Production Diary: Filming the 2020 National Student Poets

By Producer Cathleen O’Connell

Each year, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers select five of the best and brightest high school poets in the country to serve as youth poetry ambassadors. Poetry In America has been proud to feature the distinguished members of this prestigious program as guest interpreters in our previous seasons. (You can see the National Student Poets of 2016 and 2018 in our  “Carl Sandburg – Skyscraper”  and “Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass” episodes.)  

When the new cohort of National Student Poets was announced in August 2020, we wanted to include them in our upcoming season of Poetry In America, but COVID had grounded our camera crew. Flying to Florida, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, and Michigan was out of the question, so we had to come up with a creative way to interview the poets in their hometowns remotely.  The solution: to leapfrog a briefcase filled with gear around the country so the poets could film themselves! 

A map Tracing “Edna’s” travels around the US
Tracing “Edna’s” travels around the US

On October 15, 2020, a 14-pound briefcase (nicknamed “Edna”) began a 2-week odyssey from coast to coast and poet to poet (to poet, to poet, to poet). Inside the case, we packed a cell phone with a high-quality 4K camera, a light, a tripod, a pre-made mailing label (to send the kit along to the next poet) – and the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Daily schedule for “Edna”
Daily schedule for “Edna”

Once “Edna” arrived at each poet’s house, the Poetry In America team connected the phone’s camera to a platform that allowed us to adjust focus and sound levels remotely. Once the technological set-up was complete, host Elisa New came onto the recording session to get down to business–discussing the work of Edna St. Vincent Millay with each poet. A highlight of each interview was hearing the original poetry of these incredibly talented up and coming poets.

National Student Poet Anthony John Wiles, Jr. with host Elisa New during remote filming 
National Student Poet Anthony John Wiles, Jr. with host Elisa New during remote filming 

The interviews were recorded on the phone, then the broadcast-quality footage files were uploaded to the cloud, and ultimately downloaded to Poetry In America’s HQ for safe keeping. Then, each poet packed up the kit and sent it along to the next person. The schedule for interviews was tightly choreographed, dependent on not only the students’ daily class schedules, but also the vagaries of overnight shipping.  (Thankfully, there were remarkably few hiccups in Edna’s itinerary.)
The interviews we captured will be featured in an upcoming Poetry in America episode. We congratulate and wish the 2020 National Student Poets well on their upcoming year of service. From what we heard and saw, the future of poetry is in very good hands.