When Juneau spoken word artist Christy NaMee Eriksen’s friend since childhood, Amy SoHee Henderson-Llanto, passed away Nov. 6, 2017 after a five-month battle with a rare cancer, Eriksen felt a strong sense of grief.
Ericksen decided to do what many in Juneau know her for: to express her love for her friend, and her grief at their goodbye, through spoken word poetry. She released the video to her poem “How to Say Goodbye” on Dec. 22, 2017, Henderson-Llanto’s birthday. She would have been 33.
In Eriksen’s family, she said, goodbyes are a long, ritualistic, drawn-out process. She wrote a poem about those goodbyes, inspired by her goodbye to Henderson-Llanto. The video shows the friendship of two women from children to adulthood, interspersed with shots of a woman opening a box of what appear to be memories. This poem, she said, has helped her process her grief.
“I had to come to the realization that the whole reason we go through the process is that we care so much about the person who is leaving. You care to offer them things as they’re leaving, you care to make plans for the future, you care to say thank you so much for the things they brought, the things they shared with you, for taking the time. The poem is really a metaphor for the way we honor each other in leaving, whether it’s leaving a dinner party or leaving this living world,” she said.
Eriksen said she often chooses to write about things that are confusing to help her understand them better. For some poems, it takes her years to figure out what she is trying to say in it. This poem was different. “How to Say Goodbye” has hardly been changed from the initial version except for the ending, which had originally been darker. She changed it, trying to write herself into a more hopeful place than she was at the time. She was experiencing so many different emotions days after Amy’s death, she said, that she wasn’t wading so much as sinking in them. She wrote to organize those feelings.
When she decided to make a video, she knew she wanted local guitarist Avery Stewart to accompany her.
“His work I think really not just fills spaces but uses spaces really uniquely,” she said. “In some of my earlier years as a spoken word artist there’s kind of a fullness to it; you’re really verbose; you’re creating your own rhythm with it and you’re wanting to really take the audience with you with every word… But with working with a musician I can let go of a lot of that because I know with the music, and even silence in that music, can really pull a listener through it. That just allows me to slow down with my words.”
Stewart was processing his own grief over the death of someone close to him, so he could understand where she was coming from and help her translate words into music, she said. As they were planning the video, he would play notes and she would describe what part of grief it sounded like to her to figure out the right fit for the poem.
She worked with Ryan Cortes of Gemini Waltz Media to film the video. As the video is about saying goodbye but is also the story of a friendship across a lifetime, Cortes had the idea of bringing in different generations of that friendship into the video. Eriksen reached out to friends to portray the video’s characters. Many of them knew Amy as well as each other, so it made for authentic interactions.
The video shows a variety of scenes in a friendship — a sleepover, playing on the beach, walking in downtown Juneau. Eriksen hadn’t originally intended to recreate memories she had with Amy, but it just happened that way, she said.
“It was a really tender process for me in producing it. In one moment I’d be like, I’m working right now and I’m holding an umbrella over Ryan’s camera as he is filming this, and it’s a very technical thing to be doing, but at the same time I’m watching these two teenage girls walk downtown at night laughing side by side and I would be so present in that memory — and that was really difficult to do, but it was also a blessing and honor to do, as well… (to) get to relive that memory with visuals, with the audio, to truly record it,” she said.
When it came for her to recite the poem, she did it in one take. It’s a “raw recording” and one she felt so present in that she was in tears by the time she finished it.
Eriksen has made several spoken word music videos in the past, like “Pick Up Lines for Poets” and “Bird (When your brown son tells you over dinner he thinks he’s ugly)”, funded through the Rasmuson Foundation. At first it was a way to build her visual and audio portfolio, and so teachers and others who had asked for videos to show her work could. Later, she began to see it as an avenue to share her work with a larger audience without having to tour around the country. As of print time, “How to Say Goodbye” has garnered more than 13,000 views on Facebook and numerous comments from those with whom the video resonated.
“I feel really touched that so many people have reached out to say that it’s meant something to them because of loss they have experienced either really recently or even years ago,” she said. “Maybe it’s a common experience when someone is grieving, but it felt like every feeling I was feeling during grief was wrong to have, like I was somehow grieving incorrectly each time. One part I realized when producing the video was that I was hoping… if other people felt the way I did as they were grieving, they could feel validated and comforted in that alone.”
The video can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMONLx5JchQ&t=2s
• Clara Miller is the Capital City Weekly’s staff writer.