The Poetics of Poetry Film

TT Journal, ISSUE 4, 12th September 2022

Interview with Sarah Tremlett about her recently published book The Poetics of Poetry Film, Intellect Books, 2021 (questions asked by Tereza Stehlikova)

Sarah, you have produced a book which gives a comprehensive and detailed overview of poetry film. It includes analysis of formal characteristics of the poetic in these types of films, as well as plenty of examples from practicing artists, both historical figures as well as contemporary makers. You have included interviews with selected artists and have given a us a comprehensive list of poetry film festivals and other platforms where such films can be shared or experienced. Your thoughtful selection of works by poetry filmmakers is rich and varied, it spans not only historical breadth but also covers varied countries, cultures and subjective standpoints. It includes people who call themselves poetry filmmakers, but also includes artists who may have not considered themselves belonging to such categories, at least not consciously. I imagine the wealth of material to consider must have been overwhelming. I am really curious to know how you made choices about what should/could and shouldn’t/couldn’t be included? What kind of criteria have you used, what kind of limits have you set yourself?

Yes, it is difficult in some ways and for anyone writing this kind of book.

In 2005 I completed a first-class degree dissertation on women artists and text-on-screen, and went on to begin a research project in 2006 which was centered on minimal moving text-on-screen and its relation to historical forms of Concrete and visual poetry and video poetry, experimental film, graphic poetics etc. So, I really began thinking about theories around poetry film indirectly from 2005, or earlier.

With all these aspects, being both sides of the lens, and from the abstract screen to the narrative space, I treat the screen as a moving canvas where narrative is also present. The trajectory of the narrative screenplay combines with the graphic spatiality of the artist: looking both at and through the screen. I feel I am a student on an ongoing journey of how rhythm, (even Arnheim’s ‘apparent motion’), and form in terms of text, have been adapted and addressed by artists; and also, how the materiality of the screen is important, and remediation, as well.

It’s also important to think about where poetry film as a genre fits in, in relation to other forms of short film, and where there are crossovers. Of course this is becoming less and less easy to define and perhaps becoming anachronistic.

I had an idea or vision for the book as early as 2012 though it grew and changed organically. I also had to organise small but vital details, such as how to caption both living and dead poets. In any section, for example split screens, I could only include so much on individual artists and often had to make painful decisions on which artist to choose, or more importantly which amazing example of a poetry film. I had in my head a sense of balance between artists, though, and I hope that this is clear.

This also applied to choosing illustrations, a difficult task! But I was also aware that this would be the first time that some of the main protagonists in the field would be sharing space with the newer generations, and so curating a collection of images was very important. It was essential to include for example, Richard Hancox’s Waterworx (1982) (p. 86), both because it shines out in a period with very few examples, but also because the combination of Wallace Steven’s poem ‘A Clear Day and No Memories’, combined with his stark imagery and his thinking on time, memory and place which were evident through the editing, is a masterful work and indicates the mind of an enquiring artist. But then, I didn’t have space to include an image of one of Stan Brakhage’s films, (you could rationalise he has already been covered enough in comparison) so there is always compromise. I also knew I didn’t have space to include swathes of page poetry, and I think this was correct in terms of emphasis. Also, extensions of poetry films – for example, performing in front of the screen, this was mentioned but not given priority.

Richard Hancox, Waterworx, 1982

Some artists who were asked to be included didn’t respond for one reason or another, even when asked a couple of times. Other artists I really admire for the quality of their work and their passion and marriage of the political with the structural, didn’t fit into any of the categories I had created, or didn’t add to them, or came too late to be included. Ultimately, my subject matter evolved from the many films I saw and the many books I read (over 250), however, poetry film has to look to digital media, experimental film, art, poetry on the page etc. in its ancestry and extended family and it is important to recognise this, too. I also wanted to be as geographically and politically inclusive as possible. It was also important to have an ear to other researchers with their knowledge, such as Thomas Zandegiacomo del Bel, and Charles Olsen, or the inspiring ‘polypoet’ Enzo Minarelli. I wanted to hear from other artists with their ways of working so that really the book is a space where lots of voices are speaking, and in that way you should have a fair assessment of the state of play today. Ultimately, as I say in the book, for me the poetry film usually has a philosophical centre, an ethical voice, and my particular area of interest and research relates to connective aesthetics and philosophy of practice in terms of the audiovisual poetry film screen.

Another related question is concerned with the difficulty of classification of something that often tries to escape classification. How important do you think “labelling” is but also how important is the crossing of boundaries, or in other words, resisting categories? Can you tell us how did you deal with this conundrum in terms of your book and your own practice?

Essentially, in terms of the book, it was time in the field (which was burgeoning) to remind people of historical classifications created or identified by other artists and theorists. And without seeming to make seamless transitions or leaps there were historical steppingstones (some far apart) to where we are today. Of course, it is common for practitioners to work between these traditional classifications as I do, and misuse terms, and also change their practices. They can be a videopoet in one work and take another role elsewhere, so you can’t really define a person as an exact type necessarily, maybe any more than you can point to a single subjectivity. In terms of my practice, it is the idea I am investigating that matters!

Also, as I say some people want to situate their work in terms of a historical canon, as an experimental filmmaker or videopoet, or media poet. Equally in the Spanish-speaking countries videopoet can mean the same as poetry filmmaker, not as Tom Konyves’ definition, so it is a very slippery situation. This is another reason for focusing on the form of the work not the artists. The beautifully emotive work Robin (2012) (p. 35) by Efrat Benzur, and Yuval and Merav Nathan from the poem by Emily Dickinson gives an idea of the complexities of categorisation. It is an animated short film, a music video, a poetry film, and extends the poem, the idea of a song in a music video, and animation itself. What results is that Robin can have many lives in many arenas and should do, but it can also be discussed in terms of its individual contexts.

So, I think the book does reflect our conundrum – it does show that though there are historical categories, they are being crossed and broken and extended or remediated all the time: for example, translation itself alone is a form of revisioning. At the beginning of the book, I have guidance from Stan Brakhage who reminds us that defining can remove us from the very purpose of art: categorisations don’t affect the enjoyment or intellectual depth of the viewing experience!

When speaking of poetry films, I am reminded of the filmmaker Werner Herzog’s ‘ecstatic truth’, which he understands as a form of deeper, poetic truth independent of facts.  In one of his typically provocative statements, Herzog claims that “Academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion. Film is not the art of scholars, but of illiterates.” You are a poet, poetry filmmaker but also an academic. How do you reconcile the two different ways of approaching the same subject, and do you feel there are dangers or advantages in coming from two different “camps” or angles?

What a nice question! The quick response is that, taking away the extremes of this statement (which sounds like he was pronouncing or holding court for affect!) I might agree with him; and my work is a total binding of practice, philosophy and theory, so I don’t see angles or approaches at all. In fact, to follow on from your previous question, I feel that the blurring of boundaries arises in what is defined as ‘practice’ today, particularly for the artist/writer as theorist and often collaborator. If you are a poet, you can write through a philosophical lens and also raise questions reflexively about your practice to develop thoughts on theory. But there is a much deeper undercurrent here on a personal and political level.

I do agree that there is nothing worse than theory that is totally disengaged with practice; theorists who write as observers, quoting other theorists etc. etc. I would imagine most theorists are also academics? But this way of writing also has arisen from how patriarchal culture has constructed our philosophical and epistemological frameworks in Western society. Even in postmodernism – and the ’Death of the Author’ – this was still about the male author. The game of loss or suspended subjectivity became a kind of intellectual play for male artists. But, at the same time and maybe in retrospect ignited by this situation, feminist thinkers and artists from particularly the 1980s, were fighting to establish subjectivity and representation.

Writers such as Somer Brodribb Nothing Mat(t)ers: a feminist critique of postmodernism (1988), Carol Bigwood Earth Muse (1993), and Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science (1983) by Sandra Harding put the whole Western system in context. The hierarchies of male over female, culture over nature, mind over body etc. were examined and evaluated, pointing us to new inclusive ways of creating a better society and planet. However, despite this, important theorist Somer Brodribb was shockingly forced out of her academic department for her theoretical enquiries, confirming the power-broking bias in academia.  

At the same time, women artists (second-wave feminists) were similarly dealing with real world issues, bringing art back to a serious connective marriage between place, body, subjectivity, psychology, abuse of power, etc. through text, image and voice. You can move from Nancy Spero, through Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer to Tracey Emin and some aspects of Fiona Banner etc. etc. to the opening up of othered voices from ethnically diverse and LGBTQIA+ and non-binary voices in the last ten years. I would add that politically poetry film is a perfect vehicle for these voices because it provides an open, inclusive space. Unlike the 1970s and 80s (and on to some extent) where unrecognised artists had to circumvent the lack of offers by galleries – for example the early days of Jenny Holzer where she posted truisms on fly posters – the poetry film can be online in minutes and addressing social and political issues head on. I am proud I am one open gateway not gatekeeper in that respect.

Around 2005/6 my own work looked at the possibility of blurring or removing boundaries between text-on-screen and the materiality of the screen as a way of engaging in a philosophically non-hierarchical site. I termed this a matternal philosophy of practice (though not denoting particularly a female or gendered position). I used the formal aspects of verse on the page, the metronomic repetition and the cyclical turning of the line in relation to disappearing and reappearing letters.  I termed this the de/rematerializing letter, that shifted through its liminal space to being simply abstract shape, as a repeated cyclical event. This was for me a video poetic way of attempting to engage with non-dualist, non-hierarchical philosophy through practice. See She / Seasons / Contemplating Nature (2011) which experiments with colour, text and sound as a contemplative poetry film. It aims to aesthetically blur the conceptual divisions between culture and nature, combining or de/rematerialising texts from women’s magazines in an endless cycle. This is accompanied by metronomic star sounds (from actual scientific data) and a pulsing, coloured sphere that changes from cool to hot colours, emulating changes of the seasons.

So, from my point of view, I believe everyone, especially artists and thinkers should question the hierarchical dualities and phallocentrism in our inherited Western philosophical frameworks that created a bifurcated world in crisis and lack of inclusion for many in society. We cannot be detached from practice and the world we live in. Herzog was referencing a particular type of academic, a critical thinker who loses the point of the film, creating a mesh of strangled words, over-evaluating, often to justify a career path. So, I would agree with that part of his statement. However, as a child I hardly spoke / was spoken to, either at home (which was very insular) and at (an academic and repressive) school; but reading and watching T.V. were two important ways into life. So, I understand that film is for everyone, but as books have been my salvation I find the term ‘illiterates’ and the statement too polemical, so unhelpful. But, to answer your question, I think there are more advantages coming from two angles, but that they aren’t two angles! Practice creates theory creates practice and aligns with belief intertwined with social change.

I have personally been very drawn to Maya Deren’s reflections about film developing its own spatio-temporal language, which doesn’t borrow from other art forms. Yet there is a wealth of works that pushes the boundaries of cinematic form while employing tools from theatre, literary arts, music and dance to a great effect, as you discuss in your book. What is your view on the question of purity versus hybridisation in poetry film?

When you mention the word ‘pure’ I think of cinema – the big screen – particularly non-narrative documentary works without voiceovers. In more recent history Ron Fricke has been a leader in the field, firstly being cinematographer on Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1982) with music by Philip Glass then directing Baraka (1992) both prescient in taking a God’s eye view of silently observing our role on this planet.

I think in some ways your question refers to the difference between the film poem or short experimental film as Pure Film, or film pure, versus the hybrid form of the poetry film where the spoken word or text-on-screen, say, take centre stage at conveying messages or meaning? Today, it is much more common to see poetry films than film poems, simply because poets often relish the opportunity to see their poems onscreen as adaptations of the original page poem. People do want to send a palpable message, and show the cut of their craft. On the other hand, some poets aren’t at all happy with the way their poems have been adapted. Equally a poetry film promotes a poem and gives it a much farther reach than by readings alone. The collaborative team is also a fun way to work on a project.

However, there are some masters of the film poem working today. And, I would say that since a film poem does not rely on voice or words to make meaning, leading film poets (such as the three I am about to mention) inevitably possess a profound attunement to the relationship between image and soundscape. French artist Marie-Paule Bilger has created some astounding film poems; for example, her work Tremblement (Tremor) (2014) about the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, that came following the tsunami created by the Tohoku earthquake. Here the delicate, yet ominous sound of a Geiger counter crackle, accompanied by changing footage of falling debris, buildings etc. via a shifting triple screen – tells a powerful and disturbing story (p. 126).

American Emeritus Professor Gwendolyn Audrey Foster (see p. 119) is a masterful film poet and experimental filmmaker. Addressing injustices in areas such as gender, queer sexuality, and ecopoetics, she uses visual poetry, the vibrant language of colour, rhythms and highly crafted soundscapes to create vivid détournements of corrupt systems.

Also, American Emeritus Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon is equally innovative and technically highly advanced. If I can quote my description of his work from The Poetics of Poetry Film ‘applying tonal, structural and chromatic strategies, such as colour inversion, to live footage to create shifting images, that also engage with political and philosophical undertones’ (p. 120). Both fall into an area I would also call painting with film, such is their assurance with colour and spatial flow. Also both are in my view the leading theorists in their field today, having risen to the top in academia, whilst also writing seminal works, some of which are collaborations. So, that comes back to the question again about two angles or one undivided practice. I think it is clear where they belong.

Deren spoke about a specific language for film, but Deren, as a dancer, choreographer, poet, theorist, performer and filmmaker/ photographer paradoxically brought other arts to her filmmaking to create and articulate this specific language. In her experimental, Cocteau-esque films such as At Land (1944) she places emphasis on psycho-spatial dynamics in relation to the frame. The use of body/mind screen rhythms emanating from the protagonist – herself – ‘speaking’ a narrative that eschewes the use of dialogue as in Hollywood narrative storytelling. I think we all know her dreamlike mindscapes, crosscuts that jump from one location to the next; montage as a language not possible elsewhere. Certainly, film poetry exhibits her concept of the poetic in cinema – the use of ‘vertical’ metaphoric images, ideas, montages, over the horizontal, metonymic developing narrative. But, as I say in the chapter ‘Constructing Dynamic Spatio-Temporality’ with the digital screen, time (and the development of poetic narrative) has become more spatialised and this spatiality helps rethink the axial concept of a linear, time-based plot and insightful moments of timeless metaphor.

Coming back to the big screen, I would just like to mention one more recent feature film.

I am one of the biggest fans of Trance the psychological thriller by Danny Boyle (2013), where its art auctioneer protagonist (James McAvoy) steals a painting and is caught in a nightmarish world with villains, then hypnotised. We are not sure where we are – experiencing worlds within worlds, whether imagined or fantasy or real.

Trance (2013) by Danny Boyle

The plot is the perfect vehicle for visual metaphor, and making the most of the materiality of the film. I am really talking about the creative vision of Anthony Dod Mantle termed ‘a Baudelaire of film imagery’ by Richard Corliss in Time magazine.

For example: the way that characters move close to the camera or into focus and seem to suggest their power over/in the protagonist’s mind (or if really they are only in his mind); the framing; the use of tonality, strong colours, red in particular; light and dark (chiaroscuro), shadows through screens; the movement across the screen and how it suggests tension or imminent danger; the use of flashback, liquid time, slow motion; the locations; the positioning of the protagonist; the drone shots that create further metaphors – I could go on.  

Every frame tells us so much, yet the conventional critics didn’t like it, because they couldn’t follow the plot by numbers. Ironically, it is about being controlled and not knowing it, (or being uncertain if you are) and of course that includes us, the audience. Is this really happening or a fantasy; or are you in the protagonist’s internal mindscape like many poetry films? Trance could in some ways be compared to any of the dream-like films by the early experimental filmmakers and the Surrealists, such as Cocteau’s The Blood of a Poet (1932), or even Deren in the use of mirrors and reflections, or staring into the camera; except that the strident use of colour to help tell the narrative adds digital, 21st-century volumes to those who are receptive.

I was excited to see number of references in your book to the Italian Futurist F T Marinetti and in particular his Futurist manifesto, in which Marinetti “defines his new multi-linear lyricism as encompassing the lyric simultaneity of sound, music colour and analogy with the pictorial”. The point you make is that technology has finally caught up with Marinetti’s bold aspirations. Can you tell us more about this idea in connection to poetry film?

Marinetti used many terms which were meant to create a political stir, a reaction to bourgeois complacency in society, Impressionism and Romanticism, nostalgia and the past in art. The Futurists saw chaos as beautiful, the destructive machine, the ‘metallic animal’ war, violence, speed, motion; the marriage of science with art; the object in a dynamic relationship to space and time (simultaneity) attempting to capture motion itself. We hear of multilinear lyricism applied to typography and the freeing of the letter or line across the poster or page (destruction of syntax) alongside dynamic images (synthetic lyricism) suggesting speed or noise including cars or trains etc. In poetry Marinetti rejected free verse and lyric emotion for unchained lyricism, no syntax; abhorred ‘this obsessive I’ and also extolled war (in the years before The First World War). But he wanted to include molecular life into poetry, as an intuitive element an unchained lyrical alchemy that destroys logical sense. What can this offer us today in poetry film? The extreme nature of Marinetti’s political rationale for his destruction of syntax and logic – a destruction of the ‘I’ and the status quo – isn’t relevant, desirable or operable in most societies today. However, often the same broken syntax can be found in poetry films where a commentary is being made about social issues, found text etc. through disengagement and detournement. An ‘unchained lyricism’ can and does offer ways to inscribe the screen as a psycho-spatial site of fractured or bombarded subjectivity. This can also reflect the concept of multiple identities and the relentlessness of social media today, see Profile by R.W. Perkins.

I discuss this further in the book in relation to Russian Formalist theories of defamiliarization and estrangement, and ‘everyday language’ in relation to poetic language (pp. 36–39). Many of the text-on-screen poetry films today can trace their formal characteristics to Marinetti, but with maybe a different political motivation (wake up to the climate crisis) or relate to bringing forward a scientific lens, and/or the random nature of existence. A good example that includes mathematical equations is accidentals (recalculated) by Ian Gibbins (2016) (p. 292).

But on a wider level, the average person has instant access to so many digital devices, so many apps (animation has opened up a lot this way), that can combine word, image, colour and sound together, that we can happily create and experiment and play making poetry films with a digital moving image that wasn’t possible in his lifetime. I would also argue that the performative in poetry film has the potential to vehemently contest new apathies in the status quo – say ecological or lack of social inclusion – without having to resort to Futurist methods of accosting audiences in live performance. We can use technology to fight different battles, with a new type of digital synthetic lyricism, which may or may not serve our political purposes.

As somebody with a background in animation, I was interested in your point (with reference to Lev Manovich) about film being now perceived as an element within animation, rather than the other way round. This is giving animation a new status. Yet the technology which enables us to manipulate the image so easily now has also made us more suspicious of the image. Do you think we are therefore more prepared to accept animation as a serious medium? What is your view on animation’s role in regards to poetry film?

When I first began looking at poetry films for Liberated Words, animations often closely followed a storyboard and were illustrative of a narrative, clearly telling a story. They were often cute, playful or used animation to reflect humorous observations such as Sa mor (Mother Said) (1999) by Lise Fearnley and Kaisa Naess from Norway made on 16mm from cut out photographs, stop motion and pixillation.

Another later work Homenaxe ao mineral do repolo (Homage to the Mineral of Cabbage) (2011) by animator Stephanie Dudley and poet Erin Moura in the Galician language of Northwest Spain, is a literal homage to the vegetable in stop motion.

Homenaxe ao mineral do repolo, 2011 by Stephanie Dudley and Erin Moura

Then we can move onto Professor Suzie Hanna’s tour-de-force of Proem (2013) based on the poem by Hart Crane ‘Proem: to Brooklyn Bridge’. Hanna worked with sound designer Tom Simmons and Dr Sally Bayley creating ‘a collaborative interdisciplinary practice and research-led creation’. Hanna’s complex process to achieve 3.5 minutes of film can be read on pp. 215–217 but she used 3000 pieces of paper, a motiongraph of references, a choreographic plan, mood boards, black paint etc. This is the very definition of a work of art in animated form and won First Prize for Best Music/Sound and Second Prize for best editing at Liberated Words Poetry Film Festival 2014 under the theme: Reflections & Memory. Her current research includes the creation of animation from documentary material, and the study of parallels in animation, poetry and sound design.

But a few years later we are seeing very, very minimal animations (sometimes using rotoscoping) with deeply philosophical points being made. Milena Tipaldo’s animation and poem a body (2021) uses spare line drawings and subdued spot colour in animation to explore states of being that morph into each other; surely a beautiful use of the specific medium which other visual art cannot do so well. And another young, leading animator Ann Isensee shows us the smallness of our androcentric position in the universe through her line drawings, yet also gives a great deal of power to the little people who are protagonists on the screen. They are somehow in a world that is bordering on the dystopian yet fighting to retain their own identities which is a miracle of the artist’s art through simple lines; see Due to Legal Reasons this Film is Called Breaking Bert (2020).

Due to Legal Reasons this Film is Called Breaking Bert (2020) by Ann Isensee

The character is inside an apartment, like millions of others, occasionally spraying a plant etc. with strangely positive light, jazz music. Isensee seems to be bringing us into a world, rather than showing us one. And this is also achieved when she uses a conversational voice: one that often admits the frailty and fragility of her very position as an uncertain interlocutor rather than narrator, speaking out from an endless stream of consciousness.

An internationally recognised craftswoman in her field Susanne Wiegner (pp. 241–246) often creates brooding, dimly-lit interiors that give a sense of being confined in our built environments (she trained in architecture). In Soliloquy (2018) we are in a gallery, move into a bowl of fruit, rest and then travel on. This work to me is a masterpiece without words, a sublime film poem. Wiegner uses how she moves through space in a very deliberate way to indicate how a thought unravels or is prompted. In fact, in the movement of the camera, and the confined feeling, I am reminded in some ways of Trance, again.

Animation is now also being used in live action footage in really interesting ways, which I feel takes poetry film forward and often supersedes each medium on their own. In In Other Words (2018) Melanie Ludwig uses old travel diary footage interspersed with photographs and animation, that create strange leaps, almost out of time, yet within the moment. It is as if, whilst the footage returns us to the past, these are further associated imaginings of the protagonist.

Another such artist is Philadelphia-based Irit Reinheimer. In Of Origins: Part 1 (Hannah) (2016) Reinhemier combines old 8 mm family films with historical footage and rotoscoping, providing another layer of interesting visual narrative. ‘Of Origins is a series of short, experimental documentary films about the lives and afterlives of a group of Jewish feminists in Germany in the early and mid-20th century. Each short film is a speculative love letter, spun out of strange incidents in the archives and the filmmaker’s fantasy of finding her radical prehistory.’

So, I would say, as a non-animator here, that pure animation has reached the point of being able to use minimal means to achieve maximum affect, with highly attuned soundscapes and stream-of-consciousness conversational voices. By using drawing or collage with live footage, filmmakers are also adding concepts such as mental projection to other times and places, a far cry from illustration. Manovich is widely quoted in the book. He said in 2001 that film and animation had come full circle. The origins of cinema began with hand-animation and hand-painting, then film separated itself as a recording medium, leaving animation for lesser roles. But now the roles of animation and compositing are in the forefront of cinematic production processes, and hand-painted frames are more common than ever. Twenty years on I believe that this is truer than ever, the more creative our commercial cinematic storytelling becomes.

I was also struck by your statement of poetry films dealing with “things in process”, examining and reconfiguring time. Can you expand here on what you mean by that and how does this relate to ideas of vertical time, subjectivity, and being attentive?

Wow, what a deep question! The mindfulness of the moment, examining a thought from a detached perspective, or for me the Daoist connection with the sparrows in the tree in my backyard, and being aware of them every day. I really value being attentive to the held moment. In a fractured world, with much extraneous noise and excess these are the moments that renew and heal us. We all need to be in a certain frame of mind to be attentive I feel, and increasingly this feels more and more compromised. Life is not ‘grabbed’ as so often seems the case, but ideally let to happen through open attention. I really like how you are considering this question through Tangible Territory. In relation to ‘things in process’ I don’t think I can explain it any better than in the text (p. 80).

‘Ultimately, the poetry film does not deal with things, but things in process. In other words, poetry is an examination and reconfiguring of time itself. What fills the frame is not a progression of events through time, but a study of time (Elder in Wees 1984). Whilst poetry is a measure of linguistic time (Bradford 2011), in relation to digital media, Scott Barker (2012) thinks of time as accumulation, and this is helpful when faced with layered or screen-in-screen surfaces. Time as the overarching compositional device within the constantly changing gestalt of poetry films can also help to bind the different terminologies of poetry and film theory.’

You can think of a poem as a reconfiguring of time itself. If you take away meaning a word creates a temporal compositional unit in its length and scansion that is useful in a particular part of a poem, with other words, or not. But when I write a poem, I don’t feel that I am working with time, as in a musical composition. However, I am fully aware of my relationship to time as I edit a poetry film and this does relate to subjectivity, to the major questions of life and death. In terms of examining and reconfiguring time – I think that maybe as an editor (who works slowly in all aspects of life) I am thrilled to manipulate time, rather than the other way around.

This could also be a fear inside, of the iron imperatives that we are born with, beginnings and endings – how death hovers over everything. Editing can take you into a world that somehow makes you in control of time, and also makes moments more surprising – vivifying – from something maybe quite mundane. So, from that aspect, it is a very happy place to be! When you are out of time with the world you can make your own which resolves into a perfectly imperfect unit (hopefully!!)

In terms of temporality, my poetry film Selfie with Marilyn of Heidi Seaborn’s evocative poem, includes three versions of ‘Marilyn’ reciting a poem, some with mistakes. It is about the very nature of ‘the right shot’, of representation, of timing a recitation. Another of my performative films Villanelle for Elizabeth not Ophelia, expands on a more hopeful view of suicidal women, and indeed Elizabeth Siddall who committed suicide and was the model for Ophelia. Here, I use the powers of digital media to have one of the Ophelias rise back out of the water, reversing the temporality and the politics of the narrative; this is accompanied by very powerful soprano soloist Anna Mayilyan.

Villanelle for Elizabeth not Ophelia by Sarah Tremett

So, you can use editing to revision the sadness of the past, even though you can’t change it; but it might mean you can help change the future.

On a wider theoretical level, in the book I also discuss how the poetry film manifests two main relationships to time: the subjective time of the poet or speaker and the poem – often situating the past in the present; as well as the actual temporal structure of the poetry film in its making and editing. Chapter Four ‘Time and Mind’ goes into the theoretical aspects of temporality in poetry films, covering areas such as time as accumulation in digital media.

I would say that if poems are reconfigurations of time through words, then editing poetry films is at least a triple exercise in reconfiguring time through the adapted poem, the images and soundscape. Editing poetry films can be a very rewarding process. Maybe, on a deeper level, editing can release us from chronological time to a timeless place where our minds can fly and be imaginative, in a circularity of creativity. You have certainly made me think about this!!!

You are the editor of Liberated Words project. Can you tell us more about what it is, why you decided to set it up, what are its aims and aspirations?

I met the spoken word poet Lucy English when I was presenting at a conference at Chichester University in 2010. I wanted to discuss with her the idea of a digital media conference and screening video poems, as I had been showing my own since 2005 at festivals such as VideoBardo.

We decided that the aim of Liberated Words would be to screen films from lesser heard voices made in workshops, alongside top international poetry filmmakers. The first screening was part of MIX conference at Bath Spa University in 2012, and then I ran Liberated Words at the Arnolfini for a one-day festival in 2013 on National Poetry Day and in 2014 at three locations. You can see the booklets from these events at

I was conceiving and managing what were then innovative poetry film workshops with ecopoet Helen Moore and digital artist Howard Vause. For example, we worked with: patients with Alzheimer’s; teenagers with autism; school children working between media, English and a Dance college creating dance poetry films; and school children using poetry film to commemorate the First World War. Lucy and I then moved to working on our respective books, and also in terms of funding it became harder to develop projects. In 2021 Lucy and I curated two screenings as part of the poetry film element of LYRA on the theme of Reconnections Lucy’s featured poetry filmmakers from around Bristol and the southwest and mine featured Family History related poetry films, as I am running a project on the subject at Liberated Words online

In terms of the website, it is now a multilingual site for the subject, with links particularly to Spanish-speaking festivals such as Fotogenia and VideoBardo and Maldito. Submissions (written or videos) are welcome on any aspect of poetry film, but I am particularly interested in ecopoetry, amplified voices and family history and poetry film. Frame to Frames: Your Eyes Follow is an annual ekphrastic poetry film prize, awarded by myself, and I gather entries throughout the year, so do get in touch at any time if you have something to submit.

I am also very keen to show new poetry filmmakers, promote workshops or festivals and different colleagues around the world who are making a difference. And it goes without saying that I am really pleased to connect up with leading sites beyond the margins of the poetry film world such as Tangible Territory!

At the very end of your book you make a statement about poetry film opening a “rich and vital creative channel for us all to voice who we are, not who we are told to be, whilst sending ethical messages which are pertinent and critical in contemporary life today”. This is a powerful aspiration, one that deeply resonates with the intentions of this journal, as well as my own practice. Can you expand on this idea here?  What do you think the role of poetry film is (or can aspire to be), especially in the context of our current world developments? What do you think are its most powerful means of resistance and subversion in a world already oversaturated with image and sound?

I think that poetry films offer a way of resistance that begins a conversation. There are many complex questions around the role of the artist screening a poetry film work in a gallery on the one hand, and poetry filmmakers screening in a cinema on the other. As I have mentioned we are all in flux between many hats, but one thing I would say, is that the computer screen (and also the art house cinema screen) are much better sources of transmission than the gallery. Political activism is better heard through the channels that poetry film inhabits. Unfortunately, often the notion that an artist protects their work, maybe even thinks they can sell their film to survive, that the film is kept hidden from sight unless you go to London and visit a gallery at a specific month in the year – this notion often doesn’t help anyone involved. Mainly it isn’t going to change society, even though some galleries are screening online to widen their audiences. And it also takes a long time for an artist to rise up through the gallery system, if at all.

Yes, there are lots of images, but if you focus on the main questions worldwide now, we need to use the media to force change, especially to reverse climate change.

So, poetry film can work in an activist way, to help to bring awareness of what is happening in ecological terms across the whole planet. I am thinking particularly of American team Pamela Falkenberg and Jack Cochran at Outlier Moving Pictures, and Ian Gibbins in Australia or Janet Lees in the UK. They are all available on Vimeo, but also see the eco/geopoetry section at Liberated Words which I am currently developing.

Despite an increase in big budget, glossy (production company) films, poetry films today are still largely made by what Stan Brakhage calls humans as ‘lit candles’ in their everyday situations ’going along being’ ([1996] 2015). We are all lights, just going along being, and I guess I feel that, through poetry film, we can burn and flame and become eloquent in ways that cannot be achieved elsewhere.

Thank you very much Sarah for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us.

Thank you, Tereza, some really powerful and thought-provoking questions!



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Brodribb, S., Nothing Mat(t)ers: a feminist critique of postmodernism, USA: NYU Press (1988).

Harding, S., Hintikka, M. (eds.) Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science, The Netherlands & USA: Kluwer Academic Publishers (1983)

Marinetti, F.T., The Manifesto of Futurist Literature, viewed 3 May 2019,

Sarah Tremlett is a prize-winning poetry film-maker, poet and theorist and co-director and editor of Liberated Words A curator and judge at festivals, she has given talks on the subject and shown her work worldwide. Her new publication The Poetics of Poetry Film (Intellect Books UK, and Chicago University Press USA), has been described as ‘‘A ground-breaking, encyclopedic work, an industry Bible, and essential reading on the genre’.