I seem to be making more posts that I want to begin with “something a little different this time”. Hopefully that is a good thing. This time the different things are a short film, and that the poem is not my own. The short film is one that another poet asked me to make. The poet was acclaimed Scottish writer and Stanza founder, Brian Johnstone. Of course I was flattered to be asked, so, not really knowing what I was getting into, I said ‘OK!’
Brian sometimes performs with musicians Richard Ingham and Louise Major as ‘Trio Verso’, and he wanted to use improvisations Richard and Louise played around readings of his poem. Brian sent me an ad hoc recording he that he’d made already. I listened and decided I’d like to re-record it so I could make a new sound mix.
The problem I found was that the subject of Brian’s poem was both difficult, and something I knew very little about at all. This very short preface that he had written for the video explains the context:
“In the aftermath of the Holocaust a Jewish actress returns to her ancestral shtetl in Eastern Europe too seek evidence of her family’s former life.”
I didn’t even know what a ‘shetl’ was. I had to look it up. I learned that shtetls were small market towns in Eastern Europe with significant Jewish populations. The Yiddish word ‘shtetl’ means ‘little town’. They existed for hundreds of years, but by the 1930s they were in decline to some extent due to a variety of demographic and cultural changes. The Holocaust destroyed what remained of the way of life of the shetls. There is a great deal of excellent material available online. This is from a short piece by Joellyn Zollman:
“For American Jews, a majority of whom are of Ashkenazic (Eastern European) descent, the shtetl serves as a mythical point of origin. This simple, down-to-earth culture–guided by what seems to contemporary observers a colorful combination of religion and folk wisdom–is where we came from. And while shtetl life was inexorably changed by industrialization and modernization, it was destroyed by the Holocaust. Thus, shtetl life is sanctified with an aura of martyrdom.” [source]
I’ll be honest – this all seemed quite alien to me, and felt a long way from anything I knew. Brian had given me some cues about season, and winter. We also talked about an inscription in Hebrew I’d been surprised to discover in a rural church churchyard near where I live. These offered some possible points of visual access, but Brian had suggested the idea of the film to me at at point in the year where, even in driech old Scotia, the snows had mostly melted. On top of this, I wasn’t finding Trio Verso’s improvised musical take on the poem very immediately accessible. I needed something to help me connect. In the end this came from an odd place, an in-between place. Lost ground on the AM band of my car radio.
I’d noticed that when switching sources on the radio, there were places, not properly tuned in on AM where the radio produced odd rising and falling notes as I drove along: pops and crackles of radio frequency noise generated by machinery or power overheads, occasional radio echoes of distant voices or music, sometimes foreign, usually indistinct. In my own mind I’d called it ‘AM drift’. Sometimes now I just leave the radio there instead of tuning to a channel. It’s a strange sound, slightly ghostly. I find it oddly soothing. As the car moves through the outskirts of Dundee it feels as if the radio is picking through scratched layers of paint to older shades beneath. Like itching at an underskin of remote times and places, tuning in to vague shimmers of somewhere else.
I started bringing together samples of ‘AM drift’ with the recordings of Brian and Richard and Louise. The drifting static of forlorn radio noise, at once contemporary and remote, seemed to provide traction. Like the sensual roughness of surface that paper manufacturers call tooth, it offered to hold marks. I still didn’t find this an easy piece to make. I think that I felt I was an intruder in a place cherished by other people.
In retrospect I suppose the feeling was like when you enter an old cemetery as a tourist. You probably don’t know that much about the people who are buried there, or the people who might have come to mourn them. But you step quietly. You don’t want to behave poorly or give offence. It is a place that might be pastoral, perhaps even serene, but you know it is not a place that has been easy.
Place of Graves will be included in ‘Fields of War’ on Saturday September 7th at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.