Seattle poet Susan Rich was overjoyed when her poem "Pregnant with the Dead" was selected for inclusion in the Visible Poetry Project (VPP), which "partners thirty filmmakers with thirty poets to create visual interpretations of original and classic poems" over the course of National Poetry Month.
Filmmaker Tova Beck-Friedman selected Rich's poem to adapt into a short film. "Given that this poem is meant to honor my ancestors and its subject is intergenerational haunting, I was especially thrilled," Rich wrote.
Every relationship between poet and filmmaker at VPP is different, but Beck-Friedman and Rich collaborated on the video in a way that accentuated their strengths. Rich recorded a reading of her poem at Seattle's Jack Straw Cultural Center for use in the film. "I was happy to do the voice over of the poem but beyond that I felt this was [Beck-Friedman's] film," Rich told me over email yesterday.
In one of their early conversations, Beck-Friedman had the idea of presenting the poem alongside archival footage of the Holocaust. The concept of recording a dancer to interpret the poem also came up. "During the call (from what I can remember) one of us came up with the idea of creating an interplay of the archival footage with a dancer," Rich explained.
VPP pairs each film with a producer, and in her open letter Rich says that during production the assigned producer, Mia Shelton, said that "the interplay of dancer and archival footage was very effective."
But the night before National Poetry Month began, Rich got an email from Sofia Bannister, the managing director of VPP, advising her that VPP would not be playing "Pregnant with the Dead" after all, and that they were planning to "hold onto [the] film until a later date." The email said this decision was made as a "response to the COVID-19 pandemic...in an effort to bring the community of Visible Poetry Project together during this time of crisis."
Rich pushed back in an email, and was told in response that the film "did not fit [VPP's] programming needs." After Rich questioned further, Bannister replied that "the board feels uncomfortable releasing a film which trivializes the gravity of your poem." Finally, in the fourth such exchange according to Rich, VPP admitted that the board had "concerns about the overlay of the dancer being detrimental to the gravity of the piece." VPP contacted "a professor whose doctoral studies were in Holocaust cinema" who "expressed extreme discomfort with the piece."
Finally, the board concluded:
...in an assembly of six people, three of whom have ancestral legacy with the Holocaust, all six found the video offensive, we determined that ratio would likely be reflected in the general audience as well.
According to Rich, VPP "described the dancer as 'gyrating,' which implies a sensual movement, but there are no gyrating movements in the piece." Rich says that even with this justification from the board, their conclusions are "a mystery" to her.
VPP appears to be well within their rights to not host "Pregnant with the Dead." It's their festival, after all. Of course, it would have been easier for everyone involved if they had noted any concerns during the filmmaking process. And it seems downright unethical to vaguely blame the pulling of the film on coronavirus when that appears to have nothing to do with the actual reasoning behind the decision.
But it's not reasonable anymore, after the 2016 election and its resultant online chaos, to be a free speech absolutist. There are plenty of good reasons to not display a piece of art or host someone else's free speech. Just because it's technically legal to espouse neo-Nazi views in a public space, for example, it is our duty as members of a responsible society to discourage that speech. Likewise, I'd hope that any worthwhile comedy venue or broadcasting platform would not air racist, sexist, or homophobic "comedy" that wraps hate speech in the clothing of a more demure standup routine. Subtext and intent carry meanings that are just as valid and important as the strict reading of a work.
With all that said, "Pregnant with the Dead" doesn't strike me as a work that's intended to offend, nor does its text or subtext come across as glib or diminishing. The dancer is clearly interpreting grief and emotional pain. You can question the efficacy of the communication all you want — that's what criticism is all about — but I don't think you can reasonably conclude that Rich or Beck-Friedman were attempting to make light of the Holocaust with this work.
Ultimately, if VPP wanted to keep audiences from watching "Pregnant with the Dead," they failed miserably. Rich has been very open about her experience with the organization, and she's encouraged people to watch the film on YouTube. Here it is, so you can decide for yourself:
And in recent days, Beck-Friedman and Rich have learned that a well-known European curator has accepted "Pregnant with the Dead" for an online film festival this summer. In the end, the film will be seen by many more people as a direct result of VPP's actions to stifle it.