Saturday, February 11, 2012

THE ADAPTIVE EYE: filmic adaptation of poetry

For any number of years now there have been attempts in this country to free poetry from the dull prison of classroom textbooks and ‘talking head’ recitations by the titular hears of American poetry.

Back in the fifties, it was Beat poets jamming with jazz combos. From the eighties on, underground Hip Hop, Rap and Slam scenes have attracted wide populist audiences.

And importantly, a network of Spoken Word performance scenes has grown into a continent-wide ‘democratic vista’ of cafes, bars, clubs, libraries, church basements and other ‘below the radar’ venues. Right beneath the elevated noses of the nation’s poetry elite, who typically do not deign to participate in something so far beneath their status and position.

There've been a forays into mass media too -- most recently the emergence in the past decade of programming like the Def Poetry Jam, but going back to the “Radio-Modernist“ David Burliuk, who saw the possibilities of a future in which ‘The voice of a song sung in Chicago may be heard in Australia and in the Steppes of Russia.’

But for the most part, fiction writers and musicians have taken advantage of developments in radio, film and television. We the poets have basically missed the boat.

It’s in this context that I received with enthusiasm what turned out to be a stunning ‘film-poem’ by poet Robert Peake, a lovely rendering of his poem Snow Den which he filmed after a snowfall outside London a few weeks ago. ( “You must become a student of winter, carry/a dagger of ice near the heart” intones Peake, as the film’s invisible narrator, as images of English woodlands emerge one by one. “Only then/will you see where the snow dens are made/to wait out the blue world in darkness.”

Peake's visual treatment, supported with a background soundtrack of hauntingly beautiful  5th century plainsong, results in a near perfectly product.

These days I'm involved in a similar project here in New York. After brainstorming with transplanted Australian Neon Animator Jack Feldstein and hashing it out with the editors of the Smalls Jazz Café poetry anthology “Token Entry: Poems of the NYC Subway,“ we’ve pulled together a Subway Film Series, pairing some of New York’ freshest filmmaking talent with poems from the anthology. (

For those of you in town, this series of six short films is set to debut March 4th, 4 p.m, in Jackson Heights Queens at the Queens Film Festival.

I’m very excited by what I’ve seen. The filmmakers’ treatment of the poems runs the gamut -- from attempts to straightforwardly 'match' the subject matter in a poem to more free-handed creations that complement, enhance and interact with portions of the text or the full text itself.

In some cases the partnership amounts to use of a part of text as a significant interwoven dialogue with other elements. In some cases, there is a deconstructed partnership, more cubist and experimental in feel.

And in at least one of the short films, the originating poem serves as an epigraphic springboard to a fully realized and freestanding film.

Most importantly, in every case the filmmaker has dared to escape the leash of simple video documentation of a recitation, and has produced a film that is its own artifact.

This is not to diminish the value of having the video access to contemporary poets’ work which we have today through Youtube and other media. There’s plenty of that stuff going around. But to me, too much of what may be found is painfully under produced and uninteresting -- little more than a poet with a microphone in his or her face, standing rigidly behind a podium while a single camera rolls.

In my view, the internet age affords us a chance to do so much more, to produce works that help bring poetry back to 'the people,' and in a format peculiarly suited to our art.

Will we take that chance?

Tastefully taking advantage of the opportunities of film-- the way Robert Peake has, the way the filmmakers in the Subway Film Series have done -- can yield astonishingly fresh results. Groundbreaking results, that to my mind point the way to enormous possibilities and hope for the future vitality of poetry.

In this competitive and modern world of finely produced art and entertainment options, surely we can consider taking the leash off poetry, and let it run free a little.

Let the poetry elite, who derive the bulk of the tangible benefit from the way poetry is made available, dismiss the idea of poetry film. The rest of us, we the poets, have nothing to lose but our chains.


  1. Hi George. Good post. In the past, I've though about creating a poetic movie. I had actually gotten together with a film maker at one point and we recorded a few scenes, though the footage never got edited. I know another film maker who says that he wants to work with me, so it is an idea that I'll definitely return to in the future. Cheers!

  2. Actually, there is one movie that I poetically appear in. It's called "Artmosphere." It was a show that ran at the Tilles Center for 4 nights that featured poetry, music, dance, and live art. It was captured on film and the final results came out pretty good. That was a really fun time and I'm glad I have the movie. :)