Guest post: Poetry film: a way of bearing witness by Janet Lees

Both as a poet and a writing for wellbeing workshop facilitator, it’s my personal belief that all writing is in some way therapeutic. I believe this because of my own experience and the experiences of others that I’ve witnessed. Poetry has been there for me most of my life – as a young child discovering words and the world, as a teenager filled with feelings that felt only expressible through poetry (toe-curlingly bad though a lot of it was), as a recovering addict rediscovering words and the world, and most recently as a deeply grieving sibling following the sudden death of my youngest sister Carole.

A long time ago I did an arts degree, ultimately specialising in poetry and photography. When I went back to university in 2011, my chosen masters subject was creative writing, and in the years that followed poetry was my sole obsession. In the last few years I’ve widened my creative focus to include art photography and poetry film. I have discovered the same total absorption, the same ‘flow state’, when working with visual and digital art that I’ve always found in poetry.

Ingmar Bergman said, “No art passes our conscience in the way film does, and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls.” With its emotionally potent mix of words, moving image, music and sound, poetry film can be an incredibly powerful creative and therapeutic medium. Finding exactly the right footage to go with exactly the right words, then selecting exactly the right music to capture the overall feeling of the film is a fully absorbing, necessarily mindful creative process. Words are powerful, of course, but we have all felt the power of music to move us and of film to instantly evoke atmosphere without a word being uttered.

Making my own lyrical short films has given me a way to explore and express my feelings about the times we live in without turning away from the devastation that’s all around us. A recent film, ‘Huntress’, centres on a poem I wrote on a canal boat journey. I was struck by how, travelling at four miles an hour, you are made to see everything you pass through – to really see it, to feel it – whether it’s rural idyll or post-industrial wasteland. Inexorably, the boat takes you from one to the other, from one to the other with a sense of dogged inevitability.

Huntress: https://vimeo.com/330339203

On the cut, as the canal is colloquially known, I’ve been struck more forcibly than ever before by the realities of the world we live in. As a poet and a human being I need to bear witness to all of it. Not just the carefully curated version of it that we get from nature programmes and holiday companies, or the ‘It’s all bad news’ version of it that we get from the media, but the whole fatally flawed reality of now that stirs up such despair and dark wonder in me.

Another recent film, ‘A boat for sorrow’, features a found poem created from words and phrases taken from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Selected Poems’. I often use found text as a way in to writing poems – it has a way of getting the thinking mind out of the way and allowing the unconscious to say what it needs to say. This was a case in point. I had no idea what I wanted to write about, but my unconscious did. It unerringly selected, from a vast store of source material, the precise words and phrases that would allow me to express the particular kind of loneliness that poets experience. This was not something I’d particularly thought about before, but when the poem was written, I understood and felt the truth of it.

 

A boat for sorrow: https://vimeo.com/329649460

Poetry film has also given me a way to explore and express deeply personal feelings of loss and love, in a deeply personal and simultaneously universal way. Many years ago my dad created a ninety-minute DVD compilation of his old cine films from when my two sisters and I were young – mostly on holidays in Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man, where my mum’s family is from. I had not been able to watch the DVD since Carole died. Earlier this year, as the fifth anniversary of her death approached, I felt compelled to create something using extracts from it.

Making a three-minute film out of ninety minutes of film required not only watching the old footage, but going right into every moment of it in order to find the clips for the film poem. This was instant, deep, sustained grieving. I worked in a frenzy of sorrow, crying almost continuously over the course of a day. When the film was finished, I felt some of the things I feel after a sea swim: emptied, cleaned, changed by the contact with something uncontainable. I also felt glad that I had been able in some way to honour the feisty, creative, offbeat, hilarious, gentle, generous, rebellious, huge-hearted, completely one-of-a-kind spirit that is my sister.

This was the most intimate of collaborations. My dad was the filmmaker, our five-strong family were the subjects, I was the poet and editor. The only ‘outsider’ was Moby, who made the beautiful music (he offers his music free to independent filmmakers via mobygratis.com), but he didn’t feel like an outsider because Carole introduced me to his music, and we used to listen to it together, over and over.

It is said: https://vimeo.com/311504800

I’m currently working on a series of films with a range of different bands and musicians. This is deeply rewarding work. I love collaborating with other artists, not only because this is immensely creatively enriching, but also because it’s a real solace in the ‘interesting times’ we live in.

Janet Lees is an artist, poet, poetry filmmaker and writing for wellbeing workshop facilitator. Her book ‘House of water’, which combines art photographs and poems, is published this month with the support of Culture Vannin. Her first poetry collection, ‘A bag of sky’, will be published in the autumn as the winning poetry pamphlet in the Frosted Fire Firsts prize, judged by Angela France and Neil Richards, and administered by the Cheltenham Poetry Festival.

https://janetlees.weebly.com/

https://vimeo.com/janetlees

Instagram: @janetlees2001

 

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