Three Poets Bring Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams” to Life with “Chalk Song”

On this week’s episode of the Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast we interview not one, but three wonderful poets about their collaboration to create Chalk Song (Lily Poetry Review, 2021).

Susan Berger-Jones is an architect and poet.  Her written and visual work has appeared in Drunken Boat, No Exit, and two anthologies of ekphrastic poems published by Off the Park Press.

Gale Batchelder lives in Cambridge.  Her work has been published Tupelo Quarterly, This Rough Beast, Colorado Review, SpoKe4, and in the poetry anthologies New Smoke (2009) and Triumph of Poverty (2011).

Judson Evans is a poet whose work has focused on crossing genres and collaboration.  He was recently named Haibun Editor of Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America.  In 2007, he was chosen as an “Emerging Poet” by John Yau for the Academy of American Poets and won the Philip Booth Poetry Prize from Salt Hill Review in 2013. His poems have appeared in numerous journals.

James: Before discussing Chalk Song, could each of you share what attracts you to the craft of poetry. 

Susan: “I grew up around Visual Arts and I love sound. Poetry allows me to use sound in a way that’s expressive, while still accessing meaning.”

Judson: “I started writing when I was very young and I remember discovering some books of poetry my mother had and it seemed like such an alien world to me. It was partly that I didn’t understand poetry that made it seem magical and mystical. I started playing around and writing poetry when I was really young and it always seemed like this opening into another world.”

Gale: “I love words and I love song. Poetry seems like the perfect marriage of those two.” 

James: In preparing for this interview I not only read Chalk Song, but also the Werner Herzog documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, that inspired this collaborative effort. What attracted you to this film?

Gale:” I’ve seen many of Werner Herzog’s films and admire him as a filmmaker. We [Gale, Judson, and I] had been working together as poets for a number of years, focusing on ekphrastic poetry. I saw the film before we really thought about the idea of writing the book, but was fascinated by ancient history and by the idea that we don’t know that much about the people who did the paintings. There’s mystery there and beautiful artwork.”

Susan: “What were they thinking? Who were they? It was the first sign of art as a language. What are the beginnings of art? If you’re a poet, you really want to dive into and figure that out.” 

Judson: “I think the sense of communication across this enormous gap of 45 thousand years. The whole question of how a handprint on a wall could still touch us, and how you can communicate something beyond words. It was really inspiring to think about how the cave wall itself somehow contained that tactile impression of people so far away. The sense of time and how time collapses. The acoustics of the cave; we learned that there were places where the paintings are most acoustically alive in the cave. We know that there was music and that was really inspiring. This seemed like the ultimate challenge.” 

James: While the poems are attributed individually, this is a collaborative book. How did working together towards a single shared book, united by a shared inspiration, not a loosely assembled collection, evolve your writing? What did you learn from each other creating Chalk Song? 

Gale: “I’m very inspired by both of them as poets, and as his people. A willingness to jump off a cliff in terms of experimentation. Our method was to share poems with each other, and then comment and critique, or steal lines, and jump off in that way. I was always really in awe of what they brought to my poems, and what they took from them. I learned a lot about experimentation.”

Susan: “We’re all so different, and our process is so different, and it was incredible to be in a situation where you didn’t have to worry about that ever. I think I was messier than ever, and I know I frustrated my partners, because I would send multiple versions. They were changing a mile a minute. But I knew there was no point that there would be judgment? I didn’t have to feel like I was finished. It was kind of like the artists who were drawing over one another over the centuries.” 

Judson: “I think I was launching these things out to Gale and Susan, really curious about how they’d land or where they’d go with them. We really have different approaches. We write differently. There were all these different ways to come to the material. It was partly a state of excitement of what new thing was going to happen, and how are people going to read what we were doing and see where we were going?”

Gale: “In the film there were these people investigating the cave: you have filmmakers, you have anthropologists, you have a perfumer, and we’re like that. We were all in that cave together, investigating and bringing our own perspectives and learning from each other.”

Susan: “You get a poem and it’s completely different from your point of view. How do you add to it? How do you respond to it? That’s the interesting thing.”

James: Gale, your poem Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc opens Chalk Song with the line “I am dark and near dying”. Such a compelling way to open the book. How did the three of you approach ordering and editing the book, and making critical choices including which poem should lead the collection? 

Gale: “That was the first first or second thing I wrote, not really thinking it might be first in the book. I think we chose that poem because it situated us in the cave, being the voice of the artist, the voice of the animal in the drawing, and the cave itself.”. 

Judson: “We wrote and wrote, and then stopped and said, where are we going? Are there sections? And we came up with different directions. One direction was thinking conceptually, is this a rite of passage? Is this a journey?

“I do a lot of work with those kinds of ideas in my teaching of literature. I was thinking a lot about that, but then we also went in the opposite direction of just taking something that was a detail and using that as a section heading. Bow is the name of one of the particular poems. Buried Constellation was a concept that we threw around. Sometimes we went with big picture plans of rights of passage, separation, ordeal, reintegration, a kind of Blakian thinking about innocence and experience.

“The first poem I wrote, I believe, was Microbiome which ended up being the last poem in the book. The other poems had a sense of earliness to them that are connected with our sense of the beginnings of human consciousness or the waking up of humanity.”

James: Many of the poems in this collection mix concrete images from Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and surreal visions. Judson’s poem Enchanted Entropy is one example; you write:

"or enumerate smeared torch marks
of river music      under the bow of the arch     with 5,000 years
between each page
of sheet music"

Was taking the documentary film imagery in surreal directions a conscious choice?

Judson: “I think it has to do with our attempt to get this material into language, without trying to describe. John Yau, as a a teacher and poet, is very interested in avoiding pure description or too literal an approach to language. John threw down this kind of gauntlet to us, a kind of test, that painters are out there doing some really amazing work in the contemporary world and that poets can go in that same direction, with ekphrastic poetry in particular.

“It is possible to write about works of art without describing them, without narrating in a way where you take language and have that volatility, that sense of color and power. I think that there was a certain impetus for us to let language have the charge of the red handprint on the wall, or thinking about the pigment that was used. It wasn’t just paint from the paint store. They took red oak and crushed it, mixed it with animal blood, it was a volatile substance. I think we all had a sense of language having to be something much more open-ended and much more alive, and not situate us too carefully, you know, from point A to point B. I don’t think we could have done this if we were simply describing the film or recreating scenes of the film.”

Susan: “Instead of talking about a thing from a distance, you talk from it; and then the language rearranges itself.”

Gale: “One of the things I remember from a John Yau class, the assignment was to write about a painting or an artist and he said, imagine you’re an ant walking across the surface. What do you see? I put that in one of my poems. that’s the method and the reason I get to surrealism.”

James: The middle section of the book includes three Field Entry poems authored by Susan – related by different forms of enumeration and inventorying – but distinct. Gale and Judson – how did Susan’s trilogy of poems, separated by your poetry, influence your poems?

Judson: “That was really a departure and was an exciting moment in the process. I think it pushed me to think differently about what I was doing. It made me think a little bit more structurally about cosmology, how it was being invented, and the different layers of reality in relation to things in the cave.”

Gale: “For me it highlighted this idea of investigation and that you could peel away any preconceived idea of experience. Susan was giving things names and labels, almost without context. It really created a freedom, I think, to be in that experience. It amplified the sense of unknowing that we all were grappling with in the project.”

James: I thought those poems were both concrete and ordered, yet mysterious, abstract, and surreal, all at the same time. 

Judson: “We didn’t set out to write these poems with any specific form. But when Susan introduced that distinct formal dimension, I think we responded to it. I wrote Dauer Stage with a kind of refrain line, that definitely interested made me think about using something a little bit more formal. We played around with a kind of sonnet. I think it did trigger a little bit of thinking about form.” 

James: In reading this book I was reminded of The Beatles song A Day in the Life, where separate songs by John and Paul came together into something more when shared in the studio. Can you share examples of poems that became something more because of collaborative sharing? 

Susan: “Well, I steal a lot. I steal a lot from both Gale and Judson. There are moments when, like the sonnet that I have at the end, it’s actually an idea taken from John Yau. I changed the title and I did my own poem, but a lot of those lines and images come from Gale and Judson, and it sort of felt like it wasn’t really my poem, and that was a really great feeling.”

Judson: “There were places when where we borrowed explicitly from each other, and then amusingly sometimes in our revisions the thing that was borrowed disappeared from our own poem, so it only exists in the book in somebody else’s poem. Sometimes we would invent a gesture and then that gesture was open for other people to experiment with.”

James: Chalk Song plays with many visual forms and methods of white space displacement. From the concrete form of (Bow) to the intended free verse of the Combed Horses poems. How did the striking visuals and techniques of the cave painters in the Herzog documentary influence the visual form of your poetry? 

Susan: “Judson’s Bow is in the shape of a bow, it’s pretty incredible.” 

Judson: “It’s not so much that there were images of bows on the wall of the cave, it was more that the cave wall was a membrane and things move through it. When I wrote Bow I was thinking of pulling someone through the cave wall. In fact I didn’t write that poem, I recited it to myself while walking and then when I got home and started to get it into my word processor, I realized that it had to be shaped. It was more about the sense of tension. I was talking about a relationship with someone, some other, behind the cave wall and wanting them and pulling them through the wall and that the sense of stress. The poem is all enjambment, no line breaks, it just follows that line.”

Gale: “I have some poems that end with an emdash, and I have one where there’s cesura in the middle of lines. I guess to the extent that there’s a feeling of unfinished-ness to the painting, that created the impetus to leave things hanging, or to write poems without punctuation. First Day is an example of that, where it just sort of goes on and doesn’t really have a beginning or an end. Those are some ways in which the visuals of the film influenced how how I set things on the page.” 
Susan: “My poems had very long lines, they were very expansive, and what’s interesting is in the publishing process you can only have so many characters per line. I had to pull them in.”

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