means I’m asking for help while helping, which might mean that I’m hoping that others will put their shoulders to the wheel along with mine in the larger struggle to roll the wheel of our compassion over the bumps of our escalating situation. It’s easy to love the good. It’s much harder to fight through hate and see that it takes compassion to counteract evil. The process of creating this videopoem helped me to further realize that, despite the fact that such a message is not overtly in the videopoem itself.
Maybe what I’m trying to say with “America (i wanted to…)” is that despite the shitstorm I see whirling within me and all around us, I’m going to try and keep fighting the good fight, which might not even be a fight at all, but a form of acceptance in which that acceptance means exerting my will toward pointing the full power of my compassion at others, and crushing the fear and doubt and failures that keep telling me, “Yeah, like you’re ever gonna be able to do that.” When I can look at someone who I would formerly instinctively loathe and instead understand that my loathing is caused by my negative reaction to their suffering and delusion and the ensuing negative reverberations that suffering and delusion cause for others, that should turn my loathing into a strong desire to help that person find what they need to end the cycle of their negative actions. And that thing they need to find is not my videopoem. It’s the compassion they’ve lost sight of within themselves along the way due to their fear and ignorance. I’m still struggling with that loathing every day. Until I’m capable of turning that loathing into compassion I’ve realized I should probably hold off on having an opinion on a lot of things I’ve formerly had some pretty strident opinions about. Just as I feel I should hold off on claiming anything I’ve ever created in an artistic sense has anything to offer anyone beyond the dim hope of somehow making someone pause to think in some way about our very complicated human condition. If an artwork causes you to pause in any way, if it makes you think, if it re-calibrates your thought into a new direction in some way, then that artwork has done what all art should aspire to do, at least in my opinion. If I’m lucky, perhaps this videopoem accomplishes that.
PF: We expect a bit more back and forth before wrapping this up. In particular, we’d like to know if there are any questions you wish we had asked you, but haven’t?
MM: Hmmm. What’s my favorite color? (forest green). Why am I overly sentimental and sometimes feel overwhelmed with the urge to weep when I see genuine acts of selflessness and kindness (I aspire to transcend my own flaws). Who are you? (no one/everyone). Why are you here? (I’m not sure where else I’m supposed to be). What is the meaning of life? (It would seem the answer to that lives somewhere between everything we’ve already done and everything we aspire to be).
Matt Mullins with Pamela Falkenberg and Jack Cochran, December, 2022.
Matt Mullins makes videopoems, digital/interactive literature and writes poetry, fiction, screenplays, and music. His videopoems have been displayed at exhibitions, galleries, and festivals throughout the world and include screenings at Visible Verse (Canada), Zebra (Germany), VideoBardo (Argentina), Liberated Words (England), Ó Bhéal (Ireland), The Body Electric (USA), CYCLOP (Ukraine), Co-Kisser (USA), The Filmpoem Festival (Scotland), Rabbit Heart (USA), and The International Film Poetry Festival (Greece) and REELPoetry (USA). His poetry and fiction have appeared in online and print literary journals such as the Mid American Review, Pleiades, Hunger Mountain, Descant, decomP, and Hobart. His collection of short stories, Three Ways of the Saw, was published by Atticus Books and named a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year. He currently teaches at Ball State University where he is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing. He is also the mixed media editor at The Atticus Review. You can find a number of his videopoems at: https://vimeo.com/mattmullins
Pam is an independent filmmaker who received her PhD from the University of Iowa and taught at Northern Illinois University, St.Mary’s College, and the University of Notre Dame. She directed the largest student film society in the US while she was at the University of Iowa, and also ran film series for the Snite Museum of Art in South Bend, IN. Her experimental film with Dan Curry, Open Territory, received an individual filmmaker grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as grants from the Center for New Television and the Indiana Arts Council. Open Territory screened at the Pacific Film Archives, as well at numerous film festivals, including the AFI Video Festival, and was nominated for a regional Emmy. Her other films include museum installations, scholarly/academic hybrid works shown at film conferences, and a documentary commissioned by the Peace Institute at the University of Notre Dame. She has also been an occasional contributor to Moving Poems Magazine (http://discussion.movingpoems.com/).
Jack is an independent filmmaker who has produced, directed, or shot a variety of experimental and personal projects. As a Director of Photography, he has extensive experience shooting commercials, independent features, and documentaries. His varied commercial client list includes BMW, Ford, Nissan, Fujifilm, Iomega, Corum Watches, and Forte Hotels. His features and documentaries have shown at the Sundance, Raindance, Telluride, Tribeca, Edinburgh, Chicago, Houston, and Taos film Festivals, winning several honors. Commercials and documentaries he shot have won Silver Lions from Cannes, a BAFTA (British Academy Award), Peabody Awards, and Cable Aces. Some of his notable credits include Director of Photography on Brian Griffin’s Claustrofoamia, Cinematographer for documentarian Antony Thomas’ Tank Man, Director/Cinematographer of Viento Nocturno, and Cinematographer of Ramin Niami’s feature film Paris. Jack received his MFA from the University of Iowa Creative Writers Workshop, and spent four years in the University of Iowa Film Studies PhD program before deciding to make his career in the film industry, working out of Los Angeles and London.