Brian Johnstone reads his Filmpoem ‘How Well it Burns’
Event Review: 6 December 2012 Filmpoems
When folk read poems, images sparked from the narrative float through their minds. Alastair Cook’s own brand of Filmpoems, whereby the poet reads his work against a running 8mm or 16mm short film, provides the audience with a firm set of visuals. It’s an intriguing art form which both expands and contracts the poem’s possibilities, as the audience tries to thematically integrate the text with the established visuals of the film (and soundtrack). The majority of Cook’s Filmpoems are lush, evocative and dark creations filmed in the derelict sugar shacks on the James Watt Dock in Greenock.
Set in the Scottish Poetry Library’s cosy downstairs area, the setting was that of a makeshift cinema. A white screen hung from the high wall. A golden clarsach, later trilled by Rita Bradd, stood in the corner. Musician Luca Nasciuti was on hand to provide a haunting soundtrack. Cook began by describing how the batch of film poems came about. Commissioned by the arts collective Absent Voices, Cook asked seven poets to contribute a work: Gerard Rudolf, Jane McKie, Brian Johnstone, John Glenday, JL Williams and Sheree Mack. The poets were each given archived pictures of the sugar industry and watched a short film about the dilapidated buildings.
Overall, the Filmpoems are exceptional creations which provide a visual and material texture to some rather serious poems. The film’s roving shots of the sugar sheds’ dark halls and bare floors allow the poem to go on a journey it might never have taken. Each of the poets’ (aside from South African-born poet Gerard Rudolph) were on hand to read their poem aloud. Jane McKie’s ‘Revenant’ is a mysterious piece about Halloween guisers and the accompanying film contains brooding and ominous images of the sun setting over the Clyde. Sheree Mack, who visited the Greenock Docks, lushly described in ‘Every Memory’ the strength and thickness of treacle. John Glenday’s poem ‘Yesterday’s Noise’ was a kind of ghost story featuring Walker’s factory girl who continued to haunt the building. Vicki Feaver’s ‘The God of Sugar’ was beautifully recited and described the ruined and empty buildings which no longer held life: ‘no women shovelling molasses’.
The more memorable creations were the ones where the film’s images were colourful, set in the daytime and human. Brian Johnstone’s ‘How Well It Burns’ described, from a German pilot’s perspective, the Luftwaffe bombing on the Clyde in early May 1941. However, the lazy blue sky in the Filmpoem was the background for an English pilot preparing for takeoff and the meeting of the warring sides created an interesting counterpoint. JL Williams’ ‘Trinities’ described generations of family trauma, and each line contained images of threes. The accompanying film was restless and frustrated, showing a woman’s black boots striding on green grass.
Cook showed each Filmpoem once, which may not be enough time for the poet’s live reading, the accompanying soundtrack and the film to totally sink in. Hopefully, Cook will be able to exhibit these layered creations in the future so that one can appreciate their complexities once more.