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.
This has got to be one of the best student animations I’ve ever seen. Jake Mansbridge animates a poem from American poet Claudia Rankine‘s Forward Prize-winning collection Citizen: An American Lyric as part of an exciting new initiative from the Forward Arts Foundation, which sponsors both the Forward Prizes and UK’s National Poetry Day. Here’s how their director, Susannah Herbert, described it in an email:
National Poetry Day UK, which falls on the first Thursday in October, is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Effectively, this is a huge mass participation cultural festival that gives everyone in the nation an excuse to share a favourite poem, or line of poetry – through readings, displays, performances and, increasingly, through social media. The theme this year is Truth.
A friend who ran the MA course in Animation at the University of Hertfordshire invited us to give her students a “brief” that they could work to as part of their degree course. We gave them 100 Prized Poems, an anthology of poems drawn from the shortlists of the Forward Prizes over the years… plus a few other poems, all loosely connected to the theme of Truth, and suggested they each create an animation that would bring the poems they chose – and National Poetry Day – to new audiences.
This stunning Jake Mansbridge animation of a poem from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is just one of the films that came out of the process… and the best are being shown next month at London’s Southbank Centre.
That 20 October screening at the Southbank Centre is part of a six-day festival, Poetry International. If you can’t make the screening, all of the videos are being uploaded to a playlist on the National Poetry Day YouTube channel.
Rankine is no stranger to poetry film. She collaborated with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas, on a series of video essays, a few of which I’ve shared here, and Citizen included both stills and transcripts from those videos. So I was happy when Citizen became so celebrated and widely read on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s also one of those books that every clueless white person should read.
Liz Waldner voices her poem in this newly uploaded video from Denise Newman. Newman, whose experimental work I’ve shared here twice before after encountering it randomly on Vimeo, is a published poet, translator, and multimedia artist who teaches at the California College of the Arts. Liz Waldner is an even more widely published poet with many honors and awards to her name. According to the Poetry Foundation,
Waldner’s work is known for its formal experimentation, reliance on quotation and pastiche, and often playful rhyme schemes. Using long titles, made-up words, and expansive proselike sentences that change topic quickly and constantly, Waldner’s verse, according to poet-critic Stephen Burt, “pays constant homage to the delights of the senses; beside her, most similarly difficult present-day poets seem arid, theoretical, no fun.”
Newman told me in an email that they made I thought I had a very nice time five years ago, and are collaborating on a second video now, which is what prompted her to dig out and share their earlier piece.
Stuart Pound and Rosemary Norman have been collaborating on videopoems for 24 years now, but their work has lost none of its freshness or surprise. When I click on one of Pound’s videos in my Vimeo feed, it’s with the expectation that it won’t resemble too closely anything he’s done before. And so it was with this animation.
“The angry sleeper stalks his dreams/hard from night to night”. Dirk Bouts’s 1470 painting of demons carrying sinners off to Hell is the starting point for this not-quite-serious animated nightmare. Pachelbel’s famous canon played on a musical box is the accompaniment.
A videopoem by the Russian Latvian collective Orbita (“Orbit”), made in 2001—I assume on videotape—and uploaded to Vimeo six months ago. Artur/Artūrs Punte and Diana Palijchuk are credited with making the video, the text is by George Uallick and Zhanna Shibalo, and The Trilobitum Coitus supplied the music. I love the fast-paced, playful energy here, making me re-play it multiple times despite not feeling that I entirely understand it. The main thing is, it’s fun and imaginatively shot and edited, and I remain intrigued.
One of my favorite poetry publishers, Brooklyn-based Ugly Duckling Presse, came out with an excellent bilingual anthology, Hit Parade: The ORBITA Group, in 2015. You can read Kevin M.F. Platt’s introduction, along with several of his translations, online at Deep Baltic. Here’s an excerpt that may or may not shed light on what exactly Uallick and Shibalo mean by “pits overgrown with ancestors” and “the hair of literature”:
Paradoxically, while they eschew nostalgia for the Soviet past, the poets of Orbita are the actual heirs to the legacy of cutting edge and experimental culture characteristic of Latvia in the last Soviet decades. Orbita is an intentionally trans-ethnic and trans-linguistic phenomenon. And this is one of the keys to its success: theirs is an avant-garde of cosmopolitan hybridity. In distinction from the majority of Russian cultural production of the Baltic region, these poets transcend marginality and provincialism by forming a literary bridge between ethnic enclaves, languages, and cultures.
Note: Long-time readers of Moving Poems may recall that I uploaded an earlier, lower-resolution YouTube version of this video back in 2011. Rather than simply edit that post, I decided to delete it and post afresh so others can enjoy re-watching it as much as I did.
Jessica Mookherjee‘s poem “Song of the Soil”, from her collection, Tigress (Nine Arches Press, 2019), is given heartfelt filmic treatment by Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron, under the auspices of their production house, Elephant’s Footprint. According to the book’s webpage,
Jess Mookherjee is of Bengali heritage and grew up in Swansea. She has been widely published in magazines, including Under the Radar, Agenda, The North, Rialto, Antiphon and Ink, Sweat & Tears. She is author of The Swell (Telltale Press) and Joyride (Black Light Engine Room Press) and Flood (Cultured Llama). She was highly commended in the Forward Prize 2017 for best single poem. Jessica works in Public Health and lives in Kent.
The poem expresses a deep connection to the Earth in an elegy of lost origins and disappearing ground. Giving further voice to these themes, the film is imbued with overexposed images of a natural world scorched yellow and burnt brown, and a soundtrack made ominous by ambient bass. Mookherjee’s solemn, rich narration rounds the elements of this powerfully organic piece.
The film is part of a series Helen and Chaucer have been doing for Nine Arches Press. They note that “The film-poems are not only viewed by Nine Arches’ existing readers and online audiences, but are a tool for their poets to engage more easily with their existing and new audiences.” The press, however, does not appear to embed any of the videos on the books’ pages, which is kind of baffling.