Film Poems 2012


Some thoughts about the film poetry project You Should've Seen Us

My first attempts to combine poetry and film happened sometime around 2005-6 when I wrote two or three poems based on footage from the Yorkshire Film Archive. One of these films – about women workers in a munitions factory – led me to the Imperial War Museum in London to find out more about conditions in these factories. What did the records show about this at the time? What did the women say about their experience in their own words? The version of the poem that worked best for me presented itself in the form of a speaking voice, an amalgam perhaps of voices preserved in the museum's records through pamphlets and war propaganda.

In response to an offer of new Arts Council funding for region-based projects, late in 2010 I began the long process of selecting film I could use for writing and again the triggers seemed to come from voices. What was more, as I immersed myself in the period we were covering, particularly the early 50s, I started to recall – or even actually hear – the way my parents spoke. I grew up in Cheshire and the films were all based in North Yorkshire, but the vocabulary came from a time more than a place. It belonged to that period just after the war; my father, for example, saying, 'Come on lad, shape!' if I wasn't doing something the way he thought I should. My grandmother with too much housework to do, muttering to herself, 'I'm just not shaping this morning'. I'd completely forgotten this strange usage until the films brought it back.


‘In these poems Paul Mills has taken archive film as his inspiration and has produced a wonderfully stirring, thoughtful and ultimately celebratory body of work that spins out from specific histories into all our families, all our lives’
Ian McMillan

You Should’ve Seen Us has been performed at the Ilkley Literature Festival, Bridlington Poetry Festival, Off the Shelf (Sheffield), Lancaster Literature Festival, Ripon Poetry Festival.

I was also aware of the fundamental division between my side of the screen – the audience side – and the other – where things had happened, were happening, to real people in real time. Any text written as voice-over can't help but be a kind of commentary, but I wanted the commentary to come from that other side of the screen, not mine, or to set up a form of interaction between the two sides and make it dramatic. I wanted them to have their say. The quality of the film and the method of its production, such as the use of a hand-held camera moving through the crowd in Settle in 1943, were also factors in the writing process. It's no accident that watching this footage gives the impression of meeting people you know in the street of your local town on a sunny morning, since that's what the man with the camera was actually doing as the film was shot. By contrast, the murky, middle distance perspective of the Harrogate film (1937), where no individual faces are visible, creates a very different set of writing possibilities, or restrictions, to work with.

The usual procedure was to choose a particular film then develop an appropriate poem in response. But not in every case. As the writing progressed I found myself more and more interested in inventing not only voices but imagined narratives, with a range of footage from different films brought together as illustrations and settings. At a certain point, my sense of the poems together as a single work began to emerge. In the last piece, which is the title, and which refers back through the whole sequence as well as presenting more new footage, those unheard voices finally spoke together as a chorus. But the overall shape of the complete text reflects the phases of my engagement with it, from the very obvious solution – one poem for one bit of film – to the more experimental and complex presentations which also required more skilful forms of editing. From the start the project had been collaborative. My search for the right films was enormously helped by the professional guidance of Graham Relton of Yorkshire Film Archive, whose management of the project made it so rewarding at every stage, while the bringing together of images and text owed everything to the creative and technical skill of its editor Ed Torsney. He would probably agree that the final poem allowed him the widest scope.

Crowds On Holiday At Scarborough 1953

A great big helping of beach and sea,
enough for everybody...  just.
Dad's face red as a tomato.

You can spot newcomers:
white arms, skinny white knees...
so many clean white shirts.

Our sort of people -
you just have to look.
Lots of pale and beige... well-groomed...
No loud men... fast women.

Nothinglike it, I said to him,
the sight of water, change of routine,
to soothe those little hurty things between us.
Didn't know what I was talking about.

I have my complaints. Donkeys. It isn't Blackpool!
There's worse things: spitting,
men with cameras, married or otherwise.
Hot earlier on. A bit of a breeze.

Archie Andrews, what a toff -
setting a good example? my heck!

Man with two voices -
ordinary voice and toff's voice,
like some folks I know.
We don't all have a spare suit in the wardrobe!
I saw his lips move.

Nobody watches you when you're away
Nobody thinks they know all about you.

Our Cath likes it, and has some friends here,
doesn't miss being at school;
scared of things: the big exam,
being pushed around, she told me,
by girls 'of nubile age'.
Where did she get that expression?

Last night at bedtime she said,
Mummy, I saw an Angel of God.
We'd only been on the beach.
I know that woman at the microphone.

Why do bandsmen always look like bandsmen?
They could be anything -
plumbers, union men, foundrymen,
but here they're more like hairdressers -
so much brylcreem,
how they move their hands.

We have to book for the Lido now.
It gets so packed.
Those toilets, though.
Beauty Queens. Where is this,
Hollywood? Only Miss Yorkshire.

Men in tight pants. I couldn't look.
Barrel-chested, just him and the sky,
all eyes on him, stinging him.
That ladder's wonky!
And that man's not shaping. Oh, my goodness...
That high up, they shouldn't let them!
Formation swimming - Heigh Ho.

Variety's different to what it was ...
more showing off.
Today!  Better than yesterday, they say...
Is it?

All self-contained in their homes and gardens,
behind closed doors?
At least there's standards.
I will not share a mat on the Helter Skelter,
unless with family,

love Scarborough, but
it's for the younger ones...amusements.
Knowing they've had a wonderful time
means everything to me.
I'll see my kiddies bringing theirs one day.





Women in a Munitions Factory 1941

See us in overalls kicking these about.  Softs
we call them, great long cigar-looking things.
Eighty five pound shells they come out as.

This is the day they filmed us, made it look easy,
as if levers and pulleys do it,
not like when one clocks you round your nut.

On cranes and lathes,
turners and polishers, bare-arm drillers.
Shopping queues, the family wash.  Then this!

A girl unloads them one by one from the fire,
gloved handsand a rag, one end molten.  Next time
it'll glow this white's in Libya or somewhere.

Which is me?  Her in goggles?  That one in high heels?
I hear myself think, The more we make -
the quicker he'll be back.

Today their majesties are visiting.
We stand in a line, curtsey.
The gaffer looks at his watch.

When the invasion comes you have to
listen for peals of bells dead of night.

What will people think of us - in fifty years,
a hundred, knowing what we don't?

Sometimes I lie awake in the dark.
I can't see anything, hear anything.
What's happening to me?
What am I turning into?

On my way to work I feel alright -
Mrs Southern's tulips,
her fence freshly creosoted.

We knock off before teatime to get home.
It's sunny today. Groups of us in the street
You can see me there, shading my eyes.

You Should’ve Seen Us

In old film on parade in funny clothes
you think we dressed up for you?
so you could say, Takes me back.
The old days.
It was just us being who we were.
That's how you should've seen us.

Instead, we look poor and grimy –
old bricks in old walls, costumes and junk.
Not how it seemed to us, in the moment,
in the skin of the present
with its random shout,
You should've seen us!

You should've seen us, oh
you should've seen us, a scream
that Saturday, showing our ankles.
Not to you. We did it for ourselves!
In a fit, lifting voluminous skirts.
Or maybe… just a little bit for you.

You like us, don't you, care a bit?
We have to be careful... how do we know
how many years we'll be on show?
Your future's future could be watching.
Eating a cake. Alone. In a procession.
Always in processions. Or on a beach,

under some patch of sky. Young in our skin,
saying hello, goodbye.
You should've seen us.
What if you'd never seen us?
How I do wish you'd seen us!
You saw us. You did. Didn`t you?

From: Church Fenton, 1958

A new crop of children, the plumpest yet,
with bunches of chrysanths and gypsophila,
and Mother's dream
is a procession to Sunday School. Left up to her
you'll spend the rest of your life in your best clothes.
Dad's playing cricket and won't save you.