Have scenes from films imprinted themselves on your imagination? Poets like Durga Chew-Bose and filmmakers such as Cheryl Dunye find creative inspiration where words and images intersect. Koel Chu explores how these artists have drawn from arresting film scenes, navigating the dynamic relationship between poetry and cinema.
In Lebanese artist Etel Adnan’s oeuvre, words and images bleed into each other. Throughout her decades-long career, she worked across painting, poetry, film, tapestry, ceramics, and more. ‘Every artwork is a window into this world that only art can access. You can’t define these worlds. They are epiphanies, visions,’ she said. Adnan’s statement is how I would describe the works of my favourite filmmakers and poets—artists who intertwine words, sounds, and images in their practices and offer audiences keys to their worlds.
When M+ invited me to share my take on poetry and film as a writer, I immediately thought of the common thread that connects the artists whose works I hold dear to my heart. Whether it’s filmmakers who never shy away from speaking about their palpable literary interests, or poets who always mention film-watching as vital nutrients to their practices, these are artists whose worlds are often comprised of a dual interest in poetry and cinema. I’m thinking of Durga Chew-Bose, whose social media activity shows how much of an avid cinephile she is (I should also mention that her feature directorial debut is currently under way); Agnès Varda, who once described her filmmaking style as cinécriture, meaning cinematic writing; Kinuyo Tanaka, whose widely acclaimed film The Eternal Breasts is based on the life of tanka poet Fumiko Nakajō; and Cheryl Dunye, whose first video project experiments with a poem to bring together art and politics.
Perhaps the most convenient way to understand the relationship between poetry and film is to trace the genealogy of the two mediums. However, such an approach would be limiting, given that the preponderance of existing research focuses on modernism and avant-garde movements and is predominantly oriented towards a White Euro-American perspective. In light of this, I would instead like to use the works of two artists I love to share my thoughts on the synergy between poetry and cinema.
Poet and writer Durga Chew-Bose once said she’s ‘usually paying attention insomuch as [she’s] slightly elsewhere’ when she’s watching a movie. What she means is that her mind can be preoccupied with the most unexpected detail, whether it’s Kristen Stewart wiping her mouth with a napkin still wrapped around cutlery in Certain Woman (2016) or the way Cher’s cheeks turn rosy when it snows in Moonstruck (1987). She compares a memorable cinematic image to a candle being blown out—its flames vanish in an instant, yet its scent lingers.
The best films for Chew-Bose are those that provide points of entry. They are films like Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo (2001), which she selected as the work that inspired her passion for cinema during her Screen Epiphanies presentation at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2018. When asked why she picked Millennium Mambo, Chew-Bose explained that she was transfixed by the film’s opening sequence, which follows the protagonist, Vicky (Shu Qi), from behind as she drifts through a long and arched tunnel drenched in bluish fluorescent light while techno beats punctuate the scene. This description makes it seem as if nothing really happens in the scene, but that’s the whole point for Chew-Bose. The scene captivated her not because of its plot but because it put her in a trance.
The Millennium Mambo scene contains what could be described as vertical poetics. Experimental filmmaker Maya Deren first proposed this concept in 1953 at Cinema 16’s symposium dedicated to poetry and film. She argued that the vertical structure was not concerned with the horizontal logic of action-driven development but rather focused on the quality and depth of emotions and meanings. Such vertical moments, often found in opening sequences of films, are what Deren considered to be the poetic construct of a work.
Rather than relying on a linear narrative, Millennium Mambo’s two-minute opening scene focuses on setting the film’s tone and mood. While Vicky’s footsteps appear buoyant and carefree, she also seems adrift as her shadow soaks in the hazy yet endless overhead lights. This sequence could be interpreted as representing the restlessness and precarity behind the ephemeral facade of Taiwan’s promising millennium during the early 2000s. In response to this scene, Chew-Bose asks: ‘Shouldn’t every film begin with a dare? Don’t they all, sort of?’
In a similar fashion, Chew-Bose’s debut publication, Too Much and Not the Mood, opens with a lengthy, 90-page lyric essay titled ‘Heart Museum’. Taking up nearly half of the entire book, the essay starts with a seemingly arbitrary question: what does the emoji of a pink building with the letter H stand for? Chew-Bose speculates that it could be a cardiologist’s clinic before she finds out that the emoji is of a love hotel. She goes on to tell readers in a stream-of-consciousness approach about her father’s heart surgery, heartbreaks that made her feel like ‘a Dyson in the desert’, and a rickshaw driver in Mumbai who called a hospital a ‘heart museum’. The constantly meandering thoughts and sporadic epiphanies are hard to follow, but the value of the essay as well as the convoluted symbolisms associated with the emoji lie in ambivalence more than clarity. ‘The words “Heart Museum”, like a figurative place; a vault where memories shimmer, fall dark, are cut loose, and unexpectedly flare up when you most need them to,’ she writes.
This is also why Chew-Bose is drawn to cinema. She takes pleasure in contemplating the uncertainties surrounding a film. ‘There’s nothing as loyal—rich and electric—as doubt’s unsettling powers to make me feel like I’ve just experienced a new classic,’ she says. For Durga Chew-Bose, a film, at its core, is like a heart museum—unstable, ambiguous, and always digressing.
In 1996, Cheryl Dunye introduced the film The Watermelon Woman to the world. To this day, the film is still considered one of the most important works of the New Queer Cinema movement. Dunye calls her own work ‘Dunyementary’, which is a unique genre that fuses documentary, auto-fiction, and comedy and features her distinct voice as an African-American lesbian.
Even in her earliest works, Dunye emerged as a significant figure exploring Black lesbian subjectivity through experimentation. Her first video work was an adaptation of Wild Thing by queer performance poet Ramona Lofton, better known as Sapphire. In the poem, Sapphire adopts the voice of one of the teenagers from the Central Park Five who was wrongly imprisoned for assaulting a white female jogger in 1989 (the accused were exonerated in 2002). Dunye recorded Sapphire’s reading and overlaid the poet’s voice with a montage of news images and other shots she filmed. The work made Dunye realise that she could use video art to make a statement that ‘art and politics can live in the same world’. Since then, Dunye has created a number of short videos—often writing, directing, and acting in the works—including Janine (1990), She Don’t Fade (1991), and Greetings from Africa (1995).
While Sapphire’s poetry often uses heavy-handed imagery to detail the excruciating abuse suffered by those who are underrepresented, Dunye’s mockumentaries are almost at the other end of the spectrum with their light-hearted stories and witty humour. Despite their disparate styles and ways of storytelling, both artists place the fictionalisation of reality and the exploration of themes such as sexuality and racism at the heart of their practices.
In The Watermelon Woman, Dunye interweaves her own story, or a self-reflexive look at a young Black lesbian filmmaker, with the history of a fictional Black actress named Fae Richards from the 1930s and 1940s, who frequently plays in stereotypical mammy roles. The film is shot like a documentary, and it’s not until the end that Richards’ biography is revealed to be fabricated. The assumed authenticity of Richards’ life is largely accredited to an archive of footage and vividly realistic photographs created by Dunye with the help of photographer Zoe Leonard.
Historian Saidiya Hartman calls the advancement of speculative arguments in fashioning narratives based on archival research ‘critical fabulation’. The end credits of The Watermelon Woman includes the statement: ‘Sometimes you have to create your own history’. Whether in the works of Sapphire or Dunye, the key question is how one can create their own history when it is suppressed yet must be told. By imagining Fae Richards’ fictional life, Dunye not only voices her frustrations and criticisms at the lack of documentation of Black women in Hollywood history, but she also creates a narrative response to what is otherwise lost, unavailable, scarce, or absent in historical records.
The most memorable impression I have of the relationship between poetry and film comes from the title of a movie. Explaining why she named her debut feature A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), filmmaker Payal Kapadia said the title was a line scribbled by an unknown poet at the protest site they were filming at. ‘We stumbled upon it while shooting,’ she said. Whether it’s poetry in film or film in poetry, the cross-pollination of the two mediums often happens more serendipitously than we could ever imagine. All we need to do is pay attention.
Image at top: Still from Jolene Mok’s an inimitable place called home. Commissioned by M+, 2023