Why turn a poem into film? It’s a good question.
Some poems lend themselves naturally to another form, most probably don’t. Poems don’t need imaging. Just as music doesn’t need words. But sometimes the two fit together to co-create an entirely new experience. A new “translation” as Tomas might put it – he has often described his poems as translations of poetry from the wordless.
Östersjöar is a documentary poem. The places, landscapes, people and histories that the poet pilots us through are real. This aptly lends itself to the film medium. Then there is his voice, his personal voice, which the poet says holds the whole thing together.
Right away he is taking us off the page, back to an earlier poetry – now in renewal – spoken verse, like an old fashioned storyteller around the fire, the genius of radio, Homer and his homeric epics: the human voice. Tomas’ reading is a vocal performance, recorded in 1990 by Bokbandet in Stockholm. It is not your regular poetic reading. This is poetry-telling. We’re hooked by his voice. Even if you don’t understand Swedish, you can discern a tonality, a rhythm that makes sense.
Torbjörn Schmidt, a doctoral researcher at Stockholm University’s Department of Literature and History of Ideas, with Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry as his area of study, has noted a movement dynamic in the poems. In an interview with the university’s alumni web, he says:
Kombinerar man bildmässighet och rörelse blir det rörliga bilder, film. Och Tranströmer själv har sagt i intervjuer att det krävs ”en filmprojektor i huvudet” för att läsa hans texter.
“Combine visuality with movement and it becomes moving pictures, film. And Tranströmer himself has said in interviews that you need ‘a film projector in your head’ to read his poems.”
And that’s just about what we set out to do. We had to be as exacting as we could be. We walked (“trespassing”) the paths around the island of Runmarö, to the cemetery on Sandhamn, the steam engine room, the churches of Gotland, Nore, the shorelines, the Blue House.
Sam Charters, one of Tomas’ American translators, wrote in his introduction to his Baltics (Oyez, Berkeley 1975 and Tavern Books, Portland 2012) that: “The poem is in some ways almost like taking a summer walk with Tomas across the island’s stretches of forest and overgrown fields.”
Sam took many such walks with Tomas. This insight very much became part of the filmmaking. Walking with the poet, seeing what he sees, listening. And in remaking the film we wanted to bring more of this sense out.
It probably wasn’t fair to Sara Ersson, our Glidecam photographer (a rather odd balancing tool that allows a skilled operator to keep the camera smooth and stable while moving) but I told her that the opening of Part II was 100% percent dependent on her getting the walking shots, from the middle of the woods, down the path to the lake, up the shoreline, to a slow reveal of the wide horizon at Nore. I didn’t want the “floating camera” look, but a natural-slow-walk-kind-of-feel of that roaming freely about in nature.
Sara more than met the challenge. Take after take, barefoot in the moss and sand, up and down a cliff again and again, always in the eyesight of her very curious dog Siri, until she was satisfied that she got the shot she wanted. Her work speaks for itself, in this passage and throughout the film. Sara’s creative filming gives the viewer precisely that sense Sam Charters wrote about, taking a summer walk with the poet.
That was Sara’s job: walk with the poet. She did just that.
So to answer that question why make this poem into this film, the simple answer is that we wanted to make a film for that “projector in your head” to experience his poem, almost like walking with the poet.
Photo: James Wine, an iPhone clip of Sara at work on the shore at Gatan on Runmarö.