Monday, September 24, 2007

Poetry on Film

Ottawa's novelists are out in force this fall, with book launches by (among others) Elizabeth Hay, Rita Donovan, John Metcalf, Phil Jenkins, and Frances Itani. At last week's launch for Frances Itani's Remembering the Bones, her editor advised the audience to look forward to Itani's last novel, Deafening, on movie screens in the future.
We are accustomed to seeing novels and short stories adapted to film, but how about poems? Audiences at last week's Ottawa International Animation Festival had a rare opportunity to hear and see poetry interpreted by filmmakers, in two programs of short films shown at the National Gallery of Canada. As curator Marcel Jean remarked, most poems tend to be very short, and the animated films made from them are usually one minute, two minutes, three minutes long. A chance for animators to show off their skills with a great deal of freedom, and a chance for the audience to luxuriate in the language and images, and perhaps to compare the images the words stimulate in their own minds with those presented on screen.
There were two programs of poetry animation: the first featuring filmmakers' interpretations of poems originally written to be read, whether silently or aloud; the second, a program of "poetry-films" that were made originally for film, or with film in mind. Thanks to the great variety of alternative activities available in Ottawa, I was able to attend only the first program, which kicked off with the film Primiti Too Taa, a film entirely made on an old wide-carriage Remington typewriter, in which the letters dance around the screen while someone (okay, it's me) recites part of the sound poem Ursonate, or sonata in primitive sounds, created nearly a century ago by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. This is a film I co-produced in 1986 with animator Ed Ackerman, and a measure of the little film's staying power is that another of the animators whose work was on the program told me that he has "always liked that film."
Also on the program are experimental films from Italy and the Netherlands, several animations from the National Film Board, a couple of Earle Birney pieces including his own performance of a sound poem, Lynn Smith's homey treatment of a Carl Sandburg piece read by the poet himself, a slick rendition of a Philip Larkin poem read by Sir Bob Geldof, and an equally slick version of Al Purdy's "At the Quinte Hotel, animated by Bruce Alcock.
There's an affinity between text and image, between poetry and film, that many artists are exploring. Audiences really respond, too, when they get the chance. Watch for it!

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