As well as being a poet and creative writing tutor, I also teach film studies, so it was a huge privilege for me to interview Helen Dewbery. She is a brilliant film-maker with a very unusual focus. I hope some of you will be inspired to explore combining text and visuals thanks to her advice below. It would surely be a fascinating and innovative way of coming to a deeper understanding of our own words.
Helen, thank you so much for taking the time to think about these questions. To begin with, I think maybe people mistakenly think a poetry film is a film in which a poet or an actor reads a poem and this is most definitely not the case. It seems to be a genre in its own right. How would you define a poetry film?
Thank you for inviting me to talk about poetry film. Your question is a good place to start.
The common conventions of any poetry film will be to include all or part of a poem that is combined, in some way, with images and sound. Beyond that, the answer to defining a poetry film may lie in what values one wants to prioritise. Is it a film genre, a poem, an artwork, or some sort of hybrid work? There are poetry films that can be defined within all these categories.
I have been studying and researching poetry film for many years and I have closely followed its development. I have become increasingly convinced by my idea that there’s a formation of words, images and sound that can intrinsically be described as a form of poetry. And in this form of poetry, every poetic and film device can used – rhythm, repetition, metaphor, and so on. Structure and syntax come from words and images. Frames and transitions give space for enjambment. Not all poetry film will fall into this literary definition, but the idea that poetry film might be described as a form of poetry is the area of poetry film that interests me the most.
How did you get into making poetry films? It’s quite an unusual choice. I believe you have a background as a photographer so you must have a really good visual eye.
My passion for poetry film began on a flight home from New York in 2008. I was scanning my photos, my partner Chaucer Cameron was writing, and as I looked from the screen to the page, I knew I wanted to put images and words together. I spent the next decade studying film and poetry whenever I could.
I’ve read poetry and carried a camera with me as far back as I can remember, and my photography has been quite conceptual, so to discover that I can put the two together has been one of life’s generous gifts.
That’s so interesting! I love those moments when two passions collide and this is such a wonderful example. I was wondering how do you decide which poems to use? I imagine you can’t just use any poem, that there has to be the right feeling/the right “fit”. What do you look for?
That’s an interesting question that I often think about. I usually know from a quick read of a poem if it’s a poem that I can work with – and I don’t go into a deep analysis of it at that point. I have an instinct as to whether I will be able to relate to it visually. It also needs to be a poem that has enough space. The main criteria for me, and this won’t be the same for everyone, is that I can relate to it emotionally or that it has some mystery to it. In short: does it capture my imagination? And then there’s the sound of it: when I read it aloud, or I can hear in my head the poet reading it, that brings rhythm and pace.
Sometimes I’ll start on a poem, and may even be some way through it, before realising that it’s just not working. Occasionally I’ve had to give up on a poetry film – but I usually find a way through once I’ve started. It can be hard work. And I welcome this opportunity to say that people often don’t realise how many hours, weeks, months and in some cases even years it can take to make a poetry film that works. I can literally work on one transition for a whole day!
What is the process of collaboration with the poet? How do you work together to produce a film? How do you think the film stands alone from the poem? Is it your interpretation or the poet’s in conversation with you?
I’ve been fortunate to work with Nine Arches Press poets since late 2017.
I spend a lot of time with a poem until I begin to know it intimately – often when I’m working on a poetry film I wake up reciting the lines. I work differently with each poet, sometimes having lengthy discussions (recently via Zoom), or by email correspondence. I have far more confidence nowadays to ask a poet exactly what they meant when they wrote such and such – a word or a line. I know that when a poem goes out into the world it no longer belongs to the poet – details can be re-imagined, and ideas revealed beyond the writer’s intention. But I don’t believe that when I’m making a poetry film that the poem can mean just anything I want it to mean. Sometimes new interpretations can be quite trivial in comparison to the far more complex and interesting layers in a well-crafted poem. If the poem is in a collection, I will, of course, read the collection and research around it, including any reviews and comments, to build up as much knowledge as I can about the work and the context of the poem.
Occasionally the poetry film comes intuitively and quite quickly, most of the time, as I’ve said, it takes much longer. For instance, I began to work on a poem but when I received the voice over from the poet it didn’t match how I’d envisaged the poem. I began to re-edit some film clips that I had put together, but also to question whether it was the right poem to use. I re-studied the collection to get a better understanding of what was intended. I then created a further metaphor (though there’s always a risk in doing this – you may kill off the one that is already there by replacing it, illustrating it or confusing it), and eventually I was happy with the outcome.
Collaborating takes risks, you learn from experience – there should be a manual! But when they work well it brings huge creative rewards.
This is fascinating Helen, and the poets you work with must feel they are in a really safe pair of hands thanks to your insight and meticulousness. What would you say have been your most successful poetry films to date?
Through making poetry films I get to understand my own world through the words of someone else. The process of making poetry films literally changes my life. So, I view success through the process as much as, or perhaps more than, the end result. For example, in “Endlings”, my most recent film with Angela France, I researched Thylacines, passenger pigeons, tattered butterflies, Laughing Owls. I laid down in a field in Wiltshire imagining I was looking at ‘the Forest Thrush, circle the sky/possessed/by an older, greater need and scarred/by hope’, I can’t describe this experience to you exactly, but I still feel it. The result in the film was a complex system of delicate overlays that see through the generations, that lose and gain hope, that ‘weeps for the want of an ark’. If that is success, and I believe it is, then many of my films are equally successful.
I can’t measure success, my own or anyone else’s, through gathering wreaths and awards. What’s the point? I’m not aiming for an Oscar. I want to make the world just a little bit better for myself and for those I meet on the way – and who knows, that may result in something truly incredible.
I love Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker”. In one scene of the film Stalker lies asleep in an apocalyptic landscape and has a strange dream; the voiceover to this dream is Tarkovsky’s father’s poetry and the words and visuals go together perfectly. Have you been inspired at all by the presence of poetry and film in any feature films or do you feel this is quite a rare combination that maybe you would like to see more of?
Ah, yes, the dream scene! I saw that short clip before I saw the whole film, it works as a poetry film in itself, but you also know it is part of something broader. There are many films with poetry in them, but I think in “Stalker” it is less predictable than most. But, always happy to see more poetry and film, however it is combined.
Your question has reminded me of the bee in Lee Chang-dong’s film “Poetry”. It acts as more than part of the ambient soundtrack – in addition to foretelling something, it interacts with the protagonist’s thoughts. I tried to replicate something similar in a poetry film but with disastrous results – it’s a lot harder to achieve what Chang-dong did than it looks!
Does film poetry satisfy your creativity or are there other creative pastimes you undertake? I know you are co-editor of an on-line journal, Poetry Film Live and perhaps you could just tell us a little about your involvement with this?
I set up Poetry Film Live as a place for poetry film to be submitted and published. The poetry film ‘community’ is international which is something that has brought new and rich dimensions to my life, it truly has. I’ve travelled to places I wouldn’t normally have gone to and come across a diverse range of voices and identities. I think of my involvement with the Wild Whispers Project that started with one poem and led to 14 versions in 10 languages and 12 poetry films. The films, in different languages, were all ‘whispered’ from the previous one. I was a small part of that project, but I found it very moving and magical to be an essential part of something bigger.
Poetry film now takes most of my time, but I have been working for a number of years on a photographic project with a working title: “Mum’s Things”. It started in an attempt to resolve the problem of what to do with my mother’s things, which had accumulated in my attic after her death. They were not particularly valuable and were in the main everyday objects. But it is in everyday objects that we deposit meanings, using them to remember things, and to construct ideas about how we used to live. My initial instinct was just to photograph each item: as Fox Talbot said over 150 years ago: “the whole cabinet… of a collector of old china might be depicted in paper in little more time than it would take … to make a written inventory”. So, I started with a photographic inventory, and then together with some of the many letters that she wrote, I have since worked on different ways of making a ‘museum’, which has so far included a catalogue and a poster. I’m not sure the project will ever be finished. It’s been a way to process grief and a lifetime of displacement through adoption – but that’s a very long story…
I’m sure the genre of film poetry will grow and grow, what advice would you give to someone who might like to take this path?
Watch as many poetry films as you can! There’s plenty on Poetry Film Live.
My following advice is aimed at poets – extend your poetic practise into working with visual language. Wherever your inspiration to write comes from, that might be a place to start – combine what you see with what you write. Return to a location you’ve written about, and with your phone take images, take film clips. See what happens!
Trust your voice and intuition however off-piste, quirky, unfashionable or experimental that may be. (That’s why I’m impressed with the work of Finn Harvor – he combines, film, voiceover, sound and sketches in a way I haven’t seen anyone else do it.) As in many things, ask yourself why you are doing it and what you want to achieve. The result will come from your imagination, and then practice, practice, practice! When you feel like it’s time to give up – keep going! And check out the training section on Poetry Film Live.
You are co-director of a very popular poetry festival, the Big Poetry Weekend. What do you feel you bring to this role in terms of your background? I was able to come along this year via Zoom and it was stupendous!
Thank you. It’s been a great privilege to have been involved in the Big Poetry Weekend (formerly Poetry Swindon Festival). I’m hugely thankful to Hilda Sheehan for giving me free rein to develop poetry film at the festival since 2014. It started when Chaucer and I showed the first screening of our collaborative work “Nothing in the Garden”, a 30-minute poetry film collection. Each year after that we put on something different, including poetry film projected onto the walls of the Richard Jefferies Museum, an installation with two screens and one voice over, and screenings in the central public library. This year, my final year with the festival, I showed my video essay “In Search of the Perfect Poetry Film” – it seemed a good note to finish on!
Any strange and interesting experiences as you worked on your films?
I always smile when I think of a residential visit I made to Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel with a group of friends. The conversation on the way over went something like this:
“I’ll be focusing on birds.”
Me: “I’m going to find a portal that will take me to another world.”
I was working on “Nothing in the Garden”. It maps an internal tectonic journey through maternal loss from England to Japan. Being part of the islands weather, landscape and buildings for five days, gave me a place to live the stories.
More recently, working with Katie Griffiths on “Moonbather”. The soundtrack included Katie singing a version of the French childhood tune “Au Clair de la Lune”. I headed to an orchard to start filming but when I got there the footpath had been closed due to bad weather. By chance I came across a nearby woodland which only later I discovered was Friary Wood – once a monastic settlement of an order founded in France. That seemed so apt!
I love those moments when things just seem right – when human effort combines with something ‘other’.
I totally agree, those moments are so rare, precious and thought-provoking. What’s next on the horizon for you Helen?
Thanks for asking. I’m starting 2022 working with Chaucer Cameron on another poetry film collection, this time based on “In an Ideal World I’d Not Be Murdered”. Then I’ll be starting a monthly series of online poetry film events in partnership with Lucy English and Bristol’s Lyra Poetry Festival. I will also be continuing to collaborate with poets from Nine Arches Press. I hope this year brings good things for you too!
Thank you so much for these generous responses Helen, there is much to savour here. You can find more information about Helen and her work below:
Helen Dewbery has taught poetry film extensively, in person and online. Her work has appeared internationally at poetry and film festivals, where she has also presented talks and curations. She currently works alongside Nine Arches Press creating poetry films and book trailers with their authors. For seven years she delivered a programme of poetry film events at Poetry Swindon Festival, including events in the community and an outdoor projection. Her video essay ‘In Search of the Perfect Poetry Film’, is a personal journey with a searching quality that resists easy answers or received ideas. She is currently exploring how poetry film is used to express trauma. She has worked on projects which have included the poetry film collection ‘Nothing in the Garden’ and has edited various photography and poetry books. She founded the online poetry film magazine Poetry Film Live www.poetryfilmlive.com
All photographs courtesy of Helen Dewbery
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon. More information at www.sueburge.uk
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