Film-poems are an exciting new artistic genre that has enormous potential, that is, if film-poets take the following steps to create works that have a lasting impact on their audiences.
1. ‘Storify’ the poem
Poetry readings all too often segway passed audiences who have not been given the time or context in which to understand or savour the lines. Before the hearer has the chance to enter a new imaginative dimension, immerse themselves in the atmosphere a poem creates or reflect upon its significance, they are catapulted into another reading, on a completely different theme, which is already part-way through before they have re-tuned and worked out what it is, or could possibly, be about.
Audio-visuals that provide a story, time-frame and context for a poem, therefore have the potential to dramatically enhance audience engagement with individual words and lines, revolutionizing the way people experience poetry and making it more widely accessible. The producers of film-poems, which should include the poet, need to get behind the poet’s intentions, and explore the poet’s imagination and inspiration from which the poem was born. In this way they can capture the essence of a poem, distilling it down to its most potent meaning. It is this ‘essence’ that will determine the overall trajectory and mood of a piece.
Visuals and additional sounds and silences can deliver more of the experience, thinking and feeling of a poet than can be conveyed in a simple reading alone, making the film-poem a more exciting and holistic experience than simply the sum of its parts. Multi-sensory works that draw out a poem’s meanings, associations and subtexts line-by-line can be achieved using a variety of approaches, such as abstract, impressionist and non-literal visualisations of the poem’s all-important ‘essence’.
2. Create a synthesis
True collaboration in the making of the film-poem is essential for creating a synthesis of these two untamed art forms. If their union is not seamless, the audio-visuals will detract from the experience of the poem, or vice versa, resulting in a disjointed and fragmented video and a bewildered audience.
The contextualization of the poem and the discovery of its essence underpin this synthesis, so the whole endeavor hinges on open communication between the poet and videographers. This means that supportive and honest relationships among artists are the foundation for this art form, arguably even more so than for the cast members of a ballet or opera, since the videographers and poet are compelled to share and explore experiences together which are often personal, in addition to more universal themes as one might explore in a third party script or score.
3. Move the audience
A successful film-poem should have a lasting impact on the audience, and one that draws them back to this art form again and again. The poetry and audio-visuals, as one unique experience, should move an audience to think, see, do, imagine, laugh, cry, or remember. It should evoke an atmosphere that enthralls and captivates. Here again, synthesis is crucial. The words, sounds and visuals should together create a mood, one mood at a time, though it may be multi-layered and textured with allusions and other subtleties.
If the words, sounds and visuals create conflicting effects in the mind of the viewer, the film-poem will come across as discordant, even jarring, and an audience is unlikely to come back for more. Many film-poems have fallen into this trap, for example, by using audio-visuals that obscure, trivialise, exaggerate or simply distract their audience from the essence of the spoken words in a way that undermines any impact they might have had.
4. Open imaginations
Videographers and poets need to work closely in film-poem production in order to make sure the work expands and liberates the imaginations of those experiencing the poetry for the first time. It is incredibly easy to end up producing a work which confines the imagination with images and sounds that too definitively prejudice an audience towards or against one interpretation or another. This can weaken the impact of a word or line, or even a whole poem. The sounds and visuals should instead explore new perspectives on the spoken words, derived from the subtext or broader context and story that inspired the poem. This involves the careful choice of sounds and images that trigger the mind to make new, unexpected and serendipitous connections. It takes a great deal of thought and discussion, trial and error, and the testing of diverse audience perspectives on the material to get this right, and even after all of that, not everyone will be satisfied with the result.
Using techniques for slowing or speeding up motion and other special effects, or viewing certain elements in microcosm or macrocosm are also ways in which videographers and poets can experiment with new perspectives on a poems subject matter, revealing aspects of the world that we do not normally notice or cannot experience with our finite senses alone. Making use of cutting edge technologies and Apps in film-poem production is another means of enhancing audience experience and enabling audience interaction with the works and their creators. However, all these effects and add-ons can undermine the delicate balance of a film-poem and should be used with caution.
In spite of the considerable challenges this art form presents, I am convinced that sounds and visuals have great potential to open up the imagination to new interpretations and possibilities arising from the context, rhythmic framework and essence of a spoken poem.
5. Sense the rhythms
Rhythms, cadences, dynamics, tones and of course, those deliciously laden pauses are what make spoken poetry distinct from spoken prose, and when these are cleverly and imaginatively reflected in visuals and ambient sounds, they are often the key to that extraordinary, often illusive synthesis between film and poetry. It is an incongruity of rhythms among the elements of a film-poem that so often leads to film-poem failure.
A successful film-poem preserves the musicality of the poetry, without crossing a line that redefines the work as a music video. While it may be tempting to explore a hybrid piece that is part music video, part poetry video, one must tread very carefully. Films that feature musical melodies with any prominence, or are led by musical rhythms rather than the natural rhythms inherent within the spoken poetry, usually find themselves falling squarely within music video categories once they are released. If you set out to make a poetry video, and end up with a successful music video, then congratulations are due to you of course. However, should you set your heart on contributing to the new genre of the film-poem, it is important to keep a spoken rendition of the poem, whose rhythms are directed by the lines themselves and the reader or poet’s interpretation of them, as the primary vehicle with which you convey the ‘essence’ of the work. The visuals and other sounds are a supporting cast, no less vital for bringing the poem to life, but usually, if not always, to be found in a responsive mode.
Anastasia Somerville-Wong is a poet and researcher at the University of Exeter, currently working on a series of film-poems for The Poetry of Places Project