an interview with author and editor Sarah Tremlett by artist Rebecca Rezakhani Hilton
‘The Poetics of Poetry Film (Intellect Books, June, 2021) is a ground-breaking, encyclopedic work, comprising nearly 400 pages, with multiple contributors … it explores the history and different types of poetry film, a must for students, researchers, poets, filmmakers, across the fields of media, filmmaking, literary and cultural studies, art and philosophy and sheds light on the fast-growing genre…’
RRH: Hello Sarah, so nice to catch up again. So, let’s begin at the beginning. What inspired you to put The Poetics of Poetry Film book together?
ST: Well, it is a long story, so I think it would be really helpful here to get to know the different places I am ‘coming from’. I have a very broad artistic background, as a painter, textile designer, performer for photographers in the New Romantic era, even some low-key acoustic singing and song writing, alongside poems I haven’t shown anyone. I also worked in the theatre as a dresser, and in publishing where one company produced books on wood engraving. I was (and still am) a proofreader and editor, and also since the early days, I have been exhibiting paintings, and selecting and writing features as an arts journalist for a regional magazine. I showed a lot of work when I lived outside Philadelphia in the USA for three years (end of the nineties), but there came a time when painting didn’t ‘say’ anything for me anymore. During my time in America, I also had one feature film script optioned, and one stage play produced, alongside previously being put forward for a BBC/Radio Times scriptwriting award. Moving to the UK, I made a couple of short films, learning as I went along. I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, and even taught English as a Second Language, often using poems as prompts. Ultimately, I found I wanted to research women artists and text-on-screen for a Fine Art degree where I was awarded a First Class Honours. After this, I started a research degree and contributed to a number of international digital media and philosophy conferences. The Poetics of Poetry Film expands on my MPhil entitled: ‘Re: Turning – From Graphic Verse to Digital Poetics – Historical Rhythms and Digital Transitional Effects in Graphic Poetry Film’. I was particularly researching concrete and visual poetry and early video poetry. My conceptual work explored minimal text and the remediation of page-based prosody, of metronomic and cyclical rhythms on the page as they become visible onscreen.
I met the poet Lucy English at a conference in 2010. We went on to become co-directors of Liberated Words poetry film events. The first was at MIX 2012 at Bath Spa University and there were festivals I ran in Bristol in 2013 and 2014, then 2015 and 16 in Bath, and screenings almost annually till now. As a festival director I realised there wasn’t a contextualising book on the subject. ‘The Poetics’ took five years, and I am glad about this as the field and the makers and types of poetry films being made and their subject matter have changed dramatically during that time. It seems appropriate now to share my first videopoem with you.
Without being at all sycophantic, this is Our Bodies (A Sinner’s Prayer) (2012) (p. 99 in the book) – the remix of footage of an Oral Roberts sermon by Atticus Review editor Matt Mullins. I included it in the Liberated Words one-day festival in 2013 and in its condensed editing (use of raster imagery and split screen) highlights the performative aspect of the preacher (and also as Matt says he removed the ‘God words’ to emphasise the humanist aspect). It was one of the most memorable examples of a videopoem at the time. For me what makes a work memorable beyond its audiovisual merits, is the questions it asks, but only developed in a matter of minutes.
RRH: You write like an archaeologist of poetry film. What did you discover through this historical project?
ST: What a great expression! I absorbed over 250 books, on many subjects, and some are really rare – the writings of early artists and theorists are a real find. I am married to a science publisher: a lot of astronomy (Canopus Books) but primarily Dr Brian May’s (Queen) London Stereoscopic Company, where art and science collide. So, alongside ancient and new texts of every kind on the shelves, my house is always full of beautifully produced books in various stages of completion! I am particularly proud of A Poor Man’s Picture Gallery relating to stereoscopic images of Victorian paintings at The Tate, where I created a highly complex style guide. But coming back to your question: it was the less well-known details of early film practitioners, some of them women; and Marinetti whose theories of synthetic lyricism in relation to film and his visual poetry that are key. Mainly I really felt a responsibility to keep artists and writers’ voices alive where relevant, and to rediscover them in a new context. Discovering actual quotes that resonate is also a total joy, such as Barbara Rubin’s prophetic 1967 quote: ‘We are going through the reflection age. Living through subjective reflections.’ Maybe this bringing together from different periods has a wonderful way of melting those grim iron imperatives of time and space. So, yes, I guess I am a kind of archaeologist of poetry film!
I would like to be able to show Vita Futurista (A Futurist’s Life) (1916) now, which began the experimental turn as ‘cinematic poetry’, as cited in the Futurist’s Cinema Manifesto (p. 12). However, there aren’t currently any copies extant, or are out there waiting to be discovered. So, I will fall back on a film that is familiar to many L’Étoile de Mer (The Star Fish) from 1928 (p. 16) by Man Ray.
As far as we know, this the first film to combine subjective live footage with contemporary verse intertitles by the Surrealist poet Robert Desnos. This is really the go-to work for all poetry film historians. It also makes a good comparison with Le Sang d’un Poète (Blood of a Poet) (1930) by Jean Cocteau, which is the first experimental film to have voiceover verse. If you were to ask which artist I would most like to meet from the book it would be Man Ray.
RRH: Categorisation can help us access, but also can trap a work. Why do you think artists choose to self-define their work?
ST: This problematic was at the forefront of my mind as I wrote the book. I quote Stan Brakhage: ‘these left-brain hierarchies of symbols, signs, numbers and words which tend to delimit one’s ability to be aware of what lit candles human beings just normally are, all the time, going along being’. In this book the work is key, not the artist and their claim to a particular typology, which they may have defined incorrectly, because there are established historic terms. One of my biggest fears was that I had excluded someone vital, but in fact I had a couple of people who I wanted to include actually not sending in writing for one reason or another, even though they were asked several times. I guess you have to be philosophical in terms of other people’s choices which is a form of self-definition. I have to emphasise that, despite writing the book, I don’t want to be the policewoman of poetry film patrolling definitions! An artist can be a poetry filmmaker in one context and a videopoet or film poet in the next, or may choose to define themselves according to a canon. Maybe it is best to just think of ourselves as artists.
RRH: Tom Konyves is an important thread within your book. How has he impacted your work?
ST: Tom first contacted me in relation to Bury Festival of Text in 2009. He was presenting a screening programme and wanted to include one of my minimal text-based videopoems Blanks in Discourse : 03 (a.k.a. Mistaken Identity). This contests the construction of female identity in women’s magazines, with an error beep where the words I and Home (in red) hit the top of the screen. He was also interested in my film some everybodies which was being screened separately (alongside the work of poets Judy Kendall and Jesse Glass). It centred on videoing a street corner for a year at a tourist site and gathering overheard
conversations as out-of- synch subtitles (a communal poem). The resulting work was slowed down (both sound and image) and at moments when tourists took photos I froze the screen. It was a commentary on ‘tourist’ identity, and ‘capturing’ related spaces. It is very flattering that Tom has continued to show some everybodies and highlights of it at different presentations he has given, as an example of a videopoem with found text. In fact, Tom will be showing it in full at his exhibition Poets with a Video Camera: Videopoetry 1980–2020 in Vancouver (September 17th 2022– January 2nd 2023). There will also be a very interesting symposium on the subject (in which I am honoured to be key speaker) on the 5th November, entitled: New Art Emerging: Two or Three Things One Should Know About Videopoetry.
As I note in the book, Tom getting in touch and recognising my work was an important point in my career trajectory. He then went on to theorise his manifesto of videopoetry in 2011 (which I believe was prompted by this festival) and I suggested that he should be invited to present when I put forward the idea of MIX conference to Lucy English. Tom’s manifesto has much to offer in the field, and was certainly vital and central to the book. Yet it hinges on a thorny issue – the differences he sees between a videopoem and a poetry film.
The underlying dichotomy opposes videopoetry – I envision the measured integration of narrative, non-narrative and anti-narrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound as resulting in a poetic experience – to works which publish poems (voiced or displayed on-screen) in video format. While the latter are to be commended for bringing a new audience to poetry, their use of imagery as embellishments to (if not direct illustrations of) the text, their preference to employ narrative over self-reflexive sequences, their rejection of contrast, fragmentation, the incongruous and the dissonant, prevent these works from being considered as models for a new genre of technology- assisted poetry.
I discuss this problematic in the book (see pp. 34–39). There are clearly identifiable videopoems and poetry films according to his definition but there are also now strong crossovers, where the lyric form is combined with fragmentation and dissonance. Tom has created a thorny issue which will be debated in the field for years to come.
RRH: How did you feel when watching Anemic Cinema by Marcel Duchamp/Robert Desnos and noticing the characteristics of a poetry film?
ST: I first wrote about this film for my MPhil. As I mentioned, my research concerned the remediation of page-based verse prosody in relation to metronomic and cyclical repetition in minimal moving visual texts-on-screen. Within the Dada and Surrealist movements in Paris in 1926 Marcel Duchamp worked with Robert Desnos’ aphoristic, punning, phonetic, erotic texts under his alter ego Rrose Sélavy. He had been experimenting with ‘opticeries’, and in Anemic Cinema he combined animated spiralling, rotating discs ‘Rotoreliefs’ with Desnos’ texts, to both arrest the viewer’s attention and also circumvent logical thought for a more direct route to the subconscious. As such, I argue that not only is this the earliest extant film to use text-on-screen in this way, but also provides a significant milestone for the verse form, through creating a new visual (perceptual) cinematic approach to fragmented linear prosody with moving cyclical turning.
The English poet and philosopher T.E. Hulme gave a lecture in 1908 on ‘modern poetry’ where he defined the older forms of verse as being for chanting, a type of spiritual incantation, where rhythm was designed to affect the listener, whereas the new visual poetry arrests the attention as an impressionist art. As I note, Hulme is really discussing two different approaches to time: continuous and condensed into an instant. Poetry films today can contain both approaches, but clearly in Anemic Cinema you see a strange hybridity of the sequential and cyclical with the hypnotic yet arresting of attention. Hulme died in 1917, but I would have dearly wished he could have seen this seminal work in the history of visual poetry and poetry film. Here is Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema (1926) (p. 15).
RRH: You write about the VideoBardo festival and have collaborated with them in the past. What has inspired you the most from the Argentinian videopoetry scene?
ST: It is difficult in discussing Argentina and other countries without using the terms Latin American or South American, both of which imply a link to / domination by American culture and identity. Censorship, torture and murder were enforced by a military junta in Argentina in the 1970s, setting out to eradicate communism and othered voice, and there was American involvement in that. As a result, the will to create and express rides high and produces some extraordinarily subjective results. I first connected with VideoBardo in 2008 when they showed Mistaken Identity (2005). In 2012 I was extremely honoured that festival director Javier Robledo invited me to Buenos Aires to give a talk and show my film She / Seasons / Contemplating Nature at the International Video Poetry Symposium – Por La Tierra – (For the Earth). The paper I gave there – ‘The Word as a Leaf’ related to concepts of nonduality (word/matter) within audio-visual practice, and the organic qualities a word can exhibit in its digital context. In 2013 I invited Javier to curate a screening for Liberated Words festival, which was a revelation for UK audiences at the time. The 2013 curation can be found here.
In 2020 Marisol Bellusci came to the UK to give a talk and screening titled Latin_no American VideoPoetics – (VideoPoéticas latin-no americanas) with an introduction by Javier Robledo. This curation gave a really vital perspective to the UK students about voice, identity and political issues in Argentina. Two examples of the artists shown were: Imitación / Imitation by Paula Herrera Vivas from Argentina and El despertar / The Awakening by Claudia Loayza from Peru with poem by legendary Argentinian poet Alejandra Pizarnik.
For an introduction to the 2020 presentation and Marisol’s notes see here.
When VideoBardo celebrated their 25th anniversary last year, (the longest running festival of its kind in the world), I was particularly honoured to be interviewed by Javier on our relationship over the years. So, what has inspired me the most is this digging deep in terms of locating authentic voices through rigorous and inventive ideas. Video poetry often rests on the way verbal or visual (often metaphoric) voices are present or absent and how narrative can flourish either way. See here.
RRH: Enzo Minarelli mentions how Federico Fellini “made his actors speak numbers during the live film shooting.” This made me think of La Strada, and how the characters repeat a short melody throughout the film. How do you think sound can guide filmmakers to choose imagery?
ST: I know Marc Neys often works this way, maybe to create new ideas, but I want to cite Pamela Falkenberg and Jack Cochran (Outlier Moving Pictures) whose soundscapes I have come to much more recently. They often begin with the voiceover or text, then add images and ‘scratch sound’. Interestingly, they made two films to experimental music for a competition. Later they decided to add poetry to the films, as erasure poems of interesting texts, one of which is Scary Places/Shapes & Sizes.
This is a classic example of their work as ecopoetic activism, an indictment of our brutally ‘over-developed’ world, particularly American car-saturated, concrete landscapes. And, for such a problematic subject, (as always) they create a tight and highly meaningful relationship between the soundscape, the words selected within the erasure poem and the visual editing. Pam says ‘Cutting to music is a real test for editors, the opposite discipline of what composers do when they write music for a completed film. Ironically, for these two films, I wanted more images and more frequent cutting, but Jack really took the lead on the editing.’ I have always been impressed with the quality of their sound, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that Jack took Music composition at Iowa where they met, working with samples and natural sound. Pam also has experience with audio mixing, having completed many of the final mixes for the student film projects while in the Iowa PhD program.
Enzo Minarelli’s essay in The Poetics of Poetry Film notes sound is central to my work and he says provides, in certain cases, ‘Meditations on Time’. See She / Seasons / Contemplating Nature (2011) which utilizes text from a women’s magazine that appears and disappears, combined with actual star sounds, which are similar to a heartbeat, and which came before the image. Sometimes it is a particular piece of music as in my latest poetry film Villanelle for Elizabeth not Ophelia (2022) which centres on female suicide in abusive relationships and art mirroring life for Elizabeth Siddall, Pre-Raphaelite poet, artist and model for the famous painting of Ophelia. Here, in the uplifting voice of leading Armenian soprano Anna Mayilyan I was stunned and moved by the particular piece ‘Sirt im Sassani’ (My Heart Trembles with Fear) a 13th-century Armenian liturgical chant harmonised by Komitas, and arranged by Daniel Yerajisht. It seemed to suggest a woman’s isolation yet bravery. I always wanted to make a film on Ophelia, and knew the imagery would be in water, of course, but the way that the film was edited in terms of the dynamics onscreen, really echoed the sound composition and the voice as it builds to a climax.
RRH: What continues to amaze you about the genre of poetry film?
ST: I am so pleased that in the last ten years alone makers worldwide have reflected the fight for a more inclusive and environmentally active society. In terms of style and structure – when I was invited to judge at Fotogenia in 2021 I saw so many examples that extend the genre; and more recently at the Weimar Poetry Film Award the standard of the animations has become far more subtle and crafted, relying less on illustration. I think the hybridity of live footage and animation can be clunky or not well thought through, but also can achieve some genuinely innovative results. I would also like to mention your good self, in that your work stands alone in its handling and interrogation of theme through performance in films such as Storm Song (2019).
For me it is the experimental and interrogative (both poems and films) combined with innovative construction that continue to win the day. One great example of playful yet ecologically driven innovation is The Fish Prince, 2020, UK, directed by Shifra Osorio Whewell. The Fish Prince is based on the Grimm’s fairy tale, ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ where a greedy wife asks an enchanted fish for all she desires. In the film the wife is edited out and the fisherman becomes a female shopper in a supermarket with an enchanted fish in the trolley. Through the unusual medium of a performative, heightened, commedia dell-arte style of magic realism, the film uniquely interrogates the damaging role of the consumer, of how man has learnt to see ‘everything around us as resources to be used’. The way that Shifra combines live music with a peculiar narrative eye view as a filmmaker is compelling in terms of storytelling whilst also seeming to hark back to warning narratives from the past.
RRH: What do you hope for the future of poetry film?
ST: I personally would like to see more international funding that would enable more exchanges around the world. I wholly admire the work, say, of Fran Sanders at REELpoetry in bringing forward really fascinating discussions around the deaf and hard of hearing communities, but we also need to fund and develop such opportunities. I have been very fortunate in that I have a good following in the Spanish-speaking countries for The Poetics of Poetry Film, but let’s offer more opportunities to new artists. Another area that is being expanded is within social history poetry – my own family history project Tree would fall into that. I am very keen to connect with others who want to share creative responses to family history. But maybe more important than all of this is the field of activism through ecopoetry in relation to the devastation of climate change. Overall, I personally would like to see more young people putting on events and contributing to Liberated Words and sharing their ideas and views. You are one leading example of such an artist, so thank you so much for this interview, Rebecca!
RRH: Thank you so much Sarah for taking the time to answer these questions.
The Poetics of Poetry Film available from Intellect Books (UK and Europe etc.) and The University of Chicago Press (USA and related territories).