Poetry film is often seen as having its roots firmly in the Avant-garde film tradition and in the work of the experimental filmmakers. And why not? After all, much of what we see today is influenced by artists such as Maya Deren, Man Ray and Hans Richter. The lyrical potential of film realised through variable shooting speeds, the pace and style of cutting (transitions), the use of unrelated images and layering – all to make the invisible visible. All these are valuable techniques in poetry film.
On the other hand, poetry film can equally be seen as having its roots in poetry, or if you like, seen as a genre of poetry film. After all, poetry is an ancient art form whereas film is relatively new. In this context, I prefer the term film poetry (as in page poetry, spoken word poetry, film poetry). It puts the emphasis on where it sits: in the long tradition of poetry. This began in pre-literate societies, where poetry was used to convey storytelling and history and other types of secular and sacred knowledge. In turn, the Greeks developed shorter poems that were intended to be sung, dramatic verse, and poetic plays for performances.
Poetry has adapted to the times in which it is present, whether that is the demands of ancient scripts, the more modern written page, or the increasingly popular spoken word performance. Poetry has also responded to the video and digital era.
In the 1990s George Aguilar pioneered cinematic poetry and promoted videopoetry festivals. Aguilar described video poetry as: “a mixed-media format in which poem, image and sound interact symbiotically . . . ”
The development of affordable technology has led to a community of international film makers who are interested in adapting poems and showing their work at poetry film festivals and online.
There is now an increasing number of poets who are making their own films. I’d go so far as to say that it’s when poets see that there is a type of film poem that does not need to respond to the hype generated around the visually powerful imagery of music and YouTube videos, and that they can forefront their poetry, that poets get involved.
This year, Chaucer Cameron and I brought together ten poets to meet over a six-month period to learn more about, and to create, film poetry. The group worked together as a ‘collective,’ each person was responsible for creating at least one film poem, but also worked together sharing skills with the rest of the group. As facilitators, we were there to teach, inspire and encourage. One poet said: “I wouldn’t have realised quite how much potential it offers to explore and experience poetry in new ways unless I’d actually made my own poetry films. My relationship with my own and others’ poems has shifted and deepened as a result of working in this way, enriching my writing practice.” And another observed: “It offers fresh opportunities for bringing your work to the world.”
The ‘collective’ resulted in the group presenting a final showing of sixteen film poems to an audience of fifty people, mainly new to poetry, and a tour which included the films going to the 2018 Athens International Video Poetry Festival.
So, maybe where the roots of film poetry lie do not matter – it’s the act of communication, inherent in poetry, that’s important. It is the potential of film poetry, to offer creative opportunities for exploring and communicating poetry in new ways, that’s exciting. Audiences new to poetry in particular, engage more easily with visual and auditory content, making film poems an ideal medium to share work. It’s the magic that counts.
Outside by Shauna Robertson was made as part of the 2018 Film Poetry Collective.
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Helen Dewbery is Co-Director of Swindon Poetry Festival and co-edits the online poetry film journal Poetry Film Live. Helen’s work has been screened internationally in poetry and film festivals and is an experienced teacher and facilitator of poetry film.
Helen is an Associate member of the Royal Photographic Society.