Alec Finlay: A Poem of Namings, from Gaelic and Norn - River Dee: photograph by Hannah Devereux, 2016 (from *gathering*) Alec Finlay is a Scottish poet and artist based in Edinburgh. These texts come from a ser...
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
The nexus of cancer, creativity and healing in "Go South"
Photo of Amy Camie by Julie Enstall
So, we are making a movie about the making of the atomic bomb. It's a silent movie we'll edit to the musical score we made to a poem. The poem, Go South for Animal Index, is written by Stefene Russell (who also performs on the score and acts in the movie). Stefene grew up a Downwinder from the Nevada nucleur test site and lost important childhood friends to wasting cancers, no doubt indebted to radiation exposure.
The Poetry Scores movie unit was confronted this summer with a cancer in our own cast. George Malich, who plays the military chaplain at the bomb base (Lost Almost, as the weary soldiers nicknamed Los Alamos), was diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to undergo emergency brain surgery.
Before his surgery (performed by world-leading experts at Barnes-Jewish Hospital), George not only worked in the grueling final shoots for our movie but also managed to write, cast, produce, and direct an improvised dramatic series about his new experiences, Life is Meant for Living.
A lot of us have been thinking a lot about George. Thomas Crone, who plays a soldier opposite George's military chaplain in our movie, wrote an insightful piece of reportage about George's creative process, his coping strategies and his instinct to heal others through his own creative experience. If anyone can kick the ass of brain cancer, after wringing deep meaning and art out of it, that would be George.
What George has been dealing with has made me think back to the people Stefene lost through wasting cancers as a girl growing up, piercing her with pain that produced the poem that now has inspired a musical score and a silent movie production. Creativity and cancer: that is kind of how this Go South thing got started.
Then I remembered what Amy Camie has been going through. Amy is a local harpist who records with Adam Long, the multiply Grammy-nominated sound recordist who mixes and masters our poetry scores. Years ago Adam handed us Amy as a possible collaborater, and we finally incorporated two harp pieces she recorded with Adam into Go South for Animal Index. Amy since has been diagnosed with breast cancer. Exactly as George would later do, she approached the experience of cancer as an artist and a healer.
That wasn't much of a stretch for Amy. For more than 15 years, she has played harp to inspire and rejuvenate the spirit of what she describes as "cancer, hospice and grief communities" (she's not one to use a lame word like "victim"). So when she was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer in December 2010, she basically turned her healing music on herself.
In celebration of her final chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Amy's friends and family sponsored the gift of over 300 copies of her record The Magic Mirror to local cancer patients. This should inspire George's friends as he looks forward to the day he finishes his course of treatment!
The peculiar thing is, the nexus of cancer, creativity and healing is inscribed into our movie in ways that directly involve George Malich and Amy Camie. On one of our first days in production on Go South, George played this magnificent breakdown scene. It's the alcoholic military chaplain on the atomic bomb base melting down over all the massive, unprecedented death-dealing his ministry has supported.
George's performance will be edited to track 27 of our poetry score, the second to last piece and the second of the two Amy Camie harp tunes. On our poetry score, the song is titled "Tell me what is the power," a provisional retitling of Amy's original harp composition, which we augmented and deformed in Adam's studio.
We added Christopher Y. Voelker's soulful violin meditations and Tim McAvin singing like a songbird Stefene's poetry: Tell me: what is the power that will wash an entire generation? We then deformed this beautiful acoustic harp, violin, and vocal trio with weird atmospherics from Numbers Stations recordings that Stefene provided as a source sound, and Adam's short-wave radio play. It's a long, distorted, disturbing piece. It ends with twinkling sounds from Adam's radio signals that sound like hope.
The deformed harp piece is long enough, at 6:42, to tie together all of our storylines in the movie leading into the final track, the final scene of the movie, which ends with a bang. As Amy strums the harp, George's priest melts down, the atomic scientists struggle and finally get their fat man atomic bomb set to pop, the lonely scientist wives (finally let in on the secret of the secret project) gather in secret to watch the bomb test from a distance, the soldiers and tramps continue in their animal ways, and, on the margins of the base, under a tree by a river on a native reserve, a small tribal community finally succeeds in their fourth ceremonial attempt to heal a sick child.
This final suucessful healing ceremony -- a singing ceremony -- is observed (and awkwardly, from afar, joined) by a widow and her child. The poet Stefene plays the widow, who loses her scientist husband early in the movie. He dies from sudden fatal radiation exposure in the nucleur physics lab. The widow and girl are then evicted from the secret bomb base (George's priest gives them the kindly, but firm, heave-ho). They wander, dejected, throughout the movie in a vintage 1940s automobile, grieving and lost.
The widow and little girl grieving a death from radiation poisoning are in the end led by a tramp through the woods to a river, where they chance upon the tribe's singing ceremony. The sick little tribal girl (our silent movie will do its best to show) has been suffering from radiation poisoning herself. After all, their native reserve has been turned into a zombie uranium mine. You think that is far-fetched? Then read Stefene's essay about the sources of her poem!
"And the mouth"
Amy Camie, Chris King, Adam Long, Christopher Voelker
"Tell me what is the power "
Amy Camie, Tim McAvin, Adam Long, Christopher Voelker
See a slideshow of Julie Enstall's photographs of Amy Camie.