The Path of Water. An interview with James Bertolino.
A. Van Jordan
A. Van Jordan is the author of Rise, published by Tia Chucha Press, 2001, which won the PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Award and selected for the Book of the Month Club from the Academy of American Poets.
Published by W.W. Norton & Co., 2004, his second book, M-A-C-N-O-L-I-A, was awarded an Anisfield-Wolf Award and listed as one the Best Books of 2005 by The London Times (TLS). Jordan was also awarded a Whiting Writers Award in 2005 and a Pushcart Prize in 2006, 30th Edition. Quantum Lyrics was published July 2007 by W.W. Norton & Co. He is a recent recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, 2007.
A. Van Jordan - Essay
The Synchronicity of Scenes
The city distends in front of me from an aerial view. Black and white buildings, the actual
buildings and the shadows they cast, as far as the eye can see. It's daytime. This much is clear by the light and
the contrast of the skyline of drab buildings and the clarity of the sky. I'm asking the question in my mind: what
city is this? I should say that I'm about to ask this question; no sooner do I think to ask, a title slides across
the screen from the left and stops dead center: PHOENIX, ARIZONA. And then before I even think about the time of
day, this dissipates and another title slides in from the left again and centers itself again: FRIDAY, DECEMBER
ELEVENTH. I pan the city a bit more and I am totally grounded, spatially and temporally: TWO FORTY-THREE PM,
spelled out in capital letters.
As if I were floating across this city's meager skyline, my eyes do float across and, somehow,
among the many non-descript buildings, seem to focus and stop on one building: a downtown hotel. I fly in closer,
even closer and stop at a window, half open, blinds askew over the gentle breeze they provide. I become curious
andmaybe I should admit, I become a bit voyeuristic, but this hides so far in my heart, I'm not sure that
this is even true, yetI want to see what is going on in this room. And what I hope to see is exactly what
I find: a couple, half naked, lying on a bed. I'm here with a foreshortened view and, now, I move in closer, more
intimately, and I might as well lie down with them for the proximity from which I view.
It happened just like that. The first time I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, just
after the credits and the dramatic music had stopped and the first establishment shot opened, I was completely
grounded and ready not only to suspend my disbelief, but to engage in the fantasy and disengage with the life I
left behind as I walked into the theater.
I remember thinking I was doing something quite adult because, as a child, I was now in the
throes of an adult situation and I could not wait to see what would happen next. The woman in the scene, Marion
Crane (Janet Leigh), was in a bra. This was already more than I had anticipated. I remember her and the male
character in this sceneSam Loomis (John Gavin), someone I would forget about long before Anthony Perkins
appears on the screen as Norman Batesand I thought I'd follow this story line for the next couple of hours
and surely they'd kiss again and fall into some hotel bed again and, hopefully, disrobe yet again. But then she
mentions that she has "to go to work" and that he can't come with her because he doesn't have his
shoes on. This all transpires after a discussion of marriage and his confessing that he's poor and her confessing
that she loves him anyway.
CUT TO: The next scene. She's at work as I expect because she's announced this the scene
before. Beyond that announcement, she also enters the scene by walking through the door of the office. My view is
from the inside of the office looking out through the front window; she approaches and walks closer into the
foreground of the frame. The film progresses in this manner for the next couple of hours. A word or phrase
is mentioned, the scene changes, and the characters begin interacting. Cut.
I've been watching movies closely since I was a kid. I saw Psycho (1960) on the big
screen in high school. Since it was my graduating class' choice for class movie, it was screened in our school
auditorium, 1983. I think the first adult movie I'd seen on the big screen, about ten years before, was either
Hitchcock's The Birds or a far less memorable film like The Betsy starring Tommy Lee Jones, in his
first film, I believe, and Lawrence Olivier. But I watched everything, things a child probably shouldn't watch:
Shaft, Frenzy, Klute, The Mack, Lady Sings the Blues (five times),
Play Misty for Me, everything Hitchcock had left in him at this point, every Blaxploitation film I could
sneak into in drive-in theaters under the blanket in the back seat of my brother's car. Everything. At this
point, I had little interest in reading anything other than comic books and non-fiction books on science,
nature, animals: all the things that seemed foreign to my immediate world. I sought escape.
As an adult and, now, as a reader, I seek escape in books and, counter to popular culture,
I often seek escape in poems. From time to time I will bring a poem to a classsome poem that just breaks
my heart when I'm lying on my couch reading it in the quiet of my home, a poem that's so beautiful I just want
to throw the book across the room because it's so electrifyingand I'll read the poem to my students from
a book or from a handout. The students will look at me blankly or stare out the window or look down at the page
as if they're trying to find what I just found. When I ask them why they can't seem to connect to this poem or
that poem, they'll say there's "too much happening in the poem," "the images are moving too
fast," or they "can't follow where the poet is going from one stanza to another."
This from the generation that plays video games that make my childhood Atari Pong look like
a rock I might skip across a pond for fun. This is a generation that has grown up watching films edited in
Avid editing suites--a computer program that has revolutionized non-linear editing in the film industry. Since
the mid 1990s, most films have been edited with some form of a non-linear editing programFinal Cut Pro,
Avid, etcwhich has allowed for more freedom with editing. Editors don't have to cut on an upright Moviola,
cutting and pasting with tape and a razor; it's on a computer screen, cutting and pasting with a mouse. I won't
even get into the computer-generated sets and scenes and even charactersthink Gladiator and 300,
for instanceto which 20-somethings have been acculturated. Most films today move so quickly that I feel
as if I'm on an amusement park ride. I prefer films with a slower calibrated pace than the
Tarentino/Rodriguez-paced genre of action films today.
I have as many awkward memories of poetry as a teenager as I have fond memories
of film. I remember repeatedly raising my hand in class to answer the question of
what does this line or that line mean. . . . I never had the right answer. And I did
not like poetry as a result. Consequently, I didn't like people who taught poetry,
either. I used to think, why couldn't this be more like going to the movies.
If students of poetry can handle the pace of action films and music videos, why can't they
shift between images and metaphorline by line, stanza by stanzain a poem? Reading a poem allows for
much more control over pacing than watching a movie. In the theater, after all, we can't ask the projectionist to
slow down or go back.
I have as many awkward memories of poetry as a teenager as I have fond memories of film. I
remember repeatedly raising my hand in class to answer the question of what does this line or that line mean
in "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "The Song of Hiawatha" or "The Waste Land," only
to have the teacher say, "No," and then point to someone behind me or to my side. I never had the
right answer. And I did not like poetry as a result. Consequently, I didn't like people who taught poetry,
either. I used to think, why couldn't this be more like going to the movies.
Going to the Movies:
When we watch film, we're accustomed to watching patterns of shots. We may not be conscious
of the patterning, but patterns persist in filmic language. We hear CUT TO or FLASHBACK or PAN and, in general
terms, we understand what these directions mean, even without working with film. The patterns emerge as film
styles, and we acquiesce to the movement, and, consequently, anticipate the movement.
One pattern of shots in film is often referred to as "Standard Coverage." Standard
Coverage is not only used for budgetary reasons and to make sure shots are covered from all angles on the set,
but it's also used to ground and orient the viewer. The series of shots usually goes like this: ESTABLISHMENT
SHOT, MASTER SHOT, ONE to TWO SHOT, new scene.
The ESTABLISHMENT SHOT is often the aerial view we get of the city in most Hollywood films. We
get a shot of the location and we're grounded in the scene; it contextualizes any action that will take place.
Sometimes this shot can simply be the outside of a building, or it can be a hallway in a hospital, or it can be
the car bays in a garage. In short, it is any shot that establishes where we are before the action in the scene
MASTER SHOT further grounds the viewer. We know what the location is, but we may not know who
will be central figures in this scene until we get the master shot. Most of the action will now take place
based on how we are oriented, spatially, within the scene with the master shot. At this point we see the
central characters in the scene and we know their spatial relationship within it. This shot contains all the
action within the scene.
ONE SHOT is simply a shot with one character in the frame. A two shot frames two characters
in the frame. This is often the pattern we view as the camera moves between characters in dialogue. We get close
ups of the characters, over-the-shoulder shots framing both characters in the scene, etc. There could be ten,
twenty or more cuts in a ten-minute scene of action and dialogue.
The opening of Psycho is a perfect example of Standard Coverage:
With standard coverage, we begin to anticipate movement and scene shifts much in the way we
anticipate repetition or rhyme in a poetic form like a sonnet or villanelle. In short, one action anticipates
the next. When Janet Leigh says she has to go to work, we expect to see her at work in the next scene. When Dylan
Thomas's poem opens with "Do not go gentle into that good night," we anticipate the third line of the
second stanza, the sixth line of the poem, repeating: "Do not go gentle into that good night," because
it's a villanelle. Once we establish that, we anticipate that. We also notice the change in patterns once they
are established. Changing patterns is fine as long as it makes sense and doesn't disorient the viewer or reader.
In film language, this is called Matching Action. If we see someone walking through a door at
one angle, we expect to see her walk through the door onto the other side and into a new setting. If we don't
complete that movement and don't cut to her walking through the door, but then show her seated in the new
setting, we can also assume that this is the setting into which the character was walking. The action matches
from movement to movement. Movement should make this much sense in a poem.
Ideally, there's a certain muscle memory poets buildin my opinion, at leastfrom writing in form. We learn how to manage movements in free verse through the practice of form. We come to understand the growing resonance of a repeated line over the course of a poem, the duality of a repeated word, the pacing of meter, through the practice of form. We learn our shots, so to speak, and, consequently, we learn how to orient the reader.
This is one of the first exercises I do with Introduction-to-Poetry students: I ask the
students to close their eyes. I read a poem aloud to the class, asking them to open their eyes once I finish
reading; then I ask them to throw out as many images as they can remember from the poem. I write the
words—predominantly nouns and verbs if this is working—on the chalkboard. I then ask them what themes they see
emerging from these words, as if we were playing a word- association game. It is a word association game, really.
I make a list of these themes. Once we're done, we realize we have taken the words out of the context of syntax
and, yet, they still associate and make sense.
Associative language creates patterns in poems that keep the action matching, much in the way
the proper shots do in a film. We often have a frame of reference with form: we anticipate rhyme, meter, and
repetition. In free verse, this is not always as easily detected. Ideally, there's a certain muscle memory poets
buildin my opinion, at leastfrom writing in form. We learn how to manage movements in free verse
through the practice of form. We come to understand the growing resonance of a repeated line over the course
of a poem, the duality of a repeated word, the pacing of meter, through the practice of form. We learn our
shots, so to speak, and, consequently, we learn how to orient the reader.
When I read a poet like Lynda Hull, the ways in which she builds scenes in her poems is
often cinematic. A word or a phrase will repeat and make a logical leapor cut, if we were thinking in
film termsto the next image or scene. Despite the Avid editing pace of movement in her poems, though, I
never feel disoriented. She manages information in the poem that contextualizes every move. Consider the
movement in the opening of "Love Song During Riot with Many Voices" as Standard Coverage, an
establishment shot that shifts to Master shot to a two shot of the two figures within the poem:
Love Song During Riot with Many Voices
The bridge's iron mesh chases pockets of shadow
and pale through blinds shuttering the corner window
to mark this man, this woman, the young eclipse
their naked bodies makeblack, white, white,
black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls
incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded
in voices rippling from the radio: Saigon besieged,
Hanoi, snipers and the riot news helicoptered
from blocks away. . . .
The title and the subtitleNewark, 1967begin the establishment shot in this
poem. These elements begin contextualizing everything that will follow. This preceding is not only the
first nine lines of the poem, but also the first sentence of the poem. Syntactically, Hull guides with
punctuation as well as line and stanza breaks. The colon in line seven"in voices rippling from
the radio: Saigon besieged"is as much a direction of CUT TO as any scene shift in a film. The
speaker says "radio" and following the colon "Saigon." The images of that location
make sense in this context. The poem begins by orienting the city, panning over a bridge, blinds shuttering
a corner window and marks on a man and womanan inter-racial couple, it seemsmaking love. War
is breaking out; a riot is sure to break out; nonetheless, there is also love making, in the present
progressive, happening. This would best be described in film terms as Parallel Action.
First the action is stopped, then the tension is screwed tighter.
Parallel Action takes place when two movements of action are inter-cut or two actions
are taking place at different points in the same scene. Time is a constant, but place shifts. We are
oriented to understand that action is taking place at the same time in two or three or more different
places. Think about the final opera scene of The Godfather III during the aria. Or the scene from
Sergie Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin on the Odessa Stairs Massacre, to which Brian DePalma pays
homage in Untouchables, during the train station scene. The oppositional action within the scene
creates a parallel action, which creates tension. That is to say, many things are happening at once
in many different places within the scene; sometimes one action seems in conflict with another, but
they work toward a single effect. Tension builds when the action stops and then moves again, as
figures enter the scene from opposing sides, representing the conflict within the scene. Also,
within this scene, Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) establishes order. Every action is predicated on
his point of view. The staircase is askew on a canted angle, until he actually steps onto the
staircase; then the scene is set in its proper order. Movement either enters the scene vertically,
on what is called the Y-Axis, or horizontally, on the X-Axis, or through the depth of field, forward
and backward in the frame, on the Z-Axis:
In a poem, the Y-Axis could be considered the movement down the page from stanza
to stanza. The X-Axis could be considered the movement across lines, horizontally. The Z-Axis could
be considered the movement within the line: syntax, alliteration, associative patterning, etc. In the
Hull poem, action is taking place on each line, but the action accumulates as the poem extends down
the page, stanza by stanza. This can be said of any poem, really. In this case, though, the action
offers duality. Consider, once again, the line and stanza breaks between lines five, six and seven:
. . . black, the dying fall of light rendering bare walls
incarnadine, color of flesh and blood occluded
in voices rippling from the radio: Saigon besieged, . . .
Any one of these lines holds meaning and imagery autonomously, but the image and meaning and
action all distend as the poem extends down the page. Each line break broadens the frame. In some ways, the
images, war and love-making, are in opposition, but, ultimately, this poem is about the tension between the
Another apt example of this is offered in Yusef Komunyakaa's "Facing It":
. . . I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.
Komunyakaa's speaker stands in front of The Vietnam Memorial and looks for the names of
comrades. Once he finds the name of "Andrew Johnson," the speaker sees the scene of Johnson's
death, from the past, and the details of the present moment:
. . . I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall. . . .
In one strophic stanza, the poem's speaker moves between the moment at hand and the
recollection that's associated with the image before him: war. The device that orients the movement is
the memorial, which stands to commemorate the past. The action of flashing back to a battle and the
reflection of "a woman's blouse" in the stone of the memorial, makes sense in this scene in a
manner that would normally seem incongruous. The poem toggles between life and death, the past and the
present, flashes of light as violence and light as shimmers of peace; there are many tensions managed in
the poem by cutting back and forth between parallel action. The poem transcends war, or survival, or
loss, or a celebration of life; it's about all these elements at once.
I offer this as an example of the texture that's built in poems through not only scene
building but also the management of the elements within the scene toward a singular effect. Eisenstein in
his two volume book Film Form and Film Sense calls this effect the Synchronicity of Senses: the
lighting, props, ambient noise, soundtrack, title cards or dialogue, setting, actors and movement all
working toward a singular effect. These elements could all be present or all could be present in a poem as
they are in "Love Song During Riot with Many Voices."
I look to film, now, as a way to solve some of the artistic problems I encounter in poetry. The joy of working through these artistic problems in poetry is that I can be my own director, editor, costume designer, prop master, and cinematographer: all the craft of these artists comes together in a line or a stanza under my pen.
I'm a poet, of course, and, therefore, see the world visually. If I don't see through my
windowor, indeed, into any one else's windowto understand people and their actions, if I don't
view them through imagery and action, I am lost to the process. I look to film, now, as a way to solve some
of the artistic problems I encounter in poetry. The joy of working through these artistic problems in poetry
is that I can be my own director, editor, costume designer, prop master, and cinematographer: all the craft of
these artists comes together in a line or a stanza under my pen. Yet, the difference between film and poetry,
poetry as perceived via one's imagination or lack of experience or bad experience trying to learn it, has an
indelible and bewildering effect on one's mind: rarely are we instructed to think of poetry as a visual art
form with progressive action and scene. As a result, we don't think inside a scene in a poem in the way we do
inside a scene on film. Yes, they are different art forms, and a poem requires a reservoir of patterns and forms
unlike those in film. Nonetheless, they have many similarities. Once we recognize how they are similaronce
we understand their nomenclatures autonomous of each other, that iswe can put the two art forms into
conversation. From film, we begin to orient ourselves in the movement from scene to scene not simply because
of the grammar of film as an art form, but for some other reason: Film, like poetry, answers questions of how
we behave, move, interact with others and anticipate outcomes of natural phenomena, because it mimics how we
hopeespecially once we understand where we are and what's happening in the sceneelements in our
lives will make sense as the focus sharpens.