Poetryfilms: when poetry and film have a flirt

This essay was originally published by PoetryFilm Kanal Weimar in 2015. It is my personal view on filmpoems and videopoetry.

Many think that poetry and film do not belong together, that they are two different breeds that cannot truly hybridise. I believe films and poems can court each other, with or without serious intentions, and some of them can even give rise to new, beautiful, offspring.

Before I describe my fascination with poetryfilms, it is important to define the term ‘poetryfilm’, as there are several examples on youtube and vimeo, showing an eclectic mix of interpretations.  There is no officially agreed nomenclature but there is an implicit consensus that poetryfilms are some kind of hybrid between poems and films.  However, is it a film based on poetry or rather poetry based on a film? And what distinguishes a filmpoem from a videopoem or even a cine-poem?

Many readers might use their own descriptions, but based on my observations, these are the common features distinguishing the various forms poetryfilms can take:  

Filmpoems tend to have a strong visual narrative, accompanied by a spoken version of the poem, but not necessarily text on screen. They tend to use poems as an inspiration or springboard for their narratives, rather than follow it like a script. In contrast, videopoems are typically produced as a direct response to a written poem, with the words appearing on the screen, interwoven with a creative use of imagery. These images do not run in parallel or independently from the poem- they are a direct response to it. Both genres- filmpoems and videopoems- maintain a close tie with the art of poetry. On the other hand, a film-poem (with a dash) or a cine-poem are more accurately described as poetic avant-garde films, and therefore belong more to the film rather than poetry category.  And finally poetryfilm is an umbrella term which encompasses all these different forms, with an official entry in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary British and Irish Poetry, as well as Wikipedia.

But the fascination with poetryfilms doesn’t come from their multiple names.  Rather, it is about the unique ways in which poetryfilms can merge two genres to create a new piece of art.

Clearly, the creation process is different if the poet commissions the piece or if s/he creates the accompanying film himself or herself. I experienced both scenarios and what I learnt was this:

If the poetryfilm is produced by the poet who wrote the “cover poem”, it is often hard not to let the poetry genre dominate. This is fully understandable- people are usually born poets or filmmakers and it takes a lot of time, effort and patience to master both arts.

If the poetryfilm is based on a poem the filmmaker hasn’t written, it feels a bit like performing a cover of a popular song. The final product may not always please the poet, but it will certainly offer a new perspective on the original version.

The best poetryfilms are those where you can’t tell which genre is the leading one, they just come together naturally. In such “happy marriages”, you can feel they belong together, they augment and extend each other to new dimensionality by harnessing their distinct strengths. The creating process can be undertaken by one, two or several artists, what matters is that their distinct voices are heard and new, hybrid voices, are produced. And that is the main thing which fascinates me about poetryfilms: their potential for hybridisation, for transforming and challenging the given and established. There are poetryfilms out there which combine film and poetry and offer them as an amalgam of red and blue combinations. But great poetryfilms are those which offer something more than the sum of two parts. Great poetryfilms are clothed in shades of purple which gives them a royal power to fascinate.