UMF Faculty Poetry Film Takes Flight

UMF Faculty Poetry Film Takes Flight

Faith Diaz Contributing Writer

    Recently creative writing professors Jeffrey Thomson and Amy Neswald launched their joint project, “Blink”, a poetry film based on Thomson’s work from his new book, “Half Life: New and Selected Poems.” Thomson is currently the Creative Writing Director at UMF and works alongside Newswald, who has just secured the position of Associate Professor of Screenwriting and Creative Writing.

    In September 2018, at the annual BFA staff reading, Thomson read and performed his poem, “Blink.” The poem follows a man whom has just had his head cut off. Legend suggests that the man, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, suggested that his friend watch his execution and count as Lavoisier attempted to blink numerous times after the separation of the head from the body. Lavoisier wanted to see if they could record this phenomena and had hoped someone would following his death. In some way, his wish was fulfilled. 

    The legend found its way to Thomson, and his poem counts and describes what Thomson imagines Lavoisier saw in those seconds of death approaching, between the blinks, and after the head had been removed. 

Amy Neswald and Jeffrey Thomson (Photo courtesy of Faith Diaz)

    Upon seeing Thomson’s performance of this historically fascinating legend, Neswald immediately knew she wanted to utilize it in a film platform. “I was gobsmacked by it from the very first time I heard it. I approached him shortly after to ask him if he would be willing to sacrifice it to me for a short film.” Neswald said.

    At the time, Neswald had just begun at UMF and was a bit hesitant, but the work dictated her need to pursue it, “Even though I didn’t know what it would look like, I knew it was a perfect piece to tell visually. It deals with what someone is seeing, as he’s dying, through these series of blinks. And [Thomson] said, ‘Yes.’ and that was that.” 

    Neswald’s background is in screenwriting and having spent years in the backstage of Broadway, poetry was a new avenue for her to be exploring. “One of the reasons I wanted to make a poetry film is because I am one of those horrible fiction writers who says constantly that I don’t understand poetry, I’m not a poet, and I thought this would be a really good way for me to get inside a poem and understand it from a vantage point that I could. To live inside a poem for a while. And I lived inside of it for a really long while.” 

    The process of figuring out what the aesthetic of the film was going to be was complicated and continuously changed. “I was aiming to make something very simple and stark,” Neswald said. “Originally I wanted to do a muslin background with a moving black thread [that would] kind of like sew different panels in a stop motion way.” 

    Neswald soon realized that the images weren’t coming out the way she intended so, she switched her tactic and stumbled upon an aesthetic she loved, based on the image of the text that stuck with her most. “Thinking about one section of the poem that’s really visual about clovers in a field and in looking at pictures of clovers and fields in France, I stumbled on an aesthetic that was far from my personal aesthetic. Which was super frightening but also kind of exciting.” 

    Neswald believes that even if a project is frightening, that one should pursue it anyway. This was a guiding philosophy that helped her keep up the motivation for this project. 

    “I built my pictures, my layers in photoshop, my puppets, decided what the moving parts would be and how to compose them,” Neswald said. “It was a collection of images from mostly the internet that I adjusted deeply and greatly that I used as a collage to create the scenery and puppets.” 

    Eventually, the project came together. “When I start a project, I am always a beginner because each project wants to be told in a different way, so, to be an absolute beginner and I have never made a poetry film, and I’ve animated before but I have never animated in this way,” Neswald said. 

    “And I’ve never worked on someone else’s work in a collaboration in this format and then to be working with someone who is kind of a big deal, I stepped outside of my comfort zone quite a lot on this project.” 

    In October of this year, Neswald flew to Cork, Ireland, where her film was Shortlisted for O’Bheal Award.

UMF Students Embrace Global Writing Community at AWP

UMF Students Embrace Global Writing Community at AWP

By Dale J Rappaneau, Jr. Contributing Writer

The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) recently concluded their annual conference, held this year in the sunny city of Tampa, Florida.

   As has been the tradition for years, more than a dozen UMF Creative Writing majors traveled by car, bus, and plane to attend this national conference, in hopes of gleaning information from prominent writing figures in the industry. Many of these students had their entire trip covered by the school through a funding program run by the UMF Writers Guild.

   “This was my first year attending the conference,” said Zoe Stonetree, a sophomore Creative Writing student minoring in Physics. “I went w

UMF Creative Writing Majors in Tampa, Florida for this years AWP. (Photo by Alexandria Dupuis)

ith the Writers Guild, so of course it was all free.”

   The conference featured such prominent writers as George Saunders, Kaveh Akbar, and Layli Long Soldier. The conference is structured around hourly panel discussions on such topics as diversity, craft and MFA programs, and attendees have the freedom to attend as many panels as their schedule can fit.

   Each year, the Writers Guild picks members to send to AWP with all costs covered, thus allowing students to experience the greater writing community. The criteria for selection—which is “very casual,” according to Stonetree—involves attending the Writers Guild’s weekly 7 p.m. meetings on Mondays.

   “They select people who have been coming consistently for over a year,” said Stonetree. “Most people go to AWP twice if they are consistent members, some people go three times, but generally they max people out at two.”

   For UMF students, the ability to learn from the writing community at large provides a wealth of opportunities unavailable in their everyday classroom.

   “It was a wonderful way to get outside this tiny little UMF community,” said Michaela Zelie, a senior Creative Writing major who also attended AWP for the first time this year. “Our campus community is wonderful and supportive, but it is small. To go out to meet other writers, some very successful, it’s a huge benefit.”

   Stonetree echoed these sentiments: “I went to a panel called something like ‘Dreamwork of Poetry,’ which was really cool. They talked about the connection between dreams and the archetypes of the unconscious, and how it can be applied to poetry. It’s something I have been interested in, and it was really cool to hear them talk about it.”

   According to Zelie, she only learned about the Writers Guild’s funding program during her junior year, and she regrets not having learned about it sooner. “I highly recommend students take advantage of these programs,” she said. “I didn’t know about Writers Guild until last year, and students should get involved, they should do these things, even if you think it’s a little scary. It was amazing to be at AWP and be surrounded by so many successful people.”

   The Association of Writers & Writing Programs boasts approximately 12,000 attendees each year, along with 2,000 presenters, 550 panels, and 800 literary organizations from around the world. It is the largest literary conference in North America, and next year it will be held from March 27 to 30 in Portland, Oregon.