Glenda Jackson provides the voice of poet Stevie Smith in this animated interpretation of her extraordinary 1950’s poem ‘The Blue from Heaven’. Suzie Hanna has adapted and animated the poet’s own drawings to communicate her rueful, wistful, comic, and melancholy themes with music and sound design by Phil Archer. In Stevie Smith’s awkward world, King Arthur banishes Guinevere to the palace, and he enters the blue from heaven.
British animator Suzie Hannah teamed up with New Zealand’s poet laureate Bill Manhire for this poetry film, part of the Fierce Light series co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Norfolk and Norwich Festival and Writers Centre Norwich. It was “Voiced by Stella Duffy, with Sound Design by Phil Archer,” says the description on Hannah’s website, which continues:
Mud and and pigment animation interpreting Bill Manhire’s poem about tragic death of youths in WW1, comprised of 14 short epitaphs for unknown NZ soldiers killed at the Somme, and for unnamed refugees drowning as they flee from wars now, 100 years later.
The film has been selected for screening at the following: 14th London Short Film Festival 2017, Aesthetica Short Film Festival 2016, O Bhéal Poetry Film Festival 2016, Zebra Poetry Film Festival 2016, Interfilm 32nd International Short Film Festival Berlin 2016
“Known Unto God writes the epitaphs to the lost of our world: those fallen soldiers of the Somme whose bodies were never found; those refugees of today who drown seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Bill Manhire and Suzie Hanna have created a bold and powerful memorial to the voiceless, and a reminder that WW1 was a conflict that shook the entire world, and that our lives have grown ever more interconnected since. ” Sam Ruddock, Writers Centre Norwich
This is “Proem,” the famous introduction to Hart Crane’s book-length poem The Bridge. The poem has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid, committed to memory before I even knew what half of the words meant. What great nostalgic pleasure, then, to watch this animated version by Suzie Hanna with a reading by Tennessee Williams in the soundtrack! I think this is an excellent example of how animators can get away with something that directors of live-action poetry films usually cannot: direct illustration of a text. Well, in part that’s because there’s rarely anything “direct” about good animation, which is almost by definition an order of magnitude more abstract than a live-action illustration would be. In addition, poems like this one, where the language is intensely rich and far from the vernacular, can really benefit from a visual connection to the narrative thread (to the extent that there is one). Not every casual consumer of poetry is as comfortable with bafflement as are those lucky few of us that grew up with difficult poems, and so I think a good animation can get people to lower their guard.
At any rate, here’s what that the folks from Liberated Words posted at Vimeo about the animator:
Professor Suzie Hanna has been teaching in Higher Education for over two decades, specialising in the subject areas of animation and sound design. During this time she has developed international academic and industry networks, as well as maintaining her own creative practice. She engages in diverse collaborations with other artists, performers and academics to create original films.
Her current research includes the creation of animation from documentary material, and the study of parallels in animation, poetry and sound design. Suzie also designs and animates commissioned innovative theatrical and site specific animation ranging in scale from puppet theatre to architectural projection. She presents papers at international symposia and industry seminars as well as contributing to academic journals and other publications.
The soundtrack is by Tom Simmons, and led to the film taking 1st Prize for Best Music/Sound at Liberated Words III, judged by Rich Ferguson and Mark Wilkinson. It also won 2nd Prize for Best Editing. In a post at a closed group on Facebook, Sarah Tremlett quotes Ferguson and Wilkinson:
We found the visual treatment in Proem to be arresting and original; clear in its intentions and unified in its design as it evolved visually throughout the piece. A balanced and elegant pairing of spoken words and moving pictures.
Hanna’s description from her own upload of the film to Vimeo is also worth quoting:
Suzie Hanna animated the film using hand cut stencils imitating some graphic aspects of contemporaneous 1920s New York artists who were in Hart Crane’s coterie, such as Joseph Stella and Marsden Hartley. She also referenced Vorticism to capture vertiginous aspects of the verse. The voice of Tennessee Williams, who was an ardent admirer of Crane, is taken from a 1960 recording. Tom Simmons has built this into a resonant dramatic soundscape which interprets the materiality of the bridge, the surrounding land and waterscape and the ‘prayerful’ qualities of the Proem. He embeds sonic references to Hart Crane’s ‘shamanic process’ in which the poet played records on his Victrola, including Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, loudly and repeatedly, whilst drinking heavily and typing phrases in manic bursts.
Hanna, Simmons, and producer Sally Bayley all teach at British universities, Hanna at Norwich University of the Arts, which features the film on its website and adds some information in a news story:
The work is part of an ongoing collaboration with Dr Sally Bayley of the University of Oxford and Tom Simmons of the Royal College of Art researching into representation of poetic metaphor. […]
Proem has been selected for screenings at the Laugharne Castle Poetry and Film Festival Wales, the Filmpoem Festival in Antwerp, Belgium and the Liberated Words Poetry Film Festival and conference in Bristol. In March Professor Hanna and Dr Bayley gave a masterclass titled ‘Poetry in the Making’ at the Oxford Literary Festival.
An article on ‘Thinking Metaphorically and Allegorically: A Conversation between the fields of Poetry, Animation and Sound’ by Professor Hanna, Tom Simmons and Dr Bayley was published in 2013 in the Journal of American Studies, and a further installment has been commissioned for publication in 2014.
The film is also due to be screened at Visible Verse in Vancouver next month.
A beautiful and, to my mind, highly effective book trailer for Spells: New and Selected Poems by Annie Finch, due out this month from Wesleyan University Press. U.K. animator Suzie Hanna describes their creative process in a note at Vimeo:
The film was made through a Transatlantic collaborative shared process. Annie sent her voice recording to me and I responded with clips of tests and animatics which I adjusted, extended or dumped in response to her reactions.
For the text of the poem (and audio of Finch’s reading), see poets.org.