Though produced as a documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains may also be seen as an epic filmpoem. Consider: first-time filmmaker Pare Lorentz didn’t write the script until almost everything else was done — all the shooting, even Virgil Thomson’s magnificent score. Composer and filmmaker worked together to fit the film to the score, sometimes cutting one, sometimes the other, and Lorentz thought the music should be allowed to suggest separate and complementary story lines. And the script, when he finally wrote it, took the form of free verse — see for yourself. When the text of his second documentary, River, was published in book form, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Which is not to say that (in my opinion at least) the script of The Plow That Broke the Plains qualifies as great poetry on its own. Rather, the successful marriage of all three elements — text, soundtrack and film — creates a poetic whole greater than the sum of its parts, a filmpoem. The fascinating story behind the making of the film is adeptly recounted on this webpage from the University of Virginia’s American Studies program.
Because it was produced by the federal government, The Plow That Broke the Plains is in the public domain, and high-resolution versions may be downloaded from the Internet Archive for reuse and remix. It might be interesting to see what a contemporary videopoet could make with this material, whether by swapping in new text or cutting and splicing Lorentz’s. (If anyone does this, be sure to send me the link.)
Produced by the Poetry Foundation to accompany the June issue of Poetry magazine, which was entirely devoted to the two-line Afghani poems known as landays. Seamus Murphy‘s film includes lots of stunning shots, and displays familiarity with the filmpoem genre in its imaginative conjunctions of text and image. Murphy has been taking still photographs in Afghanistan since 1994, and some of them accompany his fellow journalist Eliza Griswold‘s essay on, and compilation of, landays for the magazine. One thing the film contributes to the issue is the sound of the Pashto originals, which aren’t otherwise included in the online feature.
A story from PBS NewsHour provides additional background about the project:
As a fan primarily of mainstream, “page” poetry I don’t necessarily seek out spoken-word poetry, but I am enlivened and inspired by poets like Benjamin Zephaniah — not that there are too many other poets like him. Just as certain avant-garde poets challenge us to take language more seriously and to invent a new universe for every poem, brilliant performance poets like Zephaniah remind us that poetry is first and foremost an oral, embodied medium. Zephaniah’s example challenges us to take living more seriously, and to question whether our words and actions and politics are truly aligned as they should be. And needless to say, for a type of poetry that so emphasizes the physicality of language, film/video is the ideal medium.
Bloodaxe Books were kind enough to send me a review copy of the DVD-book for which this is the trailer, and I loved it. I’d already known from watching her films on Vimeo that Pamela Robertson-Pearce is a good director who knows how to get out of the way and let the poems and the poet speak for themselves, and this talent is very much on display here. I watched the DVD in two long sittings and was entranced. The readings and interviews are artfully blended, with earlier sequences anticipating later explanations by the poet. For example, a series of delightful readings for, and exchanges with, schoolchildren were filmed in what turns out to be the Keats House next to Hampstead Heath, which prepares the viewer not only to hear about the poet’s own childhood and difficult time at school, but also eventually to hear how and why he came to love Keats, Shelley and Byron despite his original aversion to dead white male poets. And footage of Zephaniah in a track suit practicing taiqi in his yard is first used as a backdrop for several segments, arousing one’s curiosity — eventually satisfied — about his exercise and martial arts regime and its influence on him as a performance poet and musician.
The footage of various readings before live audiences varies in quality (the sound is slightly muffled in a couple of them), but one thing I really appreciated was that the director did not attempt to jazz things up by jumping frenetically between two or more different perspectives, as so many slick poetry filmmakers like to do. I generally find that distracting, and with a performer as expressive as Zephaniah, there’s no need to add any more kinesis!
The film is playful and serious by turns, just as Zephaniah’s poems are, and gave me a lot to think about, especially on the role of performance in poetry, the social responsibility of artists, and the various ways in which oral and literary traditions intersect. My favorite interview sections were actually those with the poet’s mother, Valerie Wright, clearly the single biggest influence on his life, who sat beside him on a couch and helped answer questions about his upbringing and the family traits and customs that helped to produce a poet. I should add that all the poems are presented in full, and the film also incorporates a highly entertaining music video by his rap-reggae group, The Beta Brothers (with four more videos included as bonus tracks). Neil Astley’s Foreword in the book offers a more comprehensive biography than any I’ve seen online, and people who already own some or all of Zephaniah’s earlier books with Bloodaxe and Penguin will want this one, too, since it includes different versions of many poems, updated to reflect how they have evolved as he continues to perform them on stage.
The DVD is in PAL format, which means it won’t play on most North American DVD players, but should play just fine on most computers (as it did on my laptop). As the note about this on the last page of the book says, “In an ideal world we’d produce our DVD-book with DVDs in either format and give overseas readers the choice, but unfortunately that would be much too costly.” Check out the publisher’s detailed description at Vimeo or on the Bloodaxe website. Let me close with Zephaniah’s own description at his blog:
Yes, that’s right, I’ve got a new DVD and book out. It’s a kind of Zephaniah on the road jam, and it features my mum and my nephew, Zayn. He’s a good boy, but he can’t play football as good as me. The DVD has live performances of some previously published and unpublished poems, with interviews and lots of messing around by me. What I really love about it is the mix of my children’s poetry, my work for adults, and my music, which most publishers usually like to keep separate. Publisher, writer, and all round good guy Neil Astley has written an introduction for it, and Pamela Robertson-Pearce did the filming. We’ve tried to do something which stands up as both entertaining and educational, so it could be used in schools and other funky places. I’m pleased with it.
An anonymous Syrian poet muses on real terror versus sleep terrors:
The same man who is trying to shoot me is me. I have no face in the dream, I am the man and me. This horror of the dream stays long.
This film is one of three shorts I made during a week in Beirut in May 2011. The films were commissioned by Reel Festivals and Creative Scotland and the remit was make a series of short films “inspired by” the festival of poets. It was an amazing week, it’s not every day that you get to meet poets from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Scotland.
We were also meant to go to Damascus but as the political situation worsened that leg of the festival was cancelled. However, I still wanted to reflect the current situation in one of the films, so I interviewed one of the Syrian poets about his dreams. That was the starting point for this film.
Produced by Norbert Lempert of REMproductions in association with the Poetry Foundation. Gerald Stern is as much the poet warrior now as when he stunned the poetry world thirty years ago with his book Lucky Life. In that book he first staked out a place for himself and readers that he has continued to make, a place that in his words is “overlooked or ignored or disdained, a place no one else wanted.” This short documentary film, illustrated with materials from Stern’s own archive, features some of Stern’s best known poems. It also includes commentary by poets Ross Gay, Edward Hirsch, Anne Marie Macari, Heather McHugh, and Thomas Lux, each with a unique perspective on Stern as artist and friend.
I thought this would be a good pick for the U.S. Independence Day holiday, especially given the way Stern, Hirsch and Macardi discuss the climate for poetry in the U.S. starting around 2:30 in Part 1. There’s also this from Stern in Part 2, beginning at 2:58:
We remember the famous words: After the Holocaust, after Shoah, there can be no poetry. And the alternative is: After the Shoah, there can be ONLY poetry. “How about no parades, no cannons, no atom bombs? How about no concentration camps, the way the United States runs concentration camps now?” is another way of thinking about it.
I also like Hirsch’s description of Stern in Part 3, starting at 0:38:
He’s really a poet of the egotistical sublime. The I stands in for the natural world, and for the whole world. And he’s experiencing everything himself.
For more on Gerald Stern, and to read samples of his work, see the Poetry Foundation’s page, which includes 32 poems in text form and 12 audio files.
The trailer for what sounds like a fascinating film about the survival of the poetry and music of the Sindhi Sufi Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (or Bhitai), directed by Anjali Monteiro and K.P. Jayasankar. The trailer includes one of Bhittai’s poems. Let me just copy the description from Vimeo:
Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, a medieval Sufi poet, is an iconic figure in the cultural history of Sindh. Bhitai’s Shah Ji Risalo is a remarkable collection of poems which are sung by many communities in Kachchh and across the border in Sindh (now in Pakistan). Many of the poems draw on the eternal love stories of Umar-Marui and Sasui-Punhu, among others. These songs speak of the pain of parting, of the inevitability of loss and of deep grief that takes one to unknown and mysterious terrains.
Umar Haji Suleiman of Abdasa, in Kachchh, Gujarat, is a self taught Sufi scholar; once a cattle herder, now a farmer, he lives his life through the poetry of Bhitai. Umar’s cousin, Mustafa Jatt sings the Bheths of Bhitai. He is accompanied on the Surando, by his cousin Usman Jatt. Usman is a truck driver, who owns and plays one of the last surviving Surandos in the region. The Surando is a peacock shaped, five-stringed instrument from Sindh. The film explores the life worlds of the three cousins, their families and the Fakirani Jat community to which they belong.
Before the Partition the Maldhari (pastoralist) Jatts moved freely across the Rann, between Sindh (now in Pakistan) and Kutch. As pastoral ways of living have given way to settlement, borders and industrialisation, the older generation struggles to keep alive the rich syncretic legacy of Shah Bhitai, that celebrates diversity and non-difference, suffering and transcendence, transience and survival. These marginal visions of negotiating difference in creative ways resist cultural politics based on tight notions of nation-state and national culture; they open up the windows of our national imaginary.
For more on the film and its directors, including some reviews, visit its website.
This new film from Bloodaxe Books, one of Tranströmer’s English-language publishers, incorporates footage of the Nobel Prize announcement and the Tranströmers’ reaction, as well as footage of Tranströmer playing the piano which Pamela Robertson-Pearce had just shot in August. Robin Fulton’s translations appear as subtitles for the Swedish-language readings, which include “The Nightingale in Badelunda,” “Allegro,” “From the Thaw on 1966,” “The Half-Finished Heaven,” “April and Silence,” “From March 1979,” and “Tracks.” This is of course something that the film/video medium is particularly well suited for: it’s wonderful to hear the poet reading in Swedish and know (more or less) what he is saying.
Do read the extensive notes on the Vimeo page. The detail that “Swedish composers have written several left-hand piano pieces especially for him to play” speaks volumes about his status in his homeland. (Hat-tip: Teju Cole on Twitter)