Local settings lend verve to poetry at Amherst Cinema

By Lisa Linsley

Late Thursday evening, the “Notnostrums,” an online poetry group, performed “When You Think Of,” at Amherst Cinema. A variety of places flashed across the screen, as the editors of the film, Guy Pettit, Emily Pettit and Luke Bloomfield pulled from these myriad places to create a unique montage of footage. Set, alternatively, by a river behind Smith College and the Pioneer Valley, the areas provided a scenic backdrop to the poetry read aloud by the film’s several contributors. Scenes were also recorded in New York City, Iowa City, Kansas City, Philadelphia and on Coney Island.

Twenty-four poets contributed to the film from the Notnostrums group. These poets come from all over the country and many have published works, are teachers or editors or have received awards for their publications. For instance, Lisa Olstein, who performed “Species At Rest” and “Dreamy Little Savage” is also the author of “Lost Alphabet” and “Radio Crackling, Radio Gone” and is the recipient of the Hayden Carruth Emerging Poets Award. Christian Hawkey, who performed “Urban Anarchists” is also the author of “The Book of Funnels,” which won the Kate Tufts Discovery Award.

The film featured contemporary poems read by each of the contributors in a location of their choice. Some locations were spontaneous; poet Francesca Chabrier performed “There is Forever A Place” under an umbrella in an open elevator. Heather Christle performed “Variations on An Animal Kingdom” while walking through a residential area during the daytime. When Emily Toder performed “The Problem with Water,” she was – appropriately – swimming in a river while reciting the poem. 

The poems could be classically contributed to the genre of contemporary poetry, which is classified as post-1920s poetry that typically uses metaphors to make comparisons between images. Images is an umbrella term that in this case would mean anything visual, auditory or sense of a perceived snapshot. These poems were not heavy with explicit emotion. Many of these poems had a theme and a message one could analyze, and in addition were easy to read and follow while on screen. Many of the poems were derived from simple ideas or objects, yet were developed into a more complex thought by virtue of the talent of each poet.

Emily Toder’s “The Problem With Water” best exemplified this effect. She begins her poem by stating, “The problem with water is that it’s odorless. Water is not sensed until it is too late. You think you are alright and then water.” Toder’s poem goes right along with the title, discussing the issues with water. For starters, Toder believes the second problem of water is that it is tempting for people to give birth in it.

Although these poems were simple to follow and were not oversaturated with emotions, deep ideas and messages were present to analyze in each. Ben Estes poem,  “Cactuses,” questions the abstract nature of touch. According to Estes on Notnostrums, “There is only one vanishing point in this poem, making this poem very easy to draw. Start with whatever object is closest to you and hold it in your hand and have it become the same temperature. But not if the closest object is a cactus.” The poem is written in two columns, to be recited as a conversation. Estes says, “Obviously one of them thinks it is more important than the other one.”

James Tate performed “The Blob,” one of the most unique and intriguing poems of the night. The poem consists of the re-telling of a conversation. James Tate is a professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, as well as a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.

The music selection for “When You Think of It,” included eclectic indie music, which was appropriate at each scene change. Music contributors to the film include Red Hunter, indie-folk musician from Austin Texas who is lead singer of Peter & The Wolf. Originally local hip hop, Cold Duck Complex is a jazz  experimental group also featured in the film. According to film editor Luke Bloomfield, “We’ve been loving their music for almost a decade.”

The idea for “When You Think of It,” began late last winter. Most of the filming was done in the spring, as the producers collaborated with the contributing poets to pull the project together. Overall, “When You Think of It,” took about six months to complete. What is interesting about the film is that it didn’t actually start off as a “poetry film.” “The original idea was to film our contributors, then periodically post their readings to Notnostrums. But word got around we were doing this and Amherst Cinema asked to screen it. We said yes, and then linked the footage we’d taken to make a feature film and added music and animation,” said Bloomfield.

“When You Think Of It” is the first performance in the Going Public Contemporary Lit Series.  Other events in the series include The Massachusetts Poetry Festival: Western Massachusetts Launch, which will take place Thursday, Oct. 15 at 7 p.m.

Lisa Linsley can be reached at [email protected]