As the culminating event in the Black Lives on Screen series that has spanned the spring semester, Tracie Morris (Iowa Writers' Workshop) is presenting a short filmic work with performance voice-over. Black Spring (in 5 parts) is cultural theory, cinema, poetry, protest art, and elegy. Like much of Morris's work, it is a hybrid that is not easily categorized.
Morris is a poet who does not readily appear to be a poet. She is a writer who sings. She is a spoken word artist who makes movies. She is an improviser who performs research in archives. For those who like categories, Morris resists them. To her, it’s all poetry. She invites us to move beyond the obvious and to ask instead, What is poetry?
A faculty member in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Morris lists herself variously as a “writer/editor of several books, poet, professor, performer, voice teacher and theorist.” She was recently named a Guggenheim Fellow in the category of poetry. (In fact, Morris is among three artist-scholars to present as part of the Black Lives series to win a Guggenheim this spring.) During her early career, she worked in film and video production—an area she considered pursuing—but found success with spoken word performance and moved in a more literary direction. Now, she’s recognized for her sound poetry, a form that bridges experimental literature, musical composition, and performance art.
Although Morris is a generous listener, one senses that attention to categorization is of little interest to her. She told one interviewer that all of her work is poetry: “It’s not, ‘I’m a poet and I do these other things.’ It’s, ‘I’m a poet; therefore, I do these other things.’ I think and feel like a poet does. Then I apply my ideas about poetry to different things. I apply it to scholarship, voice, song, and even the way I support nonprofit artwork as a volunteer and advocate. I consider all of it an aspect of my poetic self.”
Returning to her early love of cinema, she has increasingly been combining her words with moving images. Since joining the Iowa Writers' Workshop, first as a Distinguished Visiting Professor and now as permanent faculty, she has premiered three works at Iowa City’s FilmScene (which Morris calls her “art cinema home”). She has interpreted Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, and Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. For each of these performances, the original film plays in its entirety as Morris provides a live recontextualization, offering commentary as Black characters looking upon and inserting themselves into the films. Her exposition questions how gender, sexuality, and race are portrayed in the films. Morris refers to this series of her work as “not Neo-Benshi”—Neo-Benshi being the artistic practice of producing live alternate voice-overs for films.
For the third of her FilmScene performances, Daughters, Mothers, Us, Morris also threaded memoir into her commentary. In 1989, she was a production assistant (“a glorified gopher”) on Dash’s groundbreaking Daughters of the Dust, which was filmed in the Gullah Sea Islands. Now, from thirty-odd years out, Morris was able to consider the hierarchy of a film set and the personal complexities occurring behind the camera. Performed only once, just before campus and cinemas closed down due to COVID-19, it was Morris’s final public event.
Responding to the last year
During that last year, Morris has quarantined closer to her family in Brooklyn. For someone accustomed to a great deal of travel, it has been an inward period, all the more so because health concerns made it impossible for her to participate in the street protests that occurred last summer following the murder of George Floyd.
Now, she is ready to provide input and reactions about those events. Black Spring (in 5 parts) will premiere on May 6 at 7:00 p.m. Appearing nearly a year after Floyd’s murder, Morris says, “This is my first performative foray since that event. When this commission came up, I saw it as a chance to say something helpful. And it has a different texture now since the jury’s decision.”
Despite her disappointment of not being actively involved with what she calls “the most recent release of energy by marching in the streets,” she says, “I wanted to contribute to the movement, to contextualize it.” Unlike her other film projects, Black Spring does not use a single, seminal piece of cinema. Rather, Morris worked with two former UI students to pull and organize footage and still images, over which she then placed audio.
The power of image
The piece is inspired in part by the importance that documentary footage via cell phone and bystanders has played in the recent understanding of violent events, especially actions by the police against Brown and Black citizens. “If there wasn’t a dedicated American citizen recording George Floyd’s murder, we might never have known about it,” she says of the video taken by then-seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier, who spoke during the trial about how deeply affected she remains by witnessing Floyd’s murder. Morris adds that although Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted, “It’s not a victory, because someone was lynched and one member of that lynching mob is going to prison. George Floyd’s life was still lost.”
Morris is aware of the traumatic power that images hold and says she is trying to be mindful of Black trauma in her selections of raw footage: “I don’t want us to be re-traumatized together.” She has chosen imagery that is referential and that, she hopes, will contextualize what has occurred in a larger framework. (The above image is a still from Black Spring, courtesy of Morris.) “For younger people, it’s such a devastating experience,” she says of violence against Black bodies; she wants to help them consider, “How did we get to here, and where do we go from here?”
Morris’s involvement in the Black Lives on Screen series came about in part through her UI colleague Christopher Harris, a filmmaker and faculty member in Cinematic Arts who is part of the team planning the series. Harris says that to him, Morris’s cinema-based work is “equal parts film criticism, poetry, and performance. They are always at each moment all of those things for me.” He notes that although the works are very well planned and researched (Morris spent time in Kubrick’s archives, for example), they also have an immediateness to them and an improvisational quality.
Out of necessity, Black Spring will be screened virtually, though Morris hopes to eventually see it on the big screen. She values interaction with audiences, so she’s never been keen on recordings of her live performances. She says Black Spring may actually be the first of her poems that she sees having a life away from her. She whimsically says of the work, which could be categorized in multiple ways, “I can see this poem walking into places; it doesn’t look like me, it looks like itself. I’m giving birth to this child speaking in motion pictures and it’s going off on its own.”
About the event
Black Spring will be screened at 7:00 p.m. on May 6. Following the approximately hour-long screening, Morris will be in conversation with Joyce Tsai, Chief Curator of the UI Stanley Museum of Art. The event is co-sponsored by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, which provided funding for the commission. To learn more and to register for the event, visit https://events.uiowa.edu/40057.