The structure of VCFA is that, as a participant, you attend workshops daily (I taught a manuscript workshop); you attend readings throughout the week by all participants and faculty; and you attend craft talks by each of the faculty members. It’s intense but generous in its offerings. I condensed into an hour a craft class that I teach over the course of a semester at the University of Michigan called Cinematic Movement. Like I said, it’s intense but generous. An hour before the class my mother called me from Ohio. She was just checking in to see how things were going; I told her I was preparing to go teach a class. She asked me what I was teaching. I had to pause for a second to take all the varnish off of it. The problem is that I was still, just an hour before, pondering what, exactly, I really had to say. I told her, I was teaching a class on what poets can learn from watching film. She then followed up her question with a statement: “Oh, so this is about the book you just wrote.” I had to think about that, too, for a second…Yes, I thought, it kind of is.
In fact, though, the class I taught was about the book I wanted to write; it was about the ambition I had for the book I just wrote. I wanted to write a book in which people could engage as easily as one might engage watching a good film. In the class, I talked about the ability for the filmmaker to ground and orient a viewer both spatially and temporally in the scene—scene after scene. I talk about the ways in which matching action and shot sequences work to place us in a scene and to place us in a situation. If a film is even remotely competent, we, at least, know what’s going on, where we are, and who is creating the action. And I compared the need for standardized shot sequences—things like standard coverage and the 180-degree rule—to keep viewers situated in the scene, to the need for associative patterns and logical transitions in a poem to keep a reader grounded. I compared the failure in this structure to the moments I experience in a workshop when I say that a line or a word has “taken me out of the poem.” There is a certain form to the way shots are sequenced, and we are as acculturated to those forms as much as we are believers in the sonnet. At this point on the timeline, we expect a cut in film every two to three seconds—shifting points of view, toggling between images—and we don’t get dizzy. Avid editing suddenly makes some of our favorite classic films from the 60s and 70s feel slow.
But all of that is not the point.
The point is this: What do we use all of that for? Well, we use it to tell a story. We use it to forget that any craft is involved at all. We do it so that we can forget where the strings are attached. We do it to direct the focus on what is being said. Too often, as in the teaching of this class, we get overly fixated on craft to the detriment of content. I realize over time that teaching craft gets easier and easier. Teaching what to pour into is what cannot be taught; we have to choose that for ourselves, but this is the stuff that makes us artists of high art. Sadly, too few students want to hear this. At VCFA, I was blessed with a workshop that ranged in age from 26 to 78; that included, blacks, whites, Latinos, straights and gays; and that even had a range of religious beliefs. These folks had some shit to write about, and we got to talk about content and how to shape it through a few tweaks with craft. I realized that this was not my typical experience teaching a workshop, but it took me a while to really home in on why.
This occurred to me recently as I watched the awkwardly titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Despite the title, it’s not about Lee Daniels’ butler; Lee Daniels just directed the film. The movie is better written on a scene-by-scene basis than it is as a series of scenes comprising a film, but it is, nonetheless, despite its reliance on formula from time to time, better written than 95% of what is coming out of Hollywood today. (A few critics have knocked the writing for being too formulaic, but if this is the formula, more films need to get their hands on it. Cable TV and Netflix are kicking film in the ass because the studios seem afraid to make movies that really speak to the human condition, but that’s another blog entry.) On the surface, it’s a film that feels like my least favorite genre: the biopic. At its core, though, it’s about relationships: the relationship between fathers and sons, between husbands and wives, between neighbors, and the relationship among men who work together. There’s also the larger issue centered on the power dynamics between superiors and subordinates, which is threaded through each relationship in the film. This is the real strength of the writing in this one; this is found in its nuances, and this is what I found emotionally striking. When I see a film, I’m always asking if it, in some way, transcends its genre to offer something new, and in this case, Lee Daniels’ The Butler manages to cover the full life of a figure who is fairly unknown, but the film uses this figure as a marker of history. That is to say, we recognize the historical figures orbiting around his story more than we recognize the figure at its center.
If this film were a poem, it would be an epic poem. Twenty years ago, if you were to ask me what is an epic poem—what it does, even—I would have said that it chronicles the culture and history of a people by tracking the journey of a hero. I find that definition to be much too narrow now, though. Indeed, I think epics really teach us about the psychology and the collective thinking of a people by tracking a central figure who is emblematic of that experiential frame of mind over a span of years. When I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I thought, Yes, why can’t we start teaching this? And where are our epic poems of the 21st century? I think we need to start thinking of content as craft and talk more about life when we talk about the art of the poem. The greatest artistic problem set before us is the greatest challenge we face in our day: talking across ethnic/racial lines, talking across gender lines, talking across lines of sexual orientation, talking across regional and generational lines. If we don’t attend to that problem, we might as well stay home and watch cable.