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Poetry In Motion

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In the cultural pecking order, film and poetry sit at opposite ends of the spectrum. Film is probably the world's most popular art form, drawing the biggest audiences. Poetry, on the other hand, almost certainly draws the smallest. So what kind of fusion happens when you put them together?

As a poet and filmmaker, I believe that film - compressed and finely cut with angles, close-ups, pans, dollies - is closer to poetry than to the linear narratives of fiction. Poetry's arsenal of metaphor, simile, symbol, rhythmic and rhyming pulses are all parallel to the core language of film - an arsenal of special effects which opens like a fan in the hands of a master.

While televising contemporary poetry films is a fitful phenomenon at best, there have been some notable successes. Back in the early 90s, Tyne Tees made a series called Wordworks in cooperation with Neil Astley, editor at Bloodaxe. "We put together six programmes featuring around 20 poets. There was Carol Ann Duffy in a magistrate's court, Michael Longley walking along a jetty with two buckets of water, Paul Durcan in a hearse... Some were a bit clichéd and literal but others were really imaginative."

My own adventures in poetry and film came in the wake of a BBC documentary I made in 2007 about the space rock band Hawkwind. Sitting for three months with the editor in a windowless cutting room assembling the narrative from some 30 hours of footage and piles of archive tapes provided the firsthand experience needed for tunneling through my own footage to combine film and poetry in a way that I hoped would be arresting and expand poetry's niche audience.

Whereas Wordwork's short films concentrate on the writer and their reading, I looked to a more impressionistic, interpretive method. I began with three-minute films featuring a single poem read over images that were metaphoric rather than illustrative. Foreign News, a poem which features in my new book from Salt, The Rapture, drew its imagery from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but the footage I used was not of battles and destruction but lone silhouetted figures walking the long, open-air walkways around the Barbican in the City of London, cut with an extreme close-up of an eye scanning across the poem as it was read. I was looking for new visual metaphors that were unrelated to the poetry, yet together made compelling sense.

Though I worked alone without budget or tripod -my adventures in the screen trade I called Handheld Films - I had some memorable antecedents to draw on. There was Tony Harrison's V, made for Channel 4 following the miners strike in the 1980s, and which caused a media and parliamentary furore over Harrison 's iambic tide of "four-letter filth". Further down the line came Patrick Keiller's cult films from the early 90s, Robinson In Space and London, which followed the fluid, dreamlike poetic monologue voiced by actor Paul Scofield, while the combination of documentary and poetry in the films of Simon Armitage and director Brian Hill - the likes of Saturday Night, set in Leeds, or the acclaimed musical Feltham Sings - have brought a new, eclectic vibrancy to the form.

If you leaf further back through film history you'll find one of the greatest filmpoems of all time, the classic Night Mail, the 1936 British film in which WH Auden's verse is perfectly attuned to the imagery and editing of filmmakers Harry Watt and Basil Wright. Luis Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou is another touchstone, a still shocking slice of poetic surrealism, and from the post-war avant-garde come the poetic reveries of Alain Resnais, the Quay Brothers, Chris Marker, Harry Smith and more.

Then there is the legacy of the Beat writers, stalking the future through 16mm lenses with the likes of 1959's Pull My Daisy, directed by Robert Frank and starring Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso; Peter Whitehead's Wholly Communion, a record of the 1965 'tribal gathering' of poets headed by Ginsberg at the Royal Albert Hall; and the remarkable The Cut Ups by William Burroughs, artist Brion Gysin and filmmaker Anthony Balch.

Made up of sequences filmed in London, Paris, New York and Tangier, The Cut Ups was edited by splicing together a foot of celluloid from four consecutive reels, the resulting staggered flashes of imagery set to a soundtrack of Burroughs and Gysin repeating the phrases 'yes, hello, look at this picture, does it seem to be persisting, thank you'. The result is by turns hypnotic, disturbing, unbearable, unstoppable, entrancing, and liberating. When The Cut Ups was first shown at The Cinephone on Oxford Street, the manager begged them to change the programme on account of the keys, coats, bags, underwear, and other strange items left behind by the disorientated audience.

I aimed for the same kind of derangement of the senses with a new eight-minute filmpoem, Flowers, composed on a walk from Hampstead Heath station to the Steeles pub in Belsize Park where a shaven-headed old geezer, a boozer offering round snuff laced with cocaine and talking about how the names of rivers were older than the towns (they indeed are - the oldest names in the language, perhaps) and heard the story of Moll King, good mixer and queen of the sex trade in Georgian London, a famous bawd and the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders.

It's a film and a poem about shapeshifting and time travel and psychogeography and history. My raw footage includes footage of witch dolls, amulets, mandrakes and more from the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, birds on the wire at Bodmin, red kites at Christmas Common, flicker-book imagery of Lord Byron and the waters of the Thames from Woolwich Dockyard, the paintings of cult and occult artist Austin Osman Spare and footage shot into my dad's old studio mirror, spotted and tarnished like a distant memory.

I've performed the poem at Camden Arts centre, and shown the film at places such as Rich Mix in Shoreditch, and it'll be showing at The Ritzy cinema in Brixton for the launch of The Rapture on 18 December.

Making film poems wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago, or even a decade ago - the software and hardware are now so cheap, anyone with the will and the time can make good films on a less-than-zero budget. Flowers took about two years - much of that doing no more than thinking, 'that doesn't work, but what does?' and testing out an idea before the accidents of creativity and serendipity step in, much as they do on the page, with the word.

For me it proved that, in capable hands, poetry and film makes a powerful brew. It may still be a long way from the multiplex, but with cinema chains such as the Curzon opening their early evening programme to independent filmmakers, and short-film festivals flourishing worldwide, the experimental and avant garde may yet find its way back to the mainstream. Just don't leave your coats and bags behind you when you go.

TIM CUMMING's The Rapture is published by Salt Books and http://http://www.picturehouses.co.uk/cinema/Ritzy_Picturehouse/film/Princes_Amongst_Men_Feat_Tim_Cumming/" target="_hplink">is launched at The Ritzy on 18 December, 8-11pm.

Foreign News is on http://www.thepoetrychannel.org.uk/poems/foreign-news" target="_hplink">The Poetry Channel.

Flowers is on http://vimeo.com/26440991" target="_hplink">Vimeo.

The Rapture is http://http://www.saltpublishing.com/books/smp/9781844717385.htm" target="_hplink">published by Salt.