Above: a still from Silkeberg's film The City
In this interview with 2015 International Writing Program resident Marie Silkeberg, we discuss the relationship between moving image and the written word, collaboration and thinking about the nature of time. Marie participates in the IWP this year as a poet, translator, nonfiction writer, filmmaker from Sweden.
Thank you so much for talking with me today, Marie. I have been very interested in your work, and really appreciate the opportunity to ask you these questions. So, firstly, how do you choose a poem to use in a poetic film? You must have so many poems -- do you look for narrative? Or cinematic images and themes? Or do you just choose your favorite one?
It depends. For each film I’ve made the process has been different. But actually it never starts with knowing which poem. Making poetry films for me is closely tied to writing poetry. It influences my writing deeply, the relation between words and images, images moving in time. Sometimes it makes me understand what I do in and with poetry, sometimes it makes me go further into yet unwritten areas. It’s a way of getting to the point of risk. Opening the energies of the poems, using them to get into other forms of expressions, images and sounds and, once there, exploring their potentialities.
I made a series of films named Destruction I-IV 2006-2009. They were based on readings from one book 23:23 (2006) and gradually, with each film, the poems became more and more fragmented and fused with other poems and voices. In the third film, the reading of my poems is totally melted down into the soundtrack. In the fourth film there are no words that are mine, only my voice reading the Swedish translation. So it really was a work to destroy this book, or use it, as an opening, an entrance, into other worlds and realities.
The last series of poetry films, which I’ve made in collaboration with the Palestinian-Syrian poet Ghayath Almadhoun, were made during the time we wrote the book Till Damaskus (To Damascus) (2014) together. Since we come from different backgrounds, literary traditions and languages, making films were one way to explore, confront and handle these differences. We had a lot of poems to relate to, and use. Only far into the work with images and sounds it became clear to us exactly which poem to use, how to cut it and read it. Making the poems different from what they are on the page.
The process of making a poetry film is for me very similar to the process of writing poetry, it starts with a vague but yet precise idea, feeling, image I search for making more clear and expand. While making poetry films you only have other tools of expression, to use and handle.
The largest difference for me is entering into another field of public space and publication, outside the book’s forms of distribution. Film is a collective art, and it is turned towards larger public spaces as screening rooms, and the Internet's immensity.
Watching your films, I noticed that you do a lot of collaborative work. How does it feel to open up your poem to another creative person?
Terrifying, interesting, and yet it’s still a rare joy of sharing the silence of the work with someone else, getting into that silence in a mutual understanding, or the attempts of mutual understanding. Experiencing the joy of surprise when it happens.
Of course, it is a hard confrontation, with difference, with what you’re willing to explain, change or transform. Even to understand. It challenges your limitations and, at it’s best, changes something in a fundamental way.
Does your work in film subsequently inform your writing? Now that you are actively creating films from poems, do you think about film when you sit down to write?
I don’t actively think about films when I write. I never wrote a poem to make a film of it. But making and watching films influence my writing. Especially the structure of time, how the time is irreversible in film, which is not the case with a poem or a book. My previous book Material was totally influenced by this thinking in time.
While writing Till Damaskus I took a lot of photos. As a poet, the question of the image, the metaphor etc., is constantly following you. For me the camera versus the eye, what the camera can capture, how things are made visible, how two images creates a third in the viewer/reader, how the camera can endure visions that make the human eye turn away, the human eye’s vulnerability, are all essential questions in my poetry.
I see too that at other times you are working with someone else’s poem, and you are doing the film/camera work (IV stockholm gaza 2009). How is that different than working with your own poem?
For this particular film the poem didn’t exist before the film. I asked Ghayath Almadhoun to write a poem. Not knowing if he would do it, or what he would write, I started filming a lot of airplanes and the airport in Stockholm. Just asking this question, and our discussions about it opened the field of creativity we then both entered.
So in that sense there was no difference. Only a relief maybe, to become a listening voice, a receiving voice, a voice of translation, not a voice of expression.
Are you able to access a different part of creativity from that perspective?
I cannot imagine myself choosing a poem without any kind of personal attachment or engagement. When I made the second film of the Destruction series I was in Hanoi. I had read an anthology of poems written by women in Vietnam, old and contemporary poets. I choose the ones that touched me the most, and asked an actress (I was travelling with people working on a theater project), if she would be willing to read them in Vietnamese while I recorded. She said yes and came to our hotel room with a friend who could speak English and chose five of the poems. Her voice was so beautiful, the whole intimacy of the situation so rare, that the man that accompanied her started crying. This moment became fundamental for the whole film.
Wow. That is incredible!
Can you tell us how you became interested in combining poetry and film?
A lot of reasons I guess.
I started working with sound compositions, many years ago.
Coming from a generation who grew up before the digital revolution, I’ve experienced what it has meant, what an enormous change it has caused in how we think and read and share. And I felt a strong desire to understand these expressions, by using them.
In a book I wrote, the one I so methodical tried to destroy by reading it in foreign places while recording it, 23:23 (2006), I used photographs, stills from early famous Russian and contemporary American films, their most insignificant moments, and made collages of them, related to, but still separate from the poems. This frozen time haunted me in some sense, and it inflicted a desire in me to it set in motion. To use motion as a method to relate to and understand the present.
That is amazing. Thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. One last question: do you consider this work to be ‘digital storytelling’? Why, or why not?
No. Poetry is not "story”.
I think of these films more as an attack on "grand narratives” or "official history”. Also on the structures that create them, support them. The many layered, multiple-voiced texture of the films try to work with, relate to, the collective consciousness and/or unconscious. To open up to memory and the un-seen or overseen in the present through the poetry in moving images.
Marie SILKEBERG (poet, translator, nonfiction writer, filmmaker; Sweden) is the author of seven poetry collections, including 23:23 (2006) and Material (2010), and the essay volume Avståndsmätning (2005). Among her translations are those of Inger Christensen and Rosemarie Waldrop; she also collaborates with musicians on text and sound compositions and poetry films. A recipient of a number of awards, the 2013 Marin Sorescu Prize most recently, she teaches literary composition at the University of Southern Denmark. Her participation is made possible by the Paul and Hualing Engle Fund.
Marie reads with fellow IWP residents Johanna Aitchison (New Zealand), Anas Atakora (Togo), Matthew Cheng (Hong Kong) and Yao Feng (Macau) on Monday, November 9th 7p.m. at the Poets House in New York: http://www.poetshouse.org/programs-and-events/readings-and-conversations/iowa-international-writing-program-reading
Her video work can be found on YouTube, with several examples below: