I believe in listening and I believe in creating spaces intimate enough for voices to be heard. I believe in Alabama and her people. So I wanted to try to amplify her voices. To do this, a patchwork team of us set out and began to make a 52-part documentary film.
We crisscrossed the state, made acquaintances with strangers and asked: "Might we pull out our cameras to capture a few tiny moments from your life?"
And people said yes! (This still surprises me every time.)
And then we said: "There's a catch. Can we do it while you read some poetry?"
I have to say, you Alabamians stepped up to the plate. You said, "Yes, I believe that’d still be all right."
Thank you. We appreciate you working with us to create a space where your voices and the voices of others can be heard. We enjoy listening and learning from you. And we expect others will too.
For those of you out there we haven't yet met, we're not quite done so don't be surprised if we come knocking on your front door. Or send us an email with ideas for who to talk with next!
Below are some questions we've been asked along the way. And here are some answers. If you have more questions for us, let us know. We're happy to hear from you.
Questions and Answers
How did this project come about?
In 2013, I visited Alabama for a short-term assignment for Alabama Media Group. It was the first time I had ever been. During the trip, I found myself captivated by Alabama, the feel of it and the people I met here. I've spent time in places all over the world and few places have taken hold of me like Alabama has. When I was invited to be the Artist-in-Residence for Alabama Media Group, I came up with the idea of making a series of portraits hoping to show off Alabama's people – but instead of using a traditional interview format, I wanted to use a poem as the common thread. And beyond that, let people speak for themselves.
What is the project?
We’re inviting Alabamians from every pocket and corner of the state to share moments of their lives on camera as we capture them reciting verses from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In other words, southerners are kindly lending their voices and opening up their worlds to us so that we might see an epic poem about American identity re-animate. Over the course of a year, week by week, stanza by stanza, the entirety of the poem will be brought to life.
Who was Walt Whitman?
According to the Poetry Foundation he is "America's world poet." According to The Walt Whitman Archive he is "arguably America's most influential and innovative poet." You can read more about Walt Whitman at either place. Who was he? You decide!
What is "Song of Myself"?
Walt Whitman published a book-length poem called "Song of Myself" in 1855. It was long. Epic really. Lewd. Lusty. Shocking. Scandalous. Weird. Here's why: It didn't rhyme. It used lists, stories, language that was "simple as grass." It was written in first person. And the first person wasn't a hero. He was an American, a commoner, narrating for the masses. It wasn't about things. No Grecian urn. No Nightingale. It was about sex, race, religion, immigration, politics. Everything we're wrestling with today. The poem centered itself around one idea: Everyone is an individual —everyone is connected — we all contain many selves. Despite being considered trashy, disgusting, and the worst thing ever written, "Song of Myself" is now considered to be a perfect embodiment of democratic ideals. The quintessential American poem.
(We leaned on WhitmanWeb a lot when we came across parts of the poem we couldn’t make heads or tail of. Please check it out. It's a great resource. If you prefer good old hard copy, take a look here!)
Why not use a contemporary or Southern poet?
I would say we did use a southern poet. Many of them.
Walt Whitman probably wrote the most all-encompassing poem ever about American identity in "Song of Myself." It's a sprawling, unconventional lot of poetic verses that describes an unconventional sprawling lot of people. The man managed to draw from a deep well of empathy to describe the awesomeness of America and her diversity, and that's what we wanted at the heart of this project. And I like the idea of cheekily co-opting the work of a dead white Yankee and re-envisioning it through contemporary Southern voices. I think we’ve found a neat way of mixing DNA here by joining these voices with Whitman’s. We've taken Whitman up on his offer to be co-creators, co-authors, of “Song of Myself.”
Why is the project called Whitman, Alabama?
Whitman, Alabama is a project tied together with a poem. But this isn't a poetry project so much as a project by, for and about a diverse set of people. Like music isn't the party — people are the party, music just draws people to the party— the poetry isn’t the project. The poem is that shared background against which people can do people-like things: talk, laugh, cry, observe, work, sing, wait, rest, and hopefully just be. We brought filmmakers and writers and storytellers and regular people together to build something new — to have and create a particular kind of experience. Today, in some ways, America is at its most divisive. The economy. The environment. Immigration. Taxes. Race. Religion. The issues go on. Here, we hold those things still, but not with division. Whitman, Alabama, est. 2017, is an experiment in revealing those threads that tie us together—as individuals, as states, as a nation, inside of a shared universe. All of us poets. And so, in that spirit, we invite you to be with us. To take part. To see and hear the whole. To exist as you are; that is enough.
— by filmmaker Jennifer Crandall as told to writer Liz Hildreth