Artists in Conversation: An Elegy in Motion

Animated Poem is Beautiful in More Ways than One

American poet, Jake Adam York dedicated much of his professional life writing an elegy for every man, woman and child martyred in the Civil Rights Movement before his own untimely death in 2012. Kindred spirit, Stacey Lynn Brown thought it was only fitting that Jake receive his own poetic eulogy, and Undersong is the result. It’s a lilting, lyrical lament for an extraordinary character, full of home truths and simmering imagery to melt you from the inside.

Motion Poems, which remixes poetry with other artforms commissioned a video to accompany Undersong enlisting the considerable talents of animator/filmmaker Matt Smithson, aka Man vs Magnet. It really takes Brown’s moving poem come to life and take on a new dimension.

We managed to get Stacey and Matt together to get both of their perspectives on this highly poignant project.

The Plus: What do you think the key message of Undersong is?
Stacey Lynn Brown:
One of the things that Jake and I had in common was that we both write about the South where we were born and raised, in the neighbouring states of Georgia and Alabama. “Undersong” seeks to conjure the shared spaces, sounds, and sights of our childhood in the South while calling those of us left behind to both action and accountability, to continue his fearless work in our own, and to continue moving out of a troubled past—and present—toward a more hopeful future.

TP: How do you think the video adds to the poem?
Matt Smithson:
A poem can be such a personal experience, so my goal in creating the animation to accompany the words was to visualize my experience, my relationship with the poem. These two modes of expression came together to create another piece of art that is just one possible reading of Undersong.
SLB: I was thrilled by how brilliant the animation was–how it allowed Matt to flow from one idea to the next so seamlessly. In poetry, transitions are always difficult. It can be hard to keep the reader with you as you move between ideas. But Matt makes these transitions effortlessly and elegantly, and I absolutely love it.

TP: Do you think poetry is under appreciated as an art form? If so why do you think that is?
In so many countries, poetry is a political act that can get you imprisoned, or even killed. Its power is apparent. But here in the US, the audience is so limited that unless the subject matter itself transcends the limitations placed upon poetry, poets mostly write poems for other poets. But I think–and hope–that’s changing. With slam poetry and spoken word, poetry seems to be returning to the people, which is where it has belonged all along.
MS: I think that “underappreciated” is not the same thing as “fully appreciated by a smaller percentage of the population.” Poetry may not be quite as popular in this generation as, say, Netflix or Game of Thrones, but maybe that’s ok. Not all art is for everyone.

TP: Do you think animation has a role to play in making poetry more accessible to new audiences?
I think that animation has the ability to make poetry more likely to cross the paths of a new generation of readers, but I also think that poetry should maybe remain a little bit of a mystery, a discovery to be made by those seeking it.
SLB: I do! I was astonished by the malleability of the animation in Matt’s work. It’s limitless in a way that language is not, and it has a fluidity that is absolutely spellbinding. I think it makes an amazing partner and vehicle and accompaniment and complement for poems. I love what the collaboration can yield.

TP: Do either of you have anything new you’re working on now?
I just finished my second poetry collection, The Shallows, which “Undersong” appears in, and I’m working on my third collection of poems and a collection of nonfiction essays. I’m also working on a play.
MS: Working on this project really allowed us to think differently about animation and the modes of expression for which it can be used. Which, in turn, gave us some ideas about new directions in which we can take our future projects. We’re pretty excited about what’s next for Man vs Magnet… so stay tuned!