Gavin Selerie: Lines Through the Lens: The Poem-films of David Annwn and Howard Munson

Every art form has its own structural and expressive capacities, but there has long been a perceived link between film and poetry. Early filmmakers such as Vertov and Eisenstein thought of their work as in some sense parallel to the rhythms and image-leaps of verse. Germaine Dulac made a short film L’Invitation au Voyage (1927) inspired by Baudelaire’s poem, and in La Coquille et le clergyman (1928) used dissolving superimpositions to create a dream-state. Man Ray’s L’Etoile de Mer (1928) was loosely based on a poem by Robert Desnos and his Le Mystère du chateau des dés drew on motifs from Mallarmé’s ‘Un coup de dés’. Before that Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand had made Manhatta, a more literal fusion of text and image: shots of New York City were juxtaposed with lines or paraphrases from poems by Walt Whitman. Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète (1930) is an allegory of a poem’s origin, attempting the freedom—from literalness—of a cartoon. It includes a poetic voice-over narration. Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), less episodic, has a similarly poetic expression of sound and image, at one point featuring lines of poetry emitted from a car radio, words that prove crucial to the narrative. A more direct collaboration between poet and filmmaker is found in Harry Watt’s and Basil Wright’s Night Mail (1936), in which W.H. Auden voices his poem of that title over the last three minutes of footage. The text, heavily cut, imitates the rhythms of the train’s wheels. Very different in feel is Geography of the Body (1943), which uses dime-store magnifying lenses to examine the naked bodies of the director Willard Maas, his assistant Marie Mencken and George Barker, who supplied and read a surreal poem in a newsreel tone.

By the 1950s the film-poem was beginning to be recognized as a form and at a symposium in 1953 Dylan Thomas remarked: ‘As in a poem one image breeds another, I think, in a film, it’s really the visual image that breeds another—breeds and breathes it’ (Amos Vogel ed., ‘Poetry and the Film: a symposium’ in Film Culture37 summer 1965). Since the explosion of experimental work in the 1960s various writers and artists have pushed the medium to prominence. Text-sound-image has attracted a body of critical work and radical aspiration is reinforced by Orson Welles’s much-quoted remark: ‘[a] film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet’ (‘Ribbon of Dreams’ in International Film Annual 2 [1958]). A sign of broad interest in the relationship between poetry and film is the inclusion of many of the works listed above in the two DVD sets Avant-garde: Experimental Cinema (‘1920s and 30s’ and ‘1928-1954’) from Kino International.

Hans Richter has called all experimental films ‘film poetry’, that is in the sense of exploring a mood or lyrical sensation, as opposed to narrative or factual commentary. Citing his own Vormittagsspuk [Ghosts Before Breakfast] (1928), he says:

With this lyrical form goes a greater freedom in the use of the raw material, as there is not necessarily a story to tell. It establishes some happenings which are related to each other but do not have to follow the same psychological or dramatic order as the novel or the film drama. One could go one step further: the film lyric—or film poetry—has followed definite lines which coincide with the aesthetic problems and the movements of the past 40 years in modern art, poetry, and music. You find films which parallel and even fulfill these movements: Cubism, Dadaism, Expressionism, Futurism and especially Surrealism. . . . There is a kind of script, there is a general direction, there is an aim, a meaning, a mood in the process of production. But all that grows is not foreseen. It is the result of the creative process itself. It is not so much planning as it is feeling along the path which the theme takes. In other words, the material you accumulate during the shooting is more or less raw material; though it has been planned to contribute to a specific scene, plan or, aim, it might, in the end assume a different meaning altogether. This I would call ‘sensitive improvisation’. This listening to oneself as well as to the material which you accumulate, is essential to a film poem. (‘From Interviews [1957-58] with Hans Richter’, Film Culture 31 Winter 1963-64)

Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921) and Ghosts Before Breakfast are on the first of the Kino Experimental Cinema sets. Although these films don’t embrace poetry as such, they are in some ways more poetic than, say, D.W. Griffiths’s cinematic treatment of Kingsley and Tennyson poems in The Unchanging Sea (1910) and Enoch Arden(1911), which nevertheless are distinctive for crosscutting, ellipsis and juxtaposition.

The poetry-film or film-poem is a hybrid that can create effects and meaning beyond those in either form as a separate entity. Such a verbo-visual mesh will range from close kinship to distant relation, with the most interesting results likely to stem from resistance to imitation or direct commentary. British artist Alastair Cook has written: ‘for the filming of poetry to succeed, surely it cannot merely be a juxtaposing of the two but an organized symbiosis’ ( I would suggest that organization can, paradoxically, embrace chance and modes of disalignment. Rather than ‘the filming of poetry’ a truer objective would be the interplay of the two forces, with neither being subject or controller of the other. This is the case with the various collaborations between poet David Annwn and filmmaker Howard Munson.

As is evident both from his poetry and criticism, David Annwn has had a deep involvement with cinema over the years. Horror and Dada-surrealist film have been particular points of focus. As Annwn observes in Re-Envisaging the First Age of Cinematic Horror:

[T]echniques such as non-linear progression, filmic collages, and long tracking shots with minimal forward action . . . are intrinsic to the variegated and complex development of horror films. (p. 113)

He notes the way Haxan/Witchcraft through the Ages (1922) rings changes on the old lantern-lecture format, creating ambiguities and contradictions of perspective, and makes use of puppet animation alongside engravings and more naturalistic footage. The witch context, with inventive shifts of language, features in the title sequence of Annwn’s Bela Fawr’s Cabaret (2008), where theosophical magic mingles with shamanic voices:


Come Blá-vat-sky

Let’s ski, let’s ski away

cuckoocall . . .

pint Magic?

One spell and well that one . . .

Yr. scat of ciphers & cinquefoil

Those old witches/See them/Hop

Marie Laveau

Obeah, Xango

Balu Asong Gau

I am the chief source of all that rises

Now I am the tiger, who can stop the wind (p.30)


Haxan is specifically evoked in the poem ‘Haxan Dance’, which I shall discuss later.

Dada influences a great deal of the sound poetry in Bela Fawr’s Cabaret, and Annwn has long been preoccupied with raw sound, sonics and sense. ‘That Nature is Bela Fawr’s Cabaret’ (pp. 120-21) deals with Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbarn and Dada’s use of unconscious slips in language. The collaborative book Dadadollz(2011), with Christine Kennedy, celebrates women Dada artists of the Cabaret Voltaire at a crucial period for radical art during the First World War. Emmy Hennings, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Hannah Hoch made and exhibited dolls for plays, revue catalogues, posters and photographs. Negotiating this legacy, Annwn and Kennedy explore different ways of seeing, partly in a performative context. The poem ‘RunDadanella’ in Disco Occident (2013), with insistent repetition of—and variation on—the phrase ‘she came down’, focuses on Taeuber-Arp’s whirling verve and her challenges to perceived gender-imposed limits. This freedom and bravery is contrasted with the stance of Rudolf Laban and Mary Wigman, whose pioneering dance practice was tainted by their complicity with the Third Reich. Annwn’s play on Dada/the Dardanelles straits/elle (= she/L) stems from one of Carl Orff’s pieces for children, ‘Rundadinella’ in Musica Poetica. Appropriately, this is a round, indicative of the poet’s looping and layering structures.

Annwn’s straighter poetic output also has links with cinema and film poems. Red Bank (2018) alludes to the Beatles’ Penny Lane video, in which the group, wearing red hunting jackets, ride horses down Angel Lane and through an arch on a country estate. This is juxtaposed with Charles I’s masques, propping up an autocratic state but also precursory of a modern sexual and transgender revolution. Again, the Beatles’ Savile Row rooftop concert in 1969, a sort of finale, is crosscut with Charles on the scaffold and the crowd laying wreaths for him. The band, with the possible exception of Harrison, had a fondness for extravagant display (witness their attachment to Victoriana) and this is placed in relation to the seventeenth century drama, with extravagance crushed for a dream of greater social equality. Within these instances of play and strife, with attendant power contradictions, the poet implants a ‘rehearsal’, interrogating the function of a juvenile detention facility in Merseyside where his father taught and which housed the notorious Mary Bell.

This then is the hinterland to Annwn’s collaboration with the American filmmaker.


Howard Munson is a San Francisco book artist, impro activist, puppeteer, maker of maquettes and masks, fan of Butoh dance, film-maker, designer and avant-garde collaborator. Munson’s films are thoroughly steeped in Dada, Bauhaus, Surrealist, Constructivist, Futurist, versions of Cabaret and other experimentation in film, theatrical presentation, illustration and the use of puppetry. The poetry-film experiments and animation at Cinema 16, Maya Deren’s work, Kenneth Anger’s films,  Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s ‘Assassination Raga’ and performist poet Hedwig Gorski’s work on the Eyestruck series are also germane. Munson’s work is witty and playful, while dealing profoundly with core social and aesthetic issues. As his website suggests, this material ‘exudes a sense of peace’, albeit tempered by ‘a sense of struggle’ (

Amongst his techniques are the use of stringed maquettes, hand puppets of various kinds, mirrors and kaleidoscopes, collages and montages, scrolling visual cylinders, dis-framing (demolishing and moving through frames), historic newsreel footage overlaid in different ways with photography, after-images, book illustrations, paintings and appearances of live actors and dancers. Munson is also interested in foregrounding drapery, decor and various veiling techniques (most often in seen his Butoh films).  Sometimes the effects sought are of a hand-made, jagged, miniature theatrical production and at others, the impact gained is high tech, full of floating montages, IT screen effects, dislocating vistas and rippling dissolves and fades.

Annwn and Munson decided early on that no one form should dominate these films and that music should sometimes be most audible, screen animation of different kinds should rise to the foreground, poetry could vary from loud lucidity to softness and indecipherable sound should emerge at times. The collective experience of viewing and hearing the film as performance is stressed. Annwn’s use of repetition and parallelism in some poems anticipate these effects. The poems other than ‘Dada Traum’ were written for cinematic drama performance in the films that ensued.

This collaborative process started with an impromptu reading in 2016 by Jack Hirschman and Annwn at Café Trieste, San Francisco, a favourite haunt of the Beats, in 2016. Annwn read a sound poem ’Dada Traum’ influenced by the famous photographs of Hugo Biallowons dancing in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s studio in 1915. He is shown dancing in the nude and posed in his soldier’s uniform and these images prompted Annwn to consider Dada artists’ war and pre-war experiences. A forest supervisor and regular model for the Expressionist painter, Biallowons was killed at Verdun in 1916. Not long afterwards Kirchner himself, beset by the ‘bloody carnival’ in which ‘everything [was] topsy-turvy’, suffered a nervous breakdown. I shall return to discuss Annwn’s poem in the context of the relevant film. Meanwhile, it should be registered that Munson filmed the 2016 performance, which has considerable verve. The spontaneous nature of the event is reinforced by the tinkling cocktail piano in the background, a sort of lounge atmosphere gone wild but part of the café’s normal business. See:

Subsequently, Munson sent Annwn a film: ‘Filippo Marinetti Reads Zang Tumb Tumb, Partial Reading 1914’, which he dedicated to him:

This features Marinetti’s reading together with arresting use of hand-held puppets, revolving mirrors and day-glo colours, all in a setting that is like a miniature theatre teeming with conflicting presences.

Next Annwn wrote the poem ‘Jeu de Marseilles’, dedicated to Munson. The context for this is Marseilles in 1941 when surrealist artists, including Max Ernst, André Masson and Jacqueline Lamba, known by the Nazis as ‘undesirables’, were trapped in that city, waiting for a chance to leave for the U.S. as the Nazis drew nearer. Out of fear and expressive need, they created a new pack of cards, the celebrated Jeu de Marseilles. Aware that Marseilles had been one of the sources of the original Tarot, the artists reworked its structure, replacing the royal-courtly hierarchy with figures from their own pantheon of art, the occult and philosophy/psychology. King, Queen and Jack became Genius, Siren and Magus, assigned to such heroes as Baudelaire, Lewis Carroll’s Alice and Paracelsus. Instead of swords, cups, coins and batons, the suits became flames (red) for desire, locks (black) for knowledge, wheels (red) for revolution, and stars (black) for dreams. Annwn’s poem celebrates this transformation. Textured to embody its subversive possibility, the lines have force and resonance:


automatic scribble tint of mind’s sepals

cascading out . . .

face-scapes flicker rage to change

night’s anchored submarine furniture

. . .

escaping dangerous to usa

words migrate, warp and mutate:

‘tarot’ ‘torat’ ‘ratot’ ‘rotate’

shuffle livid . . .

The ending evokes Dorothea Tanning’s painting Ernst in a Blue Boat (1947), in which her suntanned husband floats across what may be the Arizona desert, with his bird alter-ego emerging from a sail and alchemical fire issuing from his hand. Threatening forces lurk behind but Annwn treats the image as an emblem of escape:


into this spread you’re headed out,

hand taking flame

in a blue boat


Ernst and Tanning did of course evade the Fascist menace, meeting after they’d arrived in America. Earlier in the text, the evocation of Victor Brauner’s design for the psychic Hélène Smith is particularly vivid: ‘her leopard flaming hair/combusting across your fingers’. Such wording is both exact as a descriptive record and ripe for visual re-translation.

In the film (link below)

Annwn reads his text quietly, placing the visceral sounds precisely, as the visual images and music turn. Only at one point is there literal accompaniment, behind the word ‘explodes’ (line 4). Munson presents occult emblems and relevant shapes, bright as stained glass. Their thin surfaces, sometimes stencilled, are a little reminiscent of Dom Sylvester Houédard’s translucent plastic sheets, although in this case without text. Coils, wheel-flowers, triangles, dotted cards and lattices revolve—merry-go-round-like—over newsreel images of combat, stark silhouettes in the background. These give way at the end to realistic footage of a ship rising and dipping in a turbulent sea. Munson’s visual pattern perfectly complements the gamesome mystery and menace of Annwn’s poem.

Munson’s selection and use of music is a key component here: the credits list ‘Light Years Away’, ‘Galactic Damages’ and ‘Etherial Choir Ascends’. The composers appear to be Doug Maxwell (1 and 3) and Jingle Punks (2). A choir provides spatial calm and a hint of calm migration for the last sequence. By contrast, the opening music, stentorian in tone, evokes the Nazi martial threat. If there is no aural cognate for the Surrealists’ card-play, the music does catch the intense and increasing desperation of the artists involved.

As a third part to this collaboration, Thomas Ingmire created a one-of-a-kind book which celebrates both the poem and the video interpretation:

As Ingmire explains,

The poem and paintings are created on a translucent Mylar. The show-thru of images and writing is an attempt to capture the movement, over-lapping, and layering created by Munson in his video.

Annwn has discussed the work at some length in ‘Solid Light: Ways Through Transparent Books’ (Junction Box13, [2020]). He notes the way in which images from Munson’s film—curlicue, flowerhead, shard, spiral, lattice and domino-like dot—are texturally adapted, in a play of depths and surfaces. At times the viewer’s gaze is drawn into a vortex or labyrinth, which creates a ‘toppling vertigo’ effect.

After the exercise in war and surrealism, Munson turned to Annwn’s poem ‘Haxan Dance’, which has a different feel. As the title implies, this text references Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan (1922), a filmic hybrid of documentary and evocation of Medieval demonology and witchcraft. Annwn draws on key images, reinscribing the tableaux, naturalistic action scenes and intertitles as a voice-track. He references strange animal-headed monsters, little creatures summoned or consumed for potent effect, Apelone’s ascent to a dream castle (where wishes are fulfilled then removed) and figures dancing in a ring. Christensen’s structural virtuosity in the treatment of physical surface and spirit is well caught in the lines: ‘we keep on passing door through door/ tripping through shutters’. Indeed, scenes constantly open into others, often literally by an aperture, and reality is fluid. Shapes appear in ‘a swaying trance: reelers back-to-back in tall hats,/ peacocks in a stuck banquet/ of flesh and flagons’. The scientific and psychologically analytic elements of Häxan are here only by implication—except perhaps in the phrase ‘burgeoning projection’—but that is enough to suggest roots of fantasy and superstition. Annwn’s closing lines, ‘beating the bounds/and bounding the beat’, encapsulate the contradictions involved in making and assessing devilry. Again, ‘we must come back dancing/ to dream’ may relate both to the beckoning of diabolical forces and to their cinematic or poetic realization. This miniature take is a both a tribute to a complex masterpiece and, as a sound unit, a powerful self-sufficient text.

Howard’s film, viewable here,

retains and reconfigures the emphases of the poem, adding one of Christensen’s core motifs, the bonfire blaze. Various scenes feed into the mix but the old wise woman Apelone’s drunken dream of the fantasy castle comes to bear most insistently. Howard uses a variety of Bosch-esque pictures and bleached-out, over-exposed films of widdershins dancers to start his responses. Some of the striking detail in Bosch’s pictures is summoned in close-up and the overall melting and separation of images is reminiscent of the gelatine filters used by Germaine Dulac or Mark Boyle’s and Joan Hills’s liquid light shows in the 1960s. Throughout, red and orange flames flicker, laid against the silhouettes of what seem to be cloaked and hooded figures engaged in a rite, and often with a third lamina, the painted scenes of devilry and indulgence already mentioned. Evoking what Annwn terms a ‘circulating rite’ the forms float and press, wafting like sheets or smoke and then assuming more recognizably human shape. The film is thus both abstract and pictorial. Its soundtrack, a ‘pagan medieval music mix’ featuring Trobar de Morte, reinforces a dominant mood of mystery and danger. Annwn’s text, as treated by Munson, conveys the essence of Christensen’s dual perspective in Haxan: historical witchcraft and modern superstitions and neurosis.

The next collaboration involved Annwn’s poem ‘Microcosmos Stir’. The context here is Constructivist Ballet by Naum Gabo. While living as a refugee in war-time Cornwall, with no toys and games available for children, the sculptor created a ‘ballet’ to amuse his daughter. He used simple materials that were available in his studio. As the Tate St Ives site explains:

A plastic semi-spherical dome with some tiny off-cuts of coloured plastic underneath was transformed into [a] miniature theatre stage with ballet-dancers as soon as Gabo rubbed its surface with woollen cloth. The energy of static electricity would make the ‘dancers’, named after chess pieces, jump and move in circles as by magic. (

When polished, this small dome generated static electricity so that small fragments floated under its surface. These apparently random ‘fragments’ were, in fact, smaller versions of his sculptures and were given names for this aerial ballet.

Howard’s film, available here,

uses small, suspended cut outs of objects in similar material to evoke child-like visions. These coloured geometric pieces bob and waggle, floating in air, superimposed on black skeleton-like forms in the background. The former shapes move in a playful mode, drifting apart then coming back to join each other. A soft bagpipe-like accompaniment provides further atmosphere. The film reflects the constructivist ethos while not being in any way slavish. Annwn’s poem is both descriptive and interpretive, noting the physical detail (‘Minnows, slivers/disjecta from the studio floor’, ‘zinc erratics’ and ‘burnished glass’) and its effect within local and broader cultural contexts. This is a good example of Annwn’s almost objectivist hold on objects, and also of his rich sound patterns: see for instance the assonance-alliterative texture of ‘shimmy the king in red/and blue, the reclining silver/ Queen, the figments shiver’.

Munson went on to make a film in response to Annwn’s poem ‘The Bridge’, which deals with the interaction between Edgard Varèse, Charlie Mingus and other musicians in Greenwich House, New York in 1957. Varese led a series of improvisation sessions. As Brigid Cohen notes, the surviving recordings

open novel perspectives on a liminal encounter between downtown concert vanguardists and jazz experimenters, testifying to a long and largely unspoken history of mutual fascination, crossed signals, and complicated negotiations of authority. (‘Enigmas of the Third Space: Mingus and Varèse at Greenwich House, 1957’ in Journal of the American Musicological Society 71: 1 [2018])

Drawing, rather speculatively, on Homi Bhabha’s term, Cohen says:

Third-space encounters play out within an uneven field of power, dramatizing and potentially destabilizing those imbalances. Third-space exceeds the mastery of its participants: in the transitional flux of translation, actors become caught in ambivalence and uncertainty, their intentions internally divided and disjunct from their contingent aftereffects. (ibid)

A note on one of the tape boxes, probably in Varèse’s hand, suggests that some of the jazz recordings may have been seen as sources for electronic composition. Clearly, Mingus was serious about the potential for discovery, and Cohen’s perception that there was a power imbalance here is surely unfair to the jazz musicians’ experience and readiness for experiment. However haltingly, the foundations of a bridge between musics and cultures were laid.

Cohen quotes Benjamin Steege on Varèse’s compositional practice, which depended on a discipline of ‘attentive listening’ that sought to ‘coax novelty from the banal, insignificant, and arcane’ in ‘the very monotony of sustaining, repeating, restriking and replaying’. Most of the jazz musicans had been involved in the Jazz Composers workshop, founded by Mingus and Teo Macero in late 1953 with the object of fostering exchanges between concert avant-gardes and post-bop jazz. Hence they were familiar with a larger ensemble context and had considerable experience of free and atonal improvisation. If the Varèse sessions were more open, this was still a recognizable zone.

Annwn investigates the crossover, making links with related jazz, visual art and poetic elements: Gertrude Stein’s vocables, Gertrude Abercrombie’s friendship and creative interaction with Parker and Gillespie, Dylan Thomas ‘rolling into town/ no prisoners taken’, and Duchamp’s circuits. These are set alongside Mingus’s ‘deep verberations/ all over 1957, the live coming alive of/ multiverses’. Next, in a single line of resonant names, Annwn lists members of the Jazz Composers’ Workshop who, besides the present interaction, worked at various times with Mingus: Teo Macero, Don Butterfield, Eddie Bert and Teddy Charles. These come across as ‘soundverses’, reflecting the poet’s excitement in the collaborative project. This is further displayed in the patterning of ‘MingussssVarèsesss’, just before the poem’s close. I almost hear Dylan Thomas voicing this from that distant period.

Munson’s film, viewable here,

creates a visual parallel, embracing literal elements and taking the verbal texture to another level. Semi-abstract colour images of bridge girders and New York skyscrapers morph into black and white footage of jazz performance. Various combinations of personnel are superimposed or intercut, with an overall sense of freedom and energy. Dizzie Gillespie, who was not involved in the Greenwich House sessions but played occasionally with Mingus, for instance at the Massey Hall and Carnegie Hall concerts of 1953 and 1973, has quite a presence. There is no need for the players to be matched literally to the soundtrack, which is taken from the mps files posted on the web as ‘Edgar Varese and the Jazzmen’, and indeed no visual record survives. The mood conjured can suffice.

Next Howard did a creative take on Annwn’s ‘Dada Traum’ (see the start of section 4 above for remarks on this poem and one recorded performance). The film (link below)

is suitably inventive, using constructivist and Dada images that retreat and advance, revolve sideways, flip over and again or float in space. Such movement reflects the poet’s shifts of enunciation, words and emblems passing before us like energy units. Particularly effective is a middle section where images flash explosively in accord with the phrases that emerge after the word ‘violence’:


Violence in in-v-l-lable-lable


Ra-carra-raca Carra-racca

Watch your brawl display

Labelle or label


Munson ends the film abruptly with an ‘Exit’ image, faithful to the Dada spirit and the finality of the text (‘AUS of Annwn’). The soundtrack is from Antheil’s score for the Dadaist film Ballet Mécanique, which has suitably staccato rhythms and a driving momentum.

Munson then turned his attention to Annwn’s poem ‘The Uncontainable Cockettes!’, producing this film:

The collaborative process started with Howard, who had witnessed a show by the Cockettes and was still excited by their achievement. In turn Annwn discovered that many of the artists he loved had been influenced by this San Francisco group of activists, actors, players, singers and trans-gender pioneers of the 1960s. Founded in 1969, the Cockettes staged anarchic musical productions, involving elaborate glittery costume, that parodied their source material and conveyed a sense of free expression. Influenced by surrealism and cubism, they crossed boundaries of identity, sexual, social and aesthetic. Annwn’s poem sweeps back from glam-heroes and heroines to this earlier stage of excess, mentioning on the way how Breton’s anti-Gayness was ‘filibustered, busted in communal roar’ by the activities of a freak theatrical troupe. Socio-psychological commentary (‘fantasies quarantined/ by normalcy’s consciousness’) is channelled by wordplay and other sound effects, so that the history described is embodied in the language chosen: exuberant and teasing.

Appropriately promiscuous, Munson’s film mixes footage of the Cockettes taken from the Weber-Weissman documentary (2010) with semi-abstract floating and whirling shapes. Again I am reminded of 1960s light shows as figures and forms dissolve into others. Bubbles or little balls are prominent, suggestive of glitter and also of planetary motion. Kaleidoscopic flower patterns lead into blossom-blobs, starbursts and shooting firework splinters, while ‘the State’s kill-machine’ materializes briefly in what may be Vietnam War footage—a juxtaposition of freedom and repression evoked near the end of the poem. The hedonistic gestural pulse of the troupe—dressed mainly in diaphanous, loose-flowing costumes—is absorbed within this imagery, whose lavish colour magic recalls some of Kenneth Anger’s work. Here brass showband music provides a backdrop to a powerful display of ‘the uncontainable’.

Dada in Motion, available here

is Munson’s take on ‘Dada now’ answering ‘Dada then’. It starts with readings by Schwitters, Hausmann and Picabia and an explosion of complex, overlapping images: blue roses, clocks and eyes. These float and turn, conveying a sense of unstable existence with potential for liberation from habit and obedience. A cartoon element is combined with forms from classical art and anatomy. Then, about halfway through, Annwn begins reading ‘Dada Traum’, the text delivered with echoey sound; his words and phrases seem to revolve like the elements of the visual collage, though the linear progress of the poem is sustained. Film frames or stills now jostle with comic strip material and the occasional spiral design, suggestive of a labyrinth. The soundtrack, composed by the filmmaker, is a mix of ambient effects, with strongly insistent pinging and tinkling piano notes over synthesized organ eddies. The Satie reference point seems apt. Munson’s tribute to Dadaism seems to sum up many of the features present in his extended collaboration with Annwn, and indeed the performance of ‘Dada Traum’ is a repeat-with-variation—of sound and visual image.

The last film poem collaboration was Mavo Dada. This explores Tomoyoshi Murayama’s reconstruction plans for Tokyo, devastated by the 1923 earthquake. These included models with found objects, an anarchic attempt to reflect the entirety of life in art. Some were displayed in a travelling exhibition, along with signboards on buildings.  As a reporter noted, this was intended ‘to relieve the damaged spirit of the city through art,’ but there was also a fascination with ruin, challenging received ideas about form and materials. Murayama was the leader and codifier of the Mavo movement (conceived to be the Japanese form of Dada) after his time making contacts in the west. There he saw expressionist and constructivist stage designs and witnessed performances by dancers Mary Wigman and Niddy Impekoven, known for an intuitive, emotional response to music.

Annwn’s poem begins with a juxtaposition of ‘Niddy Impekoven’ and ‘Tomoyoshi Murayama’ with the connecting phrase ‘something stirred’. We then get a run of abstract nouns and personal names, along with more concrete language. Sound effects resonate in a text that might otherwise be explicatory or just an enthusiasm: ‘dancing over the graves of/ slaves to the latest/ intellect fashion’. The patterning of the long or open ‘a’ vowel along with a short ‘i’ is reminiscent of devices common in Welsh poetry, hardly surprising given Annwn’s heritage. As with some of the other collaborative work, gender fluidity forms part of a larger artistic schema, a shifting theatrical cityscape:


in women’s high heels

naked from waist

gender offensive

out-Duchamping Rrose Selavy

. . .


living sculpture

and moving mannikins

with black-dyed cheeks

turned and twisting up-ended

in Japan’s flickering 1920s

A construct of ‘oil cans, spinning wheel, logs’, fashioned to make a kind of music, leads into ‘graphics unleashed’—the ‘firecracker cacophony’ of a Mavo magazine cover.

Munson’s film (link below)

has Art Deco style titling and dance-scenes superimposed with street views. Isadora Duncan and other dancers stand in for Niddy Impekoven, (film of the latter being rare). There are also images of Butoh dancer Imre Thomann, naked and painted white (Howard has a strong sense of links between Mavo and Butoh). The connexion here between East and West is not fanciful, if we remember Tristan Tzara’s description of Dada as a ‘return to a religion of quasi-Buddhistic indifference’ (Lecture on Dada, 1922), although it could be argued that the proximity of the Western artists to mass slaughter led to a greater feeling of angst, desperation and linguistic dissolution. Munson uses different dances to loop the action together, at one point using building block shapes to suggest the Mavo artists working on building templates to replace those structures lost in the earthquake. He also uses a trapeze artist to suggest the use of upper zones of space in Mavo exhibitions.

The film has a flickering nature, appropriate since this is a key-word in Annwn’s text, already quoted. The found film footage and stills move, for the most part, around and over the kind of typography and linear design that Mavo borrowed from the European avant-garde. At one point colour abstracts sweep in and dominate but otherwise the main texture is black and white, flowing in a way that seems both seamless and attentive to its separate contexts. One could see this as an artistic equivalent of molecular junction and dispersal, and also as a filmic equivalent of linguistic ambiguity. The festishistic treatment of the body is true to the spirit of Mavo. Annwn’s reading of the text is particularly animated, coming to a climax with the insistent beat of a Japanese Taiko drum, as titles revolve across a background of silhouetted figures and crowded shapes. These percussion-driven images of dancers are prolonged after the poem ends, providing a sort of echo closure.


The Munson-Annwn filmpoems are, I think, unique, resulting from shared enthusiasms with due anticipation and response. The verbal is gauged so as to lend itself to pictorial transformation, and the visual is attentive to the nuances of language, drawing out possibilities. Literal contexts are sustained, while conjunctions, assimilations and inflections operate. Text which already has a tactile quality in its layout on the page develops a further material status in filmic expression. Visual collage, likewise, gathers a further dynamic from its engagement with verbal fabric. Although at various points one or other of the media may seem to dominate, there is no overall rivalry between forms. Rather, this tension allows a process of exchange that retains both integrity of purpose and fluidity of direction. As indicated, this is neither translation nor transposition but a dual occupation of space. When Annwn’s poems migrate to video, whose visual shapes and colours prompt other relations, their new figuration can reveal the unexpected, though Munson’s treatment ensures that this is always relevant.

With mixed media there is a danger that the essence of one art form can be diluted or drowned by another. Here, however, both writer and filmmaker have a working alchemical method, something akin to Eugène Jolas’s ‘paramyth’, where synthesis of genres or sources brings a mantic illumination. With insight into each other’s practice and long experience of collage, both men contribute features that achieve a fluidity of consciousness. There is elegance in the work, for instance in Mavo Dada, along with rougher shifts of tone, such as in The Bridge. I am struck by the variety of approach, but also by the consistency of realized vision. Robert Musil claimed that film language can bridge disparate planes of existence, placing the spectator in an ‘other condition’ beyond the limits of ordinary experience (‘Towards a New Aesthetic’). Although this was said in the context of silent film (more singly disposed as a medium), the point about transporting the viewer to another state could be applied to the present collaborative project, with impressions taken out of their typical frame of reference or specificity.

It is rare for contemporary British poetry to be treated on an equal footing with American cultural discourse, not from xenophobia but rather from dominant media control and relative attention space. Thus, David Annwn’s interaction with the Californian artist represents a significant balancing of priorities. This may be due to the open-mindedness of each artist, but also to their common inheritance of a European (in the sense of Continental) avant-garde and a perception of links with other cultures, such as the Japanese Mavo movement. That international reach is part of a mosaic in which distinctions that conventionally underscore forms are discarded, as the geometricality of language gets further visual shape. Short though they are, these cine-poems suggest a pattern of the continuous word; they are also, in a way, exercises in trans-sense, as the language already multi-layered goes through visual-musical shifts. The work is an inspired example of poiesis, that is, ‘active making’.


Gavin Selerie



Gavin Selerie was born in London, where he still lives. Books include Azimuth (1984), Roxy (1996), Le Fanu’s Ghost (2006) and Hariot Double (2016)—all long sequences with linked units. Music’s Duel: New and Selected Poems 1972-2008 was published in 2009 and Collected Sonnets in 2019 (both from Shearsman). These texts often have a concrete aspect, as discussed in the essay ‘Ekphrasis and Beyond: Visual Art in Poetry’ (Junction Box 2).Selerie is known particularly for poems about landscape and romantic love, utilizing traditional and experimental form. He is currently at work on a pandemic sequence. A book length interview, Into the Labyrinth, is available online (Argotist Ebooks). Selerie’s memoir of the London poetry scene 1970-1989 appeared in Clasp, ed. Robert Hampson & Ken Edwards (2016). A long essay on the interaction of art forms, ‘Jumping the Limits’ was published in Junction Box 11.









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