The Revival: Women and the Word. Directed by Sekiya Dorsett. New York: Women Make Movies, 2016. 82 minutes.
The Poetry Deal: A Film with Diane di Prima. Directed by Melanie La Rosa. New York: Women Make Movies, 2011. 27 minutes.
Salma. Directed by Kim Longinotto. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 89 minutes.
The films reviewed here are vastly different in scope, form, and delivery, but each speaks to how feminist poets and poetry aimed at social justice can inspire broader coalitions for cultural transformation. Each film is successful in bringing to light stories of artists whose desires can be met only by the written word. A common thread is a focus on artist/activists who pursue an existence beyond that which society has deemed appropriate; these are poets who refuse to be suffocated by patriarchal, traditional, and societal expectations.
The Poetry Deal is a cinematic homage to Diane di Prima. In the film, di Prima serves as a point of departure by which director Melanie La Rosa illuminates much of the philosophical and cultural energy of the Beat poets. The film does not deliberate on biographical facts and details but instead celebrates this poet’s legacy and influence through an impressionistic lens. It visually mirrors the fluidity and sensuality of di Prima’s poetry and incorporates rare readings by di Prima.
Interview fragments and not-often-seen historical footage—interpolated within still and moving images and recorded readings—coalesce to make The Poetry Deal a visual poem that asks viewers to rethink the cultural and social milieu of the Beats in terms of a fiercely unapologetic feminine sensitivity. Poets like di Prima joined counter-culture communities in efforts to break into the literary world as well as break out of traditional and often fiercely oppressive female roles. When di Prima wrote poetically about the tensions between motherhood and creativity or about domestic responsibility, she did so with a keen awareness of her position within a milieu dominated by men. This film thus allows students to better understand how the women of the Beat generation were true pioneers of a women’s movement that had not yet come to fruition.1
Salma begins and ends with a line of poetry from the title poet that serves as an axiom of hope for the subaltern: “If not today, then tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then another day.” Directed by Kim Longinotto, Salma chronicles the life and continuing struggles of a Tamil writer, whose family confined her to the home when she was thirteen. Nine years later, after she finally agreed to marry, her imprisonment continued under her husband’s watchful eye. Just as all the girls in her village—a fiercely fundamentalist Muslim community in South India—are barred from reading and formal education at the onset of puberty, so was Salma. But her imprisonment did not stop her; she wrote in secret on pilfered scraps of paper—as have many women before and since.
Salma is a testament to the power of the written word as an outlet for the loneliness that stifled creativity and religious conservatism can engender—an isolation writers from Virginia Woolf to Sandra Cisneros and Han Kang have explored with searing clarity.2 As the film documents the poet’s extraordinary journey of self-salvation, and as we observe her interact with family and friends, we enter an alarmingly restrictive world. Salma’s story is illuminated piecemeal, and there is a melancholy feel to the film, especially when we hear how her family justified her imprisonment to keep with village tradition and when Salma silently listens to the justifications of those who believed it was their duty to silence her. Moving fluidly from past to present via photos of Salma, her recollections as an adolescent, and her life as a published poet, we are struck with hope as well as indignation, for we may not be able to help but grieve for others who remain bound by similar mores. An intense film on many levels, Salma may be usefully paired with mainstream filmic adaptations that detail the achievements of women and girls from varying cultures whose private struggles evince public triumphs.3
The Revival: Women and the Word evokes the Combahee River Collective of an earlier generation; however, this coalition of poets builds a community of queer women of color as part of a road trip called the Revival Tour. The film’s strength is in the myriad voices that attest to the power of bottom-up coalitions to connect the historical oppression of black and queer bodies to current strands of racism and subjugation. Showcasing the ideas of activists like Nikki Finney and Alexis De Veaux alongside young, queer voices like Be Steadwell and T’ai Freedom Ford, the film is a testament that poetry has power to challenge the deleterious effects of social structures on race, gender, and sexuality and to build a network of artists in hopes of uniting wider audiences with the healing potential of the written and spoken word.4
As we follow these women on their nine-day tour of eight US cities, the audience connects with their powerful, often raw stage performances and engages with their stories, dreams, and fears intimately. Educators seeking to show students how ideas can foment political and social action will find The Revival useful in terms of highlighting the means by which performers and artists—often on a shoestring budget—can be agents and producers of their own stories. Further, because the performance pieces are incredibly varied, ranging from complex elegies entwined in social history to personal open-form hip hop styles, The Revival encourages conversations about what poetry is and can be, especially as it involves matters of social justice.
Poets and activists such as those responsible for the success of the Revival Tour are changing the poetry scene by stamping their fluid identities onto the world with a power intended to move us beyond our comfort zones. The fierce, often sexually charged works the featured poets deliver dissect feminine desire and the female body with an unapologetic style and an energy that unwavers in its critique of societal, cultural, and patriarchal norms. These films celebrate poets and activists who thrive despite the odds, artists who demand to live unbridled by societal expectations.
1 See Anne Waldman, ed. Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004); Brenda Knight, ed., Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution (Berkeley: Conari, 1996).
2 See Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Mariner, 1989); Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (New York: Vintage, 1991); Han Kang, The White Book (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).
3 Films include Whale Rider, directed by Niki Caro (Los Angeles: Newmarket Films, 2002), 101 minutes; Persepolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud (Paris: Diaphana Distribution, 2007), 96 minutes; Real Women Have Curves, directed by Patricia Cardoso (Los Angeles: Newmarket Films, 2002), 93 minutes.
4 See Mahogany L. Browne, Idrissa Simmonds, and Jamila Woods, ed., The Breakbeat Poets Vol 2: Black Girl Magic (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018); Evolve Benton, SIR: Poetry Dedicated to Boihood & Black Queer Love (Walnut Creek, CA: MAR Media, 2018).