By Chelsey Shannon, editor
After months of staying away from UNO’s campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I recently had the opportunity to do an on-campus shoot for the Press’s upcoming virtual event, “What Langston Did.” We engaged videographer Weenta Girmay to capture an in-person (outdoor, socially distanced) interview between myself and Kalamu ya Salaam.
For our location, I’d chosen the courtyard of the Liberal Arts Building, the campus spot that, until January 2020, housed UNO Press. I was struck by Weenta’s meticulousness when I arrived. Like any more tactile artist, a painter with their various brushes, she’d laid out all of the equipment that she’d need to capture mine and Kalamu’s conversation with optimal quality. So much was in our favor: there was no rain, despite earlier concerns, some cloud coverage, and not much wind.
Whatever the weather, the atmosphere of UNO’s campus has always felt a little supercharged to me. It’s something about Lake Pontchartrain in the air, in your lungs. Moody, periwinkle brackishness aerosolized. But today, Weenta’s sound equipment was telling us something else about the campus.
“I can’t find a free channel…” she said, fussing with the tuning of her instruments. All the frequencies she tried to sync mine and Kalamu’s mics to were clogged with static.
After some troubleshooting, we realized that the interference must be coming from none but the WWNO radio tower, not an obstacle Weenta had encountered before.
Also not one she couldn’t surmount. In shifts, Weenta, Kalamu, and I relocated all the accoutrements of the shoot to the little grove at the northwest corner of campus, next to the Fine Arts Building (me ruing my block heels, though not enough to temporarily remove them). This was about as far from the tower as we could get on foot, and luckily the sound waves there were clear enough for our mics to sync without static.
As we settled into our new spot, I was ready to finally get to the conversation about Kalamu’s affinity for Langston Hughes that I’d been prepping for. Then I realized, surprisingly, that whatever harriedness I felt was only superficial. There was a deeper peace yet in this out-of-the way spot, enclosed by green growth, the gentle lake breeze rustling straw-like fronds. For the next hour, it felt like the world was just Kalamu, Weenta, and me, channeling the spirit of the conversation.
It was an intimacy I hadn’t yet experienced as the subject of Weenta’s lens, but had certainly seen in her previous work for the Press. Our most recent collaboration is called “Affirm Life,” the first part of Weenta’s book trailer for Cosmic Deputy. This video will be screened during the “What Langston Did” program this coming Thursday, but you can take a special preview below.