I’ve seen a number of innovative poetry films made with the words of multiple poets, but none with as many contributors (48), and few as profound and urgent in their message as this cento compiled and directed by the legendary Bob Holman, with folklorist Steve Zeitlin as producer, editor Lee Eaton and composer Saul Simon Macwilliams. In the Boro language of India, Khonsay (खोनसाइ) means “to pick up something with care as it is scarce or rare,” according to the film’s website.
There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary, but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.
Poetry, then, is precisely what is least translatable about a language – it is the ineffable, the things that only a set of words in a particular language can say. Translated into English from many languages, “Khonsay” is an act of audacious and unabashed imagination. It imagines the ecology of languages through a world poem. It seeks to capture the luminous originals in refracted light. The voices of the indigenous speakers draw us in, even if non-speakers do not understand what is being said. Yet what cannot be translated, what we cannot do justice to, is a measure of what is being lost as so many languages disappear.
Though definitions differ, poetry exists in every culture: the crystallization of experience into words, word into art, the engaging patter of consciousness itself. “Khonsay” is a tribute and call to action to support the diversity of the world’s languages. The poem is a “cento,” a collage poem; the name in Latin means “stitched together,” like a quilt — each line of the poem is drawn from a different language, appearing in that language’s alphabet or transliterated from the spoken word, followed by an English translation.
There’s a lot going on in this film, visually and linguistically, and you may find yourself hitting the pause button a lot, but there’s really no need: the website includes both the text of the poem in an easy-to-read format and a line-by-line commentary with information about all the languages and performers. According to the website, Khonsay premiered in New York City at the 2015 Margaret Mead Film Festival and was featured in the biannual Sadho Poetry Film Festival in New Delhi, India, where it won the Viewer’s Choice Award. In February, it was shared by the Button Poetry YouTube channel.
Incidentally, Holman’s documentary about endangered languages, Language Matters, is still streaming for free on PBS (though I imagine only for U.S.-based ISPs). Holman has a long-standing involvement with poetry film, including another public television production, the five-part United States of Poetry series directed by Mark Pellington, which aired in 1996.
This film, a selection from the longer experimental documentary Headlands Lookout by Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan, was awarded the prize for Best Poetry Film at this year’s ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival “For a pre-apocalyptic journey [with] a perfect guide in a stitched uniform into a world that’s going to unravel itself.” Here’s how Jordan describes it on his website:
Walk the path, sit the rains, grind the ink, wet the brush, unroll the broad white space….Lead out and tip the moist, black line.
Gary Snyder’s invocation to the muse of a Chinese scroll painter sets the tone in a short film adapted from Cartwright and Jordan’s longer work, Headlands Lookout.
Filmed in former US military barracks, and in the long-abandoned homes and circular library of Gary Snyder and Zen philosopher Alan Watts, Off the Trail follows a central protagonist, a soldier from another era, as he performs a series of actions and rituals. The uniformed figure paints Chinese nature symbols, chants, meditates and wanders dreamlike through a rolling Californian landscape of fog-shrouded hills, coastal defences and dense woodland valleys. Scenes are accompanied by haiku and poetry readings from Michael McClure and Gary Snyder, and the disembodied voice of Alan Watts, ruminating upon the passage of time and our perception of the ‘wild’.
As someone who studied Japanese and Chinese literature at university, there were parts of this that made me wince — the inept brush calligraphy, for example, and occasionally simplistic or misleading characterizations of Daoist and Buddhist thought — but I do recognize the historical importance of mid-20th-century writers such as Watts and Snyder in bringing East Asian thinking to a Western audience, however colored by Orientalism their versions of it may have been. And there’s no denying the beautiful cinematography and intriguing almost-narrative here, not to mention the innate fascination of the ruins where it was shot.
I discovered recently that the Chilean poet, visual artist, and filmmaker Cecilia Vicuña has an active presence on Vimeo, with many documentary videos of her performances and installations. Here’s one by Geoffrey Jones that I quite liked.
Film by Geoffrey Jones
Cecilia Vicuña and Jane Rigler.
Four performances for sitelines, New York, 2005, sponsored by LMCC and Poet’s House.
In this performances the artist pays homage to Gloria Anzaldúa’s line “The serpent, mi tono, my animal counterpart…” (Borderlands 26).
Thus the Vimeo description. It’s actually apparently an excerpt from a longer work:
Red Coil. Video, English. 68 mins, 2005
Records four performances where Cecilia Vicuña & the flutist Jane Rigler improvise music and poetry along the Hudson River, within the context of the Sitelines Festival of New York. Filmed and edited by Geoffrey Jones.
I really hate to say this but this is the truth, there is no Iraq now.
From director Roxana Vilk and Al Jazeera’s Artscape: Poets of Protest series, here’s a short (25-minute) bio pic from 2012 featuring the Iraqi poet Manal Al-Sheikh and her life in exile with her two children in Norway. Interspersed throughout the film are a number of short poems treated filmpoem style, with the poet’s recitation in Arabic accompanied by on-screen English translation. Ian Dodds was the cameraman, and Ling Lee edited. Vilk has a mini essay accompanying the film on Vimeo that is worth reproducing in full:
FILMMAKER’S VIEW: Keeping the protest alive
By Roxana Vilk
I was really keen that we have an Iraqi poet in the Poets of Protest series. When I read Manal Al Sheikh’s fiery work I was immediately captivated, as she seemed to truly encapsulate the essence of a poet and activist combined.
As Manal says: “When you are a person from a country like Iraq you automatically have some anger inside you and this anger, if you are a poet or a writer, you can transfer it as an explosion in your text.”
Manal is originally from Nineveh in northern Iraq, one of the oldest and greatest cities in antiquity and a place renowned for its multi-cultural society. Since the 2003 invasion, Nineveh has been the scene of some of the bloodiest and most violent fighting.
“I witnessed everything, the bombing, the struggle between the parties, all these make you angry, so I protest with my text,” the poet explains.
However, Manal’s work as an outspoken poet and journalist in Iraq was fraught with danger and her life was constantly under threat. She had to make the heart-breaking decision to leave her country and her family and seek refuge with her two young children in Norway.
“For me as a female writer in Iraq, just being female it was of course a challenge; just to live there in a normal way with my thoughts and my ambitions for a future. But really I can say the main change in my life was becoming a single mother in that society. Suddenly I found myself a widow, a very young widow,” Manal reflects.
I travelled with Ian Dodds, the director of photography, to Stavanger in Norway in January 2012, during the depths of the Norwegian winter, as temperatures were plummeting to an unforgiving -20 degrees Celsius. Filming the stark contrast of the snowy cold white landscapes against Manal’s stories of Iraq made her struggle to have her voice heard all the more poignant.
At a time when it is dangerous to speak out in Iraq, especially as a woman, Manal had to travel half way around the world to keep her protest alive.
Our film follows Manal closely as she works through crafting a new poem, before presenting it to a public audience. Manal is a truly extraordinary poet, brave and defiant, at a time when Iraqi female voices are increasingly being silenced.
About the series:
Poets of Protest reflects the poet’s view of the change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa through its intimate profiles of six contemporary writers as they struggle to lead, to interpret and to inspire.
Poetry lives and breathes in the Middle East as in few other places.
A great feature on Irish haikujin Gabriel Rosenstock from the arts and culture TV program Imeall, produced by Red Shoe Productions. The English translations of the interview and haiku are excellent, which is no surprise: Rosenstock is a prolific translator and author, and his poetry blog is gloriously multilingual.
combines the structure of language with the healing principles of various medicaments. Like pills, language is something to be consumed by the body, and in turn it does not only affect our conceptions of things, but it also comes to designate our very corporal movability in the world. Consequently, words are not only something we consume, they are refractory entities that in turn define and consume us. Wordpharmacy can be seen as a poetical gesture endeavouring to let words work their magic from within the body itself.
The Wordpharmacy is written and produced by the danish poet Morten Søndergaard.
The Wordpharmacy is translated into English by Barbara Haveland and designed by Christian Ramsø and is now available in six languages.
According to the Vimeo description,
Morten Søndergaard was interviewed by Christian Lund at Hardy Tree Gallery in London in April 2014. Thanks to Steven Fowlers and Cameron Maxwell.
Camera: Matthias Pilz
Edited by: Miriam Nielsen
Produced by: Christian Lund