The Film-Poem

Poetry is both visual and auditory, which is why it so easily blends with other media. Songs and illustrated stories issue forth from prehistory. The twentieth-century coinage “concrete poetry” refers to the arrangement of words in print for visual impact, an art as old as printing itself. And spoken word and rap music explore the musical qualities of speech in a modern context.

But it was the advent of film that brought new possibilities to poetic collaborations by opening up both fronts — visual and auditory — at once. One of my favourite examples of the successful intermarriage of film and poetry is a segment of the 1987 German film “Wings of Desire” that incorporates Peter Handke’s poem “Als das Kind Kind war” (“When the Child was a Child”).

The advent of interactive online media made poetic collaborations of a different type accessible worldwide. A favourite in this regard is Marvin Bell’s poem “Why do you Stay up so Late?” arranged as an interactive Flash piece by Ernesto Lavandera circa 2005. Here the observer is in control of the pace of the poem, as looped sound segments accompany written words and abstract images served up click by click.

The recent prevalence of video sharing and social media has birthed a new form of collaborative art, so new that the term has yet to be standardised. A Google search as of this writing for the following terms yielded these number of results: poem-film (32k), poemfilm (8k), film-poem (99k), filmpoem (30k). For now, I am going with the majority in referring to these works as “film-poems”.

Aesthetically, these pieces tend to feel like a music video of the spoken word. Continue reading…

Poem in PoetryBay Online

I just discovered that one of my poems is now available in the Fall 2009 issue of PoetryBay Online. This issue is loaded with good poems from wonderful poets from the Pacific University MFA program — like my illustrious colleague and alumna pal Michelle Bitting, the ever-stunning Ellen Bass, tough-and-tender Dorianne Laux, and my esteemed former faculty advisers Joe Millar and Marvin Bell. Not to mention Robert Bly, Kim Stafford, Lyn Lifshin, and Nick Carbó — the list goes on. As online journals go, this one is a heavyweight, and I feel lucky to appear in such good company. Enjoy!

Good Friday Kiss by Michelle Bitting

Good Friday Kiss by Michelle BittingIn her debut full-length collection, Good Friday Kiss, Michelle Bitting delivers a ferocious and nuanced experience of womanhood. These are poems of the sister reflecting on her brother’s suicide, of the mother squirting meds into her autistic son’s cran-apple juice and nursing her daughter in a vampiric pre-dawn delirium, the uniformed schoolgirl in a tryst with her married teacher, the wife offering her body like bread to her husband before his long journey, the middle-aged left-coast mom facing cancer, plastic surgery, and taking up the guitar again.

The collection builds upon the success of her chapbook, Blue Laws, offering deeper reflection, sharper perception, and an expanded range of poems. Bittings work is not so much confessional as it is unflinching in its observation, including in its self-reflective moments. In the poem “Strange Flesh,” she thanks a nameless donor for, “inking the little O / on your DMV form, / for prettying up my smile.”

Keenly attuned to both biting irony and expansive tenderness, this collection addresses the question all poetry addresses — “what does it feel like to be human?” — and addresses it head-on.

In “The Annals of Suicide,” the speaker turns from momentary thoughts of self-harm to a noisy bird on the patio:

His crimson chest and pate teased up,
he reminded me of a clown
on a circus night gone south — rain
and the generator blows,
lights fritzing, the tent half-caved.
Still, under a spot’s drained glow
with one perfect trick
he murders the crowd,
the masses staggering to their feet,
in fits of senseless laughter
as his painted lips unhinge
and he gulps the flaming sword — 
swallows it down without burning.

Though Bitting’s impulse is narrative, she resists easy moves and shock value, probing the seemingly mundane, not so much for big answers, as worthy questions. In the end, through moments of bold perception and astonishing honesty, we share with Bitting in the bittersweet “education in love / we didn’t know we needed / and never asked for.”

Michelle Bitting’s Blue Laws

Friend and MFA classmate Michelle Bitting just published her first chapbook, Blue Laws, with Finishing Line Press. I have pored over Michelle’s poems-in-progress during workshop, but it was a very different experience to regard this outstanding collection of finished poems, carefully arranged.

From the opening poem about her brother’s suicide, I was riveted. Michelle knows how to make a strong impact by staring life squarely in the face. However, in this collection, she also demonstrates great focus and care, commitment to each aspect of each story as it unfolds — line by line, and poem by poem — into something far more expansive than any straight narrative could hold.

In a poem like “The Sacrifice,” Bitting realizes some of the best results any single-stanza, free-verse poem can aspire to achieve — the careful build-up to a remarkable conclusion, a human revelation. She addresses the memory of her mother sewing costumes for her junior high play — “diaphanous number cut from a swell of black crepe,” building up to address her mother “in the hushed cool of your reserved seat, … the little bobbin of your heart / spinning inside its quiet nook while you watched me / do the hard, privileged work of feeling for both of us.” The poem is as tight as her mother’s stitch work, spoken with veracity and the best kind of sincerity — the kind that looks unflinchingly at the complexity of what is.

I am also invested in the themes explored in this book: grief, parenthood, and the trials of a a sensitive consciousness in the mundane brutality of this world — from dental surgery and her son’s autism to the horrors of the nightly news. This is a praiseworthy collection, sparkling with observation — worth picking up and taking in. A quick search of the blogosphere shows that one poet has already, in reading this book, identified Michelle as her hero. Bitting has accomplished what I hope one day to emulate: a remarkable, even heroic, debut.