ZEBRA festival sparks new insights into what makes a successful poetry film

Poet and filmmaker Annelyse Gelman has a good essay up at Poetryfilm Magazine called “Making Space,” in which she describes what it’s like to attend the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival. She says she felt

for the first time like I truly belonged to a community of creators – a rich, diverse group of artists with all kinds of backgrounds and aesthetic sensibilities. There were experimental animations, pristine digital renderings, shaky handheld films; films with fully fleshed-out characters or no human subject at all; French, English, Dutch, German, Lao, Afrikaans. The festival, in short, made space for poetry-films, and, in doing so, made space for me – both as an artist and as a member of the audience. These films made me fall in love, hold my breath, roll my eyes, clench my hands into fists, squirm with discomfort, laugh – exactly as it should be.

Gelman talks about some of the poetry-film conventions on evidence at the festival, such as the overwhelming preference for voiceover as the delivery vehicle for the text, or the frequent use of “a deep, droning score.” And she had some comments that I wish every aspiring poetry filmmaker would take to heart on the importance of maintaining “a delicate balance between satisfying and defying the audience’s expectations.”

A film can fail to satisfy if it’s too obvious, too predictable, but also if the connection between film and poem feels too tenuous and arbitrary. On the former end of the spectrum, a filmic adaptation of The Song of the Wandering Aengus left me cold. Though beautifully rendered in colorful, lively animation – I loved the POV shot from the inside of a trout, berrylike, glowing – the imagery overall tracked far too precisely to that in the poem, culminating in a literal illustration of the poem’s final lines: »And pluck till time and times are done, / The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.«

The literal image of a tree with silver and gold apples not only failed to augment these lines for me – it actually seemed to rob them of their metaphorical power. Yeats’ metaphor works through suggestion, conveying an equivalence that seems to vibrate across the senses (»moon« and »sun« are highly visual, tied together by spatial location, temporality, and light, whereas »apples« evokes touch, taste, and smell). It brings together the heavy, fraught »poetic« with the ordinary, mundane fruit. Its repetition closes the gap between two vastly different scales (the cyclical movement of celestial bodies, and nature’s cycle of growth and decay), reminding me of my own human complicity in these cycles. Seeing this language depicted literally, though, hollows it. I neither need nor want to see the tree, the apples.

Similarly, Yeats’ lines »And when white moths were on the wing, / And moth-like stars were flickering out« summon a multimodal response from me as a reader: simultaneously, I’m struck by the ›i‹ and ›o‹ shapes, the softness of the w-sounds punctuated by the firelike crackle of »flickering,« the harmony between the visual instability of a wing (fanlike when opened, almost invisible when closed) and a star (flickering or, perhaps, only visible in one’s peripheral vision – we want to look at the moth, but we also want to look away, so that we might see it better). I think part of the work of these lines is directly dependent on their indefinite nature – they suggest and evoke possibilities for ways of hearing or reading or imagining, without making demands. In other words, they make space for me as a reader. But by visually rendering moths flying up into the sky, Aengus the poetry-film collapses these possibilities, this multimodal experience, into a single specific rendering, that drastically narrows the space I have to maneuver as a reader/viewer. It’s suddenly not moths, it’s these particular moths that you see before you on the screen.

Read the rest.

Dave Bonta

Dave is the founder of Moving Poems, and posts videos for his own poems (along with lots of other stuff) at Via Negativa. Here's a bio.

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