Árbol de Diana (Diana’s Tree) by Alejandra Pizarnik: three excerpts

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Dave writes: This is una mirada desde la alcantarilla / a glimpse from the gutter, the first Moving Poems production directed by Marie Craven. Alejandra Pizarnik‘s brief poems in Árbol de Diana and other collections have been a huge influence on my own writing, but I was never quite satisfied with the video I made back in 2016 for the excerpts included here. I did however like the translation and readings, done with the assistance of the London-based translator Jean Morris. They were part of the Poetry From the Other Americas series at Via Negativa, a collaborative translation project that gave rise to many of the films I wanted to feature in the Poesía sin fronteras screening at Houston last weekend. So I asked Marie, who hadn’t been part of that project, whether she might want to remix or completely re-do the film, and was delighted when she said yes.

The resulting film helped me see what might have been wrong with my own film: too few images, I think, and neither of them quite strong enough to keep up their end of a dialogue with these verses. Marie’s film shows the importance of thinking laterally, by instinct and rhythm. I was pleased that she ended up retaining my and Jean’s voiceovers; Jean’s success in evoking the vulnerable quality of Pizarnik’s own voice was a stand-out feature of our original film, I thought. But Marie’s re-interpretation ended up being a much stronger fit than that earlier effort would’ve been with the other films in the program.

Two Spanish filmmakers have also had a go at Pizarnik’s micropoetry: Eduardo Yagüe, with Piedras verdes en la casa de la noche, and Hernán Talavera, with Todo hace el amor con el silencio: tres poemas de Alejandra Pizarnik.

Marie writes: A few weeks ago, Dave Bonta invited me to participate in the “Poetry Without Borders” program at REELpoetry, by making a video remix of his 2016 piece, “A Glimpse from the Gutter”, from three poems by Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972). Having previously made a number of films with Dave’s poetry, and being involved in some of his wider projects, I was keen to rise to the challenge.

Like the majority of Australians, I speak only the dominant English. Nonetheless, this is the sixth film I’ve made involving different languages. My interest in doing this has arisen in part from a personal impulse to in some way transcend the xenophobia and racism that has long been a lamentable aspect of my own geographically-isolated culture. Aside from this, and despite being in my late 50s, I retain a child-like wonderment that our single human species communicates in so many richly varied ways. In addition, my film-making over 35 years has been largely directed towards international audiences, via the film festival circuit, and now also the web, where poetry film has by far its greatest reach. I also simply love the expressive sounds of different languages as a kind of music.

Dave translated Pizarnik’s poems with advice and in discussion with Jean Morris, a poet and professional translator. Jean voiced the poems in Spanish, while Dave spoke them in English. For my film, I retained only the text and voices, which I re-arranged and mixed with new music and images. I have remained true to Dave’s impulse in his earlier piece to make a truly bilingual film, spoken in both Spanish and English, and therefore without the need for subtitles.

As in a number of my films, the raw images were sourced from Storyblocks, a subscription website with a vast library of short, random clips from videographers in many different countries. The collection of shots I selected were then transformed via changes to speed, light, framing and colour, and the addition of long dissolves that blend and juxtapose the images via superimposition.

Some of the images I selected touch on the literal meanings of the poems. These direct connections of image to text are sometimes seen at moments other than when they are spoken. The film also contains a number of shots that bear no direct relation to the words. My overall impulse was to create a series of moving images that might form a kind of visual poem in themselves, while remaining connected to the resonances I found in the text and in the qualities of the voices. The final visual element is a faintly-flickering overlay containing animated x-rays of human anatomy.

The music is an ambient piece by Lee Rosevere, who for several years has generously released much of his music on Creative Commons remix licenses, enabling film-makers and other artists to create new works incorporating his sounds. I chose this piece for its slow pace, beatlessness and meditative quality, that left room for the voices to take by far the greatest prominence.

I am delighted to have especially made this film for REELpoetry, where it had its world premiere.

Your Dog Dies by Raymond Carver

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When I saw this videopoem by the Spanish director Juan Bullón the other week, I immediately knew I had to include it in a screening I was curating for REELpoetry/Houston TX called Poesía sin fronteras / Poetry Without Borders. Though otherwise focused on Latin American poetry, the theme of the program was “translation, otherness, identity and death in cinepoetry from across the Americas”, and it made sense to close with a gringo poet’s take, especially given how well Bullón’s choice of mirrored images echoed some of the other films in the program. Also, it was good to end on a slightly lighter note than some of the more melancholy, slow-moving films. I’m happy to report that the audience loved it.

As part of the extensive notes in the online version of this program, I asked directors to share any thoughts they might have on translation and/or poetry filmmaking. Here’s what Juan told me:

I’m a Spanish film maker and writer. I write with creative, narrative or poetic intention for about twelve years. I come from the audiovisual world (television and advertising mostly). In recent years I have attended several creative writing workshops. Now, far from audiovisual as a profession, I dedicate myself to writing and coordinate a creative writing workshop in Seville. It is a workshop to experience the fact of creating and feeling literature. We try to go beyond writing or correct narrative, poetic, autobiographical or reflective texts, beyond knowing techniques and writing tricks. Creativity is the goal without end. We give great importance to reading aloud as a way to recognize and work the literary voice of each one, and also, we experiment with the audiovisual format as another way of learning to know how to interpret our texts, to voiceover them, and act on them. Video-poems are another part of the creative process and the recognition of each as an author, it is another way of creative knowledge. The essential is to pose, think and act, and in our case, create from writing to let go and leave our point of view, and be able to share it. And this ability to narrate and tell should be transferable to another means of expression, as another complement, as another revelation of our creative capacity.

Transferring our texts (or those of other authors) to an audiovisual format, relying on the image and music to create these video-poems is a challenge where the fundamental is the literary burden of the text. We do not consider it as a struggle between the greater or lesser relevance of the image, music or text. The written is the important, it’s essential, then, the interpretation and performance of these texts with a suggestive audiovisual dress. The direction and production of these video-poems must be guided by the simplicity and speed of creation in the event that they are self-produced or by taking advantage of what the internet offers with the royalty-free images and music that can be used and shared, with that democratization of the media. In turn, the video-poems we make are posted on the internet for anyone’s free enjoyment, helping to fill in that great library of Babel.

Moving the texts to an audiovisual format is a part of the creative process, a moment of enjoyment and self-knowledge. The important thing is to act, to be and to write it.

Visit Juan Bullón’s YouTube channel to see more of his and his students’ work.

Deadlock by Lauren Jones

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Deadlock is about an old English street: Daniel Street in Portsmouth. The text by Lauren Jones, and the film by Jane Glennie, evoke an important moment in its everyday history around 1820. The following quotes are from the artist notes.

“In the looming shadow of prison hulks docked in the harbour, Jeremiah and Charles Chubb worked on this site primarily as ironmongers providing naval equipment. Frequent crimes, including daring robberies of the dockyard warehouses and escapes from the hulks led to a competition being launched for an ‘unpickable lock’. The Chubb brothers accepted the challenge and created the now familiar Chubb lock still used to this day.”

But the success of the Chubb enterprise created a shadow legacy.

“…for those on the other side of the lock, the invention was a devastating barrier that put an end to those who relied on petty crime for survival, to those who were facing long, punishing sentences on the ships and even those women who were confined to the nearby Lock Hospital.”

The bold phrases of the text, and the spirited voice over, are well met by an animated ‘flicker film’ stream of images. Evocative stills rapidly pass through the eye in a way that feels dramatic and textural. The collaboration between the artists recalls to vivid imagination the local history and its impact.

Deadlock is one in a collection of films commissioned to be the online media component of ‘Dark Side Port Side‘ (2019), a walking tour set in Portsmouth.

“…the street has long since vanished in the name of progress and is now the location of Admiralty Road with its own soaring, modern accommodation. Evidence of the concern of security is still visible… behind keypads, passcodes and security men.”

Haiku Time by Lisi Prada

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Haiku Time screened at the Athens International Video Poetry Festival in December, along with two other videos written and directed by Madrid artist Lisi Prada. For me, Prada’s videos were the best discovery of the festival’s screening night, which went from 6:00 pm until about 1:00 am in a continuous stream.

The film-maker is boldly experimental in her approach. Her videos screened in Athens were all multilingual. She also wrote the text for Haiku Time, and has this to say on her website:

“Presented as a video-haiga, the images accompany … poetic text that is recited simultaneously in English and German. Some verses are heard as a chorus also in Japanese, Norwegian, Italian, Portuguese or Spanish, emphasizing that what is said happens to anyone, anywhere.”

The translations were gathered via the internet from different parts of the world. Of the two main voices, the German is translated and spoken by Thomas Topp, and the English by Susan Nash. Nash performs in a style that sounds like the automated voices heard on train platforms or when waiting in phone queues. This is in accord with Prada’s statement about the content of the text and images:

“(the video)… proposes to abolish the borders of what separates us from the other… and questions the alienation of current life in the cities, where we get lost… a world in which speed, pollution, stress… make us move like pawns on chess boards, forgetting what really matters, what makes sense.”

The soundtrack is made up mostly of the different voices in different languages, that are layered in their timing and accompanied by subtitles. This on-screen text is well-placed, forming part of the overall structure and framing of the images. The music, heard only a few times for the film’s duration, is dramatic and highly effective, echoing the edgy quality of the editing.

The film goes for 5 minutes, 7 seconds, 5 milliseconds – mirroring the 5-7-5 syllables of the popular version of the haiku form in writing. This is explained on Prada’s web page for the film, where she describes the images as being…

“…based on simple and deep observations of everyday life, and poetic images among which the moon frequently appears…”

Prada blurs the boundaries between video and poetic text, uniting them into one form, in which the text feels incomplete without the images, the images without the words.

* Quotations from the artist are translated from Spanish to English with the assistance of Google Translate.

Blood Constellations by Malika Ndlovu

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Blood Constellations is a beautifully made example of a poetry dance film, a genre showcased many times over the years at Moving Poems.

Boldly directed by Jim Demuth, based in London and China, the film is part of a broader, multi-disciplinary arts collaboration called Singing My Mother’s Song, which explores family and lineage. The overall director of the project is Bristol-based Rebecca Tantony.

The poet is Durban-born Malika Ndlovu, whose rich and passionate voice rings out in word and song on the soundtrack. It is compellingly danced by Nyaniso Dzedze, also in South Africa.

I was lucky enough to see the film in Athens earlier in December, where it screened at the International Video Poetry Festival.

Virginia Gave Me Roses by Lani O’Hanlon

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In mid-October, Ó Bhéal’s 7th International Poetry-Film Competition took place in Cork, Ireland, in association with the IndieCork music and film festival. The winner was Virginia Gave Me Roses, directed by Dublin-based Fiona Aryan and written by Lani O’Hanlon, from Waterford. 2019 is the first time an Irish film has won this international competition, which has become highly-regarded in the poetry film community worldwide. The winning film was screened at the Kino as part of IndieCork, along with the other finalist films.

The judges this year were poet/film-maker Colm Scully and poet Stanley Notte. Excerpts from their comments:

Being a practitioner myself I learned so much from reviewing the 200 plus entries… Virginia Gave me Roses immediately worked for me on first viewing , and only improved as I watched it again. The beauty of the poem was matched by the subtle imagining of the visual.

—Colm Scully

In the end the film that stayed in the mind as a fusion of words and images was Fiona Aryan’s depiction of Lani O’ Hanlon’s poem, Virginia Gave Me Roses.

This piece depicts a soft-focused, memory-like family interaction that supports, compliments and, at the same time, adds weight to an original text that is both moving and strongly visual.

This depiction transports the viewer into a dreamlike state where one is enveloped by the profound sense of love and safety which being in a close-knit family occasion provides.

—Stan Notte

A warm, nurturing film to see at this time of year.

Refugee Blues by W. H. Auden

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This 2016 film co-directed by Stephan Bookas and Tristan Dawes moved me to tears. That’s how effective, and affecting, I found this juxtaposition of W. H. Auden’s poem (text here) about Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany—read by a man identified only as Noah, a refugee and former child soldier from Uganda—with excellent documentary footage of contemporary refugees. Here’s the official synopsis from Bookas’ website:

Set to the verses of W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, the multi-award winning “Refugee Blues” charts a day in ‘the jungle’, the refugee camp outside Calais. More intimate and unlike much of what has been seen in the mass media, this documentary poem counterpoints the camp’s harsh reality of frequent clashes with the French riot police with its inhabitants’ longing for a better future.

On Vimeo, Bookas includes a mini essay about the making of the film, which I found illuminating in its suggestion of how documentary poetry can differ from journalism. This was something I’d been thinking about because I recently attended a reading and slideshow from another documentary poetry project, which was a collaboration between a poet and a photojournalist: Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin’s Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields. Technically, Auden’s poem by itself would not be considered an example of documentary poetry, but as a filmpoem Refugee Blues certainly would qualify, in my opinion. Anyway, I hope Mr. Bookas won’t mind my quoting a sizable chunk of his post:

We didn’t set out to make a film at first – that idea came later – we just packed a car full of blankets, clothes, food and other items and went, not fully knowing what to expect. But of course, being filmmakers, we also brought along our cameras – to see if we might have the opportunity to document, to capture, to find the human story in all the chaos that was so ubiquitous in the media at the time.

Soon after our arrival, we found the people living at the refugee camp to be very warm and welcoming, as long as we assured them we weren’t news-gathering journalists.

We didn’t film anything to begin with and just walked around, introduced ourselves as documentary filmmakers and listened to people and their stories. Every single one of them was unique and heartbreaking.

Following these discussions, we asked if it would be alright to take out our cameras and start filming. For the most part the answer was a resounding yes.

We spent the following days exploring the camp and talking to people, discussing the situation and the political climate and spending time with them, being invited for coffee and food and allowed to film elements of their daily lives. This turned out to be the calm before the storm, as things culminated in a clash between the camp’s inhabitants and the French riot police on the road leading to the ferry terminal, symbolic for the plight of the refugees and their struggle against institutional powers they are unable to defend themselves against. […]

Of course, our film can’t possibly even begin to try and unravel all the lives and personal fates entangled within this crisis. But in some small way, and for us especially, it has given this tragedy a face that’s less abstract, more relatable, more human.

Read the full post (including complete credits).