UEN Homeroom

The Music of Words with Heidi Czerwiec

Episode Summary

In this episode of Summer Reading with UENLitFlix, join Matt and Jenn in a conversation with poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec to discuss the crossover of literary elements into classic films. See how genre, form, and imagery offer a new perspective on film.

Episode Notes

In this episode of Summer Reading with UENLitFlix, join Matt and Jenn in a conversation with poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec to discuss the crossover of literary elements into classic films. See how genre, form, and imagery offer a new perspective on film.

Heidi Czerwiec: https://www.heidiczerwiec.com/

Explore classic films and related booklists with UEN LitFlix: https://www.uen.org/litflix/

Episode Transcription


Hi, folks. Welcome to another episode of the LitFlix podcast. I'm so excited to talk to our guest today and jump into an amazing discussion about genre and form and literature and poetry and nonfiction and film. The list goes on about all the amazing literary things we're going to talk about in this episode. Jenn, thank you so much for pulling our guest in. She is fantastic.

She is. Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec an alum of the University of Utah. And she's the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of the Pleiades Press 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and other publications too. She earned her Ph.D. in English and American literature at the University of Utah and now teaches and writes in Minneapolis. And you can visit her at HeidiCzerwiec.com. And that's H-E-I-D-I C-Z-E-R-W-I-E-C dotcom.

And she is an amazing guest because she has such a depth of knowledge about what's going on. But you left the most important part out of why she is one of our guests, which is, Jenn, you and she have a long history because you went to grad school together.

We sure did, which is how I knew, when we were working on this project, Matt, that she was perfect to reach out to talk about all of these different issues. I just really appreciate her-- as you mentioned, the depth, the breadth, and also just the fun and the passion that she has for this subject.

Yeah, I'm really excited to get on with the conversation.

Absolutely. Let's jump in with our interview with Heidi.


All right. We are so lucky to have Heidi today to talk to us about poetry, literature, and the connections it has to film. Thank you so much for being here today with us, Heidi.

Thanks so much for having me.

So one of the things that we want to start off with is your work as an author and as a poet and essayist have looked into the issues of the genre in books, including your book Fluid States. And you've crafted essays and other publications.

What is your take on the genre? How do you help students understand what genre is in literature and then also in poetry?

Sure. Well, it's definitely something that's evolved over time. When I first came up with creative writing, there was a definite division between the genres that you could take either poetry or fiction. And they didn't really want you doing much crossover between the two. And nonfiction was usually taught, if at all, through journalism schools in the Communications department.

The later I got in grad school, they started offering nonfiction classes, which were mostly taught from the perspective of either journalism or narrative, so usually fiction writers then would come over and use nonfiction materials but were still emphasizing narrative and people as characters in that. But there wasn't really much coming from the perspective of poetry.

But very weirdly or fortuitously, a lot of the same people in that program ended up becoming lyric essayists who were poets studying at the same time I was, which was fantastic because then it felt like that was a way in. And watching them make that leap made it seem possible for me.

And so when I was writing poetry for years and years, I usually wrote these short lyrics that were, I don't know, maybe in the 12- to 25-line length. But after the birth of my son, they started getting longer and longer. And then I had these four-page poems and then 10-page poems. And then I started taking line breaks out because it really seemed more like an essay. And I wasn't even sure what I was doing.

But in reading more of what my friends were writing and what they were calling it, I started realizing, oh, there's this hybrid literature that is crossing genres in some really interesting ways. And fast-forward until now, I've sort of embraced all things hybrid. And I've had the fortune to teach a lot of hybrid classes.

I mean, I did start out teaching poetry, but due to really low enrollments and poetry, I started trying to woo some of the prose writers over by saying, well, let's do a hybrid workshop. And that got a lot of enrollment, so I was able to teach that and then, after writing it myself much more, started getting invited to teach more courses in that.

And as far as your question of how do I teach that to my students now, it is a really interesting one because I do think that there's some value in thinking about genre in some basic ways for beginning students. But I do tend to teach them about certain techniques that seem to appear with a critical mass with certain genres.

But I'll emphasize, at the same time, that these techniques can be used in any genre. It's just that you'll see things like sound effects used with more density in poetry and you'll tend to see things like plot and scene did more in fiction or in memoir, prose.

But I do emphasize that you can use the techniques across that. And then once we move into upper levels of creative writing, I'm all about the genre-bending.

Yeah, that's super cool, Heidi. I love the way that you describe that as a critical mass. Because one of the ways that come-- full disclosure, you and I were in the same doctoral program. But having come through the ranks, from bachelor's, master's, through that, all those workshops, the ways, sometimes, we would approach the genres were so strict and divided in ways that really didn't make so much sense when you really got in there.

And in poetry, there's a wide range of approaches such as formalism. Can you talk a little about your experience with form and how you draw on that experience in your work today?

Sure. When I was first writing poetry seriously, I did tend to write it in what's considered traditional received forms. So, like, I wrote a lot of sonnets, and villanelles, and things like that. And I got very comfortable with working in forms. It took me longer to have the content catch up. Like I was very good at making these exquisite little boxes that didn't really have anything to say in them. So it took a while for that to catch up.

But it was also interesting that traditional forms were not popular at the time. There weren't as many people writing in them. Once I had graduated and had been teaching for a while, I got involved with a writing conference that was run by and promoted traditional formal poetry. And that was really interesting and fascinating, and certainly helped me in the ways that I thought about form.

But I think there's an interesting distinction to make between working in form and formalism, because a lot of the people who were at that conference and who were involved in what was called New Formalism in poetry, that movement, were very intent on form in rigid ways and ways that were quite often-- I don't know how to say it-- archaic, maybe, in that they were very, very interested in sonnets, for example, but not interested at all in hip hop poetics. And when some people involved with the conference were trying to move it forward by looking at new forms that were being developed by many different groups, like African-American poetry, Asian poetry, Native American poetry, that were trying to bring in lots of different poetics, there was a lot of pushback against that from some quarters.

And so I hesitate to really get involved with formalism because it seemed so rigid and even pejorative in some ways. But that said, form has been really helpful and useful to me in writing, even once I moved away from poetry, being able to have a sense of what forms were available to me and what they were good for has been very useful.

So for instance, the sonnet is really good for argument structures and sestinas or villanelles are good for circular thinking, being caught within certain behavioral patterns or cyclical events, the causal in having these little aphoristic moments in poetry that knowing what forms were good for was very helpful.

And there's this sort of apocryphal quote from the poet Ted Roethke, who said that forms were not like Jell-o molds that you poured the content into, but that forms were more like different sizes and shapes of sieves that were meant to catch certain kinds of material. And I absolutely loved that. And so a lot of my thinking about form has been like what is the content trying to do and what kinds of forms might that work with, even when I'm writing prose too.

And quite often, if I can hit on what the right form should be, the piece becomes so easy to write. And the form and the content can amplify each other in certain ways.

You know, earlier, when you were talking about making pretty boxes or beautiful boxes with your forms, that got me reflecting on-- I think it's an experience a lot of us writers have, kind of in our early phases, where we're really in love with the medium that we're working in, but maybe we haven't quite yet found what we have to say out in the world. Do you feel that you have found what you want to say and you've found the forms that help you say it?

Yes in some ways and no in others. I definitely feel like I've found more to say on certain issues and forms that worked well with it. For instance, like when I was writing about perfume because perfume is-- it's hard to write about the smell. And that was part of the fun of the challenge.

But using the haibun, which is a form of short lyric prose that often includes a haiku-- and a haiku is both ephemeral as well as distillation, and that seemed to fit perfume really well. So finding ways to connect form to content has been helpful. But then, in other ways, like, I've been thinking about mushrooms a lot lately.

And I haven't figured out the form yet. I want to figure out a form to write in that is like a mycelium, so like the network that connects mushrooms and possibly where the text is the mushroom, the fruiting body that pops up in clusters, but is also connected beneath the surface somehow.

And I don't know yet what that form looks like. I'm still trying to figure that out. So that piece has been just roiling in my brain for about the last six months to a year because I haven't been able to figure out, like, OK, what does that look like? I can't wait to see what you come up with. I'm really excited to find that out.

I 100% agree. I'm fascinated by this discussion, Heidi because it's so-- I think a lot of, maybe-- I worked with K-12 students quite a bit in poetry. And I think a lot of those students look at poetry and there's either no rules, and they just go free verse and write whatever, or there are too many rules for it to be something that's really exciting for me. And they don't really connect the idea of form and genre, even though it's restraining, it's helping to push forward a perspective or a conversation about a particular thing.

And where that leads me to is thinking about film. There are a lot of directors and films, particularly in the last 5 to 20 years, where the director and writers have made particular decisions to either stick with a genre or to mash up genres together to create a particular effect on an audience. And so this idea of form and genre and literature blending over into film is just absolutely fascinating for me.

And so as you are well aware, this episode of UEN Homeroom and UEN LitFlix, it's built around classic films and based on books. Are there any films based on books that you find particularly interesting that may even run towards this idea of messing around with genre and form to produce a particular effect on the audience?

That's a really interesting question. I mean, sort of in a more traditional idea of a classic film, it seems like short stories work really well if you're going for a more traditional narrative story because most novels end up being disappointing in film form because of the time constraints, that there's too much being crammed into a small space.

Whereas if you're pulling from a short story, it gives you a little more room to expand on or play with moments or scenes or images in a way that you don't get when you have a much more long narrative to work with. I'm thinking of classic movies like Rear Window, [LAUGHS] which came from "It Had to be Murder," or even more recent ones like Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" being turned into a film.

But in thinking about ones that are playing with the form, I mean, maybe because we were talking about poetry and nonfiction, I think about films that are from nonfiction or from poetry. And there that are from nonfiction. I think, more recently, thinking about Cheryl Strayed's Wild being turned into a movie and a lot of Jon Krakauer's work has been converted into film or media format. So thinking about Into the Wild, but more recently, Under the Banner of Heaven, and how those are both working with narrative but also working with images in some really interesting ways too.

And maybe nowhere more so than in a film like The Green Knight. There's not a lot of poetry that's been turned into a film, unless you're looking at really old epics, so something like Troy. But The Green Knight, I was just obsessed with that when it came out. And I've been making everybody I know watch it.

And I think it's been doing such fascinating things with almost making the film format lyric. And by lyric, I mean special attention to both image and sound resonances, so letting certain images come back over and over again as, like, a motif, or the way scenes will rhyme with each other in a way. And that film just did such a beautiful job of just letting these images sit there and be disturbing and surreal and bizarre, and just embrace that, that was really compelling and that I absolutely loved.

Now, one metaphor that comes to mind for what you're describing in The Green Knight is that of like putting a dam in a river. So if you think of the river as the narrative stream, those repetitions, those rhyming scenes, and the repeated motifs, are like a dam. And so it just sort of helps that feeling swell, just sort of slows the time down in a way and creates more of an intense sense of the experience instead of what's next, what's next, what's next.

Yeah, that's an interesting way of thinking about it, although I guess I tend to think of, the dam or the flow of a river, that makes me think more of prose and how it proceeds. And in some ways, I might even think of it in terms of a labyrinth because it's making forward motion, but it's circling around its subject and turning until it gets to the center of what it's doing. So it is forward motion, but it's very circuitous and sideways the way it approaches and sidesteps and circles around its subject.

But there is that-- as you used the term earlier that I loved, critical mass, that there is a sense of there's a bit more weight to the lyric drive in The Green Knight than there is in Rear Window--


--would you say?

Yeah, yeah, I would agree with that.

But I love the laughter.


Absolutely. And I'm fascinated by this discussion. I've been thinking about, as you've been talking, the relation between the history of literature slash the history of film, and how short the history of film is compared to the history of literature. But at the same time, a film like Green Knight, like you brought up, it's going back into the history of literature and bringing these poetical images to film in a way that is digestible for a 21st-century audience. And it's 500, 600 years old. It's incredible.

And you talked a little bit about music and jumped into a kind of thinking about how music plays a role in our films and our poetry as well. So how do other art forms such as music come into play with writing or film and are there some soundtracks or even some actors' performances that feel especially poetic to you in either classic or even contemporary film?

Oh, that's really interesting. I mean, I think, with poetry and music, well, there's the obvious tie to music in that sound effects, like rhyme and alliteration and so on, can highlight certain words to give emphasis to them, and the rhythm or cadence of it, whether that's a formal meter or not, creates an underlying soundtrack that can speed up or slow down or emphasize certain words or lines in various ways.

And I think that, in many ways, that's the soundtrack to the poem in the same way that you have a soundtrack in a film that, if you have music like strings swelling romantically, then you know, OK, the rom-com couple is about to kiss or have a meet-cute or something. And when you have high, tense, discordant synthesizer chord playing, then you know that the alien is going to jump out at you. So there are certain ways that soundtracks in films also underline the action or the content of the film.

So yeah, absolutely, I think that in writing-- and not just in poetry, but even in prose, that a lot of lyric prose but even just really well-written fiction too, will have that attention to the rhythm of the sentences underlying and creating a soundtrack for the action that's going on in the story that I think does create a soundtrack, like you're saying.

And what was the other part of the question?

Oh, no worries. That was a great explanation. So I got kind of lost in it with you as well because there are so many cool things that you were talking about there. Are there some soundtracks or actor performances that you feel are especially poetic in a form? Maybe an actor really laid down a way of speaking or a way of representing the literature in a way that takes it to a new level.

Oh, that's a really interesting question. I don't know about certain actors. I mean, I guess maybe I think about something like the-- was it He's Not There, the Bob Dylan movie that had so many different people cast as Bob Dylan? And honestly, I thought the most amazing one of them was Cate Blanchett, which was just mindblowing. But yeah, her way of playing Bob Dylan was so interesting in how she would kind of inhabit those images that we have of the young, iconic Bob Dylan, but subvert it in interesting ways and make us-- estrange it from us to present it to us again in a new way.

Or even her part in-- is it Coffee and Cigarettes, I think, by Jarmusch, where she's playing herself and her cousin against herself at the same time. And so that's a really interesting problem to have that almost-- just like you'll see in a lot of literature, is an argument with the self, and to portray that in almost a really explicit way in the film is interesting.

I hadn't really thought about it in terms of particular actors. I guess I tend to think of it more in terms of particular directors that will be very image focused and just let images kind of sit there and develop an echo with each other as David Lynch does or Kieslowski and his Red, White, and Blue Trilogy.

Thanks, Heidi. That was so, so interesting. And I have one more question. So, Heidi, a lot of the folks who listen to this podcast are listening because they're teachers. And I'm wondering if, as a teacher, you have any tips for how to share these ideas, share these concepts, and really nurture the creative writers they're working with.

Oh, that's a great question. I think, in particular with poetry, that poetry often gets taught as a list of vocabulary questions that they're going to be quizzed on what is a metaphor, what is alliteration, as opposed to just enjoying the sound of it and rolling around in the language of it.

And so I think that even something like the Poetry Out Loud approach, which is almost like a spelling bee but for poetry recitation, can be an interesting way of getting students to inhabit a piece of writing and think about it. Because if you're trying to figure out what's the best way to perform this piece, you're having to think about what it means, what's important about it, what parts should be emphasized, and helps you sort of inhabiting that, which is one way to do it.

Also, writing responses to works that are being studied in class-- if you're reading a short story or a novel or a poem, maybe having assignments that ask students to take on the role of a different character than who it's being told from and think about, OK, what's the story like from this very minor secondary character? Or writing a poem that takes a line from a poem that they're studying in class and continues from that. So that can be interesting way of getting them to engage with the literature without only making it a vocabulary lesson.

And even bringing in film, too, I think there can be a lot of fun work with watching a film and the story or poem or novel or whatever it is that it's based on and that you've read in class, and thinking about comparing and contrasting. What choices were made in each of those? What was kept the same? What was left out? What did you like better and why? That could be an interesting way to bring the film into that too.

Heidi, those are fantastic suggestions. And as a former ELA K-12 teacher teaching poetry, I wish I could take all of those and just go and package them immediately and use them in my classroom, because you're exactly right. Teaching it as a vocab only and then kind of on the page only doesn't do poetry-- it's like teaching Shakespeare without ever seeing it performed.


You need to have it performed. You need to be able to see it. So thank you for those suggestions.

And also, thank you so much for being such an amazing guest today and talking about such interesting things. I could sit here and listen to you talk about form and genre and film and poetry all day. So thank you so much for your time. And we appreciate all your great comments

Oh, thank you so much. It was a pleasure


I could talk to Heidi all day too. Oh my gosh, that is so fun. And the films-- now I want to go out and rewatch the ones I'd already seen, watch the ones that I haven't, and then read 50 million more books than were already on my list.

Absolutely. I didn't want to jump into the conversation too much when she was talking about the film, but there are so many-- the idea that she was talking about of a singular image is really presented in a way that forces you to examine it and examines it in detail over a long period of time is such an interesting and compelling move in filmmaking that I forget is a very poetic move as well. And so that idea made me want to go rewatch some of my favorite films just to kind see how a director and the actors take an image and really drive it home for the audience. I thought that was just an absolutely fascinating part of our conversation.

Yeah, I mean, we often think that stories are told built on just that chain of events. But sometimes things are structured where the hinge from one moment to another is an image or a symbol presented in some form.

Absolutely. And so hopefully you're just like us. You're going to run out and grab your favorite films and start dissecting them in a way that looks at genre and form and imagery that heightens your understanding of it. So if nothing else, this podcast was worth it to get everyone excited to go do something like that.

So thank you so much for joining us today. We'll be back next time with another episode of The LitFlix podcast. Thanks so much, Jenn.

Thank you, Matt. This was great.

Take care.