Making the Words Ours

A compelling new video project takes Whitman to the streets of Alabama.

For nearly three years now, journalist and filmmaker Jennifer Crandall has traveled around Alabama like a latter-day Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange, asking strangers to let her record them. On sidewalks and by the side of the road, on their front porches and in their workplaces, in their living rooms and at their schools, Crandall approaches potential subjects and asks them to read a verse from Walt Whitman’s 52-stanza “Song of Myself” on the spot. “I liked the idea of showing Alabama to itself and to the rest of the world,” says Crandall, the first artist-in-residence for the Alabama Media Group, a collection of newspapers and digital properties around the state, and the creator of onBeing, an Emmy-nominated video series for the Washington Post. Using Whitman’s provocative 1855 poem to explore American identity today, the resulting project, Whitman, Alabama, consists of a collection of captivating portraits, and takes an approach to storytelling that feels simultaneously natural and strange. Crandall spoke with the Poetry Foundation about being open to serendipity, dirty filmmaking, and how “the marriage of text and life bears out in surprising ways.” The following exchange was condensed and edited.

What is the aim of this project? What do you hope your viewers will get out of it?

Essentially, I’m trying to get people to know one another a little bit better—or find that they’re interested in doing that. I’m trying to show something documentary, something nonfiction happening. But what we need to test the boundaries with, at least in journalism, is how to get people to start paying better attention to other people. We’re just not getting to know each other well enough. We just aren’t. It’s evidenced by what’s going on, the divide after the election, and our inability to understand other sides. This is an attempt to say: here are some people; does anything in this work spark you to care more, to engage more, to be aware of more?  

Whereas journalism needs to get out of its strict lanes, I think poetry might find that it needs to get more—grounded is going to sound negative but more based in something that seems to immediately, physically touch people’s lives. Versus being this airy, almost ineffable sort of response that one might have to text on a page. What can poetry be when it’s physically, physically introduced into the lives of people?

How did you come up with the idea of using Walt Whitman? 

A long time ago, when I was in a deep poetry phase, I read Walt Whitman. There are times when I’m just not reading poetry at all. In fact, the majority of the time, I’m not reading poetry. So I try to figure out when I am drawn to poetry and when I am not. I had just moved back to this country from living in Islamabad, Pakistan, for five years. I was 16 and in a bit of a confused state—being back in a country that I didn’t understand. My father worked for USAID, so we traveled all over the globe. I’m American—half-Chinese, half-white. My mom is Chinese, raised in Vietnam. I was struggling with a lot of identity stuff then—national identity, personal identity. And the ground shifted beneath my feet because I was transported to a different place.  

Over the years, the themes in “Song of Myself” about identity being really complex and universal and diverse and different peppered themselves throughout my life. When Michelle [Holmes, vice president of content for Alabama Media] asked me what sort of project I’d be interested in doing for Alabama, I liked this idea of bridging past and present, North and South, and text and life and the idea of showing Alabama to itself and to the rest of the world—that it has this rich identity that is a part of the American identity.

Did you ever consider anyone beside Whitman or any other poem of his? Or was it always fully formed Whitman, definitely “Song of Myself”? 

Yeah, fully formed Whitman. You get these moments of clarity, and you go “Yes!” Then you might go through some self-doubt: “Is Whitman OK? Is it cliché? Is it enough? Is it saying the right things?” Then you go back to your original point of clarity and just do it. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on poetry, even Walt Whitman. I’m just trying to match things that I find interesting and exciting. 

Why did you opt to use a decidedly northern poet—someone who visited and helped take care of Union soldiers during the Civil War—to explore identity in the South? 

Walt Whitman claimed to speak, I think, for every American when he wrote “Song of Myself.” He did it, I believe, in a wonderful way. But one could argue that that’s somewhat arrogant or a bold approach to take. So I thought, “If we want to take Whitman at his word, and these words are for all of us, then we’ll take his words and we’ll make them ours.” 

People look at him as the American poet. And “Song of Myself” is practically the American poem. Using Whitman is sincere, but it’s also a bit cheeky: let’s co-opt this American poet who was also a Yankee and bring his poem to life with an array of southern voices, thereby bringing the poem to fruition in a sense. Whitman believed in contrasts and disagreements and a unified, though not necessarily singular, voice. It’s a way of blending all that together. You could call it co-opting or you could call it co-authorship. It’s like saying, OK, this poem was written by a singular man, a singular hand, a northerner, a New Yorker, or however you want to look at it—but based on the claims of the poem and how our voices are joined, well, let us actually join. Here we offer up these voices.

What can Whitman—who first published this poem in 1855—show us about our current moment in history and politics that another poet couldn’t? 

I’m sure another poet could, but I think that he just did it so expansively and so well. Some of the text might feel old because of the language, but at the time it certainly didn’t. People reading this have responded, saying, “Who is that? I want to read more of this poetry. I’ve never heard of him.” It’s fantastic how many people have said that. 

It’s an everlasting poem, not only for this particular moment in history. It might seem more salient or poignant right now—for everyone, not just half the population. As an American statement—and just as a statement in general—the ideas in it aren’t old because they are about how we are. How we, as people, are this messy mix of God knows what, yet we’re all somehow connected to one another and have to recognize those connections. 

“Song of Myself” has 52 stanzas—how did you go about finding 52 people to read? 

This project started out in my mind very clearly and very simply and evolved into something a little messier but, I think, more interesting. It was a mix of gut and brain and knowing that we needed to be broad and get all over the state and be thoughtful about our choices. It would have been easy, frankly, if I had just taken everyone’s suggestions, to end up in a certain socioeconomic class, picking a certain race of people. I had to think beyond that. It could be very random, just walking up to strangers and asking if they’d do it. 

Each video I’ve watched so far has been mesmerizing, which I would not necessarily have predicted. Why, do you think, are videos of everyday people unexpectedly reading Whitman so captivating?

I’ve said to friends and colleagues that we’ve done some dirty filmmaking here—and by dirty, I mean messy. It wasn’t about beautiful shots. It wasn’t about beautiful lighting or perfect readings. What the fuck is a perfect reading? It wasn’t about the poetry. It was about these people first and making sure that for as little as we knew them, we were engaging with them as sincerely as possible in the moments we were sharing. Part of it is that maybe people don’t know what to expect when they see Alabamians. Part of it is also that viewers are seeing people in their comfort zones—in their lives, at their work, at their schools, in their homes. But the readers are also not in their comfort zones because they’re reading poetry. 

I think the poem served as the white canvas I used in the series I did at the Washington Post, On Being. What a lot of people do in documentary—or in journalism—is overstate who a person is. Like you’re going to do a profile on me, so you get as much information as you can on me, down to the style of my socks. And you overstate who I am, and there’s no room to let viewers step in. I think that the poem—even though there are a lot of words there—is sort of a blank canvas as well. It’s not the words of the person reciting it, and it’s the same canvas across all the videos, so you can take in the person. 

Oftentimes, we caught moments of who they were between lines or between takes, and we try to use those where we can when we edit and infuse that into the poem. Being open to serendipity, and in a pretty substantial way, allowed us to capture neat, unexpected moments in front of the camera. But I believe that people who dig deeper into the text will discover all sorts of fantastic, serendipitous moments of connection and beautiful contrast between Whitman's words and what's unfolding in front of the camera. The marriage of text and life bears out in surprising ways.

What, if anything, did you tell readers about Whitman or the poem? What were their reactions? 

Usually something along the lines of he’s a dead white Yankee who wrote this in 1855—even though the version we’re using is the deathbed version. I think of this project as being iterative, as his is. But I said, “He’s a dead old white dude from New York, and he basically wrote this 52-verse poem about American identity and how diverse we all are, but we’re all unified in some way, whatever that way is.” It was usually a generic description because I’m not capable of going much beyond that. It just depended on the situation. Obviously with the people on the street, it wasn’t like, here, you have all this time to analyze the poem.

Do you write poetry? Do you read much poetry these days? 

I haven’t written poetry in years. I wrote it a lot more when I was younger. Some might say that that’s what you do when you’re an angsty adolescent, and I certainly did that a lot. 

I was in Mississippi a few months ago, and I was talking to a poet, and I said, “What is going on with me? Why am I using a poem as my main text for one of the most meaningful projects to me right now, but I’m not picking up a poetry book every time I go into a bookstore?” He answered it best for me; he brought me back: “But you will.” I was like, “Ugh, you’re so right.” I didn’t understand that conflict in me—why am I asking people to engage with this American text? Again, it’s not a poetry project, so why did I hang everything on this poem? It’s more than a gimmick because it means something to me. But why am I not going to the poetry section in a bookstore? I think that there are just moments where it does or doesn’t make sense to reach for poetry. 

Michelle was on a shoot with us once, and one of the guys helping to steer a barge down the river saw what we were doing. We were filming someone else, but he came down and on the spot, he wrote a poem for us. This is a guy on a river, on a barge, in Alabama. He was, like, “I saw what you were doing, and I wrote you a poem.” He read it to us, and he handed us the page. A lot of good stuff flows from just getting out of your space and into someone else’s.  

Watch Virginia Mae, Zaniah, and others recite verses on the official Whitman, Alabama website here.

Originally Published: February 15th, 2017

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...

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