Jul 18 2010
Following A Poet
by Linda Rae Dornan
In 2008, Suzie LeBlanc and I retraced a walking journey of the Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Elizabeth Bishop. We followed the journal she wrote while walking across the Avalon Peninsula in 1932, from St. John’s to Norman’s Bay. She spent three weeks in Newfoundland with her friend, Eva, and though the journal was sparsely written, we were able to track down some of the descendants of people mentioned in it, and visit most of the places they visited. We waded across rivers, walked through marshes, climbed mountains, swam in the ocean, and met wonderful people, all the while placing one foot in front of the other, and helping each other along the way.
Suzie LeBlanc is a singer well known for her interpretation and performance of early music. When she fell in love with Bishop’s poetry she wanted to sing it and with the centenary of Bishop’s birth approaching in 2011, she decided to commission music to several poems. In order to have a deeper connection to the poet, Suzie determined to walk in her footsteps and she asked me to join her. Going for a walk in Newfoundland sounded exactly like the adventure I needed, and as I prefer to turn most of my activities into some kind of art project, I ended up backpacking with a camcorder on my chest for two weeks in August. It was an amazing experience, one which every traveller with an open mind will understand. People were interested in what we were doing and we shared many a tea and cake because of people’s hospitality. Many people did not want to be on film but were open to reading Bishop’s poetry for us and discussing local history, often pointing out where the old inn had been that Bishop had stayed in or how to find descendants of people mentioned in the journal. Every experience was a gift though I had to adjust my filming accordingly. Patience continuously paid off as the project developed into a sequence of serendipitous events which continuously informed and enriched our experience.
There has been no outside financial support for this documentary project. So far I have financed it completely on my own from airmile points to drawing on my earnings. I am applying for an artist residency where I can retreat to focus on the editing of the film and hopefully earn a fee to pay for my time. I have made two other documentaries, both with limited funding, and both well received. As an independant, self-supporting artist I still have a lot to learn about where to find financing for making documentaries. I enjoy working with other people but am used to having full artistic control over my projects and working at a relaxed pace, something which is not acceptable in a film world of deadlines. But that is my choice.
There are many active Elizabeth Bishop societies around the world, and a very active one in Halifax, NS which is organising year round centenary celebrations for 2011. Bishop was born in Worcestor, Massachusetts but her mother was from Great Village, Nova Scotia where the young Elizabeth spent a few of her childhood years and many summer vacations, and where the family house is presently taken care of by Bishop fans. Suzie will be performing Bishop poems with Symphony Nova Scotia during 2011 and I will be screening the documentary from our Newfoundland trip, its working title being Walking with E.B. I am also organising a one minute film festival for film/video works about Bishop’s poetry, essays, travels or what-have-you and a call for films/videos will go out for this shortly. If we can get 100 shorts that would be great! One of the additional pleasures of working on this project has been seeing how other projects spin off from it.
Linda Rae Dornan is an interdisciplinary artist working in performance art, video and installation art. Her documentary Blue Skies & Rocky Shores: a story of dementia and caregiving won the Best Low-Budget New Brunswick Documentary, and Errol Williams Filmmaker Award, in 2008 at the Silver Wave Festival. She has recently completed Canfield Creek, a six minute documentary about a native spiritual site in Pugwash, NS with Emile Gautreau, elder, storyteller, and Métis and Mi’kmaq spiritual leader.