A docufantasy about the American poet Diane Wakoski
It was 2014, I had just been admitted to Northwestern University for graduate school and was asked to submit a short biography about myself. I had never written about myself in a self-promotional way and was lost. I needed some guidance. As fate would have it, this was the situation that aligned my first encounter with the poet Diane Wakoski. A dear friend, and past student of Wakoski’s, pulled out a book of radical biographies where I read:
“Diane Wakoski was born in California in 1937. The poems in her published books give all the important information about her life.”
~ Diane Wakoski
At that time, all I knew about this woman was that she was 78 years old—but I was hooked. I began to read her poetry and it was then that I realized the true significance of her biography. She tells us to look to her poetry for the important details of her life, and though her poetry is written in the first person, it is also often highly fictive. For example, in her first published poem “Justice Is Reason Enough” (featured in EMERALD ICE), Wakoski invented a twin brother who committed suicide. At the time it was published, she let readers believe it to be true, but used it as allegory, creating a fictive world in order to talk about very real situations in her life. She so beautifully calls attention to the importance of discovering one’s mythic persona and grappling with and re-imagining the reoccurring images from our lives. She says that a poet is a person that can see beyond his or her corporeal life and be emblematic of something else. Her poems consist of autobiographical events, digressions upon digressions, mythology and archetypes weaved together in a way that everything is made anew and the mundane or inarticulable are no longer so. These ideas inspired me to make the first film about Wakoski called EMERALD ICE, a short experimental documentary or “docufantasy.” Since she so highly regards the mythic characters in her poetry, like her twin David, I knew that utilizing established documentary styles alone would have been an injustice to Wakoski’s work and life. In order to discover a new galaxy, or perhaps where one’s mythic and corporal self meet, the film explores her imagination in conjunction with her biography.
“if I were an astronomer mirroring an arch of light, which / might mean a new galaxy / has been discovered, I might name / the phenomena, ‘Emerald Ice,’ / and tell you how / beautiful these things are to me.”
~ Diane Wakoski
I think people are often surprised when I reveal that I spent more time reading poetry than actually filming and editing. Wakoski has been a prolific poet since the 1960s and putting together the screenplay was a challenging task. The film’s narrative spine is made up of fragments from more than 20 poems that span the course of her career. This retrospective allowed me to see her themes and characters grow and change over the years. I was nervous to show Wakoski my initial script because I took some liberties with her work (like splicing different poems together), but she loved that I had turned her poems into something new and was still able to keep their integrity. If she had not agreed to narrate her poetry for the film, I think I would have abandoned the project. Another person performing the voice over was not something I entertained, which made her involvement with the film all the more special and important. Her voice made the images reverberate with even more beauty.
In Toward a New Poetry, Wakoski writes about the importance of the reader to help create the poem; I feel that the film is not only a document of the enigmatic stories of her life but also of the role of the reader. By reading a poem, the receiver embraces the words with their imagination, making it a singular experience between that reader and the poet. I tried to realized my presence in her poetry in EMERALD ICE by incorporating poems that felt like she was verbalizing a deep part of myself that I was never able to breathe into words. In this way, the film is an extension of our relationship with each other and my admiration for her poetry. My intent with the abstract imagery and the withholding of facts in the film is to conjure up an opportunity for the audience to insert their own experience with the poems. The film is inherently about the audience/reader because they are hopefully building their own relationship with Wakoski and have a unique reaction to her words. This extends Wakoski’s sentiment about the reader’s irreplaceable role reading poetry to consuming media.
Wakoski has never considered herself a political poet, but I think that these sentiments have real significance in today’s political climate, which is why remembering to read these intelligent female poets is so crucial during contemporary time. To take these ideas about poetry one step further, we can start to consider our roles as readers and consumers of media in the midst of a crucial time in the US and world where great uncertainty can cause fear, distrust and division. When Diane Wakoski creates a mythical persona it is because she refuses to be satisfied by her current state. Satisfaction with our current political situation is something that we must not tolerate. We must continue to imagine something better. Wakoski’s ideas of giving credence to our fantasies is incredibly important now because for many people basic human rights are mere fantasies. I am very unsatisfied with climate change deniers in power, the end of DACA and living in fear of a nuclear holocaust. What Wakoski’s poetry does is remind us that it is okay to be unsatisfied with the “real” world and that the fantasy world, the world we long for but has not yet arrived, matters. It is crucial to emphasize the significance of learning lessons like these from a female poet, despite a real gendered silence that has historically underrepresented and belittled women writing this type of poetry. To this day, women face many obstacles in having their voices heard in a meaningful way, and I believe that dissatisfaction of this will continue to drive change. This parallels the experience for female filmmakers too, where the commercial industry is still highly male dominated. Though this has seen improvement in recent years, there is much we all need to continually do to push back. We can start by never ceasing to remember, read and honor past generations of women artists and we can consider the type of readers we want to be, of poetry and media: passive or active. I have begun to digress, but that is the Wakoski way.
Diane Wakoski’s work continually shows me that by letting fact and fantasy graze on the same plane, it is possible to gain something more than if they were treated separately. Just like Wakoski’s poetry, this docufantasy is attempting to present what one experiences with both open and closed eyes at the same time. Rather than trying to find the actuality of truth, we are left in a romantic fervor, chasing the essence of truth. There is this place we all have experienced intimately, when what we know and what we feel are in conflict. Approaching the non-fictive material of Wakoski’s life in a different format allows the viewer to come to a more infinite and intimate conclusion in a way that doesn’t consolidate what one knows about her, but opens it up. Thanks to such an inspiring poet, I am thinking more openly and critically about how to portray one’s life in my films.
It seemed like fate intervened again when I found out that Wakoski lived three hours away from Northwestern University. I ended up making this film as my graduate thesis project. Since I began the journey of graduate school with her biography in mind, it seemed appropriate to also end that experience with the words of Wakoski. When I first started the project, I spent a month with my cohort, writing and workshopping a hand-written letter to Diane Wakoski. I stressed over each word because, in a way, I was responding to someone that I had already been receiving messages from. In the letter, I outlined my plans a fragmented film that would use her poetry to explore the place where her fantasy life and biography met. The most important aspect of the film from the very beginning was making sure that it was a collaborative effort between Wakoski and I. I wanted the film to be something she felt accurately embodied the spirit of her poetry. I was so thrilled when she wrote back and agreed to talk about the project. I focused on building trust with Wakoski by sharing my thoughts and intentions throughout the process. She champions the idea that form is an extension of content, so accurately portraying her work through the form of my film was always at the forefront of my mind.
I often think about that crucial day I couldn’t find the words to write my biography. It’s hard imagine what would it say now without working with and befriending Diane Wakoski—a very powerful and inspiring woman. It was such a chance happening that lead me to her and her poems. I was not a literature or poetry student and wouldn’t have had such an encounter without the help of someone else. I find it sad that she is well known in academia but not as widely circulated by those not in poetry classes. Her poems taught me to let people get to know me through my art and that we can create a world that surpasses what we can only see. This is vital to imagine and then physically create a more equal, just, beautiful world to live in. If we can’t imagine that world, how can we build it? Her words have made entire worlds in her work where she is a sorceress, her words have inspired me to build my own where I am a warrior. Who knows what worlds await those who are lucky enough to have the encounter.
“Poems come from incomplete knowledge / from the sense of seeing an unfinished steal bridge that you would like to walk across. I’m asking you pay attention to fact I didn’t know my life was drawer filled with color scarves / like wings so carefully folded by ethereal hands / but entity is never just one thing.”
~ Diane Wakoski
Jesseca Ynez Simmons is a filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist based in Chicago, IL. Originally from the Bay Area, she received her BA in Politics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, followed by an MFA in Documentary Media from Northwestern University. Jesseca was a finalist for the 2016 ASC Vilmos Zsigmond Award and a 2015 Southern Exposure Film Fellow for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Birmingham, AL. In addition to directing, Jesseca works as a cinematographer and her images have been screened at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), Hot Docs Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival, DocLisboa, Sidewalk Film Festival as well as on National Geographic. Jesseca currently holds the Filmmaker in Residence position at Northwestern University. http://www.jessecasimmons.com