Writing For Poetry Film by Helen Dewbery

Key Approaches and Challenges in Creating Poetry Film

In the summer of 2009, I spent some time in New York and ended up on Brooklyn Bridge taking typical holiday pictures. On the flight home my partner wrote a poem. Two lines in particular captured my attention: ‘cool drop from blue through pins of cloud to concrete, / where heat plays baseball between blocks’, I knew then that I had to create a poetry film.

Since that time, I have collaborated on many poetry film projects. Each project has its own unique concept, style, rhythm, tone, story and textual approach. Over the years I have observed these different approaches and seen how they operate and work to enhance or flatten a poetry film. One of the questions I often get asked is how to write for poetry film. Whilst there is no single formulae or technique to create poetry film text, there are three main approaches, and other devices that are useful to keep in mind.

The first, and perhaps, the most popular approach, is to use a poem that has already been written (a pre-existent text). When Sarah Leavesley wrote ‘And his open mouth is an olive grove’, she had not intended to make a poetry film. It was not until three years later, when she was creating shadow patterns with a colour-changing light projector, that she was struck by the butterfly movement of the two hands, which brought to mind the ‘wafer trace / of a butterfly wing’ in the poem. However, although it was this similarity which made her link the two initially, it was actually the contrast and differences that convinced her to combine them in a poetry film. (You can watch the poetry film here.)

Remember that text is just one element – all the elements, text, sound and image, are arranged on the screen to create the structure of the poetry film.

‘as if trapping the wafer trace / of a butterfly wing. / Hold it gently, gently’

Sarah Leavesley

Most poets have at least one poem that they imagine visually. However, a note of caution is voiced by poet and academic Tom Konyves that pre-existing texts can be inflexible and immoveable. This does not mean a previously written poem should not be used, it simply means, use it carefully – and be open to editing the text, if necessary.

Fecund is a poetry film produced by Kathy Gee. Kathy’s poem was written in response to Tom Hanks on Desert Island Discs, when he quoted the film director Vincent Dowling, saying ‘all the great plays are about loneliness’. Kathy’s process involved writing long and short versions of the poem that was initially intended for the page. Eventually, the final version was re-written for film, giving it an introduction and an ending. The rhythm was also changed during the reading for the voice track.

Another approach is to write with the intention of the poem being used for poetry film. This can be done either before, or after, the film is made. An example of this is the 48 poems that Lucy English wrote for her poetry film project, The Book of Hours. The poems were made into poetry films in collaboration with filmmakers. Some of the poems were written before any collaboration had started with a filmmaker, others were written in response to film footage provided by her collaborators – but all were written with the intention of being used in poetry film. Lucy observed early on in the project that her usual way of writing poetry would need to change. As a spoken word poet, she realised that much of her narrative structure would have to be much briefer in a poetry film. For instance, an early poem ‘Weird Weather’ begins: ‘Last April was so hot we swam in the river. / On the path was a puddle black with tadpoles’. Compare that with a later poem, ‘Quiet Sounds’, where details are taken away, ‘The clouds hold in sound. / Hold it down.’

A third writing approach for poetry film is one that combines image and text simultaneously. It may begin with visuals in mind and space left within the text, to bring both elements together.

This approach may also begin with a concept, such as Tom Konyves All This day is Good For, which uses text assembled from hundreds of spam emails. Tom’s approach is that text and image have an original incompleteness and their collaborative potential only happens when they are put together.

Dominic Weston’s poetry film Bound and Gagged, began with the words ‘never let it be said’, which went over and over in his mind as he was walking along a riverbank. Dominic then created the full text and film footage, the latter involved an underwater swim in the river.

‘Never let it be said that we begrudge the Gudgeon its gills’

Dominic Weston

Another area to consider when creating text for poetry film is space. Text written specifically for poetry film may need to employ space more creatively through ellipses, omissions, short sentences, contractions and so forth. These spaces give the images and sound a chance to occupy the gaps. Dense poems can also work well. A longer, detailed poem may have an emphasis on the voice and use less detailed images.

In Echoes, Jaimz Asmundson, has used abstract visuals with a fairly detailed poem that recalls a premonitory dream and fragmented memories from the period leading up to the death of his mother. The abstracted visuals in Echoes works well with the more detailed text. (The abstracted visuals are also reflected in the hypnotic industrial and natural soundtrack.)

‘They said though thought they were transporting her via the Winnipeg Transit. And that her body was going to be left inside of a bus shack until the next bus came along to take it to its final destination.’

Jaimz Asmundson

Whereas a shorter poem may have more detailed visuals. For example, They Are There But I Am Not by Taiwanese poet and filmmaker Ye Mimi. Ye Mimi presents her ideas on the nature of reality, existence, what is there and what is not there, and illustrates a series of moments to approach the concept of time. The pared down text leaves space for the detailed imagery. Importantly, both Jaimz and Ye Mimi, leave space for the viewers imagination.

‘They are there, but I am not’

Ye Mimi

Another device often used in writing text for poetry film is repetition of words or phrases. Dominic Weston used repetition in Bound and Gagged. ‘Never let it be said’, is repeated during the film, and whispered repeatedly at the end. It stays in the mind long after the film has ended. It’s a technique that works, not just with text, but with images as well.

In a silent poetry film The line by Lucia Sellars, the phrase ‘if the line spoke’ is intermittently repeated on screen as lines re-appear across the screen. The repetitive movement in the film clip serves the same purpose as the repetition of text: emotion, urgency, emphasis and rhythm.

‘If the line spoke.’

Lucia Sellars

One of the biggest challenges in creating poetry film is to avoid inadvertently ‘telling it all’ through the combination of text, images and sound (not forgetting that the metre and tone of the spoken voice can also add to the ‘telling’). The audience needs space to become more than passive observers.

Helen Dewbery is editor of Poetry Film Live, and co-director of The Big Poetry Weekend. Her online poetry film training course for poets (at poetryfilmlive.com) is the first of its kind. Helen’s poetry films have been screened internationally.

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  1. I have to take my time over all that is in this article. It definitely is exactly the right thing now, isn’t it? Poetry + film. Haven’t we all been making and watching these online, but this is more than that.

  2. Yes, this is incredible. A multimedia fightback making poetry important & relevant in a time when the video clip is president/prescient. Sally Potter’s feature film, ‘Yes’, is my my perfect example what a verse-film can be. It is mesmerising, but I have really enjoyed discovering the examples listed in this essay too; what a challenge, a provocation!

  3. Hi Helen,
    It’s great to read you here. You brought brilliant examples. To be willing to change the text is an important aspect of this work and I have made similar experiences when trying to adapt a poem for film. The outcome was a completely new poem. I find this process fascinating. I hope to catch up with you at a festival, some time. ~Kind regards, Csilla Toldy

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