The Museum of English Rural Life in Reading has a legendary, frequently hilarious Twitter account, so like many of their followers, I guess I was expecting something a bit Monty Pythonesque when they first announced the upcoming YouTube premiere of a filmpoem called I, Sheep, “the profound story of a single ewe and her links to the lives of a farm and farming family.” It turned out however to be a deeply serious, moving, and brilliantly conceived film, influenced by Susannah Ramsay’s conception of the filmpoem as “a poetic composition that interweaves experimental film practices with film-phenomenological concepts and creative self-expression.” Poet Jack Thacker worked closely with the filmmakers—Teresa Murjas, a professor of theater and performance, director James Rattee—and a sheep named Jess, whose POV shots do lend a certain droll charm in character with The MERL’s online profile. As the webpage for the project explains,
One hot summer’s day in 2018, following a workshop at The MERL, Teresa Murjas (Professor of Theatre & Performance at the University of Reading) and filmmaker James Rattee travelled to see Jack and Jess on their remote farm. They brought with them a range of cameras, one of which Jess wore during filming. Multiple perspectives on their interlinking lives and rural environments were captured in the varied gimbal, go-pro and drone footage that was collected.
As the months passed, one creative act would generate another. Roles were performed, film footage was collated, poetry written, and footage edited. Readings were performed, recorded, footage was reshaped, and audio material collated. Sound, imagery and words were progressively layered and synthesised until now, in July 2020, when the filmpoem is about to be shown very for the first time.
It’s no surprise that this kind of prolonged, intensive collaboration should produce such a varied and satisfying film. I imagine it will do well on the film festival circuit, if and when film festivals ever resume. But I’m grateful they chose to release it on the web first.
One minor point of interest to those of us who struggle to connect audiences with poetry: Despite The MERL’s well-executed promotional campaign, and despite more than 153,000 followers on Twitter, the video unfortunately did not go viral, though it has garnered a respectable 1,227 views. But getting people to watch a 16-minute poetry film was never going to be easy. And merely creating viral content is not why they made the film in the first place:
I, Sheep is one of a cluster of creative works generated for a project at The MERL entitled Making, Using and Enjoying: The Museum of the Intangible (funded by Arts Council England). This explored intersections between the Museum’s tangible holdings, the idea of intangible cultural heritage (ICH) and creative and digital practices. As outlined by UNESCO, ‘cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.’ Responsively, The Museum of the Intangible project began by bringing people together around things, and then drew on their living experiences and relationships to explore, through creative practice, the significance of ICH within a museum context.
No one straddles the line between music and poetry better than British spoken-word superstar Kate Tempest (website, Wikipedia page). Here’s a live performance in the studios of Seattle’s KEXP radio station of the closing tracks from Tempest’s 2016 album Let Them Eat Chaos. The video was edited by Justin Wilmore for KEXP’s popular YouTube channel.
Tempest’s band members are Kwake Bass on drums, Dan Carey on synths and Clare Uchima on keyboards. I wanted to contrast her extremely passionate and intense performance style, which is more than enough to carry a video, with the following film interpretation of “Tunnel Vision” on Tempest’s own channel:
London-based director Akinola Davies Jr (bio here) told mxdwn Music that it was “an honour to collaborate with an artist like Kate and be entrusted to make visuals that we both think best reflect and fit with the body of work she has created. She is an exceptional artist and the positivity of her team has been inspiring.” For the full credits (which are extensive: a reminder that professional music videos are typically made on a much higher budget than poetry films!) see the YouTube description. The video also appears on Davies’ Vimeo page.
The poetry film garden was made during April 2020 which was the beginning of the Corona virus lockdown in the UK. This meant that the production process was a bit different to how I would expect to work in normal times.
Caleb and I had discussed making a film towards the end of March and when lockdown happened, we suddenly had time to start a project. Using the internet we were able to work remotely and to collaborate using email, Zoom and the telephone.
As the poem is set in a garden we did not need to go out to get footage, so we could work and maintain the lockdown rules.
For me the main challenges were learning to use my DSLR camera to shoot movie footage and finding visual equivalences to the images in the poem. Household objects, from feather dusters, plastic tubing and dental floss, were pressed into service.
In discussions with Caleb the blurring of boundaries between the human body and nature became a theme that influenced how I approached the edit. Layering of images, keying and masks are central to the look of this film.
Hard to believe this is Marius’ first poetry film! But he’s worked in TV postproduction for decades, and says this was “a bit of a kid in a sweet shop experience.” Go read the rest of his remarks — and check out more of Poetry Film Live while you’re there.
This film was made as part of Chaucer Cameron’s marvellous Wild Whispers project, which involved an array of artists around the world. Chaucer’s original poem was sent on a transformative journey through different nations, in a chain of writing, translation, reinterpretation and finally film-making. The project inspired very interesting and varied videos, reflecting the shifting ways we understand and express language, both textual and filmic. At its completion, Wild Whispers had inspired 14 distinct texts in 10 languages and 12 unique poetry films.
Annelyse’s film came towards the end of the two-year process of the project’s evolution across cultures. The words are almost unrecognisable from the original poem, more like a deconstruction and reconstruction of it. She arrived at this via Google Translate. The voice is synthetically generated. She has written about her approach:
I was interested in maintaining some of the imagery and observational eye of the original text while transforming its sensuousness and sentimentality into something cold and mechanical, and in working with a software collaborator that can produce, but not understand, language. (read more)
Of the 12 films in Wild Whispers, this one may have the closest relationship to a history of experimental cinema starting in the early 20th century. Still now this is a movement often abandoning populist or classical approaches to text, whether narrative or poetic, and with a similarly expanded and exploratory approach to making films. It is a movement that continues to be strongly allied with avant-garde art.
Alice Oswald is a very well-known and loved poet, especially in the UK, her native land, where she has been Oxford Professor of Poetry since October last year. Her poem Shadow is at the heart of this video commissioned by The Poetry Society, also in the UK.
The video is by Defacto Films based in Texas. There is no information to be found on the web about the people involved in Defacto. In any case, this is a beautifully simple audio-visual accompaniment, intimately evoking nature as a bed for Oswald’s voice. The image stream is again of green nature, creatively literal and well-edited in way that adds new feeling to the poem.
Oswald’s list of major poetry prizes is long and it’s easy to see why. With Oswald’s voice, the film’s sounds and visions of nature, the overall piece is darkly profound and beautiful.
Marie Craven’s most recent poetry film is a collaboration with the Spanish director Eduardo Yagüe and the London-based poet and translator Jean Morris. I’d been waiting to share it until Marie blogged process notes, which incorporate comments from Jean and Eduardo. The resulting post is too long to quote in full, but here’s a bit of it:
I was immediately drawn to the poem of Metamorphosis when it came up on one of my social media news-feeds, where I regularly read contemporary poetry from around the world. UK writer and translator, Jean Morris, was its author. The piece was inspired by a famous woodcut print by M.C. Escher, Metamorphosis II (1939-40). Jean’s viewing of the art work seemed to have suggested in her a vision of someone who might be similar to Escher himself, a character who perhaps the poet could relate to personally, as could I. The piece sketches a solitary character fascinated by life’s multiple and varying repetitions, of shapes and spaces, movement and time. It has a mirror structure, which I felt apt as a reference to the highly distinctive geometries that appear in Escher’s art.
In another part of the virtual globe, I had been in contact for several years with Spanish film director, Eduardo Yagüe. We had previously talked about a possible collaboration between us. So in 2019 I contacted Eduardo with Jean’s poem and asked if he might be interested in co-directing a film of it. We then contacted Jean, who agreed to a film of her poem. I suggested Rachel Rawlins as a possible voice artist and we were all pleased when she said yes to joining the project as well. […]
Jean Morris (writer):
I’ve always been a loner and not so great at working with others, so having my words become part of this rich collaborative work is a new and rewarding experience. An earlier version of my “mirror poem”, which tried to reflect the morphing mirror structure of Escher’s artwork, appeared on the Via Negativa poetry blog, long established as a beacon of the Creative Commons ethos, which I support, so I was happy to say yes to Marie’s proposal and keen to leave it to her and to Eduardo to make of the poem whatever they wanted. I’d long admired both their, very different, work in poetry film and trusted they’d make something beautiful, technically sophisticated and interesting. It also made me happy that the actor, Pedro, was someone I knew as a poet and the voice, Rachel’s, one long known in real life here in London. What a lovely, complex, international thing in sad and claustrophobic times.
Eduardo Yagüe (direction, videography):
When I was thinking on locations for filming, nothing seemed to me more ‘escherian’ than the Colegio de la Inmaculada in Gijón, my hometown in Northern Spain and where I am currently living. Belonging to the Jesuits, the building owns a long history including some dramatic episodes during the Spanish Civil War. I studied there from age 6 to 18.
Then, when I was thinking for potential actors for the video, I decided, looking at Escher’s portrait, that Pedro Luis Menéndez would be a perfect choice. Pedro was my Literature teacher and my first theater director when I was a teenager student at the Colegio, and now he’s become one of my favorite Spanish poets. One year before recording Metamorphosis I made a video called La vida menguante (Waning Life) based on several of the poems from Pedro’s book of the same title. I also recorded some footage of the streets and buildings of Gijón, a city sometimes aesthetically annoying but very ‘escherian’ too. […]
I hope this week’s focus on Marie Craven has brought into sharper relief the variety of tools and approaches available to contemporary videopoets and poetry filmmakers. As a much more impatient and slap-dash video maker, I admire Marie’s perfectionism, to say nothing of her artist’s eye and musician’s ear and her openness to collaborations of all kinds.
We may do other week-long features on filmmakers or poets in the coming months. It’s always especially helpful when people take the time to write in detail about the making of their films, as Marie does. Though most projects aren’t as wildly collaborative as Metamorphosis, even the loners among us stand to benefit from a culture of sharing tips and insights, especially with a growing community as full of artistic ferment as the international videopoetry scene.