Backward Like a Ghost by Amy Miller

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This is the film made for the prizewinning poem from the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. Lori H. Ersolmaz is the filmmaker (see the recent Poetry Storehouse interview with her), and as announced on Monday, Amy Miller’s poem was selected by Jessica Piazza along with three runners-up in the Poetry category of the contest. In each case, the poems were written ekphrastically, in response to one of three, brief clips — which can still be viewed in the contest guidelines. Here’s what Miller wrote after watching Ersolmaz’s clip:

Backward Like a Ghost

They came so far to see this.
Then up close, the hollering and arrows,
the flash of something they should know
but can’t quite understand. The lonely
talk of everyone. Together
we make a city, close
and warm but blinding
in its multitudes. Night,
then open glass. Backward
like a ghost, they move against
what comes. If they find
the solace of sunlight
in a shallow field,
we’ll know them
by the dark birds
of their eyes, the home
only they can conjure.
It’s coming,
the clearing and the day.
They’ll step out into our city.
We won’t see them after that,
their parties and rising,
their dust that settles
just like ours.

When Ersolmaz read the poem, she decided to call on not one, but two readers to lend their voices to the soundtrack: Nic S. and Robert Peake. She told us:

Amy’s poem feels embedded with the imagery in an esoteric way. Amazing how she was able to do that. I now completely see the piece the way she’s written the poem. I knew what I wanted to do with your voices and they fit so beautifully together too! I am so pleased you asked me to participate and honored that the winning poem was with my piece.

UPDATE (15 Nov.): Read Ersolmaz’ short essay “The making of ‘Backward Like a Ghost’” at Moving Poems Magazine.

We asked Miller what it was like to write in this way.

It was so much fun to write poems for the videos in the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. I’ve always liked writing ekphrastic poems based on photos, paintings, and musical pieces. But a video is a different animal, with the visual and aural elements already working together to form something more complex than their parts alone. And writing specifically to pair a poem with a video, there’s the added element of time: The video has its own rhythms, and it only goes on for a finite time. Coming up with a poem for that that feels a bit like songwriting—fitting an idea and voice to a structure imposed by something outside of the text.

To start the process, I watched Lori’s video over and over. To me, the predominate images are the arrival by sea at the start (a hint of Liberty Island), the blurred people and cityscapes in the middle (including that backward ghost, reflected in a bus window, maybe?), and that clear shot at the end of the tall buildings on a canal, a place that felt like Amsterdam. All of this, in my mind, added up to a story of immigrants, and specifically, refugees. It’s the “after” image of what happens to refugees after the part of the story that we usually hear—the displacement and the journey—ends. They reach the shores of their new home—and then what? That blurry, confusing middle part of the video is a picture of alienation, of culture shock and skirting the scene without quite being able to understand what it’s about. There’s also a deep, world-ending loneliness in the images of water and sky. And the hazy shots of people speaking—so close, right at hand, yet indistinct—evoke the blurriness and dimming of communication when you know a little of a language and then are bombarded with it full strength, all day.

Originally I wrote the poem in first person plural—“we,” from the viewpoint of the immigrants. But that began to feel too precious and disingenuous, the appropriation of someone else’s story. I have never been an immigrant. But I’ve lived in cities where there are lots of immigrants, and I’ve heard and seen the attendant bigotry all too often. So I chose the POV of a collective “we,” of the city itself, a polyglot community built on the waves of immigrants who came before. I wanted to evoke a collective compassion for the newcomers and the stories and realities they come from.

Congratulations again to Amy, and a huge thanks to her and Lori for this wonderful film. In my opinion, the ekphrastic approach is a great way for writers and filmmakers to collaborate, and I hope these contest results encourage more of it. (We’ll be sharing the other three films from the contest here and on Vimeo in the coming days.)

2 Comments

  1. Reply

    […] is interesting to find that Amy Miller’s winning poem is not that different from what I was trying to explore myself. Often immigrants come to America, […]

  2. Reply

    […] Written in response to this video by Lori Ersolmaz Process notes from Amy Miller and Lori Ersolmaz here and here 2. I was grass (Runner-up in the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest) …. – […]

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