I spoke to Alastair from his home in Edinburgh, where he lives with his family. Although much of his work deals with history’s dark periods – lepers, famine, loss of loved ones, exploitation, the decline of local industries and the displacement of former workers – Alastair is quite funny and irreverent. “I have a busy year coming up,” he said. “I’ve been so busy right now that I don’t have time to send my work out.” His work ranges from video poems to photography using the collodion wet-plate method, and it looks like 2014 will be another year of creative successes for him. “I’m making the transition to being able to make a full-time living as an artist.”
His work has even received a royal nod: in November 2013, Alastair was invited to a reception for the celebration of Contemporary British Poetry at Buckingham Palace, and met the Queen. “It was an honor, of course, and a celebration of the success of Filmpoem,” he says.
Filmpoem is an excellent introduction to Alastair’s aesthetic. A former architect, trained at the Glasgow School of Art, his videos have a remarkable sense of place, of compressed universes caught in short films. Alastair serves as narrator for many of these films, and his talents include a restrained and subtle reading voice, well-suited for poetry.
One of his projects is “Absent Voices,” created by a group of Scottish artists to commemorate the sugar refinery of Greenock, on the west coast of Scotland, which closed in 1997 after approximately one hundred fifty years (sugar had been refined in Greenock since 1765). Alastair asked six poets to respond to films he made at the dilapidated sugar sheds. All are powerfully evocative; you can almost smell the molasses cooking, and taste the sweet drops of syrup. I found “The God of Sugar” most disturbing; poet Vicki Feaver lists her obsession with sweetness, even as she recognizes its potential to destroy her:
Equally provocative, “Every Memory,” based on a poem by Sheree Mack, takes us on a surreal trip through the abandoned factory; the crusted remains of dried syrup glisten like the skin of a monstrous reptile. The speaker looks in vain for some evidence of the slaves who harvested sugar cane in tropical countries before it arrived for refining:
On a lighter note, “Twenty Second Filmpoem” came about from a request for Alastair to participate in a Pecha Kucha event. “I took bits from my vast collection of found film – a lot of it from 1960s home movies – and chopped it down to twenty-second sections. Then I asked twenty writers to respond to the films. The sound came from Russian journalist Vladimir Kryutchev’s field recordings.” The result is just under nine minutes, and well worth watching. If, like me, you grew up in the 1960s, “Twenty Second Filmpoem” feels like a photo album of childhood. To quote Gérard Rudolf, who wrote #11, “This is what a dream should look like:”
Two more outstanding video poems at Filmpoem:
“Filmpoem 33/ Allow Yourself This One Day,” commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar and poet/model Max Wallis, is one of the few video poems I’ve seen that succeeds largely on the charisma of its performer. Max Wallis’s expressive face and watchable delivery make for a compelling experience.
“Filmpoem 17/ Wherever We Live Now” is particularly effective. Using a poem by Elizabeth Rimmer, the film shows us the edge of the sea as if it were an alien landscape, burdened with strange clouds. A woman paces the shore, never quite reaching the water, where a famine ship once carried thousands of starving people away.
In 2014, Alastair says, “I am going to expand the Absent Voices series, working with Sheree Mack on the subject of slavery as part of the main Absent Voices project.” He also has plans for poetry film festivals.
From his Manifesto titled “The Filming of Poetry,” Alastair provides a clear summary of the value of the art form, and its potential to reach new audiences:
So, a Poetry-film is just that, a single entwined entity, a melting, a cleaving together of words, sound and vision. It is an attempt to take a poem and present it through a medium that will create a new artwork, separate from the original poem. The film is a separate work from the text itself and this in turn may be able to open up poetry to people who are not necessarily receptive to the written word. Poetry often tries to deal with the abstract world of thought and feeling, rather than the literal world of things. The Poetry-film is the perfect marriage of the two.
For more information about Alastair Cook, including details about upcoming poetry film festivals, visit his website here.