For the Ages: KSU student filmmakers put Judson poetry into motion

“Phantom Limb.” “Empty Hands.” “Long Distance.” The very titles of these poems evoke images both poignant and provocative.

Now imagine those poems – part of a collection of works by Judson Manor poets written during  a multiyear poetry workshop – realized on film by a group of talented student filmmakers. The result is the Film Poetry Project, a lyrical piece of art comprising seven short experimental films, which aims to bridge the gap between the generations. The project made its debut at Judson Manor on April 29, before a small live audience, in a virtual program that included project founder Dana White, the student filmmakers, and two of the featured Judson poets, JoAnne M. Randall and Jo Steinhurst.

The film is the first undertaking of For the Ages, an intergenerational project conceived last year by Dana, an award-winning filmmaker and Kent State University Assistant Professor. Deeply moved by the disproportionate toll that COVID took upon the elderly, Dana was inspired to create a project that would attempt to bring honor, comfort, and a voice to senior artists.

At the same time, poet David Hassler, Director of the Wick Poetry Center at KSU, was the guardian of a manuscript of poems, created years earlier, by Judson Manor residents during a series of writing workshops he had led.

Serendipity, in the form of one of Dana’s students, stepped in to introduce the pair, and their discussion quickly turned to Dana’s project. Once David mentioned the manuscript, the shape of For the Ages’ first venture came into focus. “What if we took film – my art form – and poetry – David’s art form – and made something that would represent the elder artists through the lens of the younger ones?” Dana says. From that, the Film Poetry Project came into being.

Dana invited her top students to read through the manuscript and choose the poems that spoke to them most clearly. Ultimately, seven poems, representing the work of five Judson poets, were selected for the project; six student filmmakers, plus a student editor and a student production manager, translated them into film.

The project includes two poems by JoAnne M. Randall: Empty Hands, directed by Reilly Schrock, and Lost Poem, directed by Ailene Joven; Jo Steinhurst’s Flags Are Flying, directed by Willow Campbell; Robert Brooks’ Long Distance, directed by Addy Birkes; Phantom Limb and What Sort of Person, by Joan Mortimer, directed by Michael Indriolo and Willow Campbell, respectively; and Elegies for John, written by Elvidio Bufalini and directed by Ben Kemper.

While each of the seven short films are visually gripping and emotionally moving, they should not be seen as mere interpretations of the written poems, David cautions. “‘Interpretation’ suggests there is an inner meaning of the poems to discover.  But poetry doesn’t yield to linear interpretation. Perhaps the project can be best seen as a deep conversation across the generations – a mingling of those conversations and the visions that they trigger. What arises from that is an entirely new art work.”

Interpretive or not, the seven shorts – like the poems they are based upon – serve as poignant reminders of our shared humanity, a kind of meditation on the universality of memory, love, and loss.

Despite their young ages, “conversations with my students confirmed just how moved they were by making these films,” says Dana. “They were finding something in these poems that spoke to them in the deepest possible way, finding a really intimate relationship with people they didn’t even know.”

Judson Manor poets JoAnne Randall (79) and Jo Steinhurst (97), who attended the debut, were similarly moved by the finished product, which included three poems they had written nearly 15 years ago, during David’s workshops. “I am pleased beyond words,” JoAnne said. “I couldn’t believe how sensitive and mature the work was.”

“It was an emotionally moving experience,” added Jo. “I hope the film goes on to have much success.”

As a “beautiful union of the creative spirit,” Dana says the Film Poetry Project has been a validating experience for both the elder poets and the younger filmmakers. Continued connection of this sort might also, she suggests, help address systemic ageism and the marginalization of the elderly.

“This has been a very special experience for my students,” she says. “They have told me that as they look back on it and grow into themselves, the poems are becoming even more meaningful for them.

“And it made me think: If younger people had felt this way before, would we have lost so many of our seniors to COVID? Or would we have protected them better?”

The debut of The Film Poetry Project, complete with the seven short films, biographies of the poets, and interviews with the filmmakers, can be viewed on YouTube here. Or visit the For the Ages website, here.

Dana, meantime, says this is just the beginning, and additional For the Ages projects, linking the generations, will be forthcoming. “In life, I tell my students, there aren’t a lot of win-win situations. But this is one of them: It’s a win-win for us all.”

 

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