"The City in Which": a beguiling cinepoem this weekend

April 8, 2011

“And when, in the city in which I love you,
even my most excellent song goes unanswered,
and I mount the scabbed streets,
the long shouts of avenues,
and tunnel sunken night in search of you ...”

Li-Young Lee’s “The City in which I Love You” has haunted Joshua Dumas for years.

“I stumbled onto it as a teenager,” says Dumas, a composer, artist, and writer who co-founded the street performance troupe, Summer is for Fireflies and worked with several local theaters. “A precocious friend lent me a copy (of Lee’s book and) I've been involved in a 15, 20 year intermittent love affair with this book and its title poem ...”

That fascination hits a high note this weekend with “The City In Which,” an expanded cinema project in which a dozen local experimental filmmakers respond to Lee’s work with their own experiences of life and work in Chicago. Dumas will read the piece in its entirety as a live soundtrack, accompanied by the whirr of 16mm projector and the peculiar energy of a live audience. Performances are Friday and Saturday, at 8 p.m. at the Nightingale Theater, 1084 N. Milwaukee.

Dumas, who composed the music for the much raved about “Light Waves and Their Uses: a semi-opera” (The Reader named it "Best New Theatrical Form 2010") has a long and somewhat complicated relationship with poetry.

“Sometime around age 15 I realized that people were still making poems,” he says. “I mean, of course I knew people were still making poems, but the idea that there was vibrant contemporary verse thrilled me. I began to investigate this world. In college I studied poetry under Dean Young, thinking I'd become a poet. That didn't exactly work out. I have designs to make poems again someday, but for now, I remain an admirer and advocate.”

A wonderful advocate, actually. In “Pieces of the Storm,” a podcast Dumas has been doing since 2009, he reads a single poem per broadcast. The presentation is just Dumas, his voice, static and sound Dumas shapes accordingly: something like a foghorn, or a sigh, a drone, a storm, a church organ. There’s a stillness that anchors each outing, giving the poems a kind of majesty. David Wojahn’s “Among the Joshua Trees” is a prayer; Eavan Boland’s “We Are Human History, We are Not Natural History” is a proclamation. There are poems by Mark Strand, Lucille Clifton, and others; this week, there’s another of Lee’s, “Have You Prayed.”

Why a podcast? Why these poems?

“In the cold months, I spend about two to three hours a day on public transportation, so I read a lot,” Dumas says.  “And a lot of that reading is poetry. If I have to stop myself from weeping on the bus, that poem goes on the list (for the podcast)!  That decision is intuitive and emotional; then the work starts: I'll close-read, trying to uncover the poem's music, its rhythm and accents and try to decide whether I am able to make the poem sing in a reading. Then I try to figure out what all the lines mean, how the language works. So basically, if a poem moves me, if I admire its music, if I think a reading might reveal new music, and if I think I mostly understand the poem’s conceits and language, then I'll try to find to record it ...”

The leap to film was also intuitive. Dumas, in fact, was not particularly aware of the trend toward cinepoems.

“I had never even heard the term... But if it means more people develop a relationship with verse, I'm all for it!” he declares. (In fact, there’s a whole mess of controversy about what exactly makes a poetry film, and how to reconcile the tension between the two forms.)

But Dumas is friends with Christy LeMaster, who runs Nightingale Theater, a microcinema dedicated to experimental film, and he was comfortable asking her what she thought about putting Lee’s poem on the screen in some way.

She was more than game. Moreover, LeMaster – who has programmed about 70 screenings of experimental work since she opened The Nightingale in 2008 – was instrumental in rounding up filmmakers. She and Dumas distributed fresh rolls of 16mm film to a dozen experimental filmmakers. The resulting footage was edited into a hypnotic combined short.

Lee’s piece is lengthy – more than 20 minutes when read aloud -- filled with a terrible anguished longing for a missing lover, but also for meaning in the poet’s obsession. It’s an urban poem, but not of grandeur, rather of alleys and common detritus: “a plastic bag, fat with wind, barrels by and slaps a chain-link fence, wraps it like clung skin.”

“The City in which I Love You” is, in fact, a very visual poem – a parade of images, concrete and abstract. And the filmmakers involved in Dumas and LeMaster’s project play to, against and around them: a cardboard city, a flush of red, a long industrial prairie. It's a beguiling, mysterious piuece.

The filmmakers are Melika Bass, Jeremy Bessoff, Thomas Comerford, Carolyn Faber, Lori Felker, Scott Foley, Jason Halprin, Emily Irvine, Marianna Milhorat, Kate Raney, Jerzy Rose and Danièle Wilmouth. A program of 16 mm cine-poems, curated by LeMaster, will round out the weekend’s screenings and include work by Humprey Jennings, Stan Vanderbeek, and Jennifer Reeves, among others. LeMasters is the managing director of IFP/Chicago and a regular film contributor on WBEZ’s morning show 848.

Photo of Joshua Dumas by Kirk Bravender