Poetry In Motion
A Conversation With John Trigonis, Sharing His View
of the World on the Page and the Screen
As a poet, John Trigonis sprinkles words on the page that produce a sensory response from anyone lucky enough to read them—in a chapbook, on a Web site, in a literary magazine. Though still mysterious and provocative, his poems are filmic scenes from some bigger, larger life. Confessional and observational, his narrators share what they see and how they see it. Like all poetry worth reading, an honesty is palpable, and without knowing it we’re swept up in some kind of quest to discover, or uncover, some kind of truth. His work has been widely published in the U.S. and U.K., and Trigonis has also published six chapbooks of his poetry.
As a filmmaker, John Trigonis creates poetry in motion. Even when quirky and off-beat, his short films seem to naturally explore some facet of the human condition, searching with stories and characters for some kind of light. Trigonis, 32, wrote his first screenplay—a feature-length film—back in 2001, which led to writing and directing five more films (as well as directing another two). His credits also include work as actor, cinematographer, and producer, along with directing and acting for the stage.
And we, readers and viewers, benefit from the fact that the poet and filmmaker are one, both of those divergent creative crafts influencing each other in subtle ways. So whether with a collection of poems or a short film, Trigonis will make you think and feel.
Trigonis, a “freelance” professor at universities throughout New Jersey, epitomizes the indie spirit of 21st century and exemplifies the DIY movement, embracing the possibilities afforded artists during this era of social media and affordable technology. He’s even pursued a fairly revolutionary method of funding his latest project. In addition to using his own money, Trigonis turned to IndieGoGo, pitching fans and complete strangers on the incentives of funding the film (perhaps a producer credit will entice you, along with several other perks). He has already reached his goal, raising $5,595 in relatively short order.
Today, thanks to all those who contributed (from small amounts to larger donations), Trigonis—along with cast and crew—starts production of his latest vision, Cerise, a short film about a former spelling bee champion who is haunted, 20 years later, by the word that took him down. Production will continue through the week, and you can follow the filming process this week by visiting Cerise on Facebook and Vimeo for constant status updates, pics and vlogs.
Trigonis recently took time from a busy schedule of rewriting scripts, holding auditions, scouting locations, and making other preparations to discuss a wide range of topics—from his artistic roots and creative process to his DIY nature and the future of “crowdfunding”—with The Madness Of Art.
MOA: When and why did you decide, or perhaps how did you know, that you wanted to pursue a creative career, a creative life?
JOHN: From a young age I’ve always been right brained, not much into numbers and the like. When I was five I would sit for hours on end and draw pictures all day long. When I’d tire of pictures, I’d make up intricate stories in my mind which my He-Man or Super Powers action figures would act out. At 13, I wrote my first poem trying to understand why a girl I had a crush on moved away. By age 18, I was told by some NYU students who’d visited my high school that I had some talent and that I should pursue it. I did, and I’ve been sharpening the tip of my pen, inking it with all the delicate monsters of my mind ever since.
MOA: What has driven you to be involved in all these different creative endeavors, from poetry and screenwriting to filmmaking?
I love words.
JOHN: I love words, and poetry is my number one passion. I enjoy organizing those words to say things that no one else but me can say. There’s a special power in that. I got into filmmaking because of my best friend Alain Aguilar; he wanted to make movies but wasn’t proficient at the time in writing scripts. Neither was I, but I wrote the script nonetheless, and our first film, Cog, was born—a 50-minute film that balanced the tightrope between short and feature-length film.
MOA: What are the rewards of life as an artist? Difficulties?
JOHN: I really haven’t made my life that of an artist 100 percent; my “career” is that of a freelance professor (more commonly referred to by its more unfavorable moniker, “adjunct instructor”), piecing together paychecks from various universities and teaching subjects ranging from creative writing (which I have my MFA in) to public speaking to western humanities. But as uncertain and arduous as life as a “roads scholar” is, it affords me plenty of free time to think up new ideas (while driving between institutions) and lots of writing and filming time.
MOA: When wearing the writer’s hat, how do you work? Do you prefer to write in a particular place or setting?
JOHN: I write a lot at Starbucks, believe it or not (I score lots of free coffee since lots of my former students have side gigs at various Starbucks across Jersey).
MOA: Do you maintain a rigid writing schedule, or are you more freewheeling?
JOHN: I don’t have a rigid schedule like other writers I know; I write when the inspiration hits strongest, or when an idea is banging at the barn doors of my brain which, luckily, is always. If an idea strikes me while driving, I jot it down, oftentimes while driving. I’ve tried the recorder feature on my iPhone, but as soon as I hit record, the words become ghosts; there’s just something about the act of writing that drains the ideas out of me.
MOA: Day or night?
JOHN: I fluctuate; I used to be a night writer, starting at after midnight and writing until 4 a.m. Now I’m a daytime writer, usually afternoons.
MOA: Typewriter, computer, or longhand?
When I write poetry, I write it longhand before typing it out. Scripts start as jumbled chaos on napkins and scraps of paper or Stickies, then make their way to the structured lines of index cards, and finally arrive at a first draft, which, of course, ends up in the trash and I start from scratch all over again. I dislike the process, to be quite honest. But it’s a process.
MOA: Do you listen to music when you’re writing? If so, what?
JOHN: Whether or not I listen to music while I write depends entirely on what draft I’m working on. I get a lot of inspiration, even whole ideas for short films, from lyrics in music, so if I’m just starting out on a project, music can be good; a little Pearl Jam or Dave Matthews Band goes a long way. For initial revisions, I usually sit back with a little Tom Waits, slow and smooth tunes to focus my attention to the page. In the latter stages of revision, there can be no music.
MOA: What attracted you to poetry, both as a reader and writer?
JOHN: I’m attracted to poetry’s use of the fewest amount of words possible to express the most meaningful elements of human existence and/or experience. I prefer shorter poems over longer ones, mainly ’cause my attention span decreases more and more each year. The same goes with film; I prefer to write and shoot shorts because I tend to get bored pretty quickly with any one idea. If it sits for too long on the page, well, that’s the end of that one!
MOA: When did you write your first screenplay? What moved you to do so?
JOHN: As I mentioned earlier, I wrote my first screenplay, Cog, when I was in college. The idea was based on an anti-corporate ode I’d written years earlier called “Cog in the Corporate Wheel.” So I wrote an initial draft, and then worked with Alain, who would direct the film, to tighten it up some. I even wrote two new scenes while we were filming, which introduced me to not only the world of filmmaking but also the world of writing under stress! Overall, it was a success. I wrote two other feature-length screenplays that only saw the bottom of my trash can—Baudelaire’s Reprisal, a too-heavy relationship drama, and Tutoring Cyndy, which was a cross between Goodfellas and Lolita stuck in the middle of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I’ve finally got a feature I’m proud of, a darkly comedic vampire drama called A Beautiful Unlife, which is now on its fourth major rewrite.
MOA: How much did you know about screenwriting prior to beginning the project, and how much did you learn along the way?
JOHN: I really didn’t know much about screenwriting at all when I wrote Cog, but I’d watched enough movies to understand the basic three-act structure and all that jazz I’d eventually learn the notes to years later reading books like Syd Field’s Screenplay and Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters by Michael Tierno. I learned a lot along the way, and learned even more by attending the Screenwriting Expo in L.A. last year. And I’m still learning so much more with every page revised or rewritten.
MOA: Do you ever struggle to come up new ideas? If so, where, or how, do you look for the muse?
JOHN: I don’t struggle much for ideas (those, luckily, flow very smoothly and freely), but I do struggle to discipline myself to sit down and work on one at a time.
MOA: Once you have an idea—for a line, for a poem, for a film, for a scene—what then?
JOHN: For a poem, I sit down, open my journal and write it out. For films, I’ve been writing the initial concept and as much information I can into my iPhone, which has proven to be a real asset for me, especially when there’s no pen or paper around me.
MOA: Some don’t believe it’s real; others deem it diabolical. That said, do you ever encounter that unkind beast known as Writer’s Block? How do you deal with such struggles?
JOHN: I don’t believe in “Writer’s Block” but I do believe in “Writer’s Laziness!” I suffer from it only every so often, but I’ve an excuse: I’m always working on something! But seriously, I think it does happen; we all get stuck. Some days the words just don’t come easy. What do I do? I take a break, work on something else, take a walk, even, and let Stephen King’s “boys in the basement” work their unconscious madness or magic, call it what you will, and when you least expect it, the mitote, the heavy and false fog of what we’ve deemed “Writer’s Block,” will be lifted once more.
MOA: I think a lot of artists question, at some point, whether his or her work is any good. How critical are you of your own work, and do you have an immediate sense of the quality (good or bad) of the project you’re working on? How do you combat any self-doubt?
We each have a voice worth hearing.
JOHN: I think every writer at one point or another asks him- or herself, “What’s the point? This is no good anyway!” I fall into that occasionally. But I think we are all unique in our own ways. We each have a voice worth hearing. What’s the difference between Chuck Palanhiuk and the homeless poet who no one’s ever heard of? Marketing. They are each saying something worth saying (one would hope, anyway).
I combat those feelings of self-doubt by constantly reminding myself that I’m the only person who can say what it is I want to say. Once you truly believe that, you are a writer. Plus, I try not to compare my work to anyone else’s (that part’s hard, and when I do, I revert to the former method again!).
MOA: What about film seduced you into wanting to make them?
JOHN: Honestly, I didn’t like having someone else direct something that I wrote and had my own vision for in my mind. Plus, I realized that writing a screenplay is directing a film, so why not do both?
MOA: You’ve played just about every part in the filmmaking process: screenwriter, director, producer, picture/sound editor, actor, and cinematographer. Which is your favorite role?
JOHN: Director, of course; though I must admit, I’ve never been able to fully devote myself 100 percent to a film of my own—I’ve always been director at the same time as producer, and it takes its toll, unfortunately on the finished product. Case in point: The one time I was able to only direct, the sitcom pilot that I directed won four awards for excellence in filmmaking. Go figure!
MOA: What are the pros of being an “independent” filmmaker?
JOHN: Well, as an indie filmmaker, especially at the DIY level, you have total creative control (or, more accurately stated, as much control as your finances can afford), even at the distribution level. So you don’t have to answer to any big studio execs.
MOA: Any cons?
JOHN: Might want to save this for a “Part Two”! Just kidding. No, not really.
MOA: How has the rise of technology (from equipment and editing software to the Internet and YouTube) impacted, positively and/or negatively, the independent filmmaker?
JOHN: Well, let me give it to you straight: I’ve got no “formal” film training except everything from Steven Segal to Ingmar Bergman, and I’ve never shot on actual film. Yet, I’m an indie filmmaker. So without technology, many filmmakers today wouldn’t be making films (and of course I use the word “film” to mean “a video with filmic qualities”). Equipment is expensive as it is, but renting a Red One camera is much cheaper than renting a 35mm Panavision, plus all the costs of developing the film and all that (which I know little about). Editing software like Apple’s Final Cut Pro has made it possible for everyone and their mother to edit anything from a childhood vacation video to the next Citizen Kane. And YouTube let’s you broadcast each. These are the positive aspects of the use of technology in indie filmmaking, but there are also the negative. YouTube is flooded with garbage that must be navigated through like the asteroid field in The Empire Strikes Back, and once you hit something big, you’ll know it’s something special—hopefully not some space monster ready to swallow your ship whole!
MOA: You are currently raising funds for your next film, Cerise, via IndieGoGo. Describe what it is you’re doing through that site. How important of an idea is such a site, and what long-term impact do you think it will have for not only independent filmmakers but also independent artists working in any media?
JOHN: The landscape of indie film is in a state of flux right now. Sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter are making it much easier for DIY filmmakers to shoot their projects. They eliminate the need to look for investors, and could even eliminate the need for submitting your ideas to studios with the hope of getting the green light from a company like Fox Searchlight or Focus Features. IndieGoGo has been an invaluable resource for Cerise, but also one that required many hours of promotion to get the word out. In the long-term, I think DIY filmmakers (and I specify “DIY”since the term “indie” has since been adopted by studios that produce films under a certain budget) may begin to rely fully on “crowdfunding” to finance their films rather than saving paychecks or seeking investors. This method gets rid of the middle man by allowing the filmmakers to go directly to their fans for help in making their next project happen. It seems a more natural process over the current Hollywood paradigm. And Cerise has actually raised over our target amount of $5,000 (currently at $5,600)!
MOA: Who are your favorite artists?
JOHN: If I had to do a High Fidelity “Top 5 List of Favorite Artists in Five Genres,” they would be: (1) Eddie Vedder (musican); (2) Krzysztof Kieslowski (filmmaker); (3) William S. Burroughs (writer); (4) Wassily Kandinsky (painter); (5) Tennessee Williams (playwright).
MOA: Do any particular painters, writers, musicians, filmmakers inspire and/or influence you and your work? How so?
JOHN: Here’s the short list, broken into categories.
- Painters: Van Gogh for his use of color; Kandinsky for his use of line and space.
- Writers: William S. Burroughs for his cut-up techniques and his honesty; Charles Baudelaire and Allen Ginsberg for being put on trail; and Jack Kerouac for his wanderlust.
- Musicians: Eddie Vedder for his complex simplicity; Tom Waits for his mastery with words and crazy stories
- Filmmakers: I’m more into foreign cinema than American film, so my heroes are Krzysztof Kieslowski (Three Colors Trilogy) for his storytelling and use of color; Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paolo Pasolini for their originality; Chinese directors Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige (just got through a massive Chinese film phase!); and Canadian directors Guy Maddin, Denys Arcand, and Robert LePage; two American directors of note I can think of are Sam Mendes and Jim Jarmusch.
In my films, I really like to work with color (Kieslowski and Van Gogh). I’m also a dialogue guy, but I try to curb that with the constant reminder that film is a visual medium.
MOA: What have you learned from teaching?
JOHN: That I should’ve paid more attention in my history classes! I learn a great deal everyday from my students and from the things I teach. I have no formal training in the humanities, yet I’ve learned so much in the last six years about history, philosophy, art, and all the other wonderful things that bring each of us closer together as human beings. That knowledge, and the feeling that goes with it, is truly priceless.
MOA: Aside from writing poetry and filmmaking, any other ways in which your creativity manifests itself?
JOHN: As a boy I started out doing drawings of comic book characters. At 13 I considered myself a poet. I also play the guitar; in college, I played in two bands, Vexxxed, a metal quartet, and As I Am, playing it’s pop-grunge anthems across Hudson County. Years ago I’d sometimes do collage.
For about six years I worked as an actor for the Hudson Shakespeare Company, putting on free performances in parks across Hudson County, New York and Connecticut. I’ve worn the masks of Macbeth, the Player King in Hamlet, and Bassiano in The Merchant of Venice—to name a few. I also directed two plays, a controversial version of Titus Andronicus, in which one of the more risqué aspects was my decision to make Aaron, typically an African male, a white corporate female, which meant there would be a brief kissing scene between she and Tamara, the Goth queen, and a sci-fi version of Antony and Cleopatra, in which “weapons” were changed to “blasters” and “vessels” became “spacecraft.” I like using Shakespeare to make important points about our contemporary society. For instance, one scene in Antony and Cleopatra shows two Egyptian soldiers getting captured and made to serve on the front lines of the Roman army wearing Captain American T-shirts, which looked more like bull’s-eyes, signifying that front liners are there only to die. Long story short, art must be made in whatever form it wants and not whatever form you want to make it in. Just flow with it (I’m a Taoist at heart!).
MOA: What advice would you offer budding writers, poets and screenwriters? Any words of wisdom for aspiring filmmakers?
The best advice I can give any artist, screenwriter or filmmaker, especially the young ones just starting out, is to learn the business part of each of these endeavors. If you’re going to get your work out there, you can do it yourself, but you’ve got to keep up with an ever-changing and Flash-footed world. It helps to know all sides of a particular art form so you can better delve into the art full force. I’m only now starting to understand how important the business side of show business actually is, and it’s a bitch to keep up! But I truck on with this chimera on my back, hopeful that at one point it won’t feel so much like a boulder anymore, more like a pebble I can fit in my back pocket.
MOA: What does the word art mean to you?
Art must move.
JOHN: Saved the dragon for last, eh? How to slay this beast? Art, to me, means a little more than just freedom of expression. I feel art has a responsibility to its audience as well as to the artist doing the creating. It must move us, it must make us think, it can make us laugh, leave us repulsed, even sick. I make art in the form of poetry and short film; it’s cathartic for me, and I want it to be cathartic for my audience. So art must move. It simply must move.