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Making Space

A reflection on the 2016 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Münster, Germany.

Though the intersection of poetry and film has a long history and has recently surged in popularity, making poetry-films is sometimes an isolating experience for me. Cities large and small often have thriving poetry scenes (particularly for spoken word), but poetry-films tend to slip through the cracks – partly because mutable art (attending a performance) seems inherently more engaging than immutable art (watching a movie), and partly because Americans like me just aren’t reading much poetry.* Most people (American and German alike) have no idea what a poetry-film is. Their confusion runs so deep that I’ve taken to explaining poetry-film, somewhat facetiously, as »like music video, but for a poem instead of a song.« This is both a weakness and strength of the medium: its underdog status means that it receives less public recognition and support, but it also refuses convention more readily than other disciplines (though there are certainly tropes, which I’ll talk about in a minute). If nobody understands what you mean when you say »poetry-film,« you’re free to redefine the term at will.

The ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival changed all of this for me. As a first-time attendee, I was blown away by the sheer number of poetry-films available – so many that, with more than 80 films screened back-to-back in just 3 days, I found myself oversaturated, unable to even view them all. At ZEBRA, I felt for the first time like I truly belonged to a community of creators – a rich, diverse group of artists with all kinds of backgrounds and aesthetic sensibilities. There were experimental animations, pristine digital renderings, shaky handheld films; films with fully fleshed-out characters or no human subject at all; French, English, Dutch, German, Lao, Afrikaans. The festival, in short, made space for poetry-films, and, in doing so, made space for me – both as an artist and as a member of the audience. These films made me fall in love, hold my breath, roll my eyes, clench my hands into fists, squirm with discomfort, laugh – exactly as it should be.

Although there are no strict rules for what constitutes a poetry-film, many of the films employed similar strategies to merge poem and film. Voiceover, for example, is by no means a ›requirement‹ of poetry-film, but almost every film in the festival utilized it effectively as the central means of communicating the poem. Some attempts to defy or toy with this tendency worked well – Hail the Bodhisattva of Collected Junk, for example, featured intertitles, a colorful cast of lip-syncing Taiwanese friends, and a hilarious series of static-camera shots that almost seemed to place the titular song-poem into the mouth of whatever subject happened to be on-screen (a gyrating bird, a defecating dog, a child crying in a bathtub).

Hail the Bodhisattva of Collected Junk, TWN 2015, 06:15 min
Director: Ye Mimi⎜Poet: Yin Ni

Another film, Kaspar Hauser Lied (Kaspar Hauser Song), took the viewer through a labyrinth of imposing grey walls, ultimately revealing them as the surfaces of three-dimensional letters on a tombstone – an unexpected, and delightful, turn.

Kasper Hauser Lied, D 2014, 03:15 min
Director: Susanne Wiegner⎜Poet: Georg Trakl

Others, such as a gorgeous animated film with a score but no text at all (neither integrated, nor spoken, nor as voiceover), seemed to fall flat, making the poem itself feel like an afterthought: if the poem isn’t necessary to the film, can we really call it a poetry-film? Another aesthetic tendency: a deep, droning score. At one point a technical error (possibly a partly unplugged AUX cable?) produced a bassy electronic hum during the introduction to a screening, and an audience member next to me joked, »The poetry-film has started!« These tropes never undermined their films, and I employ them frequently in my own work. That said, it would be interesting to feature more poetry-films that explore text through means other than voiceover, with scores and Foley that are more in dialogue with the poem, rather than simply undergirding it.

The success of these poetry-films relies in part on a delicate balance between satisfying and defying the audience’s expectations. A film can fail to satisfy if it’s too obvious, too predictable, but also if the connection between film and poem feels too tenuous and arbitrary. On the former end of the spectrum, a filmic adaptation of The Song of the Wandering Aengus left me cold. Though beautifully rendered in colorful, lively animation – I loved the POV shot from the inside of a trout, berrylike, glowing – the imagery overall tracked far too precisely to that in the poem, culminating in a literal illustration of the poem’s final lines: »And pluck till time and times are done, / The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.«

The literal image of a tree with silver and gold apples not only failed to augment these lines for me – it actually seemed to rob them of their metaphorical power. Yeats’ metaphor works through suggestion, conveying an equivalence that seems to vibrate across the senses (»moon« and »sun« are highly visual, tied together by spatial location, temporality, and light, whereas »apples« evokes touch, taste, and smell). It brings together the heavy, fraught »poetic« with the ordinary, mundane fruit. Its repetition closes the gap between two vastly different scales (the cyclical movement of celestial bodies, and nature’s cycle of growth and decay), reminding me of my own human complicity in these cycles. Seeing this language depicted literally, though, hollows it. I neither need nor want to see the tree, the apples.

Similarly, Yeats’ lines »And when white moths were on the wing, / And moth-like stars were flickering out« summon a multimodal response from me as a reader: simultaneously, I’m struck by the ›i‹ and ›o‹ shapes, the softness of the w-sounds punctuated by the firelike crackle of »flickering,« the harmony between the visual instability of a wing (fanlike when opened, almost invisible when closed) and a star (flickering or, perhaps, only visible in one’s peripheral vision – we want to look at the moth, but we also want to look away, so that we might see it better). I think part of the work of these lines is directly dependent on their indefinite nature – they suggest and evoke possibilities for ways of hearing or reading or imagining, without making demands. In other words, they make space for me as a reader. But by visually rendering moths flying up into the sky, Aengus the poetry-film collapses these possibilities, this multimodal experience, into a single specific rendering, that drastically narrows the space I have to maneuver as a reader/viewer. It’s suddenly not moths, it’s these particular moths that you see before you on the screen.

The Song of the Wandering Aengus (Trailer), GB 2016, 04:04 min
Director: Matthew Lawes⎜Poet: W. B. Yeats

This type of illustration or depiction is sometimes necessary, and, moreover, can sometimes be incredibly powerful – the shot of deer to accompany Snyder’s »The deer paths straight up« in Nick Jordan’s Off the Trail, for instance, felt grounding and almost magical to me. In the case of Aengus, though, this literalism had the effect of forcing me out of the film – making me a witness, not a participant. It’s not unlike the shock of watching the movie adaptation of a favorite book and seeing the protagonist portrayed by a particular actor. You suddenly can’t imagine the character any other way – some space has been narrowed, something has been lost. Aengus does seem like a film that would make the Yeats accessible or digestible to people who might not otherwise delve deeply into the text itself, but I worry that these film-only viewers will feel as though they ›understand‹ the poem too well after just a single viewing, and can neatly file it away. Personally, I prefer films that leave me with more questions than answers – films that I can explore but not explain.

Off the Trail, GB 2015, 05:00 min
Director: Nick Jordan⎜Poet: Gary Snyder

In contrast, sometimes this type of specificity can evoke an image that actually invites the viewer into a poem, creating space instead of collapsing it. The poetry-film for John Ashbery’s Steel and Air accomplished this beautifully. Even the simple transformation of »steel and air« from bridge (the poem is engraved on the Irene Hixon Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis) to vending machine (which, in the film, dispenses experiences that might be – but don’t have to be – memories) invites the viewer to imagine, to postulate. The film itself felt like steel and air to me: a firm architectural space that transforms, but doesn’t block, the light; a space you can enter and investigate. There’s a boldness to the imagery in the film that confronts a fear I think prevents many people from reading poetry in the first place: the fear of reading the poem wrong. Steel and Air doesn’t pretend to be the definitive or ›correct‹ interpretation of the Ashbery; it feels playful and sensual; it makes space.

Steel and Air, USA 2016, 03:34 min
Director: Nick and Chris Libbey⎜Poet: John Ashbery

How can we make space for each other, both as filmmakers in a community of filmmakers and as artists hoping to invite the audience into our work, rather than just placing it before them? ZEBRA offers some solutions: make films available to the public; invite the filmmakers to talk about them and answer questions; find trusted curators to put together folios of films that will expand the medium’s possibilities. I left ZEBRA feeling inspired, with my notions of what constitutes a poetry-film (or a good poetry-film) considerably shaken.

Having said that, I want to close by echoing the words of one of the three festival jurors, Marc Neys: »The jury missed the not-so-perfect films. We missed the loner with the camera and the crazy idea. We often missed a strong poetic involvement. Brilliant technique, fantastic visuals, strong sounds and music, moving performances and lovely creatures do not always make up for the lack of a poetic experience.« This »poetic experience« is, to cannibalize Mark’s words, the experience of having space made for us as viewers. You can feel it when you engage with any piece of art: do you feel liberated to explore, to venture? Or do you feel boxed-in? A poetry-film that makes bold aesthetic choices, no matter their direction, feels like an invitation. It’s generous. These films, by being boldly themselves – regardless of technical ›skill,‹ regardless of aesthetic stance – liberate the viewer by embodying their own liberation. They make us feel that there is no rule, no convention – just space, and enough of it for everyone.

* See Christopher Ingraham: Poetry is going extinct, government data show, The Washington Post (April, 24 2015).

About the Author

annelyse-gelmanAnnelyse Gelman’s work has appeared in Landfall, Indiana Review, The Awl, the PEN Poetry Series, The New Yorker, and elsewhere. She is the author of the poetry collection Everyone I Love is a Stranger to Someone (2014), a finalist for the Believer Poetry Award.

Find her at www.annelysegelman.com.

Read more
Vorschau: Das ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Münster
MOVING POEMS: Marc Neys: ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival Münster 2016: A View From The Jury


  1. Pingback: ZEBRA festival sparks new insights into what makes a successful poetry film – Moving Poems Magazine

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