Into the Blue – poetry and photography as a means of engaging in living

May 2, 2022 sarahjameswrites

Over the years, I’ve written for a number of magazines about the combining of photography and poetry, as well as how writing fits in with my other interests like walking and cycling. I’ve been thinking about this again though, following discussions in a monthly poetryfilm group led by Helen Dewbery. Amongst these, the flaws that can sometimes be more appealing than perfection, unusual perspectives, images that stand out and a reminder from Helen about how what we know already about poetry can give us confidence in our approach to poetryfilm.

The same is true for me too with photography. One thing that I’ve been trying out in my usually weekly posts on Instagram is not just posting a series of recent shots, but treating them as a sequence, much as I might do in poetry. My 18 April 2022 series of recent photos are, in reality, only linked by being taken along the canal on different walks over a similar time period. But I wanted to play with the possibilities of creating hints of a narrative (and juxtapositions) in the suspension, glistening with anticipation, paused flight, waiting intently, the zapping of an external force, a pull from submersion, shaking off water, then return to stillness ordering of these images featuring different subjects. It’s a very subtle thread, as there is no actual narrative link between them. But sometimes, those are the forces that may move attention onwards, or, at least, hopefully, produce more than simply a slideshow of favourite shots. In my first post for May 2022, I’ll also use Instagram’s ‘carousel’ (series) of photos feature to link images with a more overt common element – the colour blue.

How much these do, or don’t, work for viewers, of course, isn’t up to me to decide. But the way in which individual images can build up to something more, accumulate to create a bigger picture or move a narrative/idea on, is a technique that can be applied to both individual poems or sequences. This might literally be in the images used in the poem but also in other less visual techniques such as patterning similar sounds. In a poem, just as with a photo, I might change the angle or viewpoint to turn the same moment or narrative into an entirely different story, take my blade of grass in the rain images below.

Another important part of both photography and poetry for me though is the way they help me to engage more fully with life, and notice things that I might otherwise miss.

For a book cover, a commission or poetryfilm, I may well plan a shot and use a tripod etc to try to ensure that I can capture it as perfectly as possible. (In a June 2021 blogpost, I admitted that I dream of seeing, and photographing, a kingfisher, and, to do this, I accept that I may actually have to book to go to the right place and wait for that specific moment to come along.) Mostly though, this is not what excites me as a photographer.

A bird of prey at a falconry centre is, for example, to be expected. (Plus, there are many way more technically adept photographers out there more likely to be able to give such a shot that extra something.) What interests me more are the photos that I don’t anticipate, the things that are part not of me photographing but of me living. Many of my pictures are taken without a tripod, using a camera that I can easily carry with me while I’m out, walking, cycling or simply exploring. Such as this image of what I believe is a young buzzard, taken not in a specialised bird or wildlife centre but on the tow path at the back of a neighbour’s house.

Of course, I could just walk, cycle and explore without even carrying a camera. But the camera encourages me to pay more attention to the world around me. Viewing things through a lens or poem also helps me zoom/macro in on smaller details, to record a moment in a way that captures something that was there at the time but often without me realising it then.

In the buzzard photo above, I’d registered that the bird had something in its beak and imagined it to be a sprig. Only later, looking at the camera image on a larger screen, did I clock the feathers of a smaller bird/its dinner strewn across the leaves. With the grass and blue flowers (forget-me-knots?) images, I’d been focusing on the beauty of the blade of grass’s curve and the glistening rain. It was only later, viewed on a larger screen, that I glimpsed the insect, giving me a far more interesting twist to an otherwise beautiful but somewhat clichéd moment/shot.

Most of my poems, even those where I think I’ve planned their structure in advance, often end up taking a direction I’d not foreseen. The flow of words, combined with the whittling away at them and crafting into a poem, will often highlight a detail or emotion that was always there but hidden by my subconscious until the poem revealed this. It doesn’t always happen, of course, but such a slant or turn, being unexpected to me as I’m writing, may also potentially be more interesting to a reader.

There are many other similarities between the two art forms that I’m not touching on in this post, like using multiple layers– something I love playing with in both poetry and photography post-production. But these aspects, in photography at least, are more about imaginative impulses, slanting reality and creating new worlds. (The same is true of my fiction writing, and some of my poems.) The joy in such work is, for me, perhaps, more one of escaping real life for a short while so that I can then engage in living more fully when I return afterwards.

In all these cases though, this is the beauty, for me, of both photography and writing poetry (and, likewise, poetryfilm). It’s also the beauty of the poems and images that strike me most as a reader and viewer, the ones that evoke something unexpected – that gasp of awe which engages me more deeply in what it is to be alive!

On which point, I’ll also throw in a final photo here – not because there’s anything particularly special or unusual about it compared to the millions of far more striking bluebell shots out there, but simply because looking at it lightens my mood, fills me with hope and the energy of living.

COLLECTION NEWS

I’m now counting down the days until Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic is officially published on 12 May.

It has already had a wonderful review, thanks to Mab Jones and Buzz Mag, from which I’m chuffed to share the following snippet:

“[…] This is a book which therefore encompasses all of our human experience, and doesn’t shy away from the more difficult times or the calmer, quieter moments that can often escape our attention or be taken for granted. Tender, sensitive, and insightful, it’s also beautifully written, of course.”
Mab JonesBuzz Mag, full review here.

As well as being available directly from Verve Poetry Press here, it’s also now available from the Poetry Book Society here, and at the Poetry Pharmacy in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire SY9 5BQ.

A photo and poem combination of another poem from the collection, ‘About Distance’ can be found below, along with an animated gif featuring some of the wonderful endorsements I received.

Big thanks to all these endorsers and reviewers for the time and care in responding to Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic.

OTHER POETRY NEWS

I’m delighted to share that my poem Not the neighbour’s place has won first prize in the Poetry Bites 2022 poetry competition! This was a very uplifting piece of cheering spring news.

In the Dream-Catcher Hung by a 40th-Storey Window at Fallsview, Niagara published in Kissing Dynamite‘s anthology PUNK in April 2022.

PHOTOGRAPHY

‘Ripples deflect reality’ and ‘secret city’ published in Free Verse Revolution Issue V: Cassandra in March 2022. The print version can be ordered here, where there is also a link for the downloadable pdf. (My photos are on page 24 and 25.)

‘Always in Flight’, an acrylic and photography mixed media piece, published in issue 2 of Bealtaine magazine in April 2022.

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