Sometimes, what a poem does not say is the most important part.
That’s what Beth Copeland found while writing “Falling Lessons: Erasure One,” a poem that explored her father’s experience with Alzheimer’s disease.
Before his death four years ago, Copeland wrote a longer narrative piece about the last few years of his life. But then, she did something unusual: she deleted most of it.
That process of erasure was a way to put herself in her father’s place, replicating what had happened as his disease progressed.
“I became interested in the idea of erasure, because I felt that the process of erasure is a reflection of what happens to people when they have memory loss,” she said. “I found out as I was doing it that the distillation process made the poems stronger.”
“Erasure One” is the first in a series of three pieces. In each successive poem, Copeland used the same technique, erasing parts of the previous poem and distilling it to the words that are left behind.
Writing the series helped her understand more about her father’s mind near the end of his life, she said. “I had time to really reflect on the process that he had gone through … I think I did learn more about my father’s experience,” she said.
Director Anh Vu, working with the organization Motionpoems, brought Copeland’s poem to the screen in a short film. The film interweaves images of the natural world with books, papers and other evidence of academia — a combination of her father’s passions, Copeland said.
Copeland wrote more extensively about her parents, who both experienced dementia, in a new manuscript titled “Blue Honey,” which is seeking a publisher. “Writing about what happened to both of my parents has been an opportunity for me to process a lot of the feelings that family members have when they have someone in the family with some type of dementia,” she said.
A Staff Pick on Vimeo, Falling Lessons: Erasure One was also one of the first two Motionpoems to be released on YouTube by Button Poetry, which has, I believe, the most popular channel for poetry videos, with 502,636 subscribers and 109,923,559 views to date. Almost all the videos they share on YouTube and on their Tumblr blog are straight-forward documentary videos of readings or recitations, many of which they produce themselves, with a heavy emphasis on material from the spoken word community. So it’s been interesting to see the enthusiasm with which their fan base has reacted to Falling Lessons: Erasure One, uploaded on March 17, and The Mother Warns the Tornado, the Isaac Ravishankara film based on a poem by Catherine Pierce, which they uploaded on March 4. The former has been played 15,206 times and the latter 22,037 times—about average for Button Poetry videos. What is perhaps more astonishing is that the comments for both videos are entirely positive so far—apparently YouTube trolls haven’t discovered Button yet?—suggesting that the supposed gulf between performance poetry and mainstream poetry may not actually exist, and that we all need to do a better job of reaching out to this most obvious and receptive new audience for poetry film. Typical reactions to the two Motionpoems videos include: “Utilizing the power of film and score with poetry was a beautiful idea”; “I absolutely LOVE these motion poems, the perfect combination of visual artistry and spoken poetry”; “I would love to see more videos that are actually stories to poems! I was left speechless at the end of this. The poem itself is amazing but the addition of the visuals made it that much more powerful”; and “Please make a million of these.”
Click through to Vimeo for the full credits. Oddly, the film has not been featured as an “episode” on the Motionpoems website just yet, so I suspect there may be some interviews or other bonus materials in the offing. Keep an eye out for that.