words in the frame

tim wright at the red room's poetry picture show

left - Ivy Alvarez, right - J S Harry

left – Ivy Alvarez, right – J S Harry

left – Ivy Alvarez, right – J S Harry

THE RED ROOM COMPANY WAS ESTABLISHED IN 2003 WITH THE AIM OF CREATING, PROMOTING AND DISTRIBUTING POETRY TO THE PUBLIC IN NEW AND UNUSUAL WAYS.

Since then it has produced projects such as the innovative Toilet Doors Poetry project in which illustrated poems replaced advertising in the dual public/private space of a number public toilets around Australia, and Poetry Crimes, which used radio and the internet to showcase poems on the theme of crime and justice. In 2006 the first series of The Wordshed, a television show devoted to poetry and writing, was aired on the Sydney community television station, tvs. For The Poetry Picture Show 10 established and emerging poets were commissioned to each write a single poem that engaged with the moving image, to write poems that ‘moved.’ The Red Room Company then made 10 one-minute films inspired by short sections from the poems. The work resulted in a one-off performance of films and poems, augmented later by podcasts, videocasts, a DVD and a continuing blog devoted to discussion of the project.

The night began with JS Harry’s long poem “Journeys Digital—& ‘Other’ Worlds.” Somewhere, around halfway through, these lines reverberated with me:

It is over five months since Saddam’s huge statue
was pulled down — & that act — & scene
turned into photographs,
& recycled, for money,
sometimes with enigmatic US soldiers’ faces
& a few close-ups of excited teenage Iraqi boys, & men,
with stories about the ‘fall’ of Saddam’s regime
on newspaper front pages around the world.

The decision for Harry to read first was a good one as the poem prepared the audience for the complex issues that the dialogue between film and poetry opens up. Harry’s poem dealt with the entanglement of life with the bracken of visual technologies that increasingly construct it, and how this plays out in one of the most watched (and, perhaps not coincidentally, hidden) countries: Iraq. “Isn’t it rather soon for it to be released as a DVD?”, one of the characters asks, articulating a generation’s unique anxiety about the relation of the image to the real. The density of bodies—from the dictator’s statue to real flesh bodies—was continually brought up against the surface of the television and photographic images that represent them.

Other poets took the brief to write poems that move in various ways. John Tranter—whose work, at least since his 1973 collection, Red Movie, has been engaged with cinema and the moving image—contributed a bizarre and hilarious reading of Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues (1961). David Prater did something similar in revisiting the 80s flick Can You Feel Me Dancing?, while Sarah Holland-Batt’s The Limitations of Form was written after Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). Briohny Doyle’s poem, The Widest Wide Shot, used the conceit of the film pitch to explore the connections between memory and image, while Felicity Plunkett’s The Negative Cutter: An Introduction to Editing borrowed phrases from the technical language of film editing as jumping-off points for poems.

The film inspired by JS Harry’s poem was an abstract piece constructed from various images deployed in the poem: the audience saw a magnifying glass scrolling over a map of Iraq, a huntsman spider, and heard horrific effects that sounded like they were derived from ice cubes being snapped out of a tray. Having just heard Harry’s poem, the audience seemed unsure what to make of this work. Was it a film translation, or an accompaniment? Furthermore, what kind of film, if any, could have taken this poem—already so critically engaged with image-culture—somewhere else? Possibly it was the absence of narrative in Nathan Shepherdson and Sarah Holland-Batt’s poems that encouraged the filmmakers to extend the poems into their own filmic spaces. But apart from these two examples, the filmmakers chose to respond literally to the poems’ images, depicting only their most ‘visual’ aspects.

The films were projected after each poet had finished reading. Guarding the integrity of each poem and film in this way meant there was little opportunity for the artforms and their various elements—spoken language, moving image and soundtrack—to work in combination. There was a sense that this meeting of poetry and film was a bit over-determined: that two forms, always necessarily connected, were being introduced as if for the first time. An imbalance in the organisation of the show became apparent: while the poets were commissioned to produce their work, the films were produced by members of The Red Room Company themselves in collaboration with the poets, meaning there was a similarity of style and approach across the 10 films. Taking on different filmmakers might have brought a fresh approach to each ‘film-poem.’ Other text-image projects from the last few years have worked successfully in this way: the Red Room’s own Toilet Doors Poetry project and the 2002-2003 project Cornerfold (www.cornerfold.com.au), which commissioned artists and designers working in computer media, comic artists, zinemakers and writers to create online animations.

Over the last four years The Red Room Company has expanded the reach of Australian poetry, distributing and broadcasting online, on radio, TV and in public spaces. Its projects have given people who might not have otherwise had a chance to encounter poetry, and to meet it in ways not normally presented. The challenge for the Red Room now is to allow poetry the room to change and evolve as it starts to engage with new media, while keeping those things that poetry already does best: the quiet work of language in a room or on a page. Hopefully the Poetry Picture Show and its online existence has opened up a dialogue in this area that will continue.

Ten of the poems and films from The Poetry Picture Show are available as podcasts, CD, DVD or online at www.redroomorganisation.org and with commentaries in The Poets’ Guide to Picture Shows blog at the same address.

The Red Room Company, The Poetry Picture Show, Old Darlington School, Redfern, Sydney, Oct 6

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 26

© Tim Wright; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2006