SHAPING Some thoughts about the film poetry project You Should've Seen Us
My first attempts to combine poetry and film happened sometime around 2005-6 when I wrote two or three poems based on footage from the Yorkshire Film Archive. One of these films – about women workers in a munitions factory – led me to the Imperial War Museum in London to find out more about conditions in these factories. What did the records show about this at the time? What did the women say about their experience in their own words? The version of the poem that worked best for me presented itself in the form of a speaking voice, an amalgam perhaps of voices preserved in the museum's records through pamphlets and war propaganda.
In response to an offer of new Arts Council funding for region-based projects, late in 2010 I began the long process of selecting film I could use for writing and again the triggers seemed to come from voices. What was more, as I immersed myself in the period we were covering, particularly the early 50s, I started to recall – or even actually hear – the way my parents spoke. I grew up in Cheshire and the films were all based in North Yorkshire, but the vocabulary came from a time more than a place. It belonged to that period just after the war; my father, for example, saying, 'Come on lad, shape!' if I wasn't doing something the way he thought I should. My grandmother with too much housework to do, muttering to herself, 'I'm just not shaping this morning'. I'd completely forgotten this strange usage until the films brought it back.
So in November and December of 2010 I had to find the right films, and do my own shaping (in the both senses) in order to produce a coherent set of poems. The films I was looking at had been made during the first half of the last century, the Second War and the decade that followed. Comparing our time with that of the people in the films was unavoidable. We see beyond their sense of what is happening. We know how the war turned out, how the stories ended. As well as that, our present, it seems, allows us so many advantages, so much more personal freedom of expression untrimmed by other people's expectations. We also make the strange assumption that everybody seen in this or that street festival or procession, this or that garden fete, shares the same set of attitudes as everyone else. The films somehow enhance a sense of conformity. Private becomes public. If we see a family on the beach in the 30s they become our property. We assume how they look represents the typical, whether they actually are typical or not.
I was also aware of the fundamental division between my side of the screen – the audience side – and the other – where things had happened, were happening, to real people in real time. Any text written as voice-over can't help but be a kind of commentary, but I wanted the commentary to come from that other side of the screen, not mine, or to set up a form of interaction between the two sides and make it dramatic. I wanted them to have their say. The quality of the film and the method of its production, such as the use of a hand-held camera moving through the crowd in Settle in 1943, were also factors in the writing process. It's no accident that watching this footage gives the impression of meeting people you know in the street of your local town on a sunny morning, since that's what the man with the camera was actually doing as the film was shot. By contrast, the murky, middle distance perspective of the Harrogate film (1937), where no individual faces are visible, creates a very different set of writing possibilities, or restrictions, to work with.
The usual procedure was to choose a particular film then develop an appropriate poem in response. But not in every case. As the writing progressed I found myself more and more interested in inventing not only voices but imagined narratives, with a range of footage from different films brought together as illustrations and settings. At a certain point, my sense of the poems together as a single work began to emerge. In the last piece, which is the title, and which refers back through the whole sequence as well as presenting more new footage, those unheard voices finally spoke together as a chorus. But the overall shape of the complete text reflects the phases of my engagement with it, from the very obvious solution – one poem for one bit of film – to the more experimental and complex presentations which also required more skilful forms of editing. From the start the project had been collaborative. My search for the right films was enormously helped by the professional guidance of Graham Relton of Yorkshire Film Archive, whose management of the project made it so rewarding at every stage, while the bringing together of images and text owed everything to the creative and technical skill of its editor Ed Torsney. He would probably agree that the final poem allowed him the widest scope.
From: Crowds On Holiday In Scarborough, 1953
Why do bandsmen always look like bandsmen?
They could be anything –
plumbers, union men, foundrymen,
but here they`re more like hairdressers –
so much brylcreem, how they move their hands.
From: Church Fenton, 1958
A new crop of children, the plumpest yet,
with bunches of chrysanths and gypsophila,
and Mother's dream
is a procession to Sunday School. Left up to her
you'll spend the rest of your life in your best clothes.
Dad's playing cricket and won't save you.
You Should've Seen Us
In old film on parade in funny clothes
you think we dressed up for you?
so you could say, Takes me back.
The old days. No!
It was just us being who we were.
That's how you should've seen us.
Instead, we look poor and grimy –
old bricks in old walls, costumes and junk.
Not how it seemed to us, in the moment,
in the skin of the present
with its random shout,
You should've seen us!
You should've seen us, oh
you should've seen us, a scream
that Saturday, showing our ankles.
Not to you. We did it for ourselves!
In a fit, lifting voluminous skirts.
Or maybe… just a little bit for you.
You like us, don't you, care a bit?
We have to be careful... how do we know
how many years we'll be on show?
Your future's future could be watching.
Eating a cake. Alone. In a procession.
Always in processions. Or on a beach,
under some patch of sky. Young in our skin,
saying hello, goodbye.
You should've seen us.
What if you'd never seen us?
How I do wish you'd seen us!
You saw us. You did. Didn`t you?