Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

all roads lead here & Notes on Adapting Poetry


Lately, I’ve gotten back into making videos. This is my fourth in the past month. This one is from a sequence of three related haiku from Highway Sky called “all roads lead here,” a series of LA-related poems.

Since the “poem” is sort of three poems, I wanted the video to have three parts, and I choose footage that I felt would complement the parts, which in essence tell a story of driving to LA in the middle of the night with the intention of watching the sun set on the beach. If you travel to LA from Texas, you’ll probably come in on I-10 which turns into the Santa Monica Freeway and kind of ends at the Santa Monica Pier. So I wanted footage that followed that trajectory. The footage came from, and I was fortunate to find the LA shot and the Santa Monica beach shots with the others shot who-knows-where.

Things got interesting as I was editing. The more I looked at it, I realized I could cut a line from the first haiku which originally read (as published at tinywords):

a hundred miles out
the glow of Los Angeles
desert starlight

The second line seemed redundant with the footage of the LA skyline and city lights. Likewise, I was able to cut the first line from the third haiku as the sunset-over-the-waves image did the work of the first line.

the sun falls to sea
here at the end of the road
nothing left to say

The central haiku was left alone, but I played with the text to try to put it in motion and show the action of the waves erasing the name.

For the sound, I originally imagined some reverb-soaked surf music. I tried something on my guitar and looked for CC music online, but didn’t find anything. On a lark, I tried some wave sounds and liked how it sounded like highway noise while the cars were on screen, but sounded like waves once the beach shot comes in. Interesting how the image can affect what we think we’re hearing.

I liked this process of adaptation. When movies are adapted from books and stories, filmmakers change things. They fire characters and compress scenes in part to save money on paying actors and renting space, but also because there is often no need to say what is shown. Why not something similar with poetry?

I think writers and probably poets especially can get locked into the sanctity of their words and lord knows there are times when that makes sense, but if poetry is to be a conversation even if as in this case with oneself, I think it’s important to let go a little bit especially when changing mediums. My academic background is in film production and screenwriting where the expectation is that the written word is not final so maybe this comes easier for me, but it’s a comfortable way for me to work and I think it’s useful to see where your words can go and a worthwhile exercise to keep playing with what you’ve made and, if you dare, open it up for others to do so as well.


  1. Great process notes, James. I agree with what you say about the question of text sanctity. I’ve only played around with the text in a big way in one poetry film (‘Double Life’ from a poem by Cindy St Onge). In that one, I edited the poem to a shorter form, which I believed was more effective for the film. However, as a film-maker always working with poetry written by others, I tend to treat the text as mostly sacred, so to speak. Again, interesting ideas in your notes, thanks!

    • Thanks, Marie. I tend to be cautious as well when working with others’ words and probably wouldn’t do anything major without first consulting the author. I wonder too as a general rule about the idea of images replacing text and how that alters the perception of the poem. It’s hard to gauge that in this case since I was working with my own poem thus making it easier to stay true to what I think I meant đŸ™‚

      But I think when any work changes form the new piece has to work on its own and not be just a companion to the source. Case in point would be the way you remixed the Highway Sky poems that you made into Cwtch songs. You made changes and cuts, I presume in the interest of the songs, and that’s the right thing to do. I guess I’m lucky, though, that I like your aesthetic and where you took the words.

      • Thanks for your comments about the Cwtch songs, James. I have to admit it was a big relief at the time that you were receptive to the way we played with your words. Though I knew we were ‘allowed’ to do that because of the Creative Commons licensing, nonetheless the aim is to satisfy the poet in the process too. I often feel it’s the best compliment when a poet appreciates what I have made of their writing, and I will revise work considerably on poet’s comments too, if they are forthcoming.

        It’s always paramount in my mind though whether a piece is working in a centrally filmic way. Within the ensemble of elements, the poem is really just one element speaking with, against and sometimes in unison with images, music, editing, sound mixing, vocal performance and/or text on screen.

  2. I was already planning to share the video on Moving Poems at some point, but these notes will really add interest to the post. Very important point about the non-sanctity of the text… and it’s why I continue to have doubts about poetry film projects with living poets where there’s no communication until after the film’s done. *cough* Motionpoems *cough*

    • Thanks, Dave, I’m glad to hear that. And thanks for including it in your link round up last week. I’ll have to look at Motionpoems. Hadn’t heard of that yet.

      • They’re the most prominent producer of American poetry films. They’ve made (or facilitated the making of) a hell of a lot of good stuff, working typically with younger filmmakers glad to have a break from their usual corporate clients, but based on their interviews with filmmakers and poets, it appears that there’s almost never any communication until the film is complete. The texts are treated as immutable, sacred objects.

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