Art Talk with Allison Hedge Coke
August 11, 2014
"I think most poets are natural witnesses and we're curious about everything." -- Allison Hedge Coke
Allison Hedge Coke wears many hats: poet, filmmaker, teacher, naturalist, mentor, activist, and editor. Her collection Dog Road Woman received the American Book Award, and she has two collections forthcoming—Burn and Streaming. She has also published a memoir, a verse play, and edited several anthologies, including 2011’s Sing: Indigenous Poetry of the Americas. Coke left film for poetry after the death of her husband. Recently, however, Coke has returned to filmmaking and is in production on Red Dust: a mixed-blood Dust Bowl childhood, a documentary that examines her family's life on the Great Plains in the Dust Bowl era. We spoke with Coke when she was in town serving as a judge for the 2014 Poetry Out Loud National Finals. In her own words, here are her thoughts on poetry, filmmaking, and place.
The Poetry of Filmmaking
I got involved when I was really young, in my twenties, working in stage and screen, both writing and directing. I didn't really think about going back into film consciously, but some of the things that I had intended to do with film still existed. It felt like stepping back home again. Artistically, the aesthetic is very present for me and I think it's much the same vein as writing poetry. A line of poetry is very much akin to what you do when you're setting up the camera. You're trying to bring the image to life and you're adding in enough narrative for it to make some sense cohesively. You're learning as you go into it what it's going to be. If you prescript it, you've missed the whole point of documentary, you've missed the whole point of following the journey of what comes out of the process of making the piece. There's a nice unification of the aesthetic value that I have that works in both poetry and film very well. The return has allowed me to embrace film in a different way, maybe a more mature way, than I did when I was in my twenties.
Somebody who's working in cinema photography is basically thinking very much like a poet is thinking when they sit down to compose a line and putting into some shape the image as it's fitting within the content that demands it to appear. There's something within the content that demands the form to occur and cinema photography works like that as well. The absolute intentionality of that intention, that the aesthetic purpose really holds the success of a line in a poem, the success of a stanza in the poem, the poem as an entity in and of itself , that is what I'm seeing happen in film right now and really loving.
You come in with an idea, a storyboard. You have ideas that might be told, but what's happening in the moment and what unfolds becomes the real documentary. If you go in too predetermined, you've likely missed everything and it's the same when you approach a poem. If you go in too predetermined and you missed the point of the active engagement [that’s part of the] creative process in composing the poem. The real genius that happens in the unexpected is always the trigger force that launches something into an extreme state of success.
In poetry there's so much that we work through. We go to the page and something of the world unfolds before me that I'm able to get in and understand a little bit more about. We're often times reaching for facts, be they some sort of sensory effect, be it sound, be it a beat in measure, a cadence. We're often times doing interplay of sound with visual form. There's cultural concepts as well that come into play both in film and in poetry, and in creating that sort of atmosphere where we understand a particular thing of humanity, or the environment, or the world that we're concerned with, that we're considering, that we're investigating, that we're representing, not just surveying but trying to bring to life. Then asking the audience to be part of it by creating something compelling in the mix of that. These are in collusion. They're in concert. There's something working in both forms for me that feels extremely familiar.
The Invitation of Place
The invitation for me is the layout. Place is important to me and being present in place is really important to me. I think most poets are natural witnesses and we're curious about everything. There's this adaption to place that happens almost immediately when I end up somewhere. Nothing else really exists outside of that. For me landscape, neighborhoods and cities, being a part of or feeling attention from if removed from, in some way, shape, or form, new to, a stranger to, invites some level of thinking where we're replacing our knowns and our unknowns. We're replacing the unknowns with the knowns so we can adhere some sense of understanding to the place. It's our mind’s way of coping with new environments. Somewhere in that flood of memories we're going to start to understand where we are because something will connect. I want the audience to be in that same presence that I move into when I fill the space.
The link between nature and the arts
I'm heavily involved with sharing space with migratory birds and I've been heavily involved with that for a number of years. When I was really young, my dad explained to us that we were going to come into this place and when we moved across this slope we were going to see hawks in council. He said when he was a boy and they came over this slope that his father told him that every year the birds have their councils and we're about to see a hawk council. If you come back to this place, this time of year later in life, every year they'll be here. He opened up that world to my father.
When we were small kids, we came under this understanding with birds and with other creatures, other living things. I've been motivated by that in life, particularly how their song also has to do with building relationships. Depending on what flyway people are near, those birds and the way that they conduct their ceremonies become our dances. We're emulating them to become more human which I think is sort of amazing and that cultures have done this around the world forever tells me it's on spot. There's something in there that we learn more about the reality of living by watching other engagements with it. They take care of themselves. They don't think about three to four years ahead of time, these kinds of things, but it is learned behavior. Migration is not instinctual, They're teaching all the time.
I've been running a literary retreat for about eight years now in the epicenter of the flyway. We work with about 589,000 Sandhill cranes. There are seven to ten million other birds that travel with them and basically witness them orchestrate up to twenty some dances that they do. The melodies of the different types of song that they sing or calls that they're doing, unison calls, all these things that go on between them, their conversation, is so much like poetry. Because it's live. They're living alive. They're celebrating. They're warning. The things that they do, it's everything we do as humans. I think poetry is really wrapped up in the essence of living. It's that essence of engagement in the world and again that dynamic between living creatures and our environment, and our place, and what the place is meaning.
Poetry as conversation
You're entering a conversation. Poetry is that. We're all doing our part of it but it's a huge conversation and [students] should be invited in as well. Once they're invited in, we should be kicking the door open and letting in more because there's room for everybody. It's a field that is welcoming of voice and the whole scope of poetry depends on that uniqueness of voice. So if the door closes, we don't have that uniqueness. It's stagnant. It's static. Keeping that door in some sort of flux or fluid with the revolution, with new people coming in all the time is important to our own poetic development. It's something that may or may not seem to have any relationship to [you] but on a deeply seeded level within you there's that interior thread where we're human beings. Somewhere in there is that shape of understanding we're always trying to reach in a poem. Understanding what we're seeing; understanding perceiving; understanding our work, what guides us, what allows us to live, what lets us cope, what lets us survive, what brings us past that, takes us to transcendence, what helps us transform, what helps us go back and mentor and hopefully elevate someone else to do more than we can do.