The following interview with film-maker, poet, and editor Nick Twemlow took place in mid-June of 2012 in Iowa City. Nick’s first poetry collection, Palm Trees, is forthcoming (along with the poet Joel Craig’s first book) from Green Lantern press in fall 2012. Nick has generously provided a poem, “The Twenty-four Complications,” from Palm Trees, along with a link to the video piece, Richard Prince, around which part of the discussion below revolves.
RF: Can you say a little something about how you work on poems or video?
NT: I pretty much work every day on something. Usually, it’s an image that I come across and want to respond to or…deform. That’s the strange thing: the fact that you go back, that you return to these images. My brother-in-law is a blues guitarist, and practices all the time. Whenever I visit him and my sister and their family, he’s most likely to be in his studio, practicing. He has gigs most nights I’m around. Throughout the day, I hear him practicing chords; sometimes he breaks into a recognizable tune, but usually, he just repeats chords. It’s like he’s just making sure that he is still able to play. And I wonder if sometimes the impulse to write or cut video or whatever is also the need just to stay practiced. I wonder if constantly doing whatever it is that you like to do—constantly practicing—also creates the need to do it in the first place, and then also that’s how you arrive at the works that you want to see. Maybe it’s a matter of temperament: there are some poets who seem to produce work at a rate that would suggest that there is little editing going on, poets who say, I have to not only write constantly, but publish it. Then there are others who don’t work like that at all—poets who don’t churn out work, for whom work doesn’t come out easily and quickly.
RF: My question has to do with those moments in which, after diligently staying practiced and alert, you find yourself responding to something. Can you describe what happens, in either film or poetry, in that moment—how you’re drawn in, how work comes out of that?
NT: Recently I made this piece, Richard Prince, which is a seven-minute study of Brooke Shields, primarily using footage of a eulogy she delivered at Michael Jackson’s televised memorial. I had been thinking about MJ and Shields off and on for some time—largely because my wife, Robyn Schiff, had written a poem featuring Shields—the Calvin Klein poem in her book Revolver—and had also written a poem considering MJ, a few weeks after he died. I watched a good chunk of the memorial live—this was an entertainer who may have been the most gifted showman of his time, a figure who imprinted on me at a young age. I can still do the moonwalk, which I practiced for hours upon hours as a child. I was sad, as millions were that day, and awestruck by the raging escalation of spectacle that he left in his wake.
Some time later, I found myself watching YouTube clips of the various eulogies from that day (I came across these clips while looking for footage of MJ doing the robot, for another video piece). Brooke Shields mesmerized me. There was a gesture she made, and I noticed—and it was really a function of the main camera’s set-up, which was the standard medium-shot where you see the subject from the chest up—I noticed she’s moving her head in such a way that I wanted to really consider these movements. It occurred to me that she is quite striking. She’s also a pure cultural product: Her mother, a famous stage mother, made her available to the public at a very early age, and she has had all of these problems and career reboots…not unlike MJ. It makes perfect sense that they were friends.
And as someone pointed out to me who saw a draft of this video, it seems like MJ saw, in Shields, the ultimate form; perhaps his own interior and exterior metamorphoses were pitched toward this ideal. If you look at her closely—and I think I was thinking about this when I was watching this video—watching her face and upper body in slow motion, you start to recognize the similarities, because you’re looking at shapes; it’s geometric. I think that, at some point, this video hit an undercurrent of all these different ideas, and I let it go for a little while, but it stuck with me. I didn’t articulate any of that to myself at the time, but in the end what I thought was, there’s all this mirroring going on between the subject of the eulogy and the person delivering the eulogy in terms of ideologies, cultural baggage, etc., and it just seemed right to press on…
RF: So the things that made this possible—Robyn’s poem, your particular skill set, your life, sensibility, the eulogy, etc…
NT: …all that stuff is sitting there, and what I actually saw, thinking back on it, what I really saw in this particular shot, is that Shields has the perfect facial structure, the perfect build. She’s wearing a black dress, which bleeds into the background and showcases the drop line so that you can see the top part of her chest, her neck, and her head, and it was a perfectly situated mess: her figure in that absent space in which the black is engulfing her. I thought to myself that I knew I could play around with the geometry of this figure.
RF: Can you talk more about the gesture she made that attracted you?
NT: I was studying her face as she was talking, contextualizing her relationship with MJ. I noticed that at those early moments she’s flitting her head about quite a bit. I took that part and I did some alterations to it to change the color and lighting, but mostly I slowed it down and introduced several overlaps. I then added some strobe effects so that I could watch her head moving and whipping about—looking, again, at the geometry of her face and how her hair would move at certain moments—and her hair looked like it had its own brain moving it around. I was fascinated by this one move she makes when she tosses her head to the side and her hair flips in the opposite direction, and there is a point where I overlap multiple channels of the same image, but they’re slightly off-centered, so what you get is this ghoulish-looking face because there are all these competing moments that are a second or two behind the original. I then fade back into the initial image, and all the layers where the hair is in different spots catch up to that image, and she makes that gesture again and her head—it’s like the other images shift the darkness of her hair across her face, and there is one final gesture when she wipes away the entirety of the rest of the image with the flick of her own head. I realized that all the work I was doing layering now had its own mind, and it was strange. Maybe this sounds ridiculous, but I felt like the process of editing had been taken over by her central image. Like she (or this image) was making formal decisions for me.
RF: Yes, I think that’s it. I would say that certainly something similar happens in poetry—that, different disciplines aside, this is what is meant by poiesis, or technical skill aligned with the unfolding of a force and a material.
NT: Though I also recognize that this veers a bit into a romanticized, fetishizing mode of working—the cliché of the artist on the lookout for the singular, utilizable moment or experience.
RF: Nevertheless, what you’ve said about the Michael Jackson/Brooke Shields piece strikes me as an accurate and interesting description of one way work comes about.
NT: To go back to trading in clichés: one of the things I can say about the poems and videos of mine that still interest me is that, starting out, I didn’t know where I was headed. They recreate the experience of not-knowing. Hopefully, in a work, there is some engagement in an aspect of this—not only the world that it is commentating on, but also it—that you didn’t see, and that indicates the pure pleasure of being a receiver in a world.
The Twenty-four Complications
The life of the party slits its wrists. Its wrists
slit their wrists. The wrist of the world
wears a Patek Philippe Henry Graves
Supercomplication. Which is not a wristwatch but a pocket
watch. Among its twenty-four complications
is one for the hour in which you hang
yourself by your wedding tie and another that counts the number
of people whose livers can no longer self-repair
and have begun to eat themselves. The man
who commissioned the piece may or may not have lived
forever. He may or may not have been part-owner
of an explosives company that may or may
not go by the name of Blackwater. You
may or may not believe this, but when I was a boy
all I wanted was to push a big red button.
Imagine a million crosshairs congregating on the last
illegal alien on earth, who resembles the shape you
clock time in front of the bathroom mirror
re-imagining. Or the clock tower you climb
as Charles Whitman did in Austin, Texas
(it was not a clock tower), lugging
a duffel of guns and a hatred of the kind of muffled
conversation he always walked into
in the rooms of the house he grew up in to hear.
Meanwhile Blackwater backpedals. Blackwater occupies
the clock tower, killing time in the peculiar way time
and money prepare you for. The thesis
statement is that privatizing the military
privatizes the boredom of observing
an alien people who busy themselves
with the rituals of the free market. Learn
from the example of the markets in Jerusalem.
The seventh complication
is a koan wrapped in an enigma. What are you doing?
We haven't ideated that yet. Eight resembles the head
of an amber fish, the body ripped away
by a motherless shark. Nine accrues interest
in the leper colonies of the imagination
(which may or may not exist, lyrically).
Ten through seventeen take a few
bongers while watching The Wire on DVD. Eighteen
is your father's will,
which faded as the years passed
while burning a hole in his afterlife as the lawyers recited
its damages to your family ten days after he poked
a hole in the sky with his third eye, which, technically,
is the eighteenth complication.
Nineteen is the dream in which you marveled
at a child's art deco sand castle
while the lion paced a few feet away.
Twenty was last century.
Twenty-one occupies the analytic couch
your father fashioned out of chocolate glazed donuts. The next
two slob the knob of the infinite
40oz, dreaming in daiquiri, screaming
to the open field in a Whitmanic mania.
of the Patek Philippe Henry Graves
Supercomplication is the server space of your next
ten years, where dust compiles and Blackwater
offloads the epic we all had hoped one of us would write.
(previously published in A Public Space)
Nick Twemlow’s first book, Palm Trees, is due out this fall from Green Lantern Press. His video works have played Tribeca, Slamdance, SXSW, and many other festivals. He received a Princess Grace Foundation Honorarium in Filmmaking in 2011. He is a senior editor at The Iowa Review and coedits Canarium Books
Robert Fernandez is the author of We Are Pharaoh and the forthcoming Pink Reef. He lives in Iowa City.