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).

Bees in the Eaves by Bill Yarrow (2)

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In 2014, Belgian film-maker, Marc Neys (aka Swoon), made a video of Bill Yarrow‘s poem, Bees in the Eaves. Five years later, Marc has just released a new video for the same poem, with new images and music.

Watching the two very different treatments of the same text suggests the changes in sensibility an artist may undergo over time. Even the voice performance, from the same recording by Nic S., has a distinctly varied aural quality, pace and mood in this new version.

The disturbing images in the 2014 video display a directly metaphorical relation to ideas in the poem. In a way akin to the horror genre, the earlier film evokes a strongly emotional response.

In this latest video, the connection between image and word is much more oblique, creating a more contemplative, yet still dynamic, meaning of the poem. While both videos employ repetition to great effect, the 2019 version is more graceful in its approach to film form.

Marc’s striking approach to editing, and his surprising rhythms, remain evident in both videos. This new video is further testament to his unique and masterful work in video poetry.

No Good Deed Goes Umpunished by John Giorno

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No Good Deed Goes Umpunished features a performance of the poem of the same name by John Giorno, who died, aged 82, on Friday 11 October 2019. He passed away in New York, the city where he was also born. This video of him is a piece complete in itself, and additionally forms part of a longer film of Giorno’s performances from 2007, titled Nine Poems in Basilicata, from Italian film-maker, Antonello Faretta.

Giorno was part of an illustrious community of American artists in the 1960s, including the major figures of Pop Art, such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. One of Warhol’s first experiments in film was Sleep, from 1963, which focused a camera for five hours and 20 minutes on a young Giorno asleep.

The influence of Pop Art on Giorno’s poetry included incorporating found text and imagery in his work. On at least one occasion a found text formed the entirety of one of his poems. In other poems, he employed cut-up and montage techniques. Later he abandoned these approaches for a poetic style that has been described as experimental realism.

In 1965 Giorno founded the non-profit organisation, Giorno Poetry Systems. The aims included connecting poetry with audiovisual media. One of its notable projects, inspired by a conversation with his collaborator, William S. Burroughs, was Dial-A-Poem, in which pre-recorded poems with radical political content were played to anyone calling in. Collaborators on this included John Ashbery, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski and Laurie Anderson.

Giorno was open and political about his queer sexuality. During the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, he founded the AIDS Treatment Project. The charity has since distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to sufferers.

Many thanks to the highly esteemed film-maker, Mark Rappaport, for drawing our attention to the obituary in the New York Times, and to Giorno’s substantial contribution to the development of poetry in performance and audiovisual media. More poetry performances can be seen at the website of Antonello Faretta.

Giorno’s life and creativity was rich and generous. Enduring is the vitality of his spirit.