Melissa Barrett is the recent author of False Soup, a veg-friendly cookbook from Forklift, Ink. Her poems have received honors from Tin House, Indiana Review, and Gulf Coast, and can be found in No Tell Motel, Front Porch, and H_NGM_N. “Pilot,” her collaboration with filmmaker Pete Luckner, recently debuted at Video Dumbo.
Pete Luckner is a painter and digital artist working in Columbus, Ohio. His paintings and videos have been included in various exhibitions and festivals, including the voyeur issue of 4x magazine. “Pilot,” his collaboration with poet Melissa Barrett, recently debuted at Video Dumbo.
How did your collaboration begin?
MB: For me, the collaboration began inside of a square silo three years ago. Pete and I used to work in a studio for disabled artists, located in the middle of nowhere, Ohio. One afternoon we drove a few miles to our co-worker’s farm for lunch. We met her horses and toured her silo, which was square and leaning and blonde with wormy chestnut.
Standing in that space with Pete, I began sketching the framework of a poem. It was then that I realized that Pete stirred all sorts of creative ideas in me; I’ve been addicted to his presence ever since.
PL: Our artistic conversation began for me when we were working together and Mel showed me the film Breathless, by Jean Luc Godard. That was probably the first time we spoke frankly about our sensibilities. The visual imagery in her poems also made me think it would be great fun to talk about ideas with her.
We came to our first project when we stumbled upon Lakeside Amusement Park in Denver, Colorado. We were both captivated by the place—it was such a run-down old park. The man who worked the Round-Up ride ended up becoming the subject of “Pilot”—our first poem/video collaboration.
What were the rules or parameters for the collaboration?
MB: The collaboration was utterly parameterless. There were no rules—the whole thing happened almost by mistake. We just happened to drive along the fringe of Denver on a Friday afternoon when we were looking for something to do. We saw the park from the highway and decided that that would be our weekend.
It was mere luck that the park proprietors bought my bumbling request to film (they have a strict “no camera” policy—for all of its rusty beauty, Lakeside wouldn’t survive even amateur documentation of its decaying machinery. There’s a reason admission is only two dollars.)
Going through the footage a few weeks later, Pete uncovered distinctive shots of one of the ride’s operators. He hadn’t meant for the footage to become anything—and I hadn’t either. But the image of the Round-Up stayed with me; slowly, a poem began to take shape.
PL: We sort of made rules as we went along. It started as a documentary project about the humanity of a crusty amusement park. The footage was gathered intuitively, and it was interrupted by park security. They were a little weird about the camera since the park has a reputation for being a dump. But that dumpiness was its charm. When I brought the footage into the computer we realized the Round-Up operator represented everything we loved about the park. We began to construct his portrait.
Have you collaborated before outside your art form? How did this differ from those collaborations?
MB: A little. I was in a band that wished it were Kraftwerk. We had seventeen keyboards and unlimited access to a recording studio. Around the same time, I made a few dozen short films with my sisters—some of the most imaginative people I know.
Currently, I’m trying to write collaborative poems with Dan Poppick and Anthony Madrid. These collaborations are very different than “Pilot,” and perhaps more difficult. How can something as delicate as a poem survive the poking and prodding of two people?
PL: I had a band when I lived in Pittsburgh. It was a noisy experimental band. In my head I view collaborations as always finding the parts that we mutually find interesting and trying to inflate what is interesting about them. This collaboration was different in that we worked in chunks. Each chunk had its interesting parts and we would focus on that each time trying to expand on the aesthetic and find new avenues. I really liked how that approach fit the project, I think poetry and video have a lot of promise there.
What did you learn from your fellow collaborator?
MB: I learned that the process of editing a film is in itself quite poetic—and that it can be just as agonizing as writing a poem. I also learned that, though poetry and filmmaking are the gods of two different universes, Pete and I are on the hunt for the same thing: a resonant image.
PL: I learned that our approaches are very similar. Mel taught me how writing is like painting and how it is different. She told me once that, “Reading is writing.” I found that very interesting. I think that makes the art of writing very unique.
Did the collaboration affect your own work?
MB: Yes. The problem that I thought I’d have with collaboration was dishonesty—an inability to evaluate and speak openly about the work. Not so with Pete. Honesty might be his best quality—he was always pushing me toward something more exact.
“That’s trash,” he’d say, critiquing an alliterative string of adjectives—all synonyms, probably, for the word “brown.” My first reaction was defensiveness. I wasn’t in this to get workshopped. But Pete uncovered a larger problem of mine: my addiction to over-constructed descriptions, and a heavy reliance on similes.
In grad school, I saw a craft talk on the (dis)function of simile and metaphor. One of the panelists implored, “Is any one thing really that similar to anything else? Isn’t the designation of words dishonest enough?” Which is similar to the Mad Hatter’s inquiry: “When is a raven like a desk?” And later, he divulges, “I have absolutely no idea.”
PL: Working with Mel gave me a scaffold to build a lot of ideas about editing and visual scenarios. I have tunnel vision on occasion when it comes to editing video. In being forced to stretch that tunnel in different directions to fit the flow of the video I was able to see more possibility in my own work. In the project I am working on now I am constantly trying to harness that.
Did anything happen in your collaboration that surprised you?
MB: We recorded “Pilot” with my voice at first, and something just wasn’t right. We actually abandoned the project for several months because we couldn’t figure out what that something was. Pete finally made the suggestion to redo the audio with someone else’s voice. Though I’m a huge advocate for poets reading their own work, this particular story—about a man’s simultaneous aging and infantilization—is benefitted by the sandpapery voice of poet Maj Ragain.