Blog: Disability, Infirmity, Audience – Steve Griffiths


by Steve Griffiths


My seventh collection, ‘Late Love Poems‘, was published by Cinnamon Press this year.  It was preceded by a week-by-week uploading to YouTube of thirty short films of performances of poems from the book, filmed in a range of settings and styles by Eamon Bourke of Park6Productions and funded by Arts Council England.

Audiences online were not great, but not bad.  However, a group of the films were markedly less viewed.  They were concerned with sickness and encroaching disability. They were poems and films of lament, defiance and celebration, and form a significant but unexpected part of the book. Feedback from those who did view them was positive.

They were integral to a book of poems of rediscovered love, and took a long look at some of the ways our lives can be derailed, the challenge of that, and the ways you can be sustained in adversity as a couple by previously unsuspected resources. There is loss, anger, plenty of that, and a surprising amount of laughter.  Love’s taken to a new, darker place and comes back changed.

Understandably, online many viewers are expecting, enticed by the word ‘love’, to sign up for a simple celebration – for the films to be an easy, unquestioning, perhaps sentimental and/or sexy ride. A mirror of wish fulfilment. But stuff happens, complexity happens: we deal with it. Celebration of what we are and what we have, and have had, is not easily won in what is sometimes a ruined landscape. ‘The Harrowing of the Squamous Cell Carcinoma’ was the least viewed film in the YouTube series. It’s an intimidating title for a poem of affirmation and laughter; and it’s filmed in a deliberately idyllic setting.

Here are links to five of the films in this terrain:

A strong supporter of the film project, Nadia Kingsley of Fair Acre Press, commented that we underestimated the obstacle of the culture of social media being ‘predominantly used by younger audiences, who most definitely won’t want to know about old people finding love’.

The thin audience made me think about the difference between the medium of the poem on the page, and that of the lined face filmed in closeup delivering the poem.   The physical exposure casts a particular light on the words.   This both opens up and closes down possibilities.   It confronts the reader / viewer with vistas for further interpretation, but it also defines in a way that may be limiting, particularly to the reader’s imaginative response to the printed page. In some cases, the poet’s appearance may bring a deep shift of focus, towards the poet and away from the mutuality of the love poem.

The theme of age – of love not in the first flush of youth – is explored extensively in the poems, and often mocked affectionately, as is the poet’s remembered youth. But we discovered what a risky undertaking it was to find a balance in film between on one hand ‘exhibiting’ the poet and potentially undermining poems which have nothing to do with age, and on the other directly confronting themes of age, illness and indeed mortality that are an essential part of the fabric of many of the poems.   Ageism plays its part in the audience response to this exploration. This is not new: it is a part of the egotism of youth. We who are old were not innocent of it once. The films provoke thought in this respect – and perhaps dismissal – far more than the poems.

Sometimes this resulted in interesting collisions.   ‘A pair for bodies‘ is a poem in two parts – two related films – which muse on the theme of mature love: the surprise of it, the tenderness of an intimacy of bodies that have got miles on the clock. There’s humour, as there is in all bodies but especially mature ones. Eamon Bourke’s film approaches this with sensitivity while acknowledging a reality that’s brutal as well as beautiful: the poet, the subject of the camera, is not young and it shows. The second part acknowledges and celebrates the idea of wear and tear, a quality of light on the surface of old stone that derives somehow from long existence – and the intimation of a wearing out, contemplated both directly and affectionately.   The film takes this cue with a slow, eloquent visual metaphor out of Selinunte, an ancient Greek settlement on the coast of Sicily.

We found that my ‘surface’ had more life in close-up, in a way that added dimensions to the delivery of the poem. But the scale and variety of the 30 poems and films offered an opportunity to convey many faces (as well as none), the many surface dimensions of a personality, just as the face is shaped by many events.   It was an antidote to vanity and to defensiveness. The poems are already a study of how we see ourselves – in particular our consciousness of ourselves as we age, and the different kinds of beauty – or reality – in that.   At their best, the films added to this in a way that made me see my own face (and the undeniable mark of cancer on my head), though often painfully, in a more detached and painterly way. Through film, these surfaces offered perspectives that wove around the poems in ways I hadn’t expected. The poems swim on at their different depths.