Absent Voices/ The God of Sugar

Filmpoem at Scottish Poetry Library

Painter and glass artist Alec Galloway taught Alastair Cook kiln-forming techniques at the Edinburgh College of Art. Impressed with his approach, Alec asked Alastair to join a group of artists called Absent Voices, dedicated to working within and potentially saving the enormous category A listed sugar shed buildings on the James Watt Dock in Greenock. Absent Voices commissioned Filmpoem to make seven films, each with a published poet; the list of poets who have collaborated is humbling: Gérard Rudolf, Vicki Feaver, Brian Johnstone, Jane McKie, John Glenday, JL Williams and Sheree Mack. Each responded to the same brief, a 7 minute film of the current brick edifice and some archive images of the sugar industry.

And what a response! This collection of poems is diverse, dark, driven and quite breathtaking: Brian Johnstone writes about the bombings in the Second World War on the west coast of Scotland, while Vicki Fever delights in an overdose of sugar. Janie Mckee takes us to Haloween while John Glenday invites us to meet sugar’s ghost.

Revenant by poet Jane McKie

These were screened at the Scottish Poetry Library on the 6th of December alongside live readings from the poets, and live music from Luca Nascuti and Rita Bradd. The Scottish Review of Books wrote a review (http://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org/index.php/editorsblog/entry/event-review-alastair-cook-s-filmpoems-06-12-12) that is reproduced unabridged here:

When folk read poems, images sparked from the narrative float through their minds. Alastair Cook’s Filmpoems, whereby the poet reads his work against a running 8mm or 16mm short film, provides the audience with a firm set of visuals. It’s an intriguing art form which both expands and contracts the poem’s possibilities, as the audience tries to thematically integrate the text with the established visuals of the film (and soundtrack). The majority of Cook’s Filmpoems are lush, evocative and dark creations filmed in the derelict sugar shacks on the James Watt Dock in Greenock.

Animal Charcoal by poet Gérard Rudolf

Set in the Scottish Poetry Library’s cosy downstairs area, the setting was that of a makeshift cinema. A white screen hung from the high wall. A golden clarsach, later trilled by Rita Bradd, stood in the corner. Musician Luca Nasciuti was on hand to provide a haunting soundtrack. Cook began by describing how the batch of film poems came about. Commissioned by the arts collective Absent Voices, Cook asked seven poets to contribute a work: Gerard Rudolf, Jane McKie, Brian Johnstone, John Glenday, JL Williams and Sheree Mack. The poets were each given archived pictures of the sugar industry and watched a short film about the dilapidated buildings.

Overall, the Filmpoems are exceptional creations which provide a visual and material texture to some rather serious poems. The film’s roving shots of the sugar sheds’ dark halls and bare floors allow the poem to go on a journey it might never have taken. Each of the poets’ (aside from South Africa based poet Gerard Rudolph) were on hand to read their poem aloud. Jane McKie’s ‘Revenant’ is a mysterious piece about Halloween guisers and the accompanying film contains brooding and ominous images of the sun setting over the Clyde. Sheree Mack, who visited the Greenock Docks, lushly described in ‘Every Memory’ the strength and thickness of treacle. John Glenday’s poem ‘Yesterday’s Noise’ was a kind of ghost story featuring Walker’s factory girl who continued to haunt the building. Vicki Feaver’s ‘The God of Sugar’ was beautifully recited and described the ruined and empty buildings which no longer held life: ‘no women shovelling molasses’.

The God of Sugar by poet Vicki Feaver

The most memorable films were the ones where the film’s images were most colourful: Brian Johnstone’s ‘How Well It Burns’ described, from a German pilot’s perspective, the Luftwaffe bombing on the Clyde in early May 1941. However, the lazy blue sky in the Filmpoem was the background for an allied pilots preparing for takeoff and the meeting of the warring sides created an interesting counterpoint. Cook showed each Filmpoem once, which may not be enough time for the poet’s live reading, the accompanying soundtrack and the film to totally sink in. Hopefully, Cook will be able to exhibit these layered creations in the future so that one can appreciate their complexities once more. {Theresa Muñoz}

You can view all the films in the ABSENT VOICES section of this website.