Since 2002 Literaturwerkstatt Berlin, which is also home to lyrikline.org, has been organising the biannual ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival, showing short films that are audio-visual realisations of one or more poems. At this point, the archive is already filled with thousands of entries from the past 10 years. They show the exciting and multifaceted approaches of artists from different cultures to combining poetry and film. Works are sent from all over the world that range classic motion picture to animated shorts, video and media art, poetry performance clips, and documentaries about poets. They’re based on poetry from Shakespeare to sound poems. The filmmakers’ individual conceptions are as varied as the names they attribute to their works: poetry videos, videopoetry, poetry film, filmpoetry, poetry clip, cinepoem and more.
Diverse as the entries might be, there’s one thing that all the good ones have in common: they succeed if one can experience in some way a clever and maybe even poetic relationship and correspondence between the words and images. When poetic principles and features, such as rhythm, tempo, meter, imagery, denseness, and tone unfold, poetry and film together can reach another level and merge into something unique.
On the occasion of this year’s UNESCO World Poetry Day, next to publishing many new poets on lyrikline.org, we collected statements focusing on poetry & film from filmmakers, poets, and film and literary scholars (see below). Many thanks to Paul Bogaert, Avi Dabach, Tom Konyves, J.P. Sipilä, and Uljana Wolf!
If you would like to join the discussion about poetry and film, the audio-visual realisation of poetry and its many variations, or see more films, please visit the ZEBRA Facebook page, the ZEBRA youtube channel or explore Moving Poems, an online anthology of poetry videos.
I am interested in the most advanced form of poetry film; I call the form videopoetry and I define it as “a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of images with text and sound.”
It has two constraints: (1) Text, displayed on-screen or voiced, is an essential element of the videopoem (work which does not contain visible or audible text could be described as poetic, as an art film or video art, but not as a videopoem); and (2) the imagery in a videopoem – including on-screen text – does not illustrate the voiced text.
The key to a good videopoem is balance – the weighing of image-text relationships for their suggestive (rather than illustrative) qualities, the determining of durations, the positioning and appearance of text, the proportioning of color, the layering of the soundtrack, the acceleration or deceleration of elements, etc. In the editing or “montage” phase, syntactical decisions are made to render image-text-sound juxtapositions as a metaphor for simultaneous “meanings”, which the viewer interprets as a poetic experience.
Here’s a poetry film that impressed me:
Claire Walka’s “Kleine Reise” (A Little Trip) – In our everyday lives, the artist finds clues to poetry; commonplace details, like the lines of a poem, are placed and sequenced with the aid of a video camera and intimate whispers.
Tom Konyves produced his first videopoem in 1978; for the past 3 years, he has been visiting film and video archives, researching and presenting talks about the form.
What I do is videopoetry. It has a somewhat different approach to film and poetry than poetry film. I see poetry films as visual and kinetic illustrations of certain poems. But as far as videopoetry is concerned, video and sound are not mere reflections of certain poems, but a puzzle or juxtaposition of the three elements (video, sound and text). As videopoet Tom Konyves says: “”Videopoetry is a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of text with images and sound. In the measured blending of these 3 elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience.”
A good videopoem creates a new overall poetic experience from the three elements used. For me the video is the paper and screen is the mouth of my poetry.
Sound and visual aspects have always had a huge effect on my poetry. I usually read poetry while listening music and when I see a piece of art I somehow automatically start thinking a story or a feeling behind it. Using video as a medium for my poetry was a step that was just waiting to be taken.
Here’s a poetry film that impressed me:
This piece dating back to 1978 can be considered the first videopoem, the starting point of it all, if I may say so. Of course there have been films and works that could be somehow understood as videopoetry in the past, for example Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un Poète from 1930. However this piece by Tom Konyves entitled Sympathies of War is something that made way for a new genre of poetry. Something that is nowadays known as videopoetry.
J.P. Sipilä is a Finnish poet. He released his first book of poetry in 2006 and began making videopoems at the same time.
Like a translation, and like poetry itself, or perhaps like prose poetry, or the prose poem—already we see the problem here—a poetry film exists in a between-space, a Zwischenraum. It can not be named. It can only be invented with each attempt; its inability to occupy a name or a space or a genre is what generates these attempts to create something that is true to its name. It will fail every time.
Uljana Wolf (born 1979) is a German poet. She lives in Berlin and New York and was a member of both the programme commission and the festival jury of the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival.
Poetry Film City is in danger. To avoid it becoming a poster-like island that is overgrown with kitsch, a warehouse of beautiful animations or a hell of text illustrations, I think more poets should visit the City. To occupy a street or two, to copulate with film makers and sound experts, to enjoy a holiday or just to inspect the place of abuse.
Looking at a poetry film, I want to experience that it must have been made. ‘It’s Being a film based on a poem’ is not enough reason to make a poetry film. I also want to have the illusion that no other choices or combinations could have been possible.
Using a good poem (a poem that survives when separated from the film) is a condition, but not a guarantee for a good poetry film. The visible or audible presence of a poem can easily hide the fact that there is no poetry in the poetry film. A good poetry film doesn’t only contain a poem, it doesn’t only facilitate interaction between text, image and sound, but it also has ‘poetic’ qualities as a whole. A good poetry film is a film that I want to see again. And again.
An excellent poetry film is ‘YOU AND ME’ (2009) by Karsten Krause. A timeline made of love and four decades of footage. ‘Bourgeois show off’ meets ‘erotic slavery’. The lovebird lines and rhymes we hear are only a few times in sync with what’s (not) said. Nostalgia (toxic in its pure form) is countered by a cruel ‘fast forward’. The moving mix of images, playful-polite lines and subtle soundtrack appear to be the fuel for a death reminder.
Paul Bogaert (born 1968, Belgium), poet: “Most poetry films are based on or inspired by an existing poem. I think that doing it in the reverse way can yield good results too. I like writing the text and making the film simultaneously. It’s a complex thing to do, but it questions my normal process and it stretches the margins of my work.”
“Poetry film makers certainly have to consider the language problem. Can the poetry survive the screening when the used language is (too) foreign to the movie watcher? Subtitles are not always a solution and translations can be bad, or too difficult in a bridge-language (often English).”
You can listen to Paul Bogaert‘s poetry on lyrikline.org.
I’m often asked by viewers or colleagues to define what poetry film is. For a long time, I would define it by explaining what it isn’t (it’s not a film about poetry, nor poets, etc.). Then I heard Bob Holman, an American poet, saying that there is no such thing as poetry film, but only different kinds of poetry: there is the spoken or performed poetry—the most ancient kind. The second type is written poetry, and even though it can be read aloud in public, it is more a text than a show.
The third kind is the filmed poem, or since the HD era, the Video Poem—a type of visual poetry. The basis for most video poems is written poetry, but for good video poems, the written words are only an inspiration. The words become part of a new poem created by the director. The video has a strong and complex relationship with the written poem, but it is no longer the same piece of art.
One of the best video poems “Nach grauen Tagen” by Ralf Schmerberg (select #9), takes the words and transforms them into a visual and emotional situation, and creates a new visual poem with its own meaning and beauty.
Avi Dabach, Born 1972, Jerusalem. Directed a dozen of video poems as well as documentaries and experimental films.
“It’s a bit like when your team wins the league” – Filmmaker Martin Earle on Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer
On December 10, 2011, Tomas Tranströmer will receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in his hometown Stockholm. On this occasion we are not only able to present Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry on lyrikline.org, made possible with the help of our Swedish lyrikline.org partner Ramus. but also got an interview with the young British filmmaker Martin Earle about his short film A Galaxy Over There (2009), based on Tranströmer’s poem Schubertiana.
Watch A Galaxy Over There on vimeo:
Martin Earle was born in London in 1984. He is a graduate from the Royal College of Art were he studied a Masters degree in Animation. Through his animations he wants to evoke the wonder of everyday things – to find the galaxies hidden in the pots and the pans; to travel a long way while sitting very still; to show that ordinary life is sacred and great. His short film A Galaxy Over There was selected for the Competition at the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in 2010.
And here is what Martin said about bringing Tranströmer into motion.
lyrikline.org blog (LB): Martin, how did you come to make a poetry film?
Martin Earle (ME): I was studying animation at the Royal College of Art in London and A Galaxy Over There was my graduation film, which I directed over the course of about ten months.
LB: How did you get in touch with Tranströmer’s poetry? What attracted you to it?
ME: A Swedish friend showed me one of his poems. What struck me was the amazing visual sense of his poetry – his talent at creating luminously clear images. And then there is his deeply religious or mystical response to things, to nature, to people, to art and to every kind of mundane experience. In Tranströmer’s poetry there is this sense that being alive is actually something a bit peculiar, that reality is an enigma and a great mystery! ‘The endless ground beneath us’ as he puts it.
LB: What made you pick his poetry for your film?
ME: It was his quite surreal use of simile that made me get thinking about basing a film on one of his poems. It seemed to resonate with images I’d tried to create in earlier animations. Simile is an amazing thing. We use all the time to describe things we don’t have a name for, and poets use it to inspire us to see familiar thing as if for the first time; from a different angle. I love his description, for example, of a newspaper lying on a kitchen table ‘like a big dirty butterfly’, or the way he compares a cherry tree to a ‘bell of colours… chiming with sunlight’. And his poetry has a gentle humour which prevents things from become too heavy – as experimental video often is! Someone wrote that ‘angels can fly because they take themselves lightly’…
LB: And why Schubertiana in particular?
ME: For one thing it came ready with a soundtrack! And it is a very rich poem, packed to the brim with images and ideas. In particular I enjoy the games it plays with scale, switching between panorama and close-up. The opening of the poem, a long shot of New York as a ‘spiral galaxy seen from the side’, is already incredibly filmic.
LB: Do you think poetic images are of another quality than images in film?
ME: There is this very obvious difference that we normally read poems in books and always watch videos or films on some kind of screen. And in our culture the screen has become the all pervasive and restless mediator of information and entertainment – most of which we consume inattentively and forget after a few minutes. I don’t know if we’ve found a way to use the screen or the internet to take things in slowly and chew over them… as we can when we read a poem in a book.
LB: How did Tomas Tranströmer’s poetic images become Martin Earle’s filmic images?
ME: I started by creating drawings and loose storyboards based on lines from the poem. From these sketches I made small models and sculptures and began to look for different objects that I might be able to use in the film. A lot of the excitement in stop-frame animation comes from various practical restraints; working out ways to realise specific scenes or effects without using the computer too much. In this quite free process the images developed, sometimes moving away from the text and becoming mixed with more and more with my own experiences. The setting, for example, moved from New York to North London. And in the final edit some of the most compelling lines of the poem are left out of the voice-over, to prevent things become too rich and to try to create a conversation between voice and image.
LB: Does Tranströmer know your film? Did he let you know if he likes it?
ME: I was in contact with Monica Tranströmer who was very generous with her time and in arranging contracts and things. They both seemed to like the animation although Tomas Tranströmer wasn’t keen on the translation of the last word ‘djupen’, which we’d translated as ‘abyss’. He thought that ‘the depths’ would have been much more appropriate… and this seems to me very revealing of the attitude to the world that permeates his work. There is very little sense of alienation or existential tragedy that the world ‘abyss’ might suggest and which is not hard to detect in much modern poetry (and in much ancient poetry too). No, for Tranströmer behind and in everything there is a tremendously positive ‘something’, a great ‘yes’ – ‘the depths’. It’s really a shame that it was too late to rerecord the audio track.
LB: What did you think when you heard that Tranströmer won the Nobel Prize in Literature?
ME: It’s a bit like when your team wins the league… also quite surprising as his entire collected works can be fitted into a modestly sized book! And interesting because this very, for want of a better word, ‘mystical’ poetry has emerged from one of the most secularised countries in the world. Awarding the prize to Tranströmer could be seen as a recognition of something like the spiritual vocation of art and poetry. As he puts it himself in Schubertiana – ‘the many who buy and sell people and believe that everyone can be bought, don’t recognize themselves here.’
I also began to think about my graduation film, and regretting the way I’d made most of it…
LB: Do you think there ought to be a Nobel Prize in Film? And who would you give it to?
ME: Yes, why not. Give it to Werner Herzog!
To see more of Martin Earle’s work, visit his channel on vimeo.
The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony with Tomas Tranströmer can be watched as a live Webcast on Nobelprize.org, 10 December from 4.30 p.m. CET.
All images courtesy of Martin Earle