Sunday, December 29, 2019

Philip Larkin’s Life Behind the Camera

Monica Jones in Larkin's bedrom in Hull
England, 1957

Philip Larkin’s Life Behind the Camera

By Lev Mendes

January 29, 2016

In the late summer of 1947, Philip Larkin, a few years removed from university and eking out a living as an assistant librarian, bought himself a camera—a British-made Purma Special. In a letter to a friend, he characterized the purchase as an “act of madness”—it had cost him more than a week’s salary—but the camera seemed to open up fresh possibilities. “There are dozens of worthy compositions knocking around,” he wrote. “It’s a question of realizing what is good even in black and white.” Larkin, at this point, had been taking pictures for nearly a decade, starting out with a box camera given to him by his father and honing his skills as an undergraduate at Oxford, during the Second World War, where he would amble around the deserted campus photographing his contemporaries.

It was a hobby that Larkin would maintain for the next three decades. Eventually, he replaced the Purma with an even costlier Rolleiflex Automat, which he used to shoot a series of self-portraits. Several document his morning routine (shaving, breakfasting, dressing), while others show him looking pensive and quietly dignified. To capture a desired expression, Larkin would position a mirror behind the mounted Rolleiflex, taking advantage of its self-timer. After printing the portraits, he would often crop them for compositional effect, as he did with the other images he created over the years: studies of family members, friends, and romantic partners; elegiac depictions of the English countryside; and an urban pastoral of churches, interiors, railway stations, and cemeteries.

Some two hundred of these photographs, selected from five thousand prints and negatives, have now been assembled for the first time, in a beautifully produced book, “The Importance of Elsewhere,” which was released in the fall by the British imprint Frances Lincoln. Accompanied by commentary from one of Larkin’s biographers, Richard Bradford, the photographs display the full range of his poetic sensibility, from the melancholic to the comical. There is a death-haunted image of his aging mother, silhouetted against the light from a nearby window, and a bitingly funny one of the miserably married Kingsley and Hilly Amis, standing in front of a newspaper headline that reads, in bold lettering, “BIG FIGHT.” There is also a black-and-white shot of the young Monica Jones, Larkin’s lifelong paramour, leaning sensually against his bed (one of many portraits he made of her over the years), and a color image of a country graveyard, the obelisks like giant chessmen casting long shadows.
In their sociability, tenderness, and sweep, the photographs complicate the caricature of Larkin as England’s laureate of despair, squeezing out lines between shifts as a university librarian: “Life is first boredom, then fear”; “Nothing contravenes the coming dark.” Rather than a poet committed to monkish isolation and routine, Larkin the photographer appears as an eager traveller through Britain and Ireland, with Jones often in tow. Bradford makes a point of noting that Larkin kept these travels, and the photographs they inspired, a secret from pen pals like Kingsley Amis, for whom he reserved obscenity-filled reports of his own bitterness and alienation—his wide-eyed curiosity replaced by an ironic sneer.

In underscoring Larkin’s hidden side—kinder, softer, more receptive and intimate—Bradford’s notes in “The Importance of Elsewhere” seem to follow in the footsteps of James Booth, whose 2014 biography, “Philip Larkin: Life, Art and Love,” attempted to counter the poet’s posthumous reputation as a bigot and boor. True, Booth argued, Larkin’s correspondence disclosed instances of racism, misogyny, and reactionary shallowness, but this was only one face of the self-contradictory, many-minded poet. Bradford, in his turn, quotes one of Larkin’s unpublished poems, addressed to Amis, in which he distinguishes, in photographic terms, between his own love interests and those of his philandering friend: “Only cameras memorise her face, her clothes would never hang among your interests.”

What drew Larkin to take pictures? Given his investment in the medium, there is curiously little mention of the subject in his published verse, essays, or letters. We’re left, for the most part, to speculate. Perhaps photography offered the poet an escape from the pressures of verbal composition, providing him with a way of taking in reality more directly, via image instead of language. Or perhaps it availed him of a private universe of references, one he didn’t necessarily wish to share with others. Bradford describes how Larkin tried to “build a world of his own, one he kept largely to himself.” Just as he held friends like Amis at a certain remove—presenting a view of himself tailored to their sensibilities—Larkin fashioned his own separate reality, observing and framing it from behind a lens.

Larkin’s 1953 poem “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album” supplies another shred of insight. The poem describes a man looking at photographs of his lover, and alternates between tones of artful seduction and distressed accusations against photography itself: “But o, photography! as no art is, / faithful and disappointing!” Photographs, Larkin suggests, by faithfully recording the past, convince us that it was real, like the present. But this feeling in turn provokes heartbreak, as we are forced to confront a reality “no one now can share,” from which we have been tragically cut off. The images in the young woman’s album, Larkin writes, are
In every sense empirically true!
Or is it just the past? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being over; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.
This awareness of loss and separation, of the irrecoverable pastness of the past, is what compelled Larkin to write poetry. As he put it, in a 1958 radio interview with the BBC, poems preserve “a particular kind of experience, a feeling that you are the only one to have noticed something, something especially beautiful or sad or significant.” Photography, like poetry, may have simply provided him a way of noticing and preserving. It seems fitting, then, that in the late nineteen-seventies, when the muse of poetry abandoned Larkin, several years before his death, he ceased taking pictures as well.


Friday, December 27, 2019

Poetry, or the Power of Existence / Shahin Parhami’s “Shahrzaad’s Tale”


Poetry, or the Power of Existence: Shahin Parhami’s “Shahrzaad’s Tale”


The following article is written by Setrag Manoukian, an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies and Anthropology at McGill University. He is also the author of City of Knowledge in Twentieth Century Iran: Shiraz, History, and Poetry (2012). For more information regarding the book, check out AjamMC’s interview with the author.

Shahrzaad’s Tale is a film about Kobra Amin-Sa‘idi, stage name Shahrzaad, an Iranian dancer and actress well known for her secondary roles as bad girl in some of the 1960s and 1970s blockbuster films, who also wrote blank verses and went on to direct her own film only to fade into oblivion after the 1979 revolution Shahrzaad’s Tale is directed and edited by Shahin Parhami, an Iranian filmmaker based in Montreal who received numerous awards for his previous films.

Born in a working-class family, Shahrzaad started dancing in her father’s café in south Tehran before moving to more upscale cabarets. She joined a theater company, and eventually performed in commercially successful films of the so called “film Farsi” genre– in Kimyai’s famed Qaysar (1968), she played a sex worker who hides the protagonist on the run. In those same years Shahrzaad published two books of poetry, and wrote for magazines, moving back and forth between artistic avant-garde and popular entertainment, something that happens quite rarely in Iran and elsewhere. At the end of the seventies, she directed a feature length film and a short movie, one of the first women to do so in Iran. The 1979 revolution turned her world upside down and made the contradictions that had channeled her career even more evident: a life of struggle and abuse, but also of self-assertion as woman and author, became one of solitude and drift.

It took many efforts for Shahrzaad’s Tale filmmaker Shahin Parhami to find Kobra Amin-Sa‘idi and convince her to be again in front of a camera. Besides reconstructing her career, Shahrzaad’s Tale is a film about this quest and encounters. The film opens with Parhami and a younger actress driving to a small town near Kerman, where they eventually meet Shahrzaad in her house. She talks about her difficult childhood, her violent father, and her current poverty, but also reminisces about the highlights of her career with a sense of pride and more than a touch of self-irony.

An image of young Shahrzaad. Source: Iran Star

The film continues in Tehran where Shahrzaad revisits her childhood neighborhood, spends time in the museum of cinema where she sees her photo among those of other famous Iranian actors, and meets some of her old friends and fellow artists. The film culminates in Shahrzaad’s conversations with a group of young middle upper class women, artistically ambitious and colorfully clothed, recruited by the filmmaker to interact with the older, successful, and experienced Shahrzaad. The conversations revolve around acting and film-making but also poetry, the hardship of life, the sacrifice of Iranian martyrs, maternal love and national pride. Shahrzaad acts at times as a mentor, at times as interviewee, at times as a director auditioning her cast, and through these different personas the viewer gets a sense of her courage and sadness– by contrast, the women appear economically at ease but embarrassed by or incapable of coming to terms with the figure of Sharzaad.

Shahrzaad’s Tale is also a film about the history of Iranian cinema and its reception in contemporary Iran. Filled with amazing found footage, the film documents Shahrzaad’s career in images, but also conveys the rhythm of “film Farsi” features with larger than life characters, sexual innuendos and over the top vocal intonations. Composed through interviews, the film shows the place this cinema has retained in contemporary Iran, remembered with nostalgia and appreciation, but also inevitably part of a long-lost era that only lives in its fading negatives –often no more than a few fragments– via individual recollections and the politics of remembrance.

Shahrzaad’s Tale can be certainly described to those who have not seen it as a biopic, a road movie or a film about Iranian cinema of the 1970s. Kobra Amin-Sa‘idi has already gathered academic interest, and one can foresee how she can be made to impersonate narratives about forgotten and suddenly rediscovered movie stars, but also to stand for arguments about the status and role of women, and, in more daring interpretations, to exemplify the history of class, generational and political conflict in Iran. After all, this is what one has come to expect from narratives about Iran, especially outside the country: tales that explain what the country and its people are about, and most and foremost, tales that captivate an audience through stories.

While envisioning these narratives, Shahrzaad’s Tale, as it is befitting its title, detours these tales towards a different use of images, sounds, and words. The elements that make up the film are not assembled together to tell a story: they are composed to show a power I would call poetic: they do so not via morality or judgement, but via the concatenation of images, sound, and words themselves.

A still from Shahrzaad’s Tale

A Tale Made of Tales, a Story without a Story

Films tell tales –“what else can a filmmaker do?” says Shahrzaad in the last frame of the film as if reflecting retrospectively on what the viewers just watched, while challenging the filmmaker, questioning his capacity to narrate her tale – but what tale? The tale is many tales, but never quite recomposed as a whole story. The film turns the all too obvious reference to the Thousand and One Nights, embedded in Shahrzaad’s own chosen stage name, into an occasion for showing the impossibility to tell a tale, warranting and deferring expectations even in the title.

To the extent that the film tells a story, this story is not a biography, it is not the tale of a self, a story of an interiority expressing herself: one cannot even say that the film is the story of a life: at the beginning of the film, reconstructing the facts that are supposed to narrate her life, Shahrzaad asks: is this a life I’m living? Man doram zendegi mikonam? With equal force, she repeatedly denies any continuity of time and place to her story, or to any story, refusing to allow herself, the filmmaker, and the viewers to constitute an experience out of her words. There is no experience to rely on, nothing that can help to think the past and the future: as Shahrzaad declares in a key scene, when she leaves a place, she burns everything behind her, and despises nostalgia and wishes.

The refusal of a linear narrative is less an aesthetic choice than a necessity born out of the events that constitute an existence, Shahrzaad’s but also the film’s (see this interview with the filmmaker). Out of encounters and situations come a multiplicity of intertwining tales and viewpoints that contribute to make sense of both Shahrzaad’s life and the film. What matters however, is not so much the direction of these associations, but the intensities they convey, the power they exhibit. Likewise, sex, class, and politics, the blocs that constitute the points of articulation of these existential associations, are present but are never made into the matrices that generate a full story, or even the thousand tales the film envisages. Not even the violence that these blocs suggest is made to stand as an explanatory trope.

Someone might ask how this multiplicity is held together in the film in such a way as to generate power rather than chaos. The answer is poetry.

A still from Shahrzaad’s Tale

A film made of poetry

Poetry opens and closes Shahrzaad’s Tale, and recurs throughout the film. But it is more than poetry as content, it is poetry as form: the film is made of poetry. The assemblage of images, sounds, and words that make it up articulate that movement between warranted and frustrated expectations that linguist Roman Jakobson considered as the specificity of poetry: the play of repetition and difference.

The film has a marked metonymic rhythm: parts stand for wholes that are never quite accounted for. One does not really get the full picture about Shahrzaad, but perceives aspects of her through a set of ever deferred pleasures: a hand on a dial, an interrupted conversation, an elbow emerging from a bench, a house for a village, a clip for a movie we will never see.

The most eloquent example of this dissociative poetic process is the body of Shahrzaad: hands, eyes, hairs, thighs, but most of all the scars, taking a life of their own. Each body part is endowed with the power to move by itself, sideways or forward, overwhelming the screen in the dance scenes, or piercing it with gazes. In several sequences, the eyes of Shahrzaad look into the film in the process of its making, not to construct herself as an actor, to see herself as a self, but instead to challenge the very possibility of a story—to challenge the possibility of the filmmaker taking over the story from her. While evoking pleasure (sexual or otherwise), Shahrzaad’s body parts weave together the force of desire and the impossibility of a full body.

Deferred pleasures never quite find a linear resolution in Shahrzaad’s Tale. Poetry of suspension: the dots of ellipsis that Shahrzaad often uses in her poems, the wanderings of a leaf across a terrace –the camera follows these suspended movements, as if working against an idea of time (but also of life) as sequence, searching instead to express a sense of existence subtracted, albeit temporarily, from the demands of explanation. It is a suspension that hints at a delicately strong resilience, a dance of movements and counter-movements, what one could name the power of poetry.

When suspension gives way to the next shot, the montage of Shahrzaad’s Tale weaves these metonymic associations via a set of elements that echo Persian poetics: the already mentioned body parts (hands, eyes, hairs), natural elements (water, trees, clouds, sky) and landscapes (garden, desert, village). The film scrambles these poetic materials along a modernist line that not only expands their scope (to body parts the thigh and buttocks are added, to natural elements the car, to landscapes the city) but also marks a disjuncture, most notably in the case of the garden.

Supposed to be the site of fertility for the poet, and the very embodiment of life– as per the poetic tradition and Shahrzaad own verse: shâ‘er boghçe-ye zendegi ash bârvar ast, fruitful is the garden of a poet’s life– the garden instead appears in the film as a garden of stones hanging from dead trees, where Shahrzaad wanders aimlessly and recites verses in the wind that blows through the microphone. The materiality of these colors, sounds and shapes intertwines with virtual references. The garden of stones refers to the history of Iranian cinema, since this is Parviz Kimiavi’s garden, but inevitably also to Fourgh Farrokhzad’s poems. Poetry is always made of poetry, but as with the best verses, one does not need to be a cinephile to grasp the density and the beauty of these images.

Covers from Shahrzaad’s two collections of poetry. Source: Shahrzaad’s Tale Indigogo campaign

The Experience of Poetry

Shahrzaad’s Tale is a film about the conditions under which poetry can be experienced in contemporary Iran and elsewhere. While the film is made of poetry, poetry in the film does not offer existential redemption and, contrary to many national and international contemporary interpretations, poetry is far from being the universalizing modality that recomposes a fragmented human multiplicity into a higher whole. Poetry is no salvation, no alternative, no safe ground. On the contrary, Shahrzaad’s Tale is an account of the perils that poetry is always exposed to, and foremost of the risk of appearing artificial and superfluous. Nowhere is this more evident than in the encounter between Shahrzaad and the small group of young women summoned to meet and work with her on their poetry and acting.

Nowadays in Iran and elsewhere there is a tendency to take poetry as a sign of the self, as an expressive modality that accounts in intimate, and true ways for the existential dimension of subjectivity. In this configuration, poetry is taken to be both the evidence for these affective states, as well as the cure, or at least the expression, the sign of an experience. As every cure, this combination of poetry and self is also an easily marketable commodity, something that is supposed to offer a quick experience of a true life, a true “Iranian” life.

In Shahrzaad’s Tale the young women, and especially a woman dressed in blue, repeatedly use the term ehsâs (feeling, sensation) to describe emotional states, and relate them to poetry, often to express malaise or suffering—Shahrzaad’s suffering and their own. But instead of capturing this suffering and turning it into a tale, or at least an interpersonal connection, the young women’s acts and words signal the impossibility of experience, the impossibility of making something meaningful, something that lasts beyond a fleeting affective agitation.

There is an expectation to feel, to recognize and be recognized by Shahrzaad, and poetry is seen as the means to this end. But poetry, rather than closeness and intimacy, produces distance and rage, it becomes a sign of the inauthentic. Whatever these women say they do in their lives appears inauthentic: singing, pilates, engineering; none of these efforts and actions seem to transform into meaningful experiences. Their signs of affection for Shahrzaad and their complementary expressions sound hollow. Penned by one of the women on a thank-you card she hands to Shahrzaad along with an embarrassingly exuberant vase of flowers, a quote attributed to Che Guevara –“being happy is the only revenge one can take in life”– rather than revolution, encapsulates the vacuity of a consumer culture that has erased the power of words.

In stark opposition to this poetry as self stands Shahrzaad, who in a scene of confrontation with the young women, denies that poetry is the embodiment of feelings, and with critical acumen foregrounds the opposite idea. Poetry is an act of separation from feelings, she says, adding that feelings in poetry are a sign of failure or a technical issue. Shahrzaad always answers: “no!” to the young women’s suggestions. Her critiques, her sarcasm, and her rage might seem to be signs of her own instability, but also show how impossible it is for these women to feel something, and even react to Shahrzaad’s provocations. As the woman in blue says, she is not offended at all by Shahrzaad’s insults. The young women become a spectacle, material for a film – darin? “Do you have them in the frame?” says Shahrzaad, looking into the camera and taking over the film with a grin.

This revenge of experience, this response of the old against the young, of the working class against the bourgeoisie, of the artist against society, against the state, but also against the filmmaker is grounded in a power to persevere, a resilience that is beyond good and evil and that is both active and reactive. This is, what I would call “poetic wisdom” or “poetic filming.” Shahrzaad’s Tale runs counter to visual narratives that offer stereotypical views of Iran, but also to narratives that, in an opposite but parallel move, pretend to offer “truer” perspectives on what Iran is “really” like by insisting on revealing the hidden side of things, by making sense of Iran and its people through stories. Each film produces its own audience. In countering these two dominant forms of contemporary representation, Shahrzaad’s Tale envisages a viewer that can perceive the power and necessity of poetry for existence, understood here as the power of not needing to make sense of the absence of stories.

In order for the film to reach its audience, these viewers might have to get together with other viewers and organize screenings and conversations. Such is the nature of film distribution in this time and age, but such is also the nature of powerful films (and poems): to assemble images, sounds, words and people.


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Kate Clancy / The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group


Ilustration by Eleonor Shakespeare

The Very Quiet Foreign Girls poetry group

When Kate Clanchy began teaching the children of refugees, she sought out those silenced by trauma and loss. Their weekly sessions released a torrent of untold stories

Kate Clanchy
Thursday 14 July 2016

It all came from Priya’s poem, and Priya’s poem came from – well, I had no idea. It was an unlikely thing to turn up in a pile of marking. Yet there it was, tucked between two ordinary effusions, typed in a silly, curly, childish font, a sonorous description, framed with exquisite irony, of everything she couldn’t remember about her “mother country”. This was the opening:

I don’t remember her
in the summer,
lagoon water sizzling,
the kingfisher leaping,
or even the sweet honey mangoes
they tell me I used to love.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Leyla Josephine / I Think She Was a She

Leyla Josephine
Photo by Jassy Earl



Leyla Josephine, a performing artist, shared her poem at Merchant City festival on Brunswick Stage. Her unapologetic account of a teenage abortion she had is making waves across the country. She came out and said something phenomenally brave about why she made the very personal decision to have an abortion. Watch the video and check out the lyrics bellow.

I think she was a she.
I know she was a she and I think that she would have looked just like me.
full cheeks, hazel eyes and thick brown hair that I could have plated into dreams at night.
I would have stuck glow up stars on her ceiling and told her they were fireflies to protect her from the dark.
I would have told her stories about her grandfather
we could have fed the swans at the park.
She would have been like you too, long limbs
with a sarcastic smile and the newest pair of kicks.
She would have been tough, tougher than I ever was
and I would have taught her all that my mother taught me
and I would have taken her to all the museums and there she could see the bone dinosaurs
and look to them and wonder about all the things that came before she was born.
She could have been born.
I would have made sure that we had a space on the wall to measure her height as she grew.
I would have made sure I was a good mother to look up to.
But I would have supported her right to choose.
To choose a life for herself, a path for herself.
I would have died for that right, just like she died for mine.
I’m sorry but you came at the wrong time.
I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed.
I am so sick of keeping these words contained.
I am not ashamed.
I was a teenage girl with a boy she loved between her thighs that felt very far away.
Duvet days and dole don’t do family planning well.
I am one in three. I am one in three. I am one in three.
I had to carve down that little cherry tree
that had rooted itself in my blood and blossomed in my brain.
A responsibility I didn’t have the energy or age to maintain.
The branches casting shadows over the rest of the garden.
The bark causing my thoughts, my heart to harden.
I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed.
It’s a hollowness, that feels full, a numbness that feels heavy.
stop trying to fit how this feels on an NHS bereavement brochure already.
I am allowed to feel it all, I am allowed to feel.
I am woman now, I am made of steel,
and she wasn’t a girl and she wasn’t a boy.
That’s just the bullshit you receive to keep you out of parliament and stuck on maternity leave.
Don’t you mutter murder on me.
70,000 per year. 70,000 per year. 70,000 per year.
Thats’s 192 per day.
from coat hangers, painkillers, the back alley way way.
Don’t you mutter murder on me.
Worldwide performing abortion like homework,
looking for the answer in the groves in our palms, the bulges on our bellies, the whispers in our ears,
only to be confronted with question marks.
Women have been hidden away in the history books.
After all it’s history.
His story.
Well this is herstory, ourstory, god damn it,
this is my story
and it wont be written in pencil and erased with guilt.
It will be written in pen and spoken with courage.
You will hear it on the radio on your way to work, you will study it in English,
you will read it on the coffee shops bulletin boards next to the flyer about yoga for babies.
Because I am not ashamed, I am not ashamed, I am not ashamed.
I am woman now.
I will not be tamed.
I have determination that this termination will still have a form of creation.
It will not be wasted.
this is my body. this is my body. this is my body.
I don’t care about your ignorant views
when I become a mother, it will be when i choose.