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Making Poetry Films: Some Discoveries

I’m stingy at the box office, but last week I saw Life of Pi in the theater for the second time. The movie is a visual knockout, a delirium of color, probably the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen onscreen, but what I love most about it is it central metaphor. The script is deeply […]

Still from Amy Schmitt’s motionpoem, which adapts Erin Belieu’s “When at a Certain Party in NYC”

I’m stingy at the box office, but last week I saw Life of Pi in the theater for the second time. The movie is a visual knockout, a delirium of color, probably the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen onscreen, but what I love most about it is it central metaphor.

The script is deeply flawed. When the narrative is unveiled as an allegory, the telling is clumsy. But in that moment the film is transformed into a poem.

In my dual roles as literary director of Motionpoems–a poetry film company that will premiere a dozen new shorts at the Walker on April 24–and as a publishing poet, I am interested in the intersection of poetry and film. I’m interested in where the language of film intersects with the language of poetry. I’m always wondering what the forms have to teach one another.

It’s one thing to say that a script approaches the poetic. But what happens when a poem is the script? That’s what we do: At Motionpoems, co-founder Angella Kassube and I give great contemporary poems to our network of filmmakers and invite them to use them as scripts for short films over which they retain complete creative control. We do it because we believe film can introduce more people to the world of poetry.

Poems are, in many ways, perfect scripts. They often tell a story whether they’re narrative or not. They have a structure, a shape, and a progression of ideas, and they involve a speaker or implied speaker. More importantly, they are complete works of art, wholly contained and perfect.

We now have more than 30 films in our three-year archive at motionpoems.com. Here are some things we’ve discovered about this unique blending of artistic languages:

Pacing is essential.

Listening to poetry out loud poses a challenge for most people, a bit like being led on a blindfolded walk in a tangled wilderness. Poetry is a dense, convoluted landscape, and one can easily get lost if you’re not used to that landscape. Poets who are great readers of their own work are rare, mostly because their familiarity with their own work makes them tend to forget that every listener is new to it; often they simply read too quickly. For this reason, Motionpoems video artists don’t often utilize the poet’s voice, and choose to utilize a more careful voice-over instead. A film can pace a poem by slowing it down, pause it so the reader can catch up, and allow it to unfold on a timeline that’s organic to the way in which the poem might be absorbed by a first-time listener, not the way it might be read by a poetry aficionado.

Film can add layers.

A great example of excellent pacing is Scott Wenner’s adaptation of Norwegian poet Dag Straumsvag’s “Karl” from our 2010 season, but it’s also an excellent example of how a film can layer metaphors on top of a poem’s existing metaphors. “Karl” is, by itself, a haunting little narrative poem about a man who keeps getting misplaced calls from the police, but the film adaptation boldly sets the poem in the context of a derelict basement and uses two bugs—a moth and a spider—as central characters in the drama. Like Life of Pi, the film becomes an allegory for the poem, not a literal depiction of it, and as such, it multiplies the poem’s power to mean.

Film can amplify humor.

Most people think poetry is gravely serious. Not so. A lot of contemporary poetry is downright hilarious, but you wouldn’t know it from its sober façade on the printed page. A great recent 2012 motionpoem that takes its cues from film noir and turns a sardonic poem by Erin Belieu into a hard-boiled rant is Amy Schmitt’s adaptation of “When at a Certain Party in NYC.” The thing moves like a city bus: In this case a literal depiction is the perfect choice because the scenery glides by so quickly. Most poets chafe at any mention of the arts as entertainment, but film happily exploits the entertainment in art.

Film can restore poetry’s original power.

It should be said that what my Motionpoems co-director Angella Kassube and I are attempting isn’t to make poems better, or to interpret them literally, but to consider them as starting points for another art form, and thereby extend poetry’s typical readership. If, in the process, our video artists interpret, well, that’s a casualty of the process. Some will take exception to this, but it misses the point; our mission is to treat the poem as a creative start-point, not an endpoint. At The Playwrights’ Center, where I worked for a time, I was surrounded by theater artists, all of them collaborative by training and necessity. Poetry’s origin as an oral/performing art leaves it rather orphaned in print. Just as television is finally rediscovering the power of great scripts, Angella and I believe film can restore some of poetry’s birthrights.

We hope you’ll come see our new films at the Walker on April 24 and share in the discussion.