These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
Walt Whitman wrote those lines in his poem “Song of Myself” in 1855. One hundred and sixty years later, they’re coming to life again in the voices of the Alabama residents featured in a new documentary film project, “Song of My South.” The project is led by filmmaker Jennifer Crandall, who is the first artist-in-residence at the Alabama Media Group. (That’s the Advance-owned collection of newspapers and their digital properties, in cities including Birmingham and Mobile.)An artist-in-residence in a newsroom was the brainstorm of Michelle Holmes, the group’s vice president of content. “Despite being in a time of amazing reinvention of our industry, I think much of what is happening right now in American journalism is stale from a creative standpoint,” Holmes told me. “By creating a new kind of role in a media company, I hope to open our doors to talented storytellers who feel limited by journalistic convention and want to push deeper into the heart of creating compelling work, period.” Crandall, a former video journalist at the Washington Post and video editor at Salon, is working with Chip Brantley, a nonfiction author and senior lecturer in emerging media at the University of Alabama, and Bob Miller, a photographer and filmmaker, on “Song of My South.”
One of Holmes’ intentions in creating the artist-in-residence program was to help transfer skills and knowledge between the artist and the rest of the newsroom. Crandall is helping to train the group’s visual staff in shooting and editing techniques and is also talking to journalists who are accustomed to working with text about how they can start tiptoeing into video. “A lot of the best video, and most viral video, [is shot when] someone was quick-thinking enough to pull out their phone at the right moment,” Crandall said.
Holmes is open to the idea of choosing a new person to be the artist-in-residence each year, though she hasn’t put out the call yet. “I want to be careful not to establish a program that simply exists to exist,” she said. “I’m hoping this project can serve as a catalyst to allow us to engage in new ways with artists and people supporting the arts. I hope the publication of this work will bring other ideas to us worth considering.”
When the project is complete, each of the 52 stanzas of “Song of Myself” will be read aloud, on video, by at least one person. Finding the readers — some notable and famous Alabamians, some everyday people — is a “real week-by-week process,” Crandall told me. “I get in the car a lot, drive around the state, and will often just stop people I see in restaurants or on the street. It comes in all different ways, but most importantly, it’s still happening — we’ll probably launch before we’ve captured” all the stanzas.
When I watched rough cuts of a few early videos, I was surprised by how captivating it was to watch everyday people reading poetry. In one video, a mom recites a stanza while holding her toddler daughter, as her son plays and her husband works in the background. In another, Mariam Jalloh, a teenage immigrant from Guinea, beams as she reads. I remembered an English high school class where a teacher taught us how to read poetry, emphasizing that we shouldn’t stop at the end of each line, and asked Crandall if her team gave people any instruction on how to read the poem.
No, she said adamantly. “The thing I really emphasize with each person is to read this in a way that makes you feel comfortable. We have no expectations about a way in which anyone has to read or express themselves; they read it however they want to read it. I don’t want anybody to sound like ‘a poet’ when they do this. I want people to read it as themselves, mistakes and all.”
Reading a poem in front of a camera doesn’t seem as if it would feel “natural” in any way. “Cameras can freak people out. People feel as if they want to perform for them, and we want to avoid that,” Crandall said. So “it’s about making people, throughout the production process, feel as comfortable with who we are as a team as possible.” This could mean reminding a reader that it’s okay to make mistakes, stopping and restarting filming multiple times, or simply listening. In the videos I watched, the readers did seem fairly comfortable — or, if not totally at ease, then at least happy. The filmmakers ask readers to choose spots where they feel comfortable and to do what they’d normally do in those environments; one man read his stanza at a table in a restaurant where he’s a regular, pausing to thank the waitress.
So far, most of the people that Crandall has asked to participate in the project have quickly agreed to do so. I asked her for the pitch that she gives them. In part, she said, “I usually explain a little bit about the poem, how it was written in 1855, but so many of the scenes that are found within it are things that we’re still struggling with in our current lives as Americans and as Alabamians — race, religion, politics, sexuality, immigration. We’re all individuals, but we’re all part of this universe as a whole. Then, I say, I’m just asking you to be one part of that. I’m utterly thankful and amazed, it’s such a gift, that people more often than not are absolutely ready to jump right in.”
Crandall has been living and working in Alabama for about a year and a half, though before that she’d never been there. “I was really struck by what rich soil this is to till for great stories,” she said. I asked if anything had surprised her about the state. Liberal media folk on the coasts of the U.S. — many of the people reading this, perhaps; me, certainly — aren’t very familiar with Alabama, or with the South in general. This can make it easy to fall back on negative stereotypes — yet I found that even watching a few videos, no more than a couple of minutes long, made me think about the state in a more positive light.
“Culture here runs deep and rich and far back in our American history in ways that mean a lot, not just to Alabama but to the rest of the U.S.,” Crandall said. “It’s a privilege to be here and to see how the South has played a part in our past and our current identity. Part of this project is to bring that to the fore in a fresh way … The South, I think, is hallowed ground, and oftentimes, I think Americans are a little bit ashamed of its past. Rather than turning our backs on it, we need to turn toward it. We need to think closely about what it means to our identity as Americans.”