A New Relationship of Presence: An Interview with Nick Maione – conducted by Zach Savich

Windfall Room is an online journal that features videos of poets reciting their work. Since 2018, it has included pieces by Jericho Brown, Anaïs Duplan, Emma Gomis, Andres Rojas, Betsy Wheeler, and others. I corresponded with Nick Maione, the journal’s founder and editor, about recitation, memorization, and how video poems can do more than remind us of Zoom.

Nick Maione is a writer and artist from Upstate New York. His poems have appeared in The Common, jubilat, TriQuarterly, On the Sea Wall, Adirondack Review, and other publications. In addition to editing Windfall Room, he is the founder and artistic director of Orein Arts, an artist residency program at a monastery in New York. He holds an MFA from UMass Amherst. Instagram: @nmaione_ 

Zach Savich: What inspired you to start Windfall Room

Nick Maione: I’d been exploring and thinking for some years about the ways in which poetry is, or isn’t, offered and received, and then an idea sort of came together one day when I saw a video made by some friends in Chicago. One of them filmed the other singing a song in the back of a car in the rain. That was it. It was so simple. It wasn’t a music video. It wasn’t edited or heavily produced. There was no stage or podium. It was just a moment, a moment where that song was able to exist in that way in that space between those people, yet pointed beyond in a understated but powerful way. I thought to myself, Why not poets? Well—I thought—I have a phone, a mic, and (very) basic web skills, I know some amazing poets living around Western Mass, why not show up with a camera and try? 

ZS: How did memorization become part of the concept?

NM: The poem must be alive in the poet in that way for this project to work at all. If you want to see a poet reading—usually head down, face buried in the page, using their reading voice—you have it in spades all over the internet or at any poetry reading. That is the default way we experience poetry off the page. And it isn’t even really off the page. I want to capture the immediacy present in that song in the rain, and I felt strongly that memorization, even if mnemonic skill wasn’t the point, was essential to a good recitation. It brings the poet into a new relationship of presence with their own work. It makes it into a revelatory event; you are encountering and discovering it yourself, enjoying it in yourself, as it is happening. Maybe you even end up creating some of it, too. 

ZS: My sense is that many of the poets on the site recited a poem that wasn’t written with memorization or performance in mind. What have contributors told you about their experiences with the process? 

NM: I think you are right that most of the poets on the site likely shared work written and revised primarily for and on the page. For me that is what is exciting and also challenging about it, actually—poets taking a look at their own work and selecting something they feel they can step into this with. At the very least they will choose a poem that they want to have memorized and plan to live with for a little while. I feel like putting the question back to you Zach, since you contributed a poem: what was good about that process or journey of getting to the final piece? why did you even agree to do a recitation in the first place? 

ZS: This gets at a lot for me. My first experiences of poetry were in chest-thumping performance scenes. And then, in college, I fell in with poets who’d have recitation competitions at parties. Wanna challenge me to “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” line-by-line? This might sound obnoxious, but it was also joyful, enlivening, a sign of how much poetry meant to us. And it seems to have led places: many of those friends have published books, stayed active in the arts. I’ve gotten away from memorization, in many ways, though I ask students to do it each semester—to get inside how a poem is working, feeling it as a bodily fact. So I was intrigued by the invitation. I wrote the piece, “Instructions,” especially for the site and planned an elaborate staging. There were going to be a lot of darts flying around. A call and response section with a surprising number of voices in the chorus. Maybe I’d be on a stationary bicycle? But the pandemic. So I took a simpler approach. I was left thinking about performance that deliberately resists rising to the level of theatre, yet comes out live. I was thinking of Wallace Stevens’ line, as I remember it: “I speak below the tension of the lyre.” 

NM: That’s great. I am sorry we didn’t get to see you on a stationary bike. Minus the recitation parties (cool!), I too had that period of memorization and embodiment and recitation in the early stages of coming to and going deeper into poetry, culminating a few years ago in going on tour with a folk band and having over an hour’s worth of my work memorized in a sort of hybrid poetry/music set. It felt part of it, part of poetry, right? Yet I still think that memorization is not the main skill here. I want to believe that a more vivified relationship with one’s own work could be a normal thing, if not accepted as intrinsic. There are genre-specific pockets of poetry where this is normal, like slam-poetry, but it could be (and has been for millenia) the inheritance of all poets, too. Memorization feels so big because poets simply aren’t accustomed in our poetry culture to take it for granted and build it into the practice, at least not the way a musician or a dancer does. In that regard I love that you are working on this with your students. It shouldn’t be possible to get through a poetry program without anyone requiring you to memorize poems and practice recitation. It is good to highlight, as you did, that memorized recitation is not theater. If it were theater, then trained actors would be the best at reciting poems. But it has been my experience that they often miss just as easily but in the other direction, privileging their acting chops to the detriment of the poem. A recitation is not acting; it isn’t performance art; it isn’t a song—but it isn’t not these things either. It is still poetry. What I hope is primary with Windfall Room is the attempt to get all the pieces—memorization, recitation, audio/video, location, vision—to come together to form a new encounter with the work in this format, something unique and whole and worth putting your name on as an artist. In the end the filmed recitation, the whole work, will speak for itself.

ZS: The site features straight-on, single-shot films. That’s different from more elaborate “video poems” and also from archival recordings of readings. What do you hope it highlights?

NM: I hope it highlights that a poem is made by a person and that a person has a body and especially a face and therefore all the capacity and the art and grace to have their own presence be part of the experience of the work if they wish it to be. Many art forms understand this presence, this process of revelation, as one of the things that the art is, or does. Poetry is in this club if it wants to be, it is in fact one of these arts, but through the technology of the page, poetry is able to exempt itself. Of course this is also one of poetry’s greatest strengths; its ability to be written down, made of language. I absolutely love poetry on the page, with all its own magic. But it turns out: experiencing a poem doesn’t require a page. So why not get to have it both ways? A person with a poem inside them is enough. So the second part of my answer to your question is that, even when moving off the page to the modern media of video, we notice it is still very possible to hide, or distance oneself, behind the technology. We still try; video effects or artistic footage or any number of special editing can help with this. By removing those things, and keeping the single-shot, face central idea, I hope to just highlight for a moment the personality and the poem and how it is inside them and inside the space they are in.

ZS: Yes, multi- and cross-genre work often adds layers. We ask how a video poem can make use of both technologies, of poetry and of video art, and add up to something more than either. Perhaps, the effect of these pieces isn’t one of addition but of emphasis. We become aware of space and time and a speaking figure, not of what cinematic art can add to a piece. We’re writing in December 2020, when a lot of life is happening in the single-shot, face-central sphere of Zoom. Has the pandemic changed your thinking about this project? 

NM: What’s funny about the Zoom culture is that from the very beginning it was something I wanted Windfall Room to resist. I felt it was important to get away from “skyping with grandma” vibe, holding nothing against grandmas. Yes, when video chatting it’s face central but we are looking at a face that is looking at a screen. We still aren’t off the page, or the screen. Since the pandemic I have loosened up a bit, but I wanted from the beginning to encourage the use of the technology more intentionally, and I still do. Also I want to involve other aspects more: the space, the environment, movement. My hope is to make the technology in service of the poet and the poem, and also to prepare the viewer to be in a space to receive it. One of the main problems with the Zoom work-from-home aesthetic is the familiarity and associations for the viewer, the feeling of being in a meeting, or catching up with someone; it can feel like something is being delivered, some information transmitted. I have this same problem with poetry on instagram or other social media. The moment of experiencing the poem is already compromised by the context and associations or advertisements. I find it so difficult to see, see as in take full account of, a written poem on a screen. My way of attempting to make it work is by simplifying the experience, and just having the video and the name up for each issue, with no other distractions.

ZS: Fourteen films have been posted so far. What are one or two that have influenced your thinking about this format? 

NM: What is so wonderful to me about the format is that every single poet who goes through this process influences it and opens up new possibilities. One thing I didn’t realize at the beginning was how much the “chances” of environment or space would almost demand to enter into these poems and become a special part of the final piece. Take Margot Douaily’s piece in Issue 06. Her niece happened to be playing on the same playground where we were filming on that day, and she spontaneously came into the shot and surprised Margot with a flower in the middle of the recitation, and Margot was amazing; she smiled, let it show how much it pleased her, but she kept going, holding and gesturing with the flower in her hand for the rest of the poem, and it gave a new register to her line at the end of her poem “I want to be loved hard.” I love this because it makes the poem have to live in the physical, bodily world. Then there are poets who embody their poems and offer the sounds and expressions so well and so truly that it feels like nothing else will do: take Alex Morris or Jericho Brown, Lindsey Webb or Emma Gomis. Take any of the poets on the site for that matter. This is one of the things I’ve learned from Windfall Room. A marvelous thing happens as we watch a person give a great recitation: their own face becomes even more a threshold of meaning, and their personality becomes infused and in communion with the universe of the poem; the person and the poem are there physically transfiguring and revealing each other, as well as the space they are in. It’s pure poetry. There is nothing like it. What on earth is going on here? I don’t know, but Windfall Room is meant to be a corner of the internet where poets are invited to come and explore and learn about this dimension of the art together. I look forward every time when a poet first sends me their video—we are about to experience something completely new.