Wednesday, November 27, 2013

First shoot for our next movie, "Jack Ruby's America"

Poetry Scores started shooting our third movie, Jack Ruby's America, on Sunday, November 24, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the day that Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald. One of our main house actors, with us from the beginning, Neal Alster, is playing Ruby. We are shooting on location, mostly, at Polish Hall in Madison, Illinois. Our first shoot was a scene in Ruby's office at his burlesque club, the Carousel Club. We shot it in the old paneled office at Polish Hall. The JFK portrait and flag were already in the office when we scouted the location. All we did was take everything else out of the shot.

For this picture, Dan Cross (left) is co-directing (with Chris King). Dan is a veteran filmmaker who runs a film program across the river. He joined the Poetry Scores movie unit part-way through the Go South for Animal Index shoot as a zombie extra, and ended up sharing every major credit on the production side as well as editing the movie single-handedly with only the most vague directions. Dan is also director of photography on the Jack Ruby picture and camera one. On the first shoot we had V. Elly Smith as camera two. That is Elly in the flame-red wig.

Elly was in the flame-red wig because she is also acting in this picture. For our first shoot we tackled "Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl," and Elly played one of four new girls who hear Jack's spiel to the newcomer. We are excited to work with Elly, who shot a good one-third of our previous movie, as an actor. She is one of the most tireless and positive colleagues in a mostly tireless and positive St. Louis movie scene.

Another house actor who goes back to our first picture, D'Mari Martinez (right), is playing another of the four new girls Jack talks to in this scene. Here D'Mari is watching a reference film, Naughty Dallas, with Michelle Koelling. Michelle is a welcome newcomer to the Poetry Scores movie unit, also playing a new girl reporting to work at the burlesque club. I had fun watching them watch Naughty Dallas. I brought the reference film on VHS thinking the actors would want to look at costumes, but D'Mari and Michelle just sped through all the scripted action to get to the next burlesque dance sequence. We are negotiating with our old friend Lola van Ella to give our new girls some burlesque lessons, and there is much anxiousness in the cast about getting up there and actually shaking jelly and dropping garments in front of a motion picture camera. We'll see how this goes.

Our fourth new girl for the first shoot was Tabitha Hassell. We are an all-volunteer operation and can hardly expect anyone to miss work to make our movies for free, so Tabitha had to rush her new hair dye job around a busy work schedule and showed up at the end when we had to rush a bit ourselves. We got her take, though. Tabby is actually an industry professional -- she runs security for many regional big name film premieres. Rather than pose for the movie camera, she is usually confiscating them with a rental cop on her shoulder.

We found Tabitha through her uncle, Jocko Ferguson, seen here managing talent morale with the star of our picture, Neal Alster. Jocko found us the Polish Hall location for this shoot and got us in the door there (got us in every door in this quirky old place). Jocko is a Poetry Scores board member, food translator (most recently, he translated an Anne Sexton simile into some tasty cube steaks) and lead production assistant on the movie unit. Jocko is also a kind of Poetry Scores mascot, since he is almost universally liked. Jocko never met a stranger and never ran anyone off (not for long).

The "new girl" shoot would not have been possible without the varied talents of Barbara Manzara, who did hair and makeup for the new girls, costume-consulting for the entire cast, and touched up the really bad spray-on black hair dye job co-director Chris King gave to the star, Neal Alster. Barbara also has a major role in this picture as Jack Ruby's sister and business partner, Eva. Barbara played opposite Neal in our most recent movie, Go South for Animal Index, the lonely wife of a pent-in nuclear physicist at Los Alamos. We like the way the Coen Brothers cast their movies like a repertory theater company, always picking the same actors, mindful of their previous roles and connections to other ensemble actors in previous roles. I think Barbara and Neal are going to be eyeing each other in our movies for a long time to come.

Co-producer Mali Newman also worked this shoot hard, with costumes and props and eyeballing everything. We owe Mali to our earliest days as a movie unit, when KDHX Community Media helped us to recruit and train production assistants for our first movie, Blind Cat Black. Mali worked (and invested) her way into co-producer status on Go South for Animal Index. She is also a Poetry Scores board member, a poet in her own right, and an actor in our movies. Jack Ruby's life and milieu did not include many choice roles for African-American actors, but there is a Cuban storyline where we will find the right roles for Mali.

Co-producer Marty Luepker of Cars on Film also came by to bless the first shoot, in the company of an aspiring young filmmaker, whose name I have not retained but who had a very positive vibe. Marty himself is one of the sunniest operators on the scene. He is wrangling cars and props for our Ruby movie. In fact, he lightened our prop load by one item while standing right there at Polish Hall, by spotting and pointing out some big, long, multi-colored, rectangular tickets for some game the hall is running that will be perfect for the racing slips Jack Ruby peddled at the horse track in Chicago as a boy.

Jack Ruby (Neal Alster) with three of his four new girls, played by Michelle Koelling, V. Elly Smith and D'Mari Martinez. Notice all of the new girls at the burlesque club are fully clothed in this shoot. We are shooting a silent movie to a musical score of David Clewell's poem, Jack Ruby's America. Basically, we are shooting to an existing soundtrack, and two-thirds of the 70-minute score / soundtrack / movie is Clewell performing his poem. This particular scene was shot to "Jack Ruby talks business with the new girl," a monologue that ends the main Carousel Club section of the poem / movie and leads directly to the death in Dealey Plaza and its aftermath.

Clewell makes a point -- just before Ruby gets dragged into a murderous conspiracy -- of going back to a more innocent, workaday moment in the life of a strip club owner, when he tenderly warns the new girl about the dangers and the rules of the game. So we followed Clewell in having the new girls all show up best dressed for traveling, ready for a respectful business meeting after they have already passed the onstage audition. In my readings into the Carousel Club scene, Ruby did snake on his dancers, particularly on the new girls, but Clewell leaves the casting couch out of his poem so we're leaving it out of our movie. I have learned a lot since the first day of our first shoot on our first movie, Blind Cat Black, when we piled thirty-five people with fake gore on the floor of CBGB and shot a simulated zombie orgy!

Interested in working on this picture? Email Poetry Scores creative director Chris King a head shot and a body shot in a plain, old-fashioned (late 50s, early 60s) suit or dress:

Monday, November 25, 2013

Why we put zombies in our movies

The absent-minded tightrope walker (Toyy Davis)
gets ready to walk the zombie bar in "Blind Cat Black."

Last night, Poetry Scores bestowed its 2nd Larry Weir Memorial Chair in Zombie Dramatics during a brief onstage ceremony following our first appearance in an international film festival, as Go South for Animal Index closed the 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival.

More, later, on the awarding of the Weir Chair, once we have a proper picture of the new chairholder, Bob Putnam, sitting on Larry's chair. For now, in response to a friend who attended the SLIFF screening and asked why we put zombies in our movies, I want to explain why we put zombies in our movies.

There are definite reasons I'll get to, but it wasn't a conscious, deliberate decision. It started quite by accident.

When Poetry Scores first decided to start making movies, I approached KDHX for help recruiting and training a movie unit. To work out those arrangements, I met for lunch with executive director Beverly Hacker and Aaron AuBuchon, who ran the KDHX video program at the time.

The first movie we wanted to make was Blind Cat Black, based on the poem by Ece Ayhan, translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat. Ece Ayhan's poem is intensely imagistic with Surrealist atmosphere and technique. I was small-talking with Beverly and Aaron about ways to adapt that Surrealist atmosphere and technique to our movie, when Aaron said, "There are all these zombies running around St. Louis. Why not put some zombies in your movie?"

Aaron meant what he said literally -- he is close with the Zombie Squad, an interesting group (I began to learn from Aaron) that mix a thing for dressing up like zombies with emergency survivalism preparation and community blood drives. And ZS is just one large, intelligent segment of a diverse (you might call it) zombie subculture in St. Louis.

I liked the idea right away. Blind Cat Black is chock full of undead imagery; indeed, the blind black cat of the poem's title carries "in its sack a child just dead." Our movie was going to follow the translator's suggested story skeleton for the confusing poem: the coming of age and disintegration of a boy (perhaps, transgendered) prostitute. I figured the zombies would be perfect characters for the underworld where the prostitute makes his/her living. Aaron put me in touch with some zombie wranglers, and Dale Ashauer cast a zombie subculture for our movie.

I noticed an instant change that immediately endeared zombies to me. Instantly, our movie was way more interesting to almost everybody. Before we added the zombie storyline, I was going around town telling people we were making a silent movie to a Turkish poem. People could not have shown me their rear end any sooner. People fled from me. But when I found myself telling people we were making a silent zombie movie, suddenly people were buying me drinks, telling their friends about our movie, helping me cast their friends. Zombies made making movies in St. Louis easier.

Adding the genre element instantly opened up our project to a wider range of interested (and interesting) people, which is part of the mission of Poetry Scores: to get poetry off the page and into people, all sorts of people. As the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton said, in a motto we borrowed from our friends and mentors at Curbstone Press: "Poetry, like bread, is for everyone."

I made the brash decision that all of our movies would have zombies.

Poetry Scores takes long poems, puts them to music, then makes silent movies to that music. We turn a poem into a soundtrack, and then make a silent movie to that soundtrack. So we already know the movies we are going to make next, because we have been making the soundtracks for years before we started making movies. I thought about the movies on our agenda, and right away I could figure out a zombie storyline or cast element for every one of them:

Go South for Animal Index - We adapted Stefene Russell's poem about the making of the atomic bomb into a fable of Los Alamos. We made the uranium miners and millers the zombies. Stefene made that easy for us. Her uranium miner from Shinkolobwe asks, "Why a corpse as me should be afraid?"

Jack Ruby's America - David Clewell presents Ruby as a product of the Chicago Mob who is moved to Dallas as one kind of Mob operative, who later becomes another, very different, historic and notorious kind of Mob operative. The zombies in this picture will be the Mob muscle, the goons, the gunmen. This gives us the option of having Ruby grow gradually more zomboid as he gets sucked into the Mob conspiracy (according to Clewell's poem) to cover up the Mob conspiracy to kill Kennedy.

The Sydney Highrise Variations - We want to make Les Murray's poem about the rise of Sydney (and cities generally) into a tramp in the city movie. The tramps from the old town that is overbuilt by the new city will get almost all of the screen time, but be the only people in a large cast of mostly zombies. The zombies will be all the new urbanites who drove the tramps out and down.

Phantom of the Dreams' Origin - Andreas Embirikos' Greek Surrealist classic (translated by Nikos Stabakis) gets creepier things than zombies in its morning cereal. The challenge would be to make a movie to Barbara Harbach's score of this bizarre poem that does not have zombies.

Crossing America - Our first poetry score was to Leo Connellan's centennial hitchhiking epic, and we were supposed to have made the movie by now, but the beautiful young Virginia couple who were going to go hitchhiking with our movie unit went splitsville instead. The zombies in this picture will be tramp bums, once we find a new beautiful young couple.

I'd go so far as to say you could imagine a compelling zombie storyline or cast element in every work of literature ever written. In an age of marketing genre mashups, there may even be a cottage industry in producing zombie remakes of the classics. I do know that once we got into making movies with zombies, I began to see zombies everywhere. And really, that's one way I explain the enduring fascination and appeal of zombies: it's realistic cinema. Because in every office, in every bar, in every family, there is somebody who is less truly alive than the other people and perpetuates his or her voided life by sucking the brains, energy and soul out of the more alive people.

Not that our zombies suck brains out of skulls or obey any wide range of what I take to be zombie tropes. (I myself don't watch many zombie movies that we don't make ourselves.) In Blind Cat Black, our zombies are pretty zomboid and gored out and (spoiler!) they do stomp our hero/ine to death at the end. But for Go South for Animal Index, the poet didn't want literal zombies in the movie. Stefene wrote her poem for Nevada test site Downwinders who suffer wasting cancers, and she was uneasy with the similarity between the effects of her friends' physical suffering and zombie gore. So we went with method zombies for our uranium miners and millers. They dress in ordinary workclothes -- boots, jeans, white T-shirts -- and wear no makeup as they move lifelessly through their labors.

For the Mob muscle in Jack Ruby's America, who knows? We just started making that movie the morning of our festival screening and have a lot of difficult problems to solve. But, if we can, I would like to gore out our zombie Mobster muscle, the goons who flank the Capones, Marcellos and Trafficantes, keeping their mouth shut unless they're shoveling in pasta with red gravy, waiting for the order to kill.

Lydia McGhee, Joyce Pillow and Jocko Ferguson get their
method zombie on as Debased Cogs in "Go South for Animal Index."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Poetry Scores history lesson: the Polaroid Broomstick Selfy

Poetry Scores is still winding down from our successful celebration of Anne Sexton's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which we translated into music, visual art, food, cocktails and even a psychotherapeutic relationship (more on that later).

We also added a new medium, for us: the Selfy (sometimes referred to as "Selfie," by people who don't like the letter "y" as much as I do). Since "Snow White" is a poem about what happens after someone looks in the mirror, we asked people to make a Mirror Selfy -- a self-taken photograph of yourself in the mirror. Since Poetry Scores translates poetry into other media, we needed to get the poem into the new medium somehow, so we asked people to title their Mirror Selfy after a direct quote from Sexton's poem.

This open commission resulted in a nice gallery of Snow White Mirror Selfies. It also made us want to add a Selfy poetry score component to all of our projects from now on. It seemed to connect with more people where they are. Not everyone will want to take the time to write a song, make a painting or shoot a film from a poem, or have those skills, but people are always updating photographs of themselves and anyone can do it.

As a matter of fact, for those who want to get a head start on the next one, our Spring 2014 project is going to be Ten Dreamers in a Motel (1955) by Josephine Miles, and soon we will issue an open call for Motel Selfies. Since it's a ten-part poem, we will encourage people to shoot a ten-part sequence of Motel Selfies, with each Motel Selfy taking its title sequentially from one of the ten parts of the poem.

The Selfy score may become an important part of our future in making Poetry Scores more accessible to more people, but it's really nothing new for us. Poetry Scores was producing selfies before we were Poetry Scores and before selfies were selfies.

Poetry Scores evolved from the field recording collective Hoobellatoo (which evolved from the folk rock band Eleanor Roosevelt, which evolved from the alternative country band Enormous Richard, which evolved from the arts organization Single Point of Light).

In the years when the rock band Eleanor Roosevelt was mutating into the field recording collective Hoobellatoo, we made a series of sweeps up the East Coast with a mobile recording studio packed into a cartop carrier, doing field recordings of ourselves and others on location.

This was before everyone had a camera in their pocket. Our portable camera back then was a Polaroid. One of the guys had learned the trick of posing for a Polaroid portrait, then hitting the little button on the camera to take the picture with the other end of a broomstick. Call it a Polaroid Broomstick Selfy.

This is me, in an era of longer hair and larger eyeglass frames, wielding the broomstick as Elijah "Lij" Shaw and Joe Esser pose with me on a Wayne, New Jersey back porch where we were probably getting ready to eat a bunch of food. Lij, Joe and I were in this thing going back to our Washington University campus rock band Enormous Richard. We had been refueling our bodies on the road in Joe's hometown of Wayne, New Jersey since our first East Coast tour, ca. 1992.

I keep turning up Polaroid Broomstick Selfies and will be posting others that feature the Grebo raconteur Nymah Kumah, jump blues legend Rosco Gordon, and the editors of Curbstone Press, publishers of Latin American revolutionary literature (and Vietnamese fiction) in translation. (Our Fall 2014 project, Tavern (Conversatorio) by Roque Dalton, was published in English by Curbstone Press. You guessed it .... Tavern Selfies.)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Jocko's Snow White Cube Steaks

Poetry Scores food artist Jocko Ferguson, right, visiting with
his friend Karley M. King at Poetry Scores' Embirikos barbecue

We have received some recipe requests for the Snow White Cube Steaks that our food artist Jocko Ferguson translated from Anne Sexton's poem Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Poetry Scores always tries to cook from the poems we translate into other media, treating food as a medium. That was fun with the Sexton poem. She describes the seven dwarfs as "little hot dogs," so Jocko served little wieners. He got gummy worms for the worm-like loll of the wolf's tongue. The notorious apple in the poem was translated into apple pie (and Poison Apple cocktails).

As for the cube steaks, Jocko pan-fried them from a simile Sexton employs when the jealous Queen is scarfing down what she thinks is Snow White's salted-down heart, but actually is boar organ meats.

Bring me her heart, she said to the hunter,
and I will salt it and eat it.
The hunter, however, let his prisoner go
and brought a boar's heart back to the castle.
The queen chewed it up like a cube steak.
Now I am fairest, she said,
lapping her slim white fingers.


So cube steak seemed like a good anchor for our food table at our celebration of Snow White at Mad Art Gallery. Jocko cooked to scale from this simple recipe:
Jocko's Snow White Cube Steaks


2 -3 tablespoons salted butter
2 tablespoons dried, minced onions
3 -4 pieces cube steaks
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons paprika
1 tablespoon steak grill seasoning
salt and pepper

1 Melt butter in skillet, add minced onions and cook 1-2 minutes.
2 Mix flour, paprika and grill seasoning together and place on a plate.
3 Season steak with salt and pepper, then dredge through flour mixture, making sure not to coat the meat too heavily
4 Cook for 3-5 minutes on each side depending on size of meat.
5 Serve immediately.


At the Mad Art celebration, Jocko was serving cube steaks graciously donated by the legendary O'Connell's Pub. Thanks to Jack Parker and O'Connell's for the steaks!

They were a critical contribution to a multi-media translation of the poem. At one point I heard "cube steak" read from the poem and then sang from Ann Hirschfeld's musical score of the poem while people were eating cube steaks. I heard a gasp and saw several people looking at their cube steak like they were eating a poem.

Thanks also to for a recipe that looks remarkably like Jocko's.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A gallery of 'Snow White' mirror selfies

We asked people to take a mirror selfy and title the photograph after a phrase in Anne Sexton's poem "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Here is what we got, presented in the order their titles appear in the poem.

"Cheeks as fragile as cigarette paper"
Gina Dill-Thebeau

"open and shut"
Hunter Brumfield III

"She is white as a bonefish"
Kim Wingett

"eaten, of course, by age"
Chris King

"You will dance the fire dance in iron shoes"
Nick Barbieri

"The stepmother had a mirror to which she referred --
something like the weather forecast"
Sharon Derry

"And the mirror would reply"
Tim Meehan

"Pride pumped in her like poison"
Rene Spencer Saller

"Suddenly one day the mirror replied,
Queen you are full fair, 'tis true,
but Snow White is fairer than you."
Prinsess Tarta

"you are full fair, 'tis true,
but Snow White is fairer than you."
Heather Pillow

"Until that moment Snow White
had been no more important
than a dust mouse under the bed"
Gina Dill-Thebeau

"Bring me her heart,
she said to the hunter,
and I will salt it and eat it."
Sharon Derry

"Now I am fairest, she said,
lapping her slim white fingers."
Ipek Subasi

"The birds called out lewdly"
Nicky Rainey

"The birds called out lewdly"
Gina Dill-Thebeau

"Talking like pink parrots"
Cem Subasi

"And the snakes hung down in loops"
Ann Hirschfeld

"They asked her to stay and keep house"
Heidi Dean

"she came to the seventh mountain"
Robin Street-Morris

"Beware of your stepmother, they said.
Soon she will know you are here."
Beth Owen

"While we are away in the mines
during the day, you must not
open the door."
John Parker

"The mirror told"
Ann Hirschfeld

"and so the queen dressed herself in rags
and went out like a peddler to trap Snow White."
Ree Cee

"This time she bought a poison comb"
Michelle Koelling

"This time she bought a poison comb,
a curved eight-inched scorpion,
and put it in her hair and swooned again."
Erica R. Brooks

"Snow White, the dumb bunny,
opened the door
and she bit into a poison apple
and fell down for the final time."
Dawn O'Neall

"Though they washed her with wine
and rubbed her with butter
it was to no avail."
Stefene Russell

"A prince came one June day"
Jay Alan Babcock

"And still he would not leave"
Scott Intagliata

"The dwarfs took pity upon him"
Scott Intagliata

"First your toes will smoke
and then your heels will turn black
and you will fry upward like a frog,
she was told.
And so she danced until she was dead,
a subterranean figure"
Anita Jung

"And so she danced until she was dead,
a subterranean figure"
Heather Corley

"Meanwhile Snow White held court"
Deb Douglas

"Sometimes referring to her mirror as women do"
Amy VanDonsel

Want to play? Take a mirror selfy, title it from the poem and then email it to or post it to Poetry Scores on Facebook or Twitter.

This is all part of Poetry Scores' celebration of Anne Sexton's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," done with permission of Linda Gray Sexton and the Anne Sexton Estate.