Some thoughts on the process of creating a claustrophobic reflection on wild swimming and unbelonging called ‘Bound and Gagged’.
EXT. UNDERWATER, THE RIVER BRUE - DAY. A pale-skinned, middle-aged man in faded swim shorts struggles underwater as he tries to manipulate a GoPro camera clamped to a plant support propped in the silty stones of a riverbed. He uses the other hand to propel himself as he swims in a circle around the camera. Because of the cloudiness of the river, the small screen on the back of the camera attached to the pole, because he has removed his contact lenses so that he doesn’t get an eye infection, and because the refractive index of water is different to air, he is unable to see what he is filming.
This is the fifth time Dominic has attempted to film himself underwater, and because of a looming deadline, it needs to be the last, which makes it the longest immersion so far. Hair dripping, Dominic drives through the shadows of leafy rural lanes on his journey home – teeth chattering, he is finding it hard to steer because of involuntary shuddering. It is June.
BEGIN FLASHBACK: INT. THE FOLK HOUSE, BRISTOL - DAY It’s the end of a group meeting in a large 1960s classroom with a row of picture windows overlooking the city. A square of tables sits in the middle of the room, and chairs are being tidied away as a group disbands at the end of the Friday Monthly Poetry Group. Chaucer Cameron approaches Dominic Weston as he packs his poems away: CHAUCER CAMERON You’re a performance poet, aren’t you? We’re looking for a performance poet. DOMINIC WESTON (thinks)
What is a poem?
Trying to come up with a definitive answer to that question has been likened to nailing jelly to the wall.
So, what is a poetry film? Filming jelly being nailed to a wall?
Can you write a poem with pictures?
Pioneering poetry film practitioners Chaucer Cameron and Helen Dewberry of Elephant’s Footprint invited me to find out. And, to be honest before I embarked on this process of discovery I didn’t have a clue, but after talking to them I knew that I was intrigued enough to commit to making one, and in so doing hopefully come closer to understanding what one is.
INT. THE RICHARD JEFFERIES MUSEUM, SWINDON – DAY Dominic can’t find the vehicular entrance to the museum and arrives late. He hurriedly parks and tries to find the entrance to the museum, which looks like a small, old house. Tentatively opening an unmarked back door he walks into a small, low-ceiling room crammed with poets who all seem to know each other. This is the inaugural meeting of the Poetry Film Collective, and Dominic feels like a fraud.
The first meeting was awkward– I felt like a fish out of water. Many of the assembled group were well established age poets, and some had already made poetry films, but it wasn’t that that unnerved me. They all admitted that their film-making skills were rudimentary or non-existent, and I work in television producing programmes for the BBC and National Geographic. I have access to highly skilled people and broadcast-quality equipment that produce stunning images. I felt like an inappropriate bedfellow for this collaboration.
Chaucer and Helen wanted me to share my skills with the group while developing my own voice. I had to remind myself that this was not a ‘job’ and had to be about my poetry and my personal creative life. I decided that whatever I created for this group had to come entirely from me. I am a producer and director, not a cameraman or editor, but I would shoot and edit myself, and that there would be nothing in the finished piece that I hadn’t generated myself… I had already lost my imagined score…
But those are just technical aspects of the approach. To start this journey, I had to decide what kind of poetry film would I make?
If you are not familiar with poetry film, and most people are not, then it is helpful to understand that there is a stark difference in forms from one end of the spectrum to the other (other forms are available). At one end is what could be called an impressionistic approach, where images are used sparingly, almost randomly in a slide show, as a counterpoint or background to the spoken word or text. At the other end images are used almost to illustrate a poem, often in a quite literal relationship to the text.
You could say that in the first form the text serves image, and in the second image serves text.
Chaucer and Helen were interested in looking for a third way – where words and images each exist as their own complete poetic forms, yet come together to create an even greater whole. In this project they were looking to expose page poets to a wide variety of existing poetry films as stepping off points, and to help teach them skills for filming with smartphones, for basic animation and editing, and to encourage an exploration of this hinterland between the filmic and the poetic. There was always a high risk that coming from a background in narrative-led television I would veer towards the illustrative end of the spectrum – it is where I feel at home. So, it was at that point I decided the only way to resist this urge would be to film my poem before I wrote it.
But how do you write a poem with pictures?
I didn’t know that yet, but I did know it would be written in water.
EXT. THE A37 – DAY Dominic is driving a small white VW south from Shepton Mallet down the A37. DOMINIC (V.O.) The Mendip Hills of Somerset are formed from ancient seabed, pushed and twisted upwards to create a limestone Karst upland. Karst is highly porous and surface water streams quickly disappear through the rock and run in rivers underground, cutting out cave systems like Cheddar and Wookey Hole. A road sign shows a turning to the right for ‘West Lydford’. Dominic flicks on the indicator and looks uncertain. DOMINIC (V.O.) To the south of the Mendips the limestone sinks away, the land is flatter and streams are able to flow into rivers like the Brue. Behind the weir at West Lydford it deepens and there is a rare and popular wild swimming spot, near the village church.
This is Dominic’s first visit, despite living 15 minutes away for the last 11 years. He doesn’t yet know if it will be possible to film the poem he hasn’t written here. The afternoon sun is getting low but the air is still warm – unusual for a June day in the U.K. He holds a plastic carrier bag in one hand, which contains an iPhone inside a hard, waterproof case, and dry underpants. Under his arm he carries a blue and white broad striped towel. DOMINIC (V.O.) In a secluded spot, beyond a weeping willow tree, he hides his car key in long grass close to dog faeces. He gets undressed, puts his clothes into the plastic carrier bag, takes the iPhone out and attempt s to get in the river. The bank is not very high, but it is vertical. After some struggle his foot finds an old tree root, and clinging on to handfuls of long grass above he lowers himself into the water – it is cold. Very cold. His right foot is looking for the riverbed, and when it finds it it creeps slowly between his toes. Dominic makes a curious expression.
After a few minutes of faffing, he can perch without slipping under, with his back to the bank and the greenish water up to his chest. There is a pricking sensation on his stomach. He can make out short, dark moving lines in the water. Slowly, he reaches for his iPhone from the grass above, turns on the video record function, and slips it beneath the surface, pointing it at his open hand resting on his lap, the pale skin reflecting light upwards. The first clip he films shows Minnows darting into shot, holding position over his hand, and then darting off. He hadn’t expected fish.
My mind is always making patterns, constantly joining dots, trying to make sense of half-formed things and random associations. I could have approached this project by filming or collecting any number of unrelated images and clips and editing them together until they felt interesting, or right, and written a poem to that. But I needed a story. Not a beginning-middle-end story, but events-situated-in-a-place-for-a-reason, story.
These events, however constrained, would provide the structure for filming and then for writing. I knew early on that I wanted to film underwater – that was my desire and my challenge to myself, as I felt I already had a head start in filmmaking terms. I now knew that there would be fish in the poetry film – because there were filmable fish in the Brue, albeit minnows. And I would recite the poem underwater, to camera, with fish. Simple.
BUT, if I was to write the poem after I had filmed and edited the images, to avoid illustration what would I recite underwater?
EXT. A FIELD - DAY Dominic is walking with a Chocolate Labrador Retriever, off the lead, through an uncut field of long grass, tall nettles and thistles, along well-walked narrow paths on a misty early morning. DOMINIC (Muttering under his breath) Never let it be said. Never let it be said. Never let it be said. The dog walks out of the field, ignoring him.
At this stage it is good to know that I am not a methodical worker. I always get the job done, and do it well, but I am not methodical, unless it is housework.
It did make sense to film this project in June because of better temperatures and long daylight hours so I could fit in filming after work. But the main reason I filmed in June, was because I had known since January that it was the deadline for viewing the completed poetry films.
There are two fundamental elements of a poetry film – words and pictures. I had an unwritten poem and an unfilmed film. The looking shadow of the deadline was bringing their absence into sharp relief. As is often the case when I am writing a poem, a few words will appear in my mind, I mutter them around, and when I sit down to write more come to join them and play with them, and I can start to build.
I had come up with a first line – ‘Never let it be said’, so at least I could get on with a test to film myself reciting underwater. Get the framing and delivery right – a pivotal moment in this project.
EXT. RIVER BRUE - DAY. It is early evening. Dominic fixes a clamp to his iPhone case, and screws a small Gorillapod to the clamp to form a handle. He presses record on the camera, takes off his glasses and tosses them up onto the grassy bank above, and films himself as he submerges underwater, crouching beneath the surface at the side of the slippery bank, holding onto the root above for stability. Bubbles escape from Dominic’s mouth as he tries to clear it to say five words. His eyes are bulging, slightly.
A whole poem! A whole poem! Do you know how hard it is to lip synch underwater? It’s not just the aesthetics of ensuring distracting bubbles don’t escape from your mouth that is difficult to master – you can’t breathe! Even in a metre depth of water the pressure of the river on your body, on your unbreathing lungs makes them want to breathe again. It’s not the same as holding your breath when you swim underwater. Normally, when we move our lips and jaw to form speech we do so while exhaling air from our lungs to form sounds through our voice box. Critically, this is followed by an inhalation to refill our lungs.
There is something about trying to perform the same oral actions underwater, where you are unable breathe in or out, that triggers the back of your brain to think it’s drowning, even when you know you are not. I had seen videos of underwater lip-synching in swimming pools on YouTube and now realised what an amateur I was; but I had a deadline, and decided at this exact point that I only needed to recite the opening and closing lines underwater. Result! Back on course to meet my deadline, I could now concentrate on capturing images at and below the surface of this slow-flowing, Somerset river.
EXT. RIVER BRUE - DAY. It is evening. Dominic is immersed up to his waist in the river – the bank rises above him but he props himself up on mud, vegetation and an old root. The warm rays of the last sun of the day catch the long tresses of a weeping willow, but he is shivering. Dominic realises that there is something wrong with the waterproof case he holds in his puckered, pale fingers.The footage of the evening sun dancing on the surface of the water, while grasses sway in slow-motion on the breeze, appears misty on the iPhone’s screen.
INT. HOUSE - DAY. The next morning, the iPhone is dead.
The challenge to show how much could be filmed on an iPhone had become a very expensive one. The remaining footage would be shot on a GoPro borrowed from a friend.
In all, I made five trips to the river Brue to film underwater and on the last one I think I was borderline hypothermic when I finally emerged, but I truly felt that I had some magical moments. I had found the serendipity that I hope for in any project, the curve ball that takes you to an unexpected, uncomfortable place that unlocks real creativity.
Editing the images was very similar to writing some poems. A few poems come out clean and almost whole, but many others are built from fragments, themes, streams of research, and to get those poems written I find a time comes when I just have to decide on a path, any path, and keep pushing through. There will be treasured elements that fall to the wayside, but it’s not possible, or desirable, to pack everything in. I have learned to pick a route and follow it.
Scanning through clips on my laptop I came across so many captivating images but the combined running time ran to several hours for a three- or four-minute poetry film. It was never all going to make it in. And I had a deadline! As with most of my poems, I didn’t end up with what I envisaged, or thought I wanted, but I did end up creating, composing something in its own right, that I have built a unique relationship with.
So how do you write a poem with images?
Like you do with words. Leave it until the last minute, persevere, trust your instinct and believe that something magical will happen.
And what is a poetry film?
What is a poem?
INT. A HOUSE IN CHIPPENHAM, WILTSHIRE - DAY The Poetry Film Collective gather in Chaucer and Cameron’s living room. It is a sunny day, so the curtains are pulled across the glazed doors to the garden. A projector is pointed at the blank wall. Dominic doesn’t think that he comes across as nervous as he nods to Helen to press play on her laptop.
With thanks to
Chaucer & Helen of
for their support of the project
publisher Jonathan Catherall of
for hosting Dominic’s poetry film
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