‘I Write to You Because Your Imprint’s Everywhere’
From the anthology No Map Could Show Them (Chatto & Windus, 2016) poet Helen Mort has focused on women who have had a particular relevance to her and across history. In ‘Dear Alison’ she writes not about but to the late Derbyshire-born mountaineer Alison Hargreaves who died climbing in 1995, and whose decision to continue climbing in the face of being a young mother has left its haunting shadow in her wake.
In discussing the making of ‘Dear Alison’ Helen observed how for her mountaineering and writing poetry are very similar; and how the act of climbing might help shape a line of poetry on the subject – an area that Judy Kendall herself is familiar with.
The resulting poetry film, made with Dark Sky Media and UKClimbing.com sits between a form of documentary tribute through poetry, and an evocation of the very themes that preoccupy the poet herself. It is in fact a form of portrait of Helen through Alison; or, not only Helen as conduit for Alison but Alison as conduit for Helen, where we see Helen more clearly as a result. And it is also a metanarrative on the process of writing: of the struggle of putting one word after another; of literally conceiving poetry, line by line.
The film follows Sheffield-born Helen as she climbs at Stanage Edge rising dramatically above stark moorlands in the Peak District, UK. She has mentioned before that this is a place where she finds she can compose; where lines surface and images resonate, whether climbing, running or walking with her whippet Charlie.
Echoing the contrast of the landscape the filmmakers have shot Helen’s authorial journey partly in extreme close-ups as if we are trying to see as close as possible into Helen’s mental poetic footholds, as well as the wider rock-climbing experience. As such the filmmaking is astoundingly direct, condensed and uncompromising; it is held together editorially as a series of complete visual vignettes, rather like the serial nature of climbing itself, from ledge to ledge. Most importantly we feel we are with Helen not watching her, and as such we also are touched by and reminded of Alison’s journey and spirit. Here the protagonist as writer but also climber is constantly shadowed by her subject, and as Helen moves up the rock face we sense both the struggle to write but also the struggles of women who are courageous and take risks.
With the topic of non-metaphorical poetry films still echoing in our minds we also might consider this particular work as riven with metaphorical seams (rock metaphors to discuss metaphor notwithstanding). Throughout ‘Dear Alison’ close-up shots of Helen’s hand writing the poem punctuate the film and at the end she draws a firm but balanced line under the last word. We might think of this as jointly associative for both climber and poet: the metaphorical horizontal evocation of the joyous release from the vertical ropes and carabiners that stop a climber’s fall; or equally, the poet’s release from language, deliberately letting the line go; the summit having been reached. However, the analogy between mountaineering and writing ends there: the poet displays their roped words, carabinered like woven lace; the mountaineer hauls in their rope erasing all traces of the climb.
I too was born in Sheffield, my mother’s hometown, where her side of the family were painters and decorators for nearly a century and my father worked in the steelworks. Whilst Helen grew up in Chesterfield I was brought up ‘down south’ on the borders of Herts and Cambs, where my mother never regained social consciousness, having lost the shopkeeper spirit of camaraderie that sustained her. Seeing life through her eyes, her failed compromise, has given me an exile’s fondness for the town. As such I take to Helen’s writing, and her crafted phrasing, as if it were of the city itself; so I too, like Helen, am channelling identity through another woman’s experience.
Helen Mort’s first collection ‘Division Street’ (Chatto and Windus, 2013) was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Costa Award and won the Jerwood Aldeburgh Prize. Her second collection ‘No Map Could Show Them’ was shortlisted for the Banff festival’s mountain book awards in Canada. Helen is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan. In 2017, she was a judge for the International Man Booker Prize.
The Longest Kiss by Gerhard Rhüm and Hubert Sielecki
Doctors’ orders: An Objective Lens, and a poet’s sense of hybrid rhythms
Since the 1950s poet and composer Gerhard Rühm has been working across sound poetry, spoken word, the visual image and music composition, with a particular interest in interrogating the borders between forms. In more recent years he has collaborated with fellow Austrian experimental filmmaker (and performer) Hubert Sielecki. In The Longest Kiss (Der Längste Kuss) based on a found newspaper article, they have produced a poetry film based on information about a record attempt for the longest kiss in the world. What is interesting about the article is that the competition was organised by The Association of Pharmacists in order to promote oral hygiene! This inspired Gerhard to create a literary text, but composed as a piece of music in four-four time. In November 2011 Rühm and Monika Lichtenfeld first performed this text with every word recited firstly just once and then gradually increasing until it was repeated seven times.
In Hubert’s film he iterates in German all the words himself but in the guise of 4 male and 4 female hospital medical staff who are gradually added to the scenario. Each doctor or nurse recites the text studiously by rote, creating layers of sound as it is repeated dutifully (inflexions included) by the ‘other’ characters. We experience a Surreal yet comically sanitised, choral drama, where individuality has become unimportant in harnessing and repeating the statistical information. Within a fixed frame the viewer becomes entranced by shifting surface patterning as more entities enter the arena: we become aware of random, flapping hand gestures, and forward bobbing motions; the startlingly visceral shapes of hospital instruments, accompanied by patterns of sound (if you don’t speak German) which become hypnotic in their didactic unfolding.
Sielecki told me with regard to Rühm’s work: ‘I try to keep the poet’s text pure – as a statement he himself made. I do not try to intertwine my feelings with the text and its deeper meaning. That is for the poet to show and let the viewer find his own interpretation. My work is to illustrate in a subtle or humorous way the words the author has found … I try not to bring any deep meaning of my own into the work of others … other than using technology to reflect the state of society (the aim of any artist and/or filmmaker).’
In a sense such objectivity invites us to look through the lens as a laboratory technician. We monitor Hubert’s meticulous movements as he presents a compelling symphony of clinical guises. Here the recited information anaesthetises the romance of the kiss, yet also draws us into a sense of the absurdity of the subject. Though we watch, we laugh, because we also want to shout: this is the wrong question, it is not the longest kiss but the most deeply felt and desired that we want to (but can never) measure. Does the most ardent love live in the biggest house? How can the all-consuming aura of a first kiss be harnessed to computer data, and national pride. On another level we could say that here we are witnessing the playing out of the absurdity of the inherited Descartian dichotomies within Western philosophy: the hierarchies of intellect over emotion, reason over instinct and word over matter.
This is also true of another of their films – Joke – (Witz) (youtube.com), also relating to the medical profession, where, interestingly, Rühm determined the camera angles and editing criteria. The film, in black and white, begins by explaining that a woman feels sick; she must see a doctor. The camera (here the viewer aligns with the doctor’s eye) roves slowly and steadily across her clothed body, as she undoes garments to reveal single words written on her skin in strategic areas e.g. Ich (I) above her belly button. The words gradually form the sentence ‘Dr I feel sick but all they (you) want is to have a good time’. We realise that, in being asked to undress for the doctor she has been compromised by his (and more insidiously our) power. Here it is clear that the relationship between ink and skin, declares not only a hierarchy of word over matter but much darker political and philosophical issues. Obeying the voice of authority, the rights of the individual can be akin to impotence. This role is particularly relevant to women and, in its most horrific form, reminds me of American artist Jenny Holzer’s Lustmord Project (first presented in Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin in November 1993) where descriptions voiced by the attackers or victims of rape in war zones are presented as short, written accounts in ink or ink and blood on skin.
The conflict between reason and emotion underpinning The Longest Kiss has created a scored, realist ‘musical painting as poetry film’, with intertwined historical contexts descending from art, poetry and music. Here the ‘performance’ is not only through human characterisation and the visual conflict (or humour) between uniform, emotional body language and studied recitation of an absurd event, but the perception of patterned shapes and sounds in tension and equivalence as we behold the fixed frame moving surface of the screen. The visual rhythms created by Hubert’s characters in combination with an almost metronomic, recited dialogue creates a hybrid visual/aural prosody from two conflicting principles (the ancient sign of a poet at work) as surely as linear verse, with or without a metrical ‘beat’, and cyclical turning create the poem on the printed page.
Sarah: January 2015
As it is impossible to provide subtitles in other languages the following English introduction acts as a brief explanation of the subject matter.
THE LONGEST KISS
The longest kiss in the world continued for 30 hours, 59 minutes and 27 seconds. Clara and Hannes who kissed each other for the first time on November 21, 1986 are determined to break this world record on Valentine`s Day, February 4. The world record attempt will be organised by the Association of Pharmacists. The pharmacists want to promote superior oral hygiene. They refer to the fact that during a normal kiss 40,000 parasites are transmitted, besides nine milligrams of water, some fat, proteins, salt and also 250 species of bacteria. The Association of Pharmacists chose Clara and Hannes because at the age of respectively 38 and 41 years they would be experienced. During the world record attempt they are neither allowed to lie down nor sit and may not visit the toilet
Birdfall by Adele Myers
The filmmaker Adele Myers has become recognised in the poetry film world for her spare, sublime and evocative films. She is also something of an exception in the field in that, as a result of teaching DSLR short film production, her films are always honed and crafted in line with the more traditional big budget productions, using film crew, lighting, and sound on set.
Known in the creative world of interactive art and performance in Manchester since the late nineties, she has had over twenty years experience delivering a wide variety of artistic projects and training programmes, including starting Bokeh Yeah! DSLR peer–to–peer training network and production hub. She was working at Manchester College until last year when she left the UK and began teaching local women film in the United Arab Emirates. Look out for Adele’s latest initiative the Timeline Poem-Film Challenge. The challenge is to make a poem film from a selected poem in a certain amount of time.
A chance meeting in 2010 with Ra Page of Comma Press led to her being asked to make her first poetry film. Ra was interested in filmmakers making films based on the poems that Comma Press published. The result was the now highly regarded Racing Time (2012) from the eponymous poem by Chris Woods, capturing the determination and sprightliness of an elderly fell runner as he reached the peak of a climb in freezing conditions.
Selected by Alistair Cook for the Dunbar Filmpoem festival 2013, Alistair then chose Adele as one of the ten filmmakers commissioned to make a film to a poem by the winners and commended poems for The Poetry Society’s annual National Poetry Competition prize in 2013.
The resulting film was Birdfall, based on the commended poem by Danica Ognjenovic. It was premiered at Felix Poetry Festival, and screened at The Southbank Centre, London as well as by Liberated Words at Encounters Short film and Animation Festival, Bristol, 2014.
I spoke to Adele in Fujairah during Ramadan about Birdfall.
S: So, did you choose the poem, because it seemed to gel well with your concise filming style?
A: I asked if we could choose, but we were allocated poems. Initially Danica’s reading wasn’t very clear as it was done on a mobile phone. I asked if actors could deliver the poem but we were asked to work with the original voice, which then needed a lot of editing to make it clearer.
S: Your editing worked well because she sounds very clear. Did you know what she was writing about?
A: No, we didn’t have any contact.
S: I like that, it left it up to you to interpret; you had no preconceptions on the subject. I personally thought she might have been writing about boat people.
A: I thought of that and at one point I looked into the idea of slaves coming over on boats … The poem felt like a vast poem and I didn’t think I could find a lake and boats and birds flying over without a budget, and I thought you could possibility do it in animation but I am more a live action filmmaker and so prefer to work with actors.
I don’t know if you know but I made two films. My first idea was about hens and roosters meeting in the Farmyard pub. Bikers come in a pub and the local ‘hens’ have fantasy sex with them, but as the bikers were unaware of this they leave the ‘hens’ disappointed, but they laugh it off as girls might in that situation. I think that possibly confused The Poetry Society. They didn’t want a film that couldn’t be promoted openly on their website to schools. When Danica eventually saw the film she was a little curious as to how I came up with this idea – because it wasn’t how she had envisioned the poem. The second one is more similar to her original ideas.Read full interview
S: What made you think of that idea? In your other films there normally seems to be some correlation between the poem and the image?
A: It was a domino effect. I couldn’t find a lake; and it was the first line –working out what it meant – ‘We were three hours at sea when the birds began to fall‘. It reminded me of the northern saying ‘three sheets to the wind‘ – meaning being drunk – I thought about if birds were in a situation then drunk; a friend has a country pub in Derbyshire and my northern roots kicked in as I imagined how people might interact in a certain situation. The pub being called the Farmyard was perfect as then the customers became the hens. I imagined the situation of these Rooster birds descending on the deck of this pub and ruffling the feathers of the hens.
Suddenly this Coronation Street goes wild scenario became the narrative. I showed it to Alistair and he was fine, but The Poetry Society was concerned about the sex scenes so I had to make a second film. So I came up with what I thought other people would accept, if I am honest – a Swan Lake scenario –and that would be okay, especially if a ballerina was the bird.
S: Do you know why you chose a confined space?
A: That might have been because it was one of the only spaces we could get on a tight budget that I could also control. I knew someone who ran that space as a studio and so I knew it was available, and I had rehearsed in there and I knew we wouldn’t be disturbed, and we didn’t have time for anywhere else.
A: It was quite dark. We made the space our own and shot in a day and edited in three days. I made a square box out of cellophane and lit it to create atmosphere. It looked beautiful. Within my films I try and elevate the poems and try and take them somewhere else.
S: What camera did you use?
A: All shot on DSLR. I’ve got a Canon 5D Mark III.
S: The quality of the film is so good.
A: Yes Thanks. All my film so far have been shot on a DSLR. We have strict shooting settings that we don’t go beyond …
S: How many people were involved in making the film?
A: Myself as director, an assistant, a sound editor and of course the dancer Liis-Maria Toomsalu. The main camera – Richard Addlesee followed my directions; I was also second camera on this particular film.
S: That’s a nice place to be; you can watch the other cameraperson and you know how you are covering them. And storyboarding?
A: I often don’t storyboard, especially if I am filming it myself but it helps if there are other crew on the shoot to relay a shot list to them or show an idea, so I have used them.
S: That’s unusual since every other aspect of the filming process is quite tightly controlled.
A: It’s because if I am shooting myself I have the idea in my head. I then go into the editing and know what I want very clearly, better than an editor can interpret, because I was at the shoot, I’ve seen all the footage already as I shot it. Also, usually you’d have a monitor but the way we are doing it we barely look at it, doing a one-day shoot. We also had an assistant to throw feathers at a fan on the floor to make them float. It made the film more abstract, more ambiguous.
S: Did you choose the choreography?
A: I choreographed a bit – because I am from a dance background, I studied Creative Arts at Crewe and Alsager College and majored in Dance. This film also married my dance background so gave me an opportunity to explore dance again. The dancer Liis-Maria is from Eastern Europe, and is classically trained. She was actually my neighbour in Hulme in Manchester, although I’d never knew her before the film.
S: I didn’t know you had been a dancer. Somehow then this film does all seem to make perfect sense, and the symbolism etc., even if you came to it in a roundabout way. What about the make up?
A: The dancer did quite a lot of work on that and her costume – we looked at birds, emblems and tattoos and Swan Lake, and she showed me photos of suggestions. I didn’t make any strict instructions on what she could or couldn’t do; in the end she decided. Liis-Maria is also pierced and tattooed so it was a different take on classical; an alternative classical dance.
S: You chose the music?
A: I originally worked with fairground themes, music box-type sounds, like the ballerina in a box. I wanted something soft to lead you into something but not being sure what it is. I had been going down the fairground route for some time and we rehearsed a lot with that, but in the edit it didn’t work so well.
S: Was it also governed by the softness of her voice?
A: No it was more about the setting – making it mythical and mysterious.
S: What about the budget?
A: After the first poem film I was on a really tight budget. I spent about £400 on this one, including buying the music. I had written to the composers numerous times for permission and I was in Antwerp (about to screen at the Felix Poetry Festival) and waiting for it to go on screen so had to pay 200 euros for the rights just before it aired.
S: Do you always work with someone else’s poem?
A: Yes. And I take a long time choosing the right one. I have never done my own, I might do one day. I write a little poetry, though not all the time, and I’m not sure its any good really, but the other day I thought about sending one to a competition – I thought I quite like that poem.
Lithuania – Poetry and Place
When I first visited Lithuania in 2009 it was for a British Council funded solo exhibition in Klaipeda. I had a warm and welcoming experience, and was even treated to free accommodation by the gallery. I also travelled alone recording and absorbing life by the Baltic Sea. At that time the country had officially been independent from the Soviet Union since 1990-1991; but of course change is gradual, and political eruptions were (and still are) potentially on the horizon. My exhibition and talk was about Voices and Silences, screening two poetry films and a selection of non-dualist or two-in-one prints, where philosophically and materially both the positive and negative from a printing plate are part of one work. Part of my practice is to create poems and pieces that encourage the viewer to think about this relationship in a contemplative, or paradoxical way.
After six years I feel very fortunate that I can return to Lithuania under the banner of Liberated Words and poetry film. Where better to review the contemporary situation than through the poetic temperature of Lithuanian poets and filmmakers at TARP poetry film festival. One question I want to ask is how much do they think they are changing as a country. Do they aim to include their past in their poetic works as they move forward? A term which has arisen from many older, exiled poets is unbelonging, in a sense adrift from a mother ship that was your home but can no longer be your home. Alternatively, some poets may feel the need to erase the past to begin again; to suppress their national identity for a united philosophical worldview of mankind existing idealistically beyond borders.
The global Internet and the internationalism of poetry film can perhaps transcend the difficulties of other genres, but we have another problem of language and translation. This is an area which has often arisen as English is the dominant language, yet we want to hear the nuances, inflexions and temporal, emotive rhythms of other languages. This is in addition to the translation of words into images that often takes place in poetry film collaborations. So, we have three primary forms of translation to experience and absorb: socio-historic, linguistic and from verbal to visual-verbal.
One poet who can provide us with a glimpse into the poetry film of contemporary Lithuania is Gabriele Labanauskaite – the founder and organiser of TARP poetry film festival. As a poet and dramatist Gabriele began making audiovisual works in 2004 and started AVaspo (Serpent of AudioVisual Poetry) see en.avaspo.lt. She began TARP in 2006 as a logical extension of working in a multimedia environment, with the aim of creating a platform for friends working in different types of poetic artistic expression.
Her work is best described as experimental, performative, music-based poetry film. In some ways she is like the Icelandic singer and musician Björk in that she performs loose narratives which are suffused with the music and visuals; but rather than songs she creates texts which are then interpreted by musicians and video artists. Opposed to the traditional convention of recitation her voice is used like another instrument, as part of a group of highly skilled, avant-garde musicians. The video is then created where she often features dancing to her own rhythms, or moving through strange metaphorical spaces.
In this film O kas? or Who? from 2012 Gabriele and friends go on a car journey to a picnic. Whilst in some senses surreal in approach we have a strong sense of her national identity. The sense of a looming presence and the words ‘Who is behind this brick wall’ are repeated; and ‘they’ are always felt to be present even amongst nature. It is important to remember that her work, featuring women, makes the difficult environment she has grown up in all the more poignant. The innocent act of a picnic juxtaposes with an insistent soundtrack, and whilst animated flowers twirl across the screen joyously, encroaching leaves twine around the girls and pull them away. Finally they dance in abandonment as the music reaches a crescendo. This is a film which, strong on visual and musical content, needs very little translation; it is a new tale of a new Lithuania finding its feet, told from a woman’s perspective.
Gabriele will be one of the poetry filmmakers featured in my book on poetry film which will be published by Intellect Books.