Progress on the Prairie:

Stephen Anunson

Despite our love of the classics – read, Dead White European Dudes – taught in these illustrious halls, plenty of noteworthy artists innovate outside of the Lawrence bubble. In this column, we’ll cover those Midwestern artists – writers, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, actors, etc. – and how they’re changing the modern creative landscape.
Cathy Cook, an Appleton native who now resides in Baltimore, recently visited campus to screen her film “Immortal Cupboards: In Search of Lorine Niedecker.”
Lorine Niedecker was an objectivist poet who spent most of her life in rural Wisconsin, 1903-1970. Niedecker’s poetry evoked images of her natural surroundings with wit and charm. She loved words and isolation.
The film is Cook’s first attempt at a longer documentary about a single poet. Cook has more experience with short films that focus on the subject matter of a single poem.
This experimental documentary, or poet film, is a collaboration piece. Cook said she set guidelines similar to Niedecker’s, had she been alive during the production of this film. Originally, Cook envisioned the poetry as a voice-over to images that might have surrounded Niedecker while she wrote.
However, Niedecker’s preferred her poetry to be seen on the page – a fact which influenced the final product. In it, most of the poetry is displayed on the screen rather than recorded in a voice-over. Cook admits that this makes this film harder for audiences. “Most audiences complain about subtitles,” she remarked. Still, Cook had strong feelings about collaboration and about making this film a Cook/Niedecker production.
Cook refers to her films as collages. Aesthetically, the viewer gets the sense of seeing the world as Niedecker may have seen it while thinking about her poetry. Both the severe close-up shots and the incomplete shots of faces – an entire face was never shown – add to a sense of claustrophobia.
Interviews are used as voice-overs to the images, but silence is also a large part of the sound score. Cook worked closely with sound on this film, and the film captured Wisconsin noises from fields, rivers and wildlife.
Cook felt a special connection to Niedecker. After her screening, Cook highlighted some surprising parallels. Like Niedecker, Cook spent much of her life with little money and did not always have enough money to work on her art. Many of her projects were worked on off and on for many years.
“After 9/11 there was very little work. For many reasons,” she explained, “I had very little work and I had to decide to either join the union and work full-time, or I would have to go and get a teaching job. And I could have done either one. Teaching had more benefits. It had more security. It had support for my work – that was the big one, and that’s why I did it. I have some regrets,” she said, laughing.
Cook didn’t always make poetry films. She explained that she took the “10 year undergrad route,” working on her college degree off and on before finally graduating and moving to New York City to pursue a career in media.
After working for 11 years as an artistic director for making “TV IDs” for such shows as “Junkyard Wars,” she decided that she needed to do something different in order to fund her own projects.
Cook said she chose to work on poetry films because she “was a big connoisseur of abstract, experimental writing. I think, because of that, I started, by accident maybe, reading poetry. That was my interest beside the visual.”
Cook chooses poems that she connects with. Her film on Niedecker is the first example of a connection with a poet rather than the poem itself.
“She just had more poems that talked to me than other people did,” Cook said. “That’s why I did the film.”
Cook’s work is intimate and authentic. She is an artful collaborator and a true Wisconsinite. Indeed, Cook said she visits her native state “as often as [she] can,” adding, “I love Wisconsin.