Rosemary Norman describes how she collaborates with video-maker Stuart Pound to make films from her own poems.
One thing I love about poems is how self-sufficient they are. Then there’s the lack of physical substance. It seems to me that’s what lets them run so freely over their own boundaries. So why would I want to make film of them? Only because someone I know makes film.
Stuart Pound and I met as partners in 1995 and within a year or so had begun to work together on poetry and video. I’d written since childhood. Stuart was a member of the London Film-makers’ Co-op through the seventies but when funding for experimental film was cut he had to drop out. Then, in the mid-nineties, digital video made funding unnecessary.
He says he wanted to keep me amused. Perhaps, but amusement doesn’t describe what it’s like to work together. Both of us still work alone, most of the time. When there are two of you there’s no less surprise at where ideas come from and where they lead. And there’s surprise again at how they pass between you, from the very first notion to the hard critical edit.
Despite what we’ve learned from each other, the difference in our skills is marked. My knowledge of computers is minimal. Stuart has worked with them since the days of punched cards and pushes them to their limit however fast the limit moves outwards. But he doesn’t trust his comprehension of words or his use of them. No question who’d write this, though I wouldn’t have agreed without asking him or submitted it without showing him.
He doesn’t make a distinction between poems I’d see as accessible and those I’d see as demanding. In part, at least, I think that’s a side effect of his reading difficulties. In his punched card days he knew the sound and visual poets around Bob Cobbing at the Poetry Society, and he has an open approach to text and voice. My own word input, apart from poems, is putting into words what we’re doing – how each new edit moves us towards what we want. It’s a skill from writing workshops that transfers readily to other art-forms.
I’ve wondered about playing with video editing software myself. But my ignorance has a use. I’ll suggest something with no idea if it can be done. Stuart won’t be sure either but in a few days he’ll have done it, or tried and found something else we both prefer. I haven’t mentioned failure. In fact, most of what we do fails in that it isn’t the best of our work. Some is set aside, with no intention either to abandon it or to try again. I’ve deduced only one, unlikely rule. Don’t look too closely at how text, voice, music and moving image connect. The viewer will read them off as one if you don’t interfere.
Writing Behaviour was a poem I’d published and often performed before it became a film. There’s no voice on it. It begins with seven lines of text quoted from a book, which remain on screen for about ten seconds. A risk, but the information in them is essential. Then the poem appears line by line at the bottom of the screen, rises to the top and disappears. The first two stanzas, three lines each, settle before they go. The third stanza is one insistent sentence rising with barely time to read it aloud. I know because I’ve performed the poem with the film. I don’t think we tested it at the time, but the speed felt right.
The original soundtrack was Stuart on an electronic keyboard. But we were contacted by a young music student who’d found the film online. Could he write us a new soundtrack for his final examination in composition? It’s his imaginative piano piece that’s on Writing Behaviour here.
Almost all our films have begun with a poem already written. The poem Grandmother is a Crab was a response to footage Stuart showed me, that he’d captured from television programmes and advertisements. Found footage has become a choice for us. But this was fifteen years ago, when all he could do was re-processing because he didn’t have a camera. I chose a child playing on a beach, and a light aircraft taking off, as images worth working on. There’s nothing left of the light aircraft in the poem I brought back to him, except the line ‘she lifts off/into the oxygen blue’, though it does feature in the film we made at the time.
Then last year we re-found our own footage and collaborated with our earlier selves on a new version. It’s shorter and simpler. The child and her mirror image, in black and white, seem to dance with the crab. And we’ve added under-titles, so the poem can be read on screen while it’s heard in voice-over. Our work is screened at festivals, and occasionally in galleries, where the audience’s English is often excellent but not their first language. And the guess-work that’s usual following what’s said, even in your mother tongue, is no help for poetry where word choices are often unexpected. Still, if the under-titles hadn’t looked good we wouldn’t have kept them.
Since we made the first version of Grandmother is a Crab I’ve wanted to work again from footage rather than a finished poem. For me a poetry film that isn’t more than the sum of its parts isn’t worth making, and working from footage seems likeliest to achieve that. But all our decisions are around specifics, not generalities. So we’ll see.
More of Rosemary and Stuart’s work can be found on her vimeo page
Rosemary Norman’s latest poetry collection, Italics, is published by Shoestring Press. In 2007 she won second prize in the National Poetry Competition for her poem The Hairdresser from Beirut.