Cinematic poet screens and reads


Let's get one thing straight, right off the bat. Ray DiPalma is not Brian DiPalma. Or to put it another way, Ray is a poet, not a filmmaker.

But don't tell that to the French, who seem so impressed by the cinematic quality of Ray DiPalma's poetry that two of them made films based on one of his poems.

DiPalma the poet came to Kelly Writers House April 28 to show the films and read some of his poetry.

The crowd started at 10 but grew to 20 for the poetry reading.

"It's the end of the term, so it's not a big a crowd as you ordinarily get," said fellow poet and Professor of English Bob Perelman.

DiPalma came dressed as a poet, with a beret topping his round, bearded face, an oblong brown and gold scarf draped around his neck.

He expressed some bemusement at the French response to his poem "January Zero," which he said was "a work about scrutiny, a work about time."

The films were also works about scrutiny and time.

The one by Justine Adenis showed a beam of sunlight moving - very slowly - on a cathedral buttress as a voiceover recited the poem in French.

The film by Thierry GŽhin showed the filmmaker's face close-up for the length of the film as he performed actions like drinking a glass of milk, washing the glass and drying it.

"Did you write it with the same sense of claustrophobia?" asked event organizer Michael Magee.

"It was there to be found," DiPalma said.

He later said the films were "generous interpretations ... a gift."

DiPalma learned about the gifts, as well as a French translation of the poem, after they were "faits accomplis." Not only that, the filmmakers didn't know about one another's work, and GŽhin was unaware the poem had been translated into French. DiPalma also recounted an invitation to a conference in Marseilles to discuss the cinematic qualities in his poetry. The men who invited him were unaware of the films.

"This pattern of events in France has been going on for 10 years or so," DiPalma said.

The group gathered at the Writers House went barely beyond the usual suspects - the poets who have found a second home there.

"I just moved here - to Philadelphia - last week," said Maxine Smith, who said she was exploring what the town had to offer. "Last week I went to a Free Library event."

More typical was poet and self-described Writers House devotee Kristen Gallagher, a part-time employee and a part-time student. The films, she said, were "incredibly interesting, what happens when nothing happens."

Gallagher is herself a publisher of poetry, said Shawn Walker, a former resident coordinator for Writers House who now advises undergraduates in the history department. She said a collection of her work was scheduled to come out from Gallagher's Handwritten Press in the fall. (Handwritten had also published Magee, she added.)

"I just live at the Writers House and hear a lot - several writers a week," she said. "I live in Philadelphia because of this."

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Originally published on May 13, 1999