The Making of “There are Strange Things Done in Washington”

Thanks to its intricate rhyming scheme and strong meter, I’ve always loved Robert Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” So I jumped at the opportunity to mimic it as I satirized the current government shutdown.

The first line came to me over breakfast: “There are strange things done in Washington…,” an obvious play on Service’s “There are strange things done in the midnight sun…” Then akin to Service’s “…by the men who moil for gold” I came up with “by the folks who forge our laws.”

Rhyming with “laws” is the obvious “flaws,” so that’s how I continued. “The Senate halls and quorum calls//have always had their flaws.” Not perfect, but good enough to keep me going.

It was 9:30am on Friday when I decided to write the poem, but I knew I had to leave the house by 5:00pm that day. I did a mental calculation. If I spent three hours writing, I’d have 30 minutes for lunch and still have four hours to record, produce, and upload the poem and a video of me reciting it. Doable, but barely.

I wanted at least one funny line in the middle, and a strong ending. Without that, there’d be no point.

I got the funny line pretty quickly. In the context of what the banks say:

“Just relax. Get off our backs,” they say. “And we’re still annoyed//
“That you bitch and moan about those loans that we made to the unemployed.”

Not riotous, but amusing, at least.

Around noon I figured out the ending:

This explains our awe for order and law, for the forces that keep us free//
To visit great parks, to enjoy the arts, to relax over afternoon tea.//
‘Tis been said before, but I’ll say it once more: Anarchy precedes every fall.//
But nonetheless, it’s true, I guess, that it beats no government at all.

So I was done by 12:30. Lunchtime. Then at 1:00 I started trying to record it.

Now, I despise being in front of a camera. Still, how hard could it be to read a four-minute poem?

Harder than you might think, it turns out.

But before I even started, I had to set up an amateur camera, in my case a Canon S95. Though primarily designed for still photography, it would record video.

For variety, I chose a pleasant outdoor spot for the recording. I didn’t want yet another video of a talking head against the backdrop of a plant, an office, or a table. At least my talking head would appear amid the beauty of fall foliage.

I had a fine outdoor chair to sit in, but I didn’t have a tripod. So I had to improvise, carefully balancing a side table on a second outdoor chair, then putting the camera on that. The camera ended up too high, but close enough. Without the table it would have been much too low.

And, obviously, being an author and not the president, I didn’t have a teleprompter at my disposal. And being an author and not a soap-opera actor, I couldn’t memorize four minutes of text quickly enough. So I printed out the poem and hastily taped it to the table.

I hit record, sat down, took a breath, and started reading.

Which was fine until the first gust of wind blew the page out of my view.

So I stopped, ran inside, grabbed more tape, and secured my text. Again I hit record, sat down, took a breath, and started reading.

One thing you may not know about me is that, in spite of my love of nature, I’m phobic about bugs that fly. So it was a deal-breaker when an insect landed on my glasses.

Inside again. Bug-spray. Back out. Record. Sit. Breathe. Read.

During one run I misread the hardest lines of the poem:

By that they mean the mighty machine of businesses large and small//
Whose inherent greed is just what we need to bring prosperity back to all//

The American folks who may have lost hope as they saw their fortunes shrink…

I made the easy if frustrating mistake of stopping after “back to all.”

In the end it took me an embarrassing half dozen takes to get all the words right, and even so, I had to combine two tries. But it was getting late, and I was running out of time.

So I took my took good readings — one of the first half of the poem and one of the second — and started editing.

Sadly, all I had was Windows Movie Maker, which is the technology equivalent of a toddler’s set of watercolor paints: good enough for a pro to do a fine job, but a major impediment for an amateur like myself.

Coming perilously close to my deadline, I got the two takes combined, mucked around with the titles until they were readable (I couldn’t figure out how to put a simple title at the top of the screen, though), and added credits at the end.

Time to save the thing (about 15 minutes of computer time!), upload it to YouTube, create and upload the closed-caption file, and put the whole thing together.

In the end, I finished just in time. It took me three hours to write four minutes of poetry, and four hours to turn it into a video.

The video is severely flawed. Even though I recorded it in high resolution, somewhere along the line (Windows Movie Maker?) it got downgraded. But there’s a silver lining to that goof: it masks the poor camera skills.

I’m not thrilled with my recitation, either. Another few takes and I feel like I could really have done a good job. But I had no time.

And, as is usually the case, I’m particularly dismayed with how I look on camera. But I think I have to get used to that.

All in all, it was a fun process, and it reminded me of the difficulty of releasing to the world something that with another hour or two could have been much better.

I hope you enjoy it.

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This entry was posted by J.M. Hoffman.

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