This may be my favorite Motionpoem to date. The title poem from Melissa Studdard‘s new collection is impressive in itself, but it would’ve been so easy for a filmmaker to ruin it by choosing conventionally “cosmic” imagery, or by illustrating some of the more quotidian images in the text. Instead, as director/producer Dan Sickles told Rosemary Davis in an interview,
My way into this poem was an experiential familiarity. It’s an articulation of a moment of utter presence, where a mundane activity provides a portal to divine contact. The poem is elemental, and speaks of nature, life, and death. I wanted to aid in an ethereal, celestial experience of Melissa’s words through film, to inspire a feeling rather than a literal interpretation.
What was the first image you thought of after reading this poem?
The first image I thought of after reading the poem was a shot of the entire planet floating in space. Ultimately, that inspiration boiled down to this idea that size, a juxtaposition of micro and macro shots, and fluidity/liquidity in camera movement were the basic ground rules for how we approached production. […]
I was in Puerto Rico for the premiere of my last film, Mala Mala, which we shot on the island over the course of three years, and that’s when we shot this, the day after our premiere. I was after a particular tone expressed in the poem, which I felt could be best represented by the raw, dense, natural landscape in Aguas Buenas and surrounding towns outside of San Juan.
And his approach resonated with Studdard, as well:
I love it! In fact, it is specifically because they avoid the predominant metaphor and related images that they are able to so skillfully tease out subtext. I felt much more understood than I would have if they’d simply shown someone eating a pancake and drinking tea. By pairing the textual imagery with this new visual imagery, they further elicit the sense of creation, sustenance, and elemental divinity at the heart of “I Ate the Cosmos for Breakfast.” Rather than timidly toeing the periphery of the poem, they brave the thick inner brushland and cut new paths back out. That is as it should be. They’re not here to merely represent my poem. They’re here to create a new work of art.
Motionpoems‘ latest release is a film by Isaac Ravishankara that transforms Catherine Pierce‘s poem into something that, save for its brevity, approaches a blockbuster movie in style and and emotional impact, complete with a very real-looking tornado at the end. MP’s “citizen journalist” Maggie Roy conducted interviews with both the poet and the filmmaker. Here’s some of what Pierce told her:
On April 27, 2011, the day of the tornado outbreak that killed over 300 people and injured many more, I was in Cullman, Alabama with my husband and infant son when an EF-4 tore through that town. Those moments of waiting while the tornado passed (we were huddled in the lobby bathroom of a Days Inn) really crystallized for me both the intensity of love I had for my child and what real, immediate fear felt like—not fear of something that might happen in the future, but a visceral fight-or-flight fear.
I’d been sort of stuck, writing-wise, since the birth of my son (the sleep deprivation wasn’t helping, either), but I’d been planning to write a series of poems from the point of view of a tornado; after that day, I realized that the scope of that series had to be big enough to include not only the tornado but the lives it impacted. […]
I think the film is incredible. I’m bowled over by how powerful and visceral it is, and also by how beautiful. There are so many small moments here—the lizard, the shot of the boy’s feet, the mother opening her eyes—that just undo me each time I see them, and I love the way the film slowly ratchets up the tension. I knew, from talking with Isaac at the outset of the project, that he connected with the poem exactly as I hoped someone would, but what he ended up making surpassed what I could have imagined. I just love everything about this film, and am so grateful to have been introduced to Isaac’s work.
It’s evident just from watching the film that a lot of care, attention and hard work went into it; the interview with Ravishankara suggests just how much:
I first spoke to Catherine Pierce about the project in the fall of 2014. I knew from the second I read the poem that I wanted to make this piece, and I knew from that moment that it needed to show a mother with a child who was actually her son. It wasn’t until March of this year that I was introduced to Dianna [Miranda] and her son Gus [Buck]. I knew from the moment they invited me into their home that they would be the family around which we would build this piece.
The real feeling of the piece came together in post production. There is absolutely NO WAY this film would have come together the way it did without the amazing insight from our editor, Jamie Foord at Rock Paper Scissors, who just kept making it more and more and more EMOTIONAL with every edit. And then we still had NO IDEA how we were going to make this feeling so tangible, but the team of artists at A52 not only dreamt up the tornado, but made it REAL. Of course, there are the shots where we SEE the thing, but they made sure we FELT it in nearly every shot leading up to the conclusion.
Sarah Blake‘s poem appears in her debut collection Mr. West, an “unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West” which Evie Shockley calls “tender without being sentimental, funny without being cruel, and obsessive without being exploitative.” Check out Arisa White‘s interviews with Blake and Altinok at the Motionpoems website. Blake says, in part:
I love the film. I felt like [Ayşe] made me a version of Kanye West’s music video for his song, ‘Flashing Lights’—a version of it just for me and my poem.
And Altinok notes that she deliberately chose a shorter poem with lots of room for cinematic exploration:
“Less words, more story” is very interesting to me in any discipline. I didn’t want to explain the poem, I wanted to duet the words and the meanings explored in the text. When I read the poem, I immediately saw the 14-year-old girl and her world. It wasn’t a struggle to bring her to life. It was a very relevant subject to me. I love youth culture and also visual poetry; this was a heavenly project. […]
After I read the poem I immediately started writing a script. It was more of a shot-list at first. I didn’t bother writing the happenings in a poetic way, I thought the poetry was already written by Sarah Blake, so I only put ideas on paper in a very practical manner. It was literally a list of scenes. I definitely knew my character needed to be the 14-year-old, rather than the woman who is the pregnant narrator. She didn’t seem too interesting to me, like myself—I can never make a film about me, but I want to make films about things I like. Rather, things I find fruitful (story-wise). I also thought my writing sucked, so at that point, I turned to photography. I started looking at pictures, mostly portraits, and created this character, and give her an identity. I felt very free—that was the best part of working with a poem.
In terms of script, though, I had to structure it in a way that felt compelling, and with a sense of beginning, middle, and end. It was a fragile story, I didn’t want to make a big statement, but I didn’t want to create just fluff, with a bunch of beautiful images and no thread, either—it was a gentle balance, not too much story that kills the poem, but not too freestyle that loses its meaning. I wanted people to feel what it’s like to live this character’s life, rather then me telling them how to.
This is Talking Points, a film by Rob Perez for Motionpoems, based on the poem “Eggheads” by John Koethe. Perez tells a separate story in the film that intersects with the text in an interesting fashion. “Citizen journalist” Will Campbell writes about the poem and the film in some bonus materials on the Motionpoems website. Here’s an excerpt:
What drew Rob Perez to work on “Eggheads” was the challenge that came with adaptation. “I was interested in the idea and challenge of lifting a poem off the page and putting it on the screen” Perez said. That meant more than simply giving face to Koethe’s words. The film’s biggest challenge came in finding a way to preserve the quality of Koethe’s language while still making a film that uplifted the poem itself.
Perez’s solution to this dilemma was ambitious to say the least: let the poem speak for itself—supported, that is, by a narrative. His film adaptation of “Eggheads” combines a cool, crisp reading of the poem with jazz-tracked footage of a couple moving through the charmed humdrum of ordinary life. Their words are muted, leaving only their actions and something like “Take Five” to tell what they’re up to while in the background “Eggheads,” read by a separate narrator, gives meaning to the pair and their everyday world.
For Perez, the challenge of the film became finding just the right amount of narrative to support the poem without overburdening it. After all, “the poem is good enough to stand alone—otherwise it wouldn’t live like that. Therefore, my job is to find a story—of moving pictures—that allow the poem to say the same thing in a new medium. The screenplay, the actors, the frame, the score, sound effects, etc. are all tools to lift the poem off the page and onto the screen.”
I knew I wanted to stay away from illustrating the words or being too literal with the imagery. I wanted to create something that would be its own thing but would be a perfect companion to the poem. I spent a lot of time making these decisions before I got into the work, and I’m glad I did it that way. I was able to steer my own direction because of the rules I had laid out for myself early on.
MOPO: What are some of the stylistic influences you saw coming to bear on the film?
CRAIG: I had been watching a lot of really early animation films, one in particular called “The Idea” by Berthold Bartosch. It was based on a woodcut graphic novel by Frans Masereel. I had been watching that kind of work coming into this project. When I start a project I tend to pull a lot of artwork, paintings and things that I can respond to in some way. That helps me get towards ideas I like.
Do read the whole interview; Craig makes a lot of interesting points. And there’s an interview with Stephen Dunn on the same page which is also worth checking out. The last question concerns the film:
MOPO: I’m wondering about the whole idea of taking a poem and making a short film out of it, and this sort of hybrid art that Motionpoems is pioneering. Is presenting a work in a different medium akin to the difficulty of linguistic translation in your opinion? What would you share with us about why you consented to be a part of this Motionpoems season and growing body of art — what were you hoping or wanting?
DUNN: I have no expectations. My poem itself is a translation of experience. I would hope that you all would try to be true to the poem’s spirit and tone, but I also know that another medium will interpret in ways I can’t foresee.
Bryan Hanna composed the score.
The deeply clever and always entertaining American poet Albert Goldbarth meets his match in director Chris Jopp. This is one of Motionpoems’ latest releases (click through for the text of the poem), and it was “made possible through a partnership with Graywolf Press.” Supplemental materials on the Motionpoems website include interviews with Goldbarth and Jopp by Rosemary Davis. I particularly liked this last bit of the latter:
MOPO: Have you done any collaborations like this before? What was it like to work with Albert?
JOPP: I have not collaborated with poets before. After hearing Albert did not own a computer, I thought about calling him. I then heard, that he was a fan of letters so I decided to write him a letter through the mail. I always feel like I can communicate better through text anyhow and this was a way to more thoughtfully pick his brain without the nerve-racking reality of this award winning poet breathing on the opposite end of the telephone. In fact, I think our “analog” correspondence influenced the way I made the film. I wanted it to feel genuine and authentic, and something about sending and receiving actual inked letters through the mail made me stick to that idea.
Albert was very receptive through the whole conceptual process and then sort of handed me the reigns and was like, “Alright, you have my thoughts and concerns, and think I trust you, so GO FOR IT!” So now I’m just following my own intuition! He said, at the screening he’d either shake my hand or punch me in the nose. Hopefully, the first.
MOPO: What has this project done for you? Learn anything?
JOPP: It has changed the way I think about poetry.