A Moving Poems production. I uploaded this to Vimeo five months ago but never got around to sharing it here, side-tracked by my trip to Berlin for the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival a week later. And then when two of Amy Miller’s poems got made into such superlative films by Lori Ersolmaz (“Backward Like a Ghost“) and Eduardo Yagüe (“I Was Grass“), I sort of forgot about my own, more primitive effort. But I was reminded of it again by the rising tide of anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia around the world. This videopoem with its hopefully not too obvious calligraphic touches was meant as a gesture of deep respect to the aural and visual qualities of a great literary civilization.
The text is from the Poetry Storehouse and was first published in Faultline. I used some Creative Commons-licensed footage from Equiloud (Uwe Schweer-Lambers), rearranged and turned black-and-white—the colors of ink and paper. I thought Miller’s understated reading from the MP3 file at the Storehouse could carry the video without any additional sounds, especially since the poem’s all about reading. Like the insects in Equiloud’s macro shots, literate human beings are thoroughly absorbed and enmeshed in the warp of text. (In Latin, text means “woven.”)
The writer, editor and videopoet Dustin Luke Nelson also tried his hand at a remix of Miller’s text. He took a very different approach:
It’s fascinating how much variation there can be in how we see or hear a given text.
Spanish director Eduardo Yagüe’s film for the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest runner-up poem by Amy Miller. As mentioned in the contest results, poetry judge Jessica Piazza actually selected two of Miller’s poems: one as the first-place winner (see “Backward Like a Ghost“) and the other as one of three runners-up. Here’s that second poem, Miller’s response to Yagüe’s contest footage:
I Was Grass
Under the city, I grew
What did I have to drink
but cracks of sun
and the sometimes slash
of paint? Or was that
song? I heard it too. Bachata,
an imagined circle step.
You don’t think
grass can dance?
blade and its shadow.
No, watch. Can you see me?
The stem, the glint,
Yagüe had this to say about the making of the film:
Nic S. suggested I make a video as inspiration for poets writing for The Poetry Storehouse’s first anniversary contest. I am always very honored to collaborate with TPS, so I told Nic that I would be delighted to make the video.
I spent September and October in Stockholm, Sweden. I recorded footage for Marc Neys (Deze zachte witte kamer, poems by Runa Svetlikova). I also directed a videoclip called La viuda, for Spanish singer Pablo Werner, and started several personal projects (such as the Storehouse remix Broken Figure, by Kathleen Kirk). I also took a lot of pictures of the beautiful Swedish capital and its magical light.
Close to Kungsholmen, the district where I live when I go to Stockholm, there is a place that one might find in every big city (it could be New York, Paris or Madrid) and that’s the set I used for the video. A rough stage full of graffiti, concrete and passing trains contrasting with the fragility and tenderness of the great little actress Emma Sjöstrand (10 years old). The general idea was to capture claustrophobic urban images of this place and contrast them with a few shots in a park (Kronobergsparken) with a very different light, air and colors. The only idea I was sure about was the girl snapping her fingers, staring at the camera and disappearing.
I chose for editing some very beautiful music by Kosta T. But my idea was to ask for an original musical score for the final cut from Four Hands Project — the great, imaginative film and TV composers Alberto Ayuso and David Gómez. They composed an exclusive score for what I consider a very special video.
I am quite sure Amy Miller recorded her poem while she was watching the video. When Nic sent me the audio I hardly touched anything, just added a shot or two and revised the rhythm of some images. Amy’s poem was perfect for the images and the music fit incredibly well with both images and words.
I hope you like the final result. I am very happy to have been a collaborator in this amazing project of TPS. Congratulations to Amy Miller and the other winners and participants in this year’s contest, and very special congratulations to Nic S. for her great and generous work of spreading poetry and connecting artists all over the world.
We asked Miller about her writing process. She wrote,
I was moved to write a poem for Eduardo Yagüe’s video—of course—because of that girl. That beautiful, innocent, wily girl. She owns that alley. She is that alley. But she’s something else, too: a spirit of defiance.
The video opens and ends with grass. And I couldn’t help thinking of what that city will look like long after humans are gone, that apocalyptic vision of the vines engulfing the concrete, the wilderness taking over again. And the Carl Sandburg echo is no accident; his grass covered the battlefields, but this girl’s grass uproots the city, grows up—as she does—right through it. She is the blackberry, the kudzu, the bindweed that splits apart the pavement of every civilization and imparts her wildness into it. I think there’s a youthful hope to that, a reminder that every kid has dreams that reach far beyond the walls of where she’s growing up. Every kid is capable of bringing down the old city, of changing the drab old ways—just watch out.
I wanted the girl to ask questions, to get in the reader’s face: “You don’t think grass can dance?” And I wanted her to talk about an actual dance. In the theatre festival where I work, we’re doing a play next year that features Puerto Rican Jíbaro folk music, and it’s been on my mind a lot. I started looking on the internet for a dance that Latina girls in New York might aspire to do, and I found Bachata, which originated in the Dominican Republic. I chose it for the sound of the word and its popularity in clubs. But when I realized I was going to have to record the poem, I had to go back online and listen to recordings of people saying the word because I’d never heard it spoken. (I’m in Southern Oregon; Bachata, along with many other cool things, has not reached us yet.) I had practice the word over and over before recording the poem. Probably still didn’t nail it.
Is Eduardo Yagüe wonderful, or what? Such lyric beauty in this film. What a privilege it was to work with it.
This is the film made for the prizewinning poem from the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. Lori H. Ersolmaz is the filmmaker (see the recent Poetry Storehouse interview with her), and as announced on Monday, Amy Miller’s poem was selected by Jessica Piazza along with three runners-up in the Poetry category of the contest. In each case, the poems were written ekphrastically, in response to one of three, brief clips — which can still be viewed in the contest guidelines. Here’s what Miller wrote after watching Ersolmaz’s clip:
Backward Like a Ghost
They came so far to see this.
Then up close, the hollering and arrows,
the flash of something they should know
but can’t quite understand. The lonely
talk of everyone. Together
we make a city, close
and warm but blinding
in its multitudes. Night,
then open glass. Backward
like a ghost, they move against
what comes. If they find
the solace of sunlight
in a shallow field,
we’ll know them
by the dark birds
of their eyes, the home
only they can conjure.
the clearing and the day.
They’ll step out into our city.
We won’t see them after that,
their parties and rising,
their dust that settles
just like ours.
When Ersolmaz read the poem, she decided to call on not one, but two readers to lend their voices to the soundtrack: Nic S. and Robert Peake. She told us:
Amy’s poem feels embedded with the imagery in an esoteric way. Amazing how she was able to do that. I now completely see the piece the way she’s written the poem. I knew what I wanted to do with your voices and they fit so beautifully together too! I am so pleased you asked me to participate and honored that the winning poem was with my piece.
UPDATE (15 Nov.): Read Ersolmaz’ short essay “The making of ‘Backward Like a Ghost’” at Moving Poems Magazine.
We asked Miller what it was like to write in this way.
It was so much fun to write poems for the videos in the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. I’ve always liked writing ekphrastic poems based on photos, paintings, and musical pieces. But a video is a different animal, with the visual and aural elements already working together to form something more complex than their parts alone. And writing specifically to pair a poem with a video, there’s the added element of time: The video has its own rhythms, and it only goes on for a finite time. Coming up with a poem for that that feels a bit like songwriting—fitting an idea and voice to a structure imposed by something outside of the text.
To start the process, I watched Lori’s video over and over. To me, the predominate images are the arrival by sea at the start (a hint of Liberty Island), the blurred people and cityscapes in the middle (including that backward ghost, reflected in a bus window, maybe?), and that clear shot at the end of the tall buildings on a canal, a place that felt like Amsterdam. All of this, in my mind, added up to a story of immigrants, and specifically, refugees. It’s the “after” image of what happens to refugees after the part of the story that we usually hear—the displacement and the journey—ends. They reach the shores of their new home—and then what? That blurry, confusing middle part of the video is a picture of alienation, of culture shock and skirting the scene without quite being able to understand what it’s about. There’s also a deep, world-ending loneliness in the images of water and sky. And the hazy shots of people speaking—so close, right at hand, yet indistinct—evoke the blurriness and dimming of communication when you know a little of a language and then are bombarded with it full strength, all day.
Originally I wrote the poem in first person plural—“we,” from the viewpoint of the immigrants. But that began to feel too precious and disingenuous, the appropriation of someone else’s story. I have never been an immigrant. But I’ve lived in cities where there are lots of immigrants, and I’ve heard and seen the attendant bigotry all too often. So I chose the POV of a collective “we,” of the city itself, a polyglot community built on the waves of immigrants who came before. I wanted to evoke a collective compassion for the newcomers and the stories and realities they come from.
Congratulations again to Amy, and a huge thanks to her and Lori for this wonderful film. In my opinion, the ekphrastic approach is a great way for writers and filmmakers to collaborate, and I hope these contest results encourage more of it. (We’ll be sharing the other three films from the contest here and on Vimeo in the coming days.)