Alice Quinn, in all her ebullience, “Bob, this is Eve. Eve Grubin. She’s David Grubin’s daughter! She’s a poet.” This in the sunny, energized Poetry Society of America offices—what a great meeting. Eve was a young poet with a new job. Her dad, a renowned PBS producer/director, had just created “The Language of Life: A Festival of Poets” hosted by Bill Moyers and shot at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. My own PBS series, “The United States of Poetry,” had been broadcast at the same time. There’s so little contact between poetry and television—seemed like David and I were the only people in the universe uniting these two opposites. But plenty of people thought David and I represented two different camps of poetry – academic and street/spoken word. But David had had me be in his film and – oh, this was so marvelously complicated! But it was terrific meeting Evie that day at PSA, thinking of David also as a father, like I was with my daughters. And now we could say hello at parties! Who knew where this might lead?
The story begins The Poem’s new forms in the dawning of the Era of Digital Consciousness. In the beginning, (1980?), I knew television to be the Enemy. TV was why nobody was coming to my readings! They were all at home in front of the Cyclops in the Corner. But then, by luck and friends and a certain proclivity, I had the opportunity to get poetry on television—on WNYC-TV, before Giuliani sold it and it became NY1. For the six years that I produced “Poetry Spots,” television became just another way to transmit the poem. Funny what a little power will do.
I’d learned from Walter Ong that Orality is not a precursor to writing, but a separate and equivalent consciousness. This factoid changed my life. Television became just another platform for poetry to make nothing happen. For tens of thousands of years poetry was solely an oral art. Then came writing, famously followed by print. Now we have digital: film/video/internet. The medium of transmission may change, but the poem is always The Poem.
This interest in Orality is what led me to my fieldwork in Africa, searching for the roots of hip-hop. And I knew that if I were to make this expedition right, led by my guide, mentor and friend, Alhaji Papa Susso, I’d need a couple of cameras and a soundman. Luckily, this kind of realistic insanity is shared by my good buddy, Ram Devineni, who produced these explorations of oral traditions into a three-part series on LinkTV. As soon as we had DVDs of the imaginatively-titled “On the Road with Bob Holman: Africa and Israel,” I immediately sent one to my PBS doppelgänger, David Grubin. It had been 20 years since PBS did poetry.
And so it was that we found ourselves at a pleasant boite on the Bowery, discussing poetry over lunch. David liked “On the Road”! Well, I said, I think of myself as a poet in my documentaries. It was great to talk with a real documentary filmmaker, and heartening that he liked my work. Maybe I got a little nudgey when I asked David if there was anything he could do to help me with this project, and he replied, What do you have in mind? Why don’t we do a project together, I subtly suggested, With you as producer and director? And to my utter astonishment, David replied, Well, let’s see if we can get the money.
It may sound like a line out of Hollywood, but I didn’t notice. If anyone knows the production of an educational documentary from soup to nuts it’s David Grubin and his a fistful of Emmys. He said he’d try the National Endowment for the Humanities first, they had funded him in the past. When I went to the NEH website to check out the grant form, I couldn’t believe that their application model was for “The Buddha,” Grubin’s award-winning documentary. (“The Buddha”, by the way, has over 700,000 likes on Facebook now). This might happen!
And it did.
Here’s our secret. David is totally committed to poetry, as is his wife, the artist Joan Grubin. They read poems to each other every morning, and David’s memorized quite a number. He and I have a great time talking over everyone from Stanley Kunitz to Sekou Sundiata, and the synthesis of our sensibilities—I still remember the way that I was attacked by some people from the Dodge Foundation, “You can’t make a poetry film in MTV bursts, with no narrator!”—was really played out in our quest to use poetry as the engine to bring the world’s attention to the language crisis—half the languages on the planet will disappear this century.
I suggested we make the film in Africa, where Orality is a way of life. Africa is where poets, griots, have a real role in society—and they get paid, too. We could start off in the Kalahari, I said, and listen to Koisan, the “click” languages—they have over 140 phonemes (sounds), the most in the world. Listening to a Koisan speaker is like listening to a jug band in the mouth. And of course there’s the incredible griot traditions of West Africa, where I had previously spent so much time learning, straight from the origins, of African American musical traditions, the birthplace of the blues, jazz, hip-hop. David listened. We need an argument,” he said. We need to tell the story of how languages become endangered, and why that’s important. What do we lose when we lose a language?
Finally, after a lot of nudging on his part, I got it. How about we have a language that’s dying, say, a last speaker. and a language in the struggle of revivification, and close with a success story, actually the only success story (outside of the special case that is Hebrew) -- Welsh, the only language to have come of the endangered list.
And that was it. That’s what we did, and that’s how Language Matters came to be. The money came through from the National Endowment for the Humanities (thank you so, NEH!) and also some from (LINK) Pacific Islanders in Communication (mahalo!). The show will be broadcast this week in most parts of the US, but you’ll have to check your own listings to find out exactly when, and in some places, like Minneapolis, it won’t broadcast until April. Please check with your local stations. My sister Amy lobbied the affiliate in Richmond, VA, and now we’ll be seen there. Thanks, Amy.
One little anecdote for the road. We knew we had to have Wales, and when we met linguist Nick Evans we saw the camera-ready qualities of North Arnhemland, Australia. But for the “language in transition section,” I really thought we should head to Greenland, where some linguists are working in tandem with the population, leading the writing of poems in Greenlandic about walrus hunting and seal fat while actually engaging in the hunts—what could be better?
But Bob, David replied, W.S. Merwin is in Hawaii. He’s studied the language, and planted endangered species of palms that would make a great physical analogy. And the story of the punana leo, the language nests where children speak only Hawaiian…I just stared at him. Ok Bob, David said. You go buy the parkas. I’ll get the bikinis.