I am very pleased to share details on this important ecopoetry film.
Utility Pole is a poetry film collaboration between two leading Canadian poetry filmmakers: Vancouver’s current Poet Laureate Fiona Tinwei Lam and award-winning poetry filmmaker Mary McDonald. I have known Mary as a good friend for some time, and she was one of the judges of my Frame to Frames: Your Eyes Follow ekphrastic poetry film prize this year.
Vancouver reading and Poets with a Video Camera symposium
I will be presenting alongside Fiona [and Annie Frazier Henry, Heather Haley, Kurt Heintz, Adeena Karasick, Tom Konyves, Valerie LeBlanc and Daniel H. Dugas, Matt Mullins and Javier Robledo], at the videopoetry symposium (5th November) at Surrey Art Gallery related to Tom Konyves’ Poets with a Video Camera: 1980–2020 exhibition. Fiona will also take the stand as the emcee for the Poems by Poetry Filmmakers reading the next day at the Co-Op Bookstore [see other posts on presentations and readings]. A great Canadian welcome, so a BIG HUG to VANCOUVER.
I am a huge supporter of tree planting, and reforestation, and so this particular poetry film means a lot to me. As they say in their description of the film: ‘Utility Pole explores the transformation of trees into the poles that hold our communications, the many branched network that connects us, as the trees have been severed from each other and their own living networks. The soundscape is a binaural, 360 soundscape featuring a mix of urban forest sounds, with the sounds of technology today and the pointed call of Morse code, our earliest technologically enabled transatlantic communication. The Morse code recording is from Freesound.org.’
As you can see the construction of the film is very interesting and quite complex, it is rare to have a binaural soundscape; and do check out Mary’s development of her visual techniques (below) if you want to learn more about making poetry films.
FIONA TINWEI LAM
“Utility Pole” was one of the many odes to ordinary things I was trying to write for my 2019 collection, Odes & Laments. https://fionalam.net/home/odes-laments/
For years, I’d been walking up and down the same alley way to get groceries, and noticing these telephone poles right next to live trees. I started noticing all the attachments to these poles, and then started researching the history of telephone poles, which became the genesis of the poem. I met Mary at REELpoetry in Houston, and when she was in town, I suggested we collaborate. We went to UBC Botanical Gardens to do its Greenheart suspended walkway through the trees to get some footage. I obtained permission to use some photos of clearcuts taken by the local Sierra Club. I also took some photographs of telephone poles for Mary to incorporate. Mary did a fabulous job incorporating and integrating all this material.
For me, the key visual component for this work, is anchored within the first lines of the poem – “teeming green”. I wanted to create a lush, moving cornucopia of life, a living green network in contrast to the stark, mechanical world of the utility poles, fraught with the vicarious life of our human communication networks. I played with various apps to turn my photographs of trees, leaves, needles into abstracts [see end for a demonstration of the transition].
Turning a Photo into a Webbed Image
Before I painted on the movement in Pixaloop, I turned the Live Photo into a long exposure. I started with the app Tangled FX which took the photographs of the cedar branch that closes the film, and reduced it to webs of filaments, hashed lines/abstract thick virtual finger-painted swirls. I then moved these transformed images into the app Pixaloop where you can literally paint on movement, using my fingers on my iPad to draw out the movement I choreographed into the still image. The resulting moving image, full of noise and aliasing hit the perfect note of the seemingly disordered, moving chaos of life [see end for an example of the process with a borage flower].
For stark contrast, I turned other photographs like the aerial view of the clearcut [clearcut logging is a forestry/logging practice in which most or all trees in an area are uniformly cut down] into hashed drawn images that morph into threaded webs. I painted movement onto these, moving from images full of colour and multiple shades of green to grey, black and white. The rhythms of the sound clip of Morse code that appears halfway through the film, can be heard underlying the entirety. The 360 natural soundscape contains wind and leaves, squirrels and birds as well as the sounds of airplanes and traffic in an ever-changing mix in contrast to the urgent pulse and pitch of the Morse code clip. The images at the end of the poem pull us back into the teeming web that is then frozen into a single, still, stained glass image of a tree trunk. It is here at last, that we clearly hear birds and a chorus of forest voices which play as if in eulogy following the stilled image of the tree trunk.
Example of Mary’s process as shown with the cedar branch in Utility Pole
Borage Flower on Nasturtium Leaf
Fiona Tinwei Lam
Chinese-Canadian writer Fiona Tinwei Lam was born in Scotland but raised in Vancouver, British Columbia. She holds an LL.B. from Queen’s University, an LL.M. from the University of Toronto, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. Fiona is the author of Intimate Distances (finalist for the City of Vancouver Book Prize), Enter the Chrysanthemum, and Odes & Laments. She also authored the illustrated children’s book, The Rainbow Rocket. Her poetry and prose have been published in over forty anthologies (Canada, Hong Kong, and the US), including The Best Canadian Poetry in English (2010, 10th anniversary Best of the Best edition 2017, and 2020). Three of her poems have been featured on BC’s Poetry in Transit. She is a co-editor of and contributor to the creative nonfiction anthology, Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood published by McGill-Queen’s University Press with Cathy Stonehouse and Shannon Cowan, and also the editor of The Bright Well, a collection of contemporary Canadian poetry about facing cancer. She and Jane Silcott co-edited the creative 2018 nonfiction and poetry anthology, Love Me True: Writers Reflect on the Ins, Outs, Ups & Downs of Marriage. From September 2020-21, she curated and hosted the online monthly poetry series In/Verse for the Federation of BC Writers to showcase local published poets. Her award-winning poetry videos, made in collaboration with local animators and filmmakers, have been screened at festivals locally and internationally since 2009. She has recently been appointed Vancouver’s Poet Laureate for 2022-2024.
photo credit: Holly Hofmann
Vancouver’s Poet Laureate 2022–2024
The Poet Laureate, “the people’s poet,” is an honorary position with a two-year term. Serving as a champion for poetry, language and the arts, the Laureate creates a unique literary project and represents the City as Laureate during readings and public poetry events. Funded through a generous endowment by Dr. Yosef Wosk, OBC, the position was established in 2006 by the City of Vancouver in partnership with the Vancouver Public Library and The Vancouver Writers’ Festival.
Fiona Tinwei Lam’s Legacy Project will involve community outreach to encourage the generation of new poems and poetry videos to foster greater understanding about significant historical, cultural and ecological sites on the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples now known as the City of Vancouver.
The first stage of the project was the City Poems Contest, a poetry contest for youth and adults April-June 2022. The second stage of the project is the City Poems Poetry Video Contest based on the award-winning poems and other curated site-based poems, which will officially launch in January 2023. Preliminary information will be posted in the fall of 2022 on this website.
Schools in the Vancouver school district may book a one-hour workshop with the Vancouver Poet Laureate through the Poet in Class program with Poetry in Voice, or with the Vancouver Writers Fest’s Writers in the Classroom program, or through contacting Fiona directly. Information about the Poet Laureate position is also available through the Vancouver Public Library and the City of Vancouver (Cultural Services).
Mary McDonald is a Canadian writer and multimedia artist whose work explores words through sound, image, and movement. McDonald is passionate about creating with digital technology, bringing text and multimedia art directly into community, historic and natural spaces through AR (augmented reality). McDonald’s multidisciplinary practice encompasses text, photography, poetry film, music and immersive sound, interactive AR (augmented reality) installations, and community participatory arts projects. Her poetry films and AR installations have been exhibited widely in Canada and internationally. McDonald’s poetry film and AR installation, On the Margin of History, was awarded first prize in new media, performative and digital work. Her most recent collaboration with Vancouver Poet Laureate, Fiona Tinwei Lam, explores the fibres of connectivity in our natural and technologized world. This work encompasses Mary’s multilayered approach to poetry and poetry film.
Mary is very fortunate to work with a not-for-profit organization which partners with remote and rural communities across Canada to share digital skills and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) education. This work has brought her into contact with many fabulous people and to some very beautiful spaces on our shared world. McDonald is grateful for these opportunities to share her love for creating with technology, to meet new people, to learn about different ways of being and experience new landscapes.