A Personal Affair: The Making of a Poetry Film

by Michele Poulos
Featured Art: The Chariot of Apollo by Odilon Redon

In my twenties, I moved around a lot. I spent much of the first half of that decade in New York City where I changed apartments at least once, and sometimes two or three times, each year. At twenty-seven I moved to New Orleans. At twenty-eight I ended up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. At twenty-nine I was back in New Orleans, then at thirty I was in Richmond, Virginia, where I’ve lived, off and on, since 2000. With each relocation, one DVD moved with me every time: Poetry in Motion. I no longer remember where I bought the DVD, or even if I bought it at all—perhaps it was a gift from my father, infamous for dumping all sorts of newspaper clippings and other paraphernalia on you should you express the slightest interest in anything (and God forbid you mention baseball—you’ll need to rent a storage unit for all the stuff). Still, every time I moved, I inevitably opened a sagging cardboard box to find that same DVD cover staring up at me—a lone typewriter on a bar stool placed on a stage with a severe spotlight illuminating it. It was my good luck charm, I suppose, my talisman for a safe passage.

Poetry in Motion is a wild joust of a film. Set in the early 1980s and directed by Canadian filmmaker Ron Mann, it focuses on a mix of New York School, Beat, and Black Mountain poets, presenting its argument for the myriad ways poetry can and should be expressed and experienced, all while interspersing the poets’ performances with everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed grandpa, Charles Bukowski, who gets drunk as a lord while making snarky comments about poetry. What I find fascinating about the film is the sort of dichotomy the director creates by juxtaposing the poets with Bukowski—it’s as if Mann willfully decided to portray two generic types of poets: one, the touchy-feely, outlandish, mystical, far out, sensitive type; two, the cursing, smoking, boozing, woman-chasing, piss and vinegar type. And Bukowski does not disappoint. He opens the film by stating, “Reading the poets has been the dullest of things. Even reading the great novelists of the past, I said, ‘Tolstoy is supposed to be special?’ Where is this specialness in War and Peace?” Then a few moments later he opines, “Poetry hasn’t shown any guts, hasn’t shown any dance, hasn’t shown any moxie.” Cut to a brilliant performance by Amiri Baraka reading his poem “Wailers” with David Murray on saxophone and Steve McCall on drums. I don’t want to be overly critical of the film, because it’s still one of my favorite go-tos—who can resist Ed Sanders repeating the words “scissor, scepter, cutting, prow” while playing his synthesizer mittens, or the Four Horsemen creating a symphony of war entirely with their mouths (this is pure gold, trust me). But I’m afraid that the film, by using Bukowski as a kind of cranky counterpoint, may pander to a general audience’s most basic wary notions about poetry and poets, and it creates a strict polarity where there is none.

I continued to think about the ways poets are characteristically presented on film when, two years ago, the Executive Director of the University of Arizona Poetry Center asked if I’d be interested in screening the film I directed, A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet. The idea was to pair it with Barbara Hammer’s film about Elizabeth Bishop titled Welcome to This House (2015). Of course I knew about Barbara Hammer—the boundary-pushing, ahead-ofher-time, experimental, feminist pioneer of queer cinema—but I never imagined that my work would be presented alongside hers. I was deeply honored and said yes immediately. As a result, Hammer and I exchanged emails and wrote a few notes back and forth about our process. Welcome to This House, Hammer’s last release before her death in 2019, is a stunning and lyrical portrait of Bishop and one of the best films about a poet and poetry I’ve seen. What makes it so good? Hammer demonstrates a genuine sensitivity and understanding regarding her subject matter, exhibiting her own kind of authorial expressiveness by employing a distinct visual and aural style as well as displaying a level of comfort with poetic silences. In doing so, she creates an immersive, tactile, sensual experience of the poems, all while loosely gathering the pieces of Bishop’s life story into a dream-like, gauzy, impressionistic masterpiece. I also think that Hammer must have felt a certain kinship with Bishop; both were lesbians and artists whose work grappled with themes involving gender roles and women’s issues, so that there likely was a distinct familiarity and bond that Hammer felt when dealing with the material.

Hammer, however, didn’t shy away from including some more scandalous details and negative brushstrokes in her portrait, such as those revealed in comments offered by Bishop’s housekeeper while Bishop was living with architect Lota de Macedo Soares in Brazil. Soares built Bishop a writing studio where Bishop locked herself up to write, and if she were ever disturbed, she would throw books at the intruder, or swear, or sulk and drink herself to oblivion, or possibly all three at the same time. The housekeeper claimed that Bishop would ring a bell to be waited on, and that Bishop was “very annoying.” Hammer may have felt obligated to round out other more rose-colored portrayals of Bishop, however she does seem to give a lot of real estate to the housekeeper. It could also be argued that the film doesn’t include enough poetry, though I know, after directing a film about a poet, how difficult those decisions can be. Should I include a poem here, and if so, will it be an entire poem (and thus short) or excerpts from longer, perhaps better known works? How much poetry to include in general? Where should the poems be placed, and when in the timeline? And of course when you’re dealing with a poet like Bishop, there are treasure troves of wonderful poems to sift through, so deciding which ones to include can become an overwhelming decision in itself.

When I made my film about the poet Larry Levis, whose poems are not only morally and politically engaging, but also are historically and personally wideranging as they mine his autobiography to record experiences that reveal the conditions of those working the fields of California’s San Joaquin Valley, I’d never met him in person, though I had heard a lot about him from his friends and former students. My husband had also been a colleague of his before Levis’s death in 1996. It was very important to me to create a portrait that felt accurate and committed to the discovery process, no matter what information was unearthed during interviews and research. What would I do if I were to discover something shocking along the way? That Levis had a secret love child, for example. How could I un-know that? It would have to go in the film. Fortunately, I didn’t discover a secret child, and basically Levis was a talented person who most often was quite kind. And though I did uncover some unexpected and sometimes disturbing elements in his story, I didn’t find anything that was directly harmful to others. Given all that, I found it interesting that when I brought my material to an editor, the very first question she asked me was, “What kind of portrait would you like to make? Do you want a sensitive, caring portrait or something more dark and edgy?” That question illustrates how much a story can be shaped in the editing room, even in factually accurate documentaries, depending not only on what scenes are selected, but how scenes are presented. Many different sorts of films can arise from the same material. At the same time, there’s something embedded in that editor’s question. It’s a question I’d already been wrestling with myself: will this be a portrait of affirmation or something darker, more investigative? It suggests that there is a kind of binary mode of compartmentalizing, processing, and half-thinking that might lead to the either/or kind of presentation of the poets in Mann’s film. So the challenge becomes, I think, how to make a fully fleshed-out biography of a poet (or any artist) that resists easy categorizations and assumptions while also achieving both truth-telling and artfulness. For me, the answer was to let the material be the guide.

When I first began to think about structuring my film, I formulated a loose, arbitrary plan to use three poems (one at the beginning, middle, and end) as a way to impose order on a sprawling and unruly collection of disparate elements. But when I got deeper into the material, I began to really listen, and that focused attention was the turning point—fully listening to what the contributing poets had to say as well as deeply listening to the work itself. I moved away from trying to wrench the material into a specific form and instead I allowed the interviewed poets to guide me on my way through the patterns that emerged in their perspectives and expert insights. I began to notice that there were overlapping categories of information and repeating motifs in their conversations. Once I began to take note of those patterns, I gained control of the material, and that was the true beginning of the editing process. Choosing the right places for selections from the poems came later, once I’d identified those patterns. This way of structuring (a hybrid—both thematic and chronological) allowed for a more fluid experience of the life and work, and the film moved more like a Levis poem, I hope. Like jazz. Or a murmuration of starlings.

In the past few years, I’ve noticed an uptick in films about poets. In 2016, when my film was making its way through the film festival circuit, I was in competition with films such as Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise; BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez; Robert Bly: A Thousand Years of Joy; and Even Though the Whole World Is Burning (about W.S. Merwin). In the genres of drama and biopic, there’s been Paterson, A Quiet Passion, Howl, Neruda, Kill Your Darlings, Wild Nights with Emily, and many others. Perhaps films about poets and poetry are having a moment. It’s possible that there’s been an instinctual, national, cultural response to the ugliness, divisiveness, and simplistic thinking that has been brought onto the stage by an unfortunate election. However, one of my biggest gripes about such films, both as a filmmaker and poet, is that there’s typically not a whole lot of poetry in them. For example, the Merwin documentary, though beautifully filmed, spends most of its eighty minutes revealing his noble obsession with planting and caring for palm trees and native plants at his Merwin Conservancy on the north shore of Maui. The film about Maya Angelou focuses not so much on her writings as on her dancing and singing career, political activism, and motherhood. If one is going to have the audacity to make a film about a poet, why not at least put some poetry in there? Tooting my own horn for a moment, I included twenty-two poem excerpts in my Levis film; and yet that was and probably still is somewhat controversial, simply because I didn’t include entire poems (Levis is rightly admired for his longer, complex work). The film does end with him reading one complete, very well-known poem, though. And I also decided to use the words of his poems to tell his life story. There’s no written narration in voice-over, so the poetry itself is central as opposed to incidental. Perhaps that may be one of the hallmarks of a successful film about a poet—do viewers walk away with a sense of how that person uses language, and if so, has the power of that language expanded and deepened their own vision and imagination?

That challenge was the burden I carried around with me for several years. How to present, in a film, Levis’s language. I rejected direct dramatizations of the poems—too hokey and reductive. I rejected jazzy improvisations of animation—too distracting. I also rejected, early on, putting myself in the movie—too intrusive. In the end, and after many trials and errors, I decided to pair scenes of natural landscape with the poems, to give the eye a place to meditatively rest while allowing ample time and space for the ear and the mind to fully absorb the words. Most often, I used the landscapes in which Levis himself had lived and worked. This was intended to function in layered ways, to honor not only the poet and the poems, but also the audience’s own encounters with language.

Thankfully, the poet David St. John shared with me that he felt A Late Style of Fire was one of the best films he’d seen “about what it’s actually like to be a poet.” That vote of confidence felt like success. And perhaps he said this because I included so many of Levis’s own words about what it’s like to be a poet, but still, I’ll take it. One of the things I made sure to do, before I filmed one second of footage, was immerse myself in Levis’s poetry. I read every book at least five times so that when I finally made it to his family’s ranch in California, a place that appears often in his poems, I was almost seeing it through his eyes. I saw the “light held still on those vines” and “another outcropping of stones & withered grass, where a horse named Sandman & a horse named Anastasia used to stand at the fence & watch the traffic pass.” These images seem readymade for film, and yet it’s possible I was already predisposed to appreciate them as a reader and writer of poetry.

My sense is that some filmmakers are, like most people in our society, a little uncertain about their readings or interpretations of poems, and it’s that hesitation that colors their decisions. Perhaps they don’t feel that poetry alone is enough for film, and so they “tart it up.” Ron Mann nearly nails it in Poetry in Motion, but cedes too much of the film to our preconceptions about the oddity of poets, and to the bellyacher Bukowski. In her masterful Welcome to This House, Barbara Hammer artfully captures the style of Bishop poems, but becomes slightly too impressed with gossip and doesn’t let us hear enough of the poetry itself. Despite these loving criticisms, I have to add that there is no single ideal formula for the poetry film. When I decided to make a film about Levis, I knew that there was nothing I could write that would better express his observations and sentiments than his own words; Levis would be the narrator of his life. For other poetry films, the fear of encountering poetry, oddly enough, can become the greatest obstacle to a fully realized vision.

As with most artistic endeavors, I believe it’s the sustained and haunted intensity of a connection to the material that often, but not always, produces the best work. As T. S. Eliot stated in his introduction to the Selected Poems of Bishop’s mentor, Marianne Moore, “We have to choose whatever subject-matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair.”

Michele Poulos is the author of the poetry collection Black Laurel (2016) and the chapbook A Disturbance in the Air (winner of the 2012 Slapering Hol Press competition). She and poet Gregory Donovan recently edited Prismatics: Larry Levis & Contemporary American Poetry, forthcoming from Diode Editions in March 2020, which includes full transcriptions of the interviews with well-known poets conducted for her 2016 feature-length documentary film, A Late Style of Fire: Larry Levis, American Poet. She is now in post-production on a feature-length documentary film about the history of women’s participation in Mardi Gras.

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