~ Filmmaker: Janet Lees ~

The Bride Goes Wild by Amy Gerstler

This recent film by Janet Lees, who needs no introduction here, took top honors at this year’s Filmetry festival, part of the ten-day Capital City Film Festival (CCFF) in Lansing, Michigan. Its propulsive energy and light-hearted approach, while a bit of a departure from some of the slower, more meditative work that Lees is best known for, demonstrates a mastery of textured layering, and overall makes a great fit with the poem by Amy Gerstler — one of a selection of texts provided by the organizers:

This year’s theme was POETICS OF CINEMA. Pre-selected poems all engaged the concept of cinema in some way, and filmmakers were encouraged to create new work from them. The only rule is that filmmakers must include the text of the poem in full.

CCFF website

As for the poet,

Amy Gerstler is a writer of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art criticism, journalism and other stuff. She has published thirteen books of poems, a children’s book and several collaborative artists books with visual artists. Index of Women, her most recent book of poems, was published by Penguin Random House in 2021.

author website

Be sure to browse the archive at Filmetry, which has been updated to include all of this year’s films—a great resource.

All will be well by Jane Lovell

A new videopoem from UK poet Jane Lovell and artist Janet Lees, using some stunning underwater footage from Janet’s recent trip to the island of El Hierro in the Azores. Here’s how she captioned it on Instagram:

Feeling very muted going into this new year, hard to feel hopeful. I think this short videopoem holds a sense of solace. A deceptively simple poem by Jane Lovell, containing beautiful images and word-music, combined with footage I shot in the incomparable island of El Hierro recently, notably at Cala de Tacorón, a transformative place. I usually go for the lateral rather than the literal when putting film and poetry together, but somehow in this instance a straight translation between the elements felt right. This is part of an ongoing collaboration between the two JLs

Music is by The Duke of Norfolk.

The Gone Missing by Joseph Aversano (Janet Lees)

Selected for the 2023 Haiku North America Haibun Film Festival. Browse the other selections.

Janet Lees is a lens-based artist and poet. Her films have been selected for many festivals and screenings, including the Aesthetica Art Prize, the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival, and Festival Fotogenia. In 2021 she won the Ó Bhéal International Poetry-Film competition. Her art photography has been exhibited around the world and her poetry is widely published and anthologised. She has had two books published: House of Water, a collection of her poems and art photographs, and A bag of sky, the winning collection in the Frosted Fire Firsts prize hosted by the UK’s Cheltenham Poetry Festival.

Director’s statement: I use the camera as a storytelling machine rather than a documenting device. I think film, photography and poetry are among the most important means of creative expression in the Anthropocene. Joseph Aversano’s intriguing haibun ‘The Gone Missing’ seems to me to encapsulate so much of the nature of humanness and life in these times; a sense of living on a knife edge of destructive compulsions. As a photographer and filmmaker I am drawn to damaged, dangerous places, so this piece absolutely struck a chord.

Judges’ statement: We loved the framing, the camera angle, the flickering filtered sunlight and the soundtrack, and admired the build-up to the closing shot, which somehow fully expresses Aversano’s enigmatic haiku.

Joseph Salvatore Aversano is a native New Yorker currently living on the Central Anatolian steppe with his wife Asu. His poems have been published in numerous journals and some have been awarded or anthologized. He is the founding curator of Half Day Moon Press and editor of Half Day Moon Journal. We chose five different films that used his haibun, “The Gone Missing,” intrigued that so many filmmakers chose to work with it, and eager to show the variety of approaches that poetry filmmakers can take.

Seven things I know by Janet Lees

Janet Lees is a poet and film-maker with a distinctive voice.

Her images are often black and white, with soft shades of grey, or tinged with the subtlest of colours. Her poetry is minimal in style, carrying quiet emotion. In counterpoint, the soundtracks are often lush in feeling. So it is in her latest film, Seven things I know.

The atmospheric music is by alt-pop duo Narrow Skies, Anita and Ben Tatlow. The song’s lyrics weave with those of the poem, which is given as text on screen. Anita Tatlow sings in an abstract way that is more musical than verbal, and so the song does not detract, but instead adds fine strands of meaning to Janet Lees’ poem.

The poem is whimsical while uncovering depth. A few of the seven things of the title:

the cadbury’s flake jingle

the magpie’s rough music

that eric morecambe
was not my uncle

Both poem and song lyrics are printed on the page with the video. This is a film in a single shot and slow motion rhythm, with breathing space for each of its elements.

More of Janet Lees’ films are to be found on her Moving Poems author page.

Blame the Fox by Jane Lovell

Devon-based poet Jane Lovell‘s poem won the 2022 Nature and Place Poetry Competition from Rialto, where the poem also appears in dead-tree media. Filmmaker Janet Lees remarked on Instagram that collaborating on the film with Lovell was “a genuinely unforgettable experience”. I can see why: the result is wondrous and moving, reminding me of everything I love about this hybrid genre.

The one still bird by Janet Lees

A brief, eloquent video of a three-line poem expressed in a single image, The one still bird is an author-made piece by Janet Lees. Her personal statement about it:

On May Day it snowed, very briefly and in a tightly defined area – just a few hundred square yards. I saw a single starling on top of tree shaped like a child’s drawing of a hill. Later I swam in the sea and cut my leg on a fishing lure. It felt like a day full of omens and the echoes of emergencies.

Moving Poems has previously shared more than ten fine videopoems by Janet Lees.

Solo duet by Janet Lees

The latest film poem from Manx artist and poet Janet Lees seems fitting for this week of scorching temperatures in so many places. I’m sure she won’t mind if we paste in the full text of her Vimeo description, because it’s interesting to see what she excerpted from her original page-poem, “Retreat,” to make the film poem:

Poem & video by Janet Lees
Music by Tonic Walter & Nina Nst
The full poem, originally published in Earthlines magazine:

Retreat

1
I have hung out my clothes
on the washing line at the edge of the world.
Silhouetted arms and legs
give dumbstruck kicks and jerks,
stiff with salt and too much mending
by hands that have lost
the scent of naked,
eyes that can’t see
to thread a needle.

2
Viewed through glass: peat,
pelt. Imagined song
of blood and stone
fattening my tongue until
it fills my mouth, stops
my throat.
Between inside
and outside,
the flame roar of the wind,
cauterising open sores
where men have dug out earth from me
to burn to warm their hands.

3
My blood
runs cold and clear
My bones are made
of the world’s dried tears
There is wreckage
and resurgence in my heart
At dusk I drink the sun
and then dead stars
live again in my skin
which breaks
and is
unbroken

Crush by Janet Lees

This recent film by Manx videopoet (and Moving Poems regular) Janet Lees was featured along with two others in the newly re-launched Issue One/Spring 2022 issue of Atticus Review.

CRUSH: Artist’s Statement: The poem at the heart of this videopoem is a reflection on the less lovely, more violent realities of ‘young love.’ Like many young people, I was subject to all-consuming crushes as a teenager. Infatuation can make you do anything; rejection can make you feel as though you’ve been turned inside-out and left for dead. Like many women, I have also experienced sexual oppression and violence. I found the doll in a bucket in a junk shop. She appears in the film exactly how I found her, without skirt or trousers. Her exposed and seemingly vulnerable state spoke powerfully to me. As we were driving back from the junk shop I put her on the dashboard and it just looked right, recalling dreams of being in a driverless car, with no control over my fate. The poem was originally published in my collection ‘A bag of sky,’ from Frosted Fire Press.

A great example of how serendipity and something like ekphrasis can produce works of extraordinary power when the poet is also the filmmaker.

What I fear most is becoming “a poet” by Katerina Gogou

This took the top honors in the 9th Ó Bhéal poetry film competition last fall, and I can see why. It’s a masterclass in bringing still images to life—and they’re powerful images, too: flaming trumpets facing off; an empty chair birthing clouds or smoke juxtaposed with the text “I fear that i might learn to use meter and rhythm / and thus I will be trapped within them”; clouds circling overhead as the words “they see to us being ashamed for not working” appear. Filmmaker Janet Lees‘ deep images are usually in service to her own texts, but this was a commissioned film, as the Vimeo description makes clear:

Filmmaker: Janet Lees
Poet: Katerina Gogou
Translator: G Chalkiadakis
Composer/musician: Tromlhie
Produced by +the Institute for Experimenal Arts and commissioned by the art platform filmpoetry.org, as part of the Digital Culture Programme, Ministry of Culture / Greece.

Katerina Gogou (1949-1993) was Greece’s greatest modern anarchist poetess. Her poems have become synonymous with the radical culture of Greece and with Exarcheia, the Athens neighbourhood known as the anarchist quarter. Born into the Nazi occupation of Greece, she lived through the years of far right military junta oppression and the country’s resurgent anarchist movement in the 1980s. An activist herself, she became a prophet of the movement and her poems anthems for it. She died of an overdose on 3 October 1993.

The judges’ comments may be read in the announcement post on +the Institute for Experimental Arts website:

There were so many beautiful filmpoems entered into the competition, I loved watching every single one of them, and appreciated all of the work, imagination and innovation that went into making them. In the end, the piece called What I fear most is becoming a poet stood out as a stunning example of filmpoetry as a unique art form. Janet Lees has created a powerful visual rendering of Katerina Gogou’s poem. I was both floored and inspired by it. Comhghairdeas ó chroí!
Paula Kehoe

What I fear most is becoming “a poet” is such an evocative and moving piece. Katerina Gogou’s poem, enormous in itself which speaks so intimately about the poet’s world of peril and uncertainty, met with this filigreed balance of soft pianissimo and perfectly-paced typography, the haunting, completely captivating visuals, the almost hesitant text (in places), and the very absence of voice bringing us so much closer to the poet’s inner sanctum… all just fantastically done. A highly worthy winner.
Paul Casey

From the same source, here’s Janet’s director’s note:

For me this poem resounds with the psychological distress Katerina experienced as a result of experiencing and bearing witness to collective trauma. Despair and loneliness hover over every line, but there is also a core of steel in the shape of her unwavering conviction and commitment to the cause and to her people. To bring this great poem to life as a poetry film, I drew on my own urban images and footage. In animating the stills, I used the recurring motif of fire and smoke to indicate rebellion and oppression/passion and despair. I worked with the composer/musician Tromlhie to bring out the poem’s emotional journey in musical form and to complement the poem’s slow build – layer upon layer of the fear of ‘becoming “a poet”’.

The northern Ireland-based CAP Monthly interviewed Janet after her win about how she came to poetry film and how she looks at it. It’s well worth a read.

Welcome to the edge of your seat by Janet Lees

For David Ballantyne
Photography & animation by Janet Lees
Music by Henyao

Simple but brilliant. Reminds me of the minimalism that drew me to Janet’s filmpoems from the very beginning. The contrast between the music and the text really adds to the unsettling quality of the piece.

Descent by Janet Lees

Just as the third Thursday in November is American Thanksgiving, the first Thursday in October is British National Poetry Day (albeit with less carb-loading, and poetry readings instead of American football). Given that live events have been severely curtailed by the pandemic, I thought we’d better help out by sharing something from one of our favorite British videopoets, Janet Lees. (Janet is Manx, so British but not UK. I checked, and yes, they do celebrate National Poetry Day there.)

Janet uploaded this film back in July, noting:

Poem, photography and animation by Janet Lees. Poem made from perfume brand names.
Music by Scott Buckley scottbuckley.com.au

Wonderful stuff. So many advertisements have appropriated poetry in recent years, it’s fascinating to see how successfully Janet has turned that around and re-purposed consumerist language for a found poem. It feels as if, in a small but significant way, poetry and truth-telling are reasserting their primacy. Decontextualized desires and impulses shape a Neverland of mutable landscapes, unreliable weather and continually shifting baselines. (Which is one way to characterize the entire Anthropocene.)

Among other things, this really demonstrates the importance of poets learning to make their own films. It’s hard to see how a videopoem like this would be made otherwise.

Secrets of the perpetually sick [redacted] by Jackie Morrey-Grace

Janet Lees‘ first poetry film with a text by another writer sees her trying out a completely new filmmaking approach as well. Manx author and performance poet Jackie Morrey-Grace recites her poem ‘Secrets of the perpetually sick’ in a hospital, but does anyone hear her? As Janet wrote on the Poetry Film Live Facebook page,

We were filming in a hospital training room last year and I was drawn to the security camera footage which was showing on a screen in an adjacent room. I filmed this and slowed it down and really like the dark quality of it, simmering with the rage, despair and alienation Jackie has experienced due to chronic and severely crippling autoimmune health challenges. Redacting her much longer poem felt quite brutal, but in a sense that was also fitting, because in the system Jackie was often unheard and outright dismissed.

The music is ‘Anxious‘ by Sextile. For more of Jackie’s performance poetry, see her YouTube channel.