Filming a docuseries on Walt Whitman’s birthday

Yesterday, Andrew Galati and I embarked on filming the first episode of a docuseries about poetry. It was an experiment as much as a celebration. We wanted to see if we could capture on film all the experiences and conversations around poetry I encounter everyday behind the typewriter when I set up in public spaces and write personalized poems.

Using Walt Whitman’s birthday (May 31st) as a launching point, we traveled to Camden, NJ which is where Walt Whitman spent his last years. But the documentary isn’t about Whitman and it’s not really about either of us either.

It is about how poetry still has an impact in our current day and age. About how the spoken word unites and connects so many different communities. About how it empowers so many people to find their voices to breathe into life a better world.

Andrew and I both thrive in spontaneity, and we had no real plans other than to visit Whitman’s grave and house in Camden, see if we could hone in on his spirit through the typewriter and have conversations with residents about what poetry means for them.

Unsurprisingly, it led to a unique experience of shared stories and overlapping legacies. From the start, we met Rocky Wilson, a teacher and Walt Whitman interpreter. A poet in his own right, he provided a historian’s knowledge about writers that had inspired him in his youth and how growing up around the corner from Whitman’s house first gave him a taste of what a poet can live to be.

After taking our time at Whitman’s grave, admiring the wildlife and sharing moments of silence to hear the breeze, we ventured to his house where I set up my typewriter and wrote poems on demand for passersby. There we met Zulay Rojas, a social activist and admirer of the writers of the civil rights movement. She caught how auspicious it was that the first poem I wrote was about the requested topic “King”.

Whitman’s house is on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in downtown Camden, which intersects with Broadway, renamed Black Lives Matter Boulevard after the George Floyd uprisings around the country in 2020. In my poem, I combined themes of MLK with the realization in wearing a golden crown that we are all kings, queens, royalty. A poem about self-empowerment as much as about social change. Rojas told us about her own activism and remarked poetry is where magic happens.

Soon we were joined by Youssouf, Jordan, Ron, and Richard. They had driven to this part of the city to wave from the sidewalk to friends and family currently detained in the Camden County corrections facility across the street. A moment for me and Andrew to acknowledge our own privilege in what we face in our own experiences and how they differ, based on circumstances like where we reside, the color of our skin, and what we have available to us. These four had made a ritual of showing up to show support so their loved ones behind bars didn’t feel forgotten. Scheduling a time when their friends would be in front of the window to see their community on the outside.

They each requested poems on topics like “Love”, “Girls”, “Money”, and “Stuck”. The latter gave the most room for thought. An abstract word, but looking across the street at the prison I had many a wall to understand the imagery for the poem to explore. Further, I looked at the requester’s age and thought of myself in my late teens / early 20s and how sometimes my own emotions at that age felt like a prison. How sometimes being stuck is a depression that is hard to escape. This poem tried to offer the key to unlock the dream, but it mainly tried to give words to a feeling that is difficult to describe.

After the exchange we invited this group to share some of their own writing. Youssouf had described the typewriter poetry as being similar to freestyle, and was quick to spit some bars for the camera with a backing beat. He kept repeating sometimes a good bar is enough to dash the other lines, and his bars struck a high mark. Capturing the street life, imagining what it’d be like to be POTUS, giving heart to the flow of growth.

Soon it was time to pack up and we made our way over to the Pizza & Poetry reading series. Rocky had invited us earlier, saying it was a series he’d been organizing for over 30 years now. Today was a special one with the possibility that Walt Whit would make an appearance.

We met students from Rutgers, teachers and nurses, musicians and artists, and all sorts of writers. They each sat around with their fair share of pizza and without a list took to the stage to share their writing. Some shared lines from Leaves of Grass or Emily Dickinson. Others recited odes to Walt Whitman and the world he lived. Still others recounted their own experiences and emotions.

It was exactly what the day’s end demanded. A collaborative celebration of the community and its residents. The endless volley of spoken word, laughter, and applause. And before it was over, cake was served and Whitman got to blow out his candles.

I don’t know if the film will capture the spontaneity. It will seem as if we scripted the entirety of the day. The lessons and the power. The beautiful resounding glow of community members talking about how poetry has influenced their world. Instead, though, this is life in a nutshell. When you hop on the road and give your imagination to the wind, you are oft to find like-minds, like-spirits. A connection that feels synchronous. If only, because it is. There is beauty in this world and we are lucky when we get to share it.

Filming a docuseries on Walt Whitman’s birthday