Describing poetry is equivalent to describing a sunset: no matter how eloquent the verbiage can be, the magic of the experience itself is inevitably absent from the description. However, Paul Lamont and Robert Borgatti’s award-winning documentary “in/word/out” circumvents the challenge of describing poetry by opening their camera to a group of wonderfully refreshing and candid poets who rarely take themselves and their art seriously. The result is one of the most delightful presentations of the poetic experience ever captured in a documentary.
Featuring interviews with each poet and glimpses of their recitations, along with occasional vignettes which dramatize the poetry, “in/word/out” offers a human and often humorous journey into contemporary poetry. The film kicks off with Mike Basinski, whose bespectacled and intellectually manic persona suggests Rick Moranis doing a spoof of overripe verse for “SCTV.” Basinski runs wild with a recitation of “Rats,” a Pythonesque vision of the dreaded rodents taking on surreal jobs to accomplish bizarre acts of destruction, and then invites giggly audience members to join him on stage for a seemingly endless wordless recitation consisting of simulating the sound of a gagged person trying to speak. “in/word/out” dramatizes a somewhat more serious Basinski poem with “Safety Device,” a rueful contemplation of the delays surrounding the installation of the eponymous item at a factory and the inevitable catastrophe which follows.
“in/word/out” then visits Health & Beauty, the music-and-poetry duo of Richard Scott and Thom Metzger. Combining oddball musical arrangements with a wordplay that is equal parts sophomoric and sophisticated, Health & Beauty sheepishly acknowledges they are “an acquired taste.” And while some of their material is humorous (a call for “drum solo” is followed by the blaring of a saxophone), the pair comes often across like a second rate version of They Might Be Giants. Unfortunately, they are the weakest link in this poetic chain, although their deficiencies can easily be forgiven by their genuine modesty and good humored approach to their work.
Things pick up dramatically with Lyn Lifshin, the only woman featured in the film. Lifshin repeatedly refers to her “theatrical background” and she is clearly the most striking presence here: with a drape of red hair covering half of her face, she offers a striking cycloptic appearance. Her poetry is relatively brief yet deeply ironic, offering tart commentary on lives out-of-kilter. Most memorable here is her mini-poem “Madonna of the Man Who Writes Boring Letters,” in which she comments “Not hearing from him/Is like hearing from him.”
The next poet, Jeff Filipski, charges into the film like a madman on a tear. A burly, long-haired fellow who sometimes performs with his face painted black, Filipski sees his mission in which he “slams images into audiences” and goads people to respond to his hostility with their own hostility, creating a remarkable energy force feeding from both sides of the stage. In an off-stage interview, Filipski happily comments on his malcontent verbiage and his angry man persona, daring anyone to challenge his vision and venom. “My sky is a different color,” he proudly states with chip-on-the-shoulder bravado. “That’s fine with me.”
Filipski’s anger cools away for Gerald Locklin, a poet who mildly states that he “uncomfortable with being a poet.” A wry and deadpan observer of the absurdities in contemporary American male culture, Locklin explains he came to poetry through default rather than design: except for writing, teaching and drinking, he states, he’s really not very good at anything else. Locklin’s gentle personality, both at the microphone and off the stage, is a blast of fresh air and his refusal to become too analytical of his work provides wise insight into writing poetry. “I don’t think them to death,” he says of his poems, “because that’s inhibiting.”
For anyone with a love of language, “in/word/out” is a joy to behold. Putting poetry into motion, let alone a motion picture, is quite a challenge and the film is a profoundly entertaining celebration of unique literary visions.