Poets and Writers - - Departments - –MAYA C. POPA

In­tro­duc­ing Whit­man, Alabama; video game de­sign­ers adapt clas­sic books; Re­volv­ing Door Arts launches teen pub­lish­ing house in Chicago; a Q&A with Kaya Thomas, cre­ator of the We Read Too app; and more.

Film­maker Jennifer Cran­dall first vis­ited Alabama in 2013 on a short-term as­sign­ment for Alabama Me­dia Group, a dig­i­tal me­dia com­pany that pro­duces television and video pro­gram­ming and pub­lishes three of the most promi­nent news­pa­pers in the state. Though she was liv­ing in Am­s­ter­dam at the time, Cran­dall was so in­spired by Alabama that she moved to Birm­ing­ham, be­came the com­pany’s first artist-in-res­i­dence, and be­gan de­vel­op­ing a doc­u­men­tary pro­ject that would show­case the state’s cit­i­zens. But rather than use a tra­di­tional in­ter­view for­mat, Cran­dall de­cided to cen­ter her pro­ject around Walt Whit­man’s iconic 1855 poem “Song of My­self” for its cel­e­bra­tion of Amer­i­can iden­tity. She has since spent the past two years trav­el­ing through­out Alabama, film­ing peo­ple read­ing from the poem. The re­sult­ing se­ries, Whit­man, Alabama, cap­tures the spirit of the state and its peo­ple while il­lus­trat­ing the many themes of the poem—race, re­li­gion, politics, sex­u­al­ity, and immigration—that the na­tion con­tin­ues to wres­tle with to­day.

The first in­stall­ment in the se­ries fea­tured ninety-seven-year-old Vir­ginia Mae Sch­mitt, who has since died, recit­ing the poem’s fa­mous open­ing lines. “I cel­e­brate my­self, and sing my­self,” reads Sch­mitt from an arm­chair in her liv­ing room in Birm­ing­ham. “And what I as­sume you shall as­sume.” Since that ini­tial shoot, Cran­dall, with the sup­port of Alabama Me­dia Group and the help of fel­low film­mak­ers Bob Miller and Pierre Kat­tar, has filmed around forty of the fifty-two planned films; she posts a new video to the pro­ject web­site (www .whit­manal­ each week. The pro­ject fea­tures a di­verse group of Alabami­ans, in­clud­ing Bob Tedrow, a con­certina maker in Birm­ing­ham; Mariam Jal­loh, a four­teen-year-old im­mi­grant from Guinea liv­ing in Birm­ing­ham; and Demetrius, Fred­er­ick, Pa­tri­cia, and Tammy—all in­mates at prisons in Mont­gomery.

Ac­quain­tances and friends in­tro­duced Cran­dall to sev­eral of the pro­ject’s read­ers, but she ap­proached many peo­ple at ran­dom too. Cran­dall was sur­prised by how read­ily Alabami­ans agreed to be­ing filmed. Each sub­ject is asked to read from one of the poem’s fifty-two verses. “No mat­ter what way we went about it, peo­ple just said yes,” says Cran­dall, who notes that the pro­ject is not about mak­ing the au­di­ence into Whit­man ex­perts. “Most peo­ple have heard of Whit­man, from Alabama to any­place else I’ve been, but they are not re­ally con­ver­sant in his work. Fun­da­men­tally, it’s a pro­ject about get­ting Amer­i­cans more con­ver­sant about who we are as Amer­i­cans.”

Cran­dall strives to make the videos in­ti­mate re­flec­tions of the sub­jects and to film them in en­vi­ron­ments where they can be fully them­selves: a liv­ing room, for in­stance, a front porch, or the woods. Each video jux­ta­poses candid mo­ments along­side the recita­tion. A group of teenagers skate­board, dance,

beat­box, and tease one an­other in a va­cant lot while tak­ing turns read­ing verse 21. One par­tic­i­pant, Beth Spivey, re­counts get­ting into her car in the mid­dle of the night to chase a van­dal down the road be­fore read­ing the open­ing lines of verse 34.

Cran­dall em­braces spon­tane­ity in her process. She filmed verse 43 by driv­ing along Route 43 and see­ing whom she might en­counter. While pass­ing through the small city of Union Springs, she met Anthony Ste­wart, who was sit­ting un­der a tree. When she asked him to read a por­tion of the poem, he ex­plained that he has a hard time read­ing. In the video, Cran­dall can be heard feed­ing Ste­wart the lines from be­hind a tree. The re­sult is mov­ing: Ste­wart re­peats com­plex lan­guage with com­po­sure, lines Cran­dall her­self stum­bles over. “I’m not a good reader, but I’m a good singer,” Ste­wart says. The scene closes with Ste­wart sing­ing as a thun­der­storm breaks over Union Springs. “That is the stuff I live for,” says Cran­dall. “Each of these verses has its own finger­print, which has to do with the peo­ple be­hind the cam­era, in front of the cam­era, and the Whit­man verse cho­sen. This pro­ject is 51 per­cent serendip­ity, 49 per­cent plan­ning. It’s a gam­ble, but part of what we do is in the spirit of the mo­ment. We work with what peo­ple give us. Ev­ery­one is a coau­thor in that they feel some sense of own­er­ship.”

In the open­ing verse of “Song of My­self,” Whit­man pro­claims, “every atom be­long­ing to me as good be­longs to you.” This sen­ti­ment lives at the heart of Cran­dall’s se­ries, cel­e­brat­ing the dis­parate lives of in­di­vid­u­als while em­pha­siz­ing our unity as a na­tion. “Whit­man wrote the poem at a pretty di­vided time,” Cran­dall says. “He did a lot of work to help us em­pa­thet­i­cally un­der­stand who we could be and didn’t re­strain him­self to the time and place he was from. He of­fered us guide­lines for how to think of our­selves as Amer­i­cans. We are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to one an­other and no one par­tic­u­lar thing. To­day we’re strug­gling with that.”

The irony of us­ing the words of Whit­man, a North­erner, to show­case the South does not es­cape Cran­dall. “Bring­ing this poem to life by South­ern­ers was an at­tempt to re­mind us that if you’re a North­erner, you’re also a South­erner. We are part of each other.”

Bob Tedrow, a con­certina maker in Birm­ing­ham, Alabama, plays the banjo as part of his read­ing of verse 7 of “Song of My­self” for the Whit­man, Alabama pro­ject.

Mariam Jal­loh (above) and the late Vir­ginia Rae Sch­mitt (be­low).

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