Poetry as Cinematic Proposition: A Conversation with Perry Janes

April 10, 2021   •   By Elena Karina Byrne

WRITER-FILMMAKER Perry Janes shares a passion for different art forms and disciplines while interrogating their intersections. He understands not only how they coexist in his writing practices but how they might exist in a larger artistic constellation. For him, poetry is a fundamentally cinematic proposition.

Janes hails from Metro Detroit, where he studied under poet Vievee Francis as part of a coterie now known as The Detroit School. He is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize, and his work has appeared in journals including The Michigan Quarterly Review, Zyzzyva, Prairie Schooner, The Adroit JournalPOETRY, and other venues. He earned his MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College and his BA from the University of Michigan, where he was a five-time recipient of the Hopwood Award.

At age 21, Perry shot his debut short film ZUG on location in Michigan. The film subsequently went on to receive a 2013 Student Academy Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He has received residencies and scholarships from organizations that include Independent Film Project, The Poetry Foundation in partnership with Crescendo Literary, and Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s Imagine Impact incubator. He currently has three television shows in active development and recently completed a feature script sale to Amazon Studios. He lives and works in Los Angeles.


ELENA KARINA BYRNE: How did you become interested in the two disciplines of poetry and filmmaking?

PERRY JANES: I was an avid cinephile from the moment my parents first dropped me in front of the television. A well-worn anecdote of mine is that, when I was young, my parents had to hide my favorite VHS cassettes to keep me from rewatching them on an endless loop. (Steven Spielberg’s Hook was a particular obsession.) Eventually, these cassette tapes conveniently “went missing.” (I now suspect my parents simply couldn’t handle another cry of “Lost Boys!” ringing in the flat and dropped the video in the trash.) For most of my youth, however, filmmaking, screenwriting — those didn’t feel like attainable pursuits. Hollywood was worlds away from Detroit, a city that places tremendous emphasis on the value of work. How did one work in Hollywood? Was that even a possibility? What did that look like? Only when I was in college, and the Michigan tax incentives brought film production into town, did I realize: Oh, there are jobs in this business. It’s a craft. That turned my head, and I never looked back.

Poetry was a different story. In the same way a truly excellent poem sneaks up on you with a turn you don’t expect, poetry caught me off-guard. When I was roughly 12 years old, wandering the aisles of my local bookstore, I pulled two books off the shelf and fell in love with two very different poets: Pablo Neruda and Maya Angelou. Chance, fate, whatever you want to call it. Afterward, I began writing short poems at every opportunity. I even wrote an essay in verse for freshman history in high school. (Imagine my teacher’s delight…) As with filmmaking, I didn’t have a view of what a life in poetry might look like; unlike filmmaking, I was determined to keep learning. (Poems, unlike movies or TV shows, require only a blank page.) This led me to my first mentor, Vievee Francis, which marked a watershed moment in my life — as a poet, yes, but more broadly as an artist and a person. (I often say our early lessons remind me of Gus Van Sant’s film Finding Forrester. “Punch the keys, for God’s sake!”) Under Vievee’s instruction, I found a community, I found rigor, I found a deep love of the craft, and I learned that all of these things were possible outside the academy. That last lesson has proved invaluable: to place faith in the work itself, and not institutions.

Do you think about audience when you write?

At my core, I’m a writer preoccupied with audience — for better and for worse. For me, the salient question isn’t whether I consider audience but when I allow those considerations to enter the creative process.

As a screenwriter working in American entertainment, I’m almost always required to start with audience. This is due to the capitalist machinery of filmmaking. In order to acquire the financing and distribution for a film or television show, you’re asked to project a clear notion of who the audience is and why they will want to engage with what you’re making. So much of the language in Hollywood reflects this. We “pitch” story ideas, after all — which, of course, is a derivation of “sales pitch.” As a result, that question of audience plays a formative role in the shape of each screenplay. I’ve learned to embrace this part of the process. It can be liberating to have that question resolved right up front — but it can also be limiting. I find that screenwriting often holds little space for active discovery.

As a poet, questions of audience enter my work at a later stage. I try very hard not to force a frame, subject, tone, etc., when I first begin drafting. The moment I decide what the poem is about, or whom it’s for, it begins to shrink. The possibilities narrow, and my capacity for play diminishes. That happens with every piece eventually, but if it happens too soon, I often spend months or even years un-learning the constraints I prematurely placed on the poem. It took me a long time to internalize this lesson. Now, once I know the poem has found its shape, I prefer to ask myself: How did I arrive here? What drove me? In that way, audience drives revision but not iteration.

Your poetry might be described as more lyrical than narrative. Some writers can’t write essays while writing poetry and vice versa, as though it is like shifting gears while traveling at high speed. Do you share this temporary affliction?

I’m grateful to say I don’t. I try very hard not to romanticize the process. My mantra is simple: show up, put in the sweat equity, keep it pushing. Put another way, I’ve learned how my mind naturally divides between disciplines, and how to make that compartmentalization work for me.

I find that writing poems and writing screenplays utilize different creative energies. This allows me to wring more work out of a single day than I might otherwise achieve. In my experience, I tend to burn out on any one form after X hours of work. (Varying by project.) And so, I often begin my day writing for the screen and end it writing for the page. By switching gears in the middle, I’m able to keep myself in motion. It may seem counterintuitive, but this toggling between forms tends to be restorative rather than exhausting. My work feeds me, and each discipline provides its own form of nourishment. When I grow tired or frustrated with one, I turn to the other, and the well replenishes.

There is a caveat. Deadlines change everything! Particularly the pace of deliverables in Hollywood. If I’m writing more than one script at a time, that means more of my hours are spoken for. There will be entire weeks when screenwriting sucks up all the oxygen in the room. During these stretches, I escape into poetry as a reader — before bed, over my morning coffee. This keeps me inspired until the deadlines are behind me.

I want to talk about how writers and filmmakers translate experiences of “belonging.” You have discussed what it was like to grow up in and outside Detroit, what it was like coming from a working-class background. Can you say more about this?

I’ve often been pegged as a “writer of place,” though I prefer to think of myself as a writer of community. As you know, I grew up in Metro Detroit. My father worked for General Motors. My mother runs her own private practice and self-publishes her own book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists. My grandfather was a bricklayer. As a boy, I internalized not only the value of hard work but also the power of a collective identity rooted in labor. Today, though, it feels as though our understanding of “the working class” remains frozen in time. It conjures images straight from a Philip Levine poem: assembly lines, steel mills. (It’s also become co-opted by partisan politics in toxic and disingenuous ways.) Those worlds remain (and often go overlooked), but beyond autoworkers and farmers, custodians and mechanics, what do new forms of labor look like in today’s day and age? How many of us are struggling to keep our homes? Our insurance? Our dignity? What new shapes have those struggles taken?

Poetry continues to do insightful work in this investigation, but film and television hasn’t kept up their end of the bargain. I recently pulled together a short list of feature films that focus on working-class narratives. My criteria was: 1) the film must depict labor in some shape or form; 2) the narrative must base its primary tension around how to earn and sustain a family or individual’s basic needs in tension with their dreams or ideals; and 3) the film must be contemporary — released and set in the year 2000 or after. The list is alarmingly short. Parasite. Shoplifters. American Honey. Sunshine Cleaning. 8 Mile. Last Black Man in San Francisco. I, Daniel Blake. Nomadland. (If we’re playing loose with the rules, I’ll give Zootopia an honorary mention.) There are more qualifying films than those listed here, of course, but not many. The list becomes even shorter when you restrict it to American filmmakers. Why is this? I suspect because a unifying identity for “working class” has always struck fear in the heart of empire. (Unions have been vilified by corporate and political powers for over a century.) Some of my work tackles these questions head-on. Other work glances off of it obliquely. In all cases, it propels me back to the page to keep asking questions.

Filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky also identified as a poet. In his book Sculpting in Time, he said, “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.” I think of this relationship to beauty as the screenwriter and poet’s necessary engagement with conflict and how that leads them to unexpected revelation. Can you talk about this in relation to your latest projects?

This is a timely question! I’m writing a lot of love poems these days. After completing a suite of work focused on the vagaries of childhood trauma, retraining my attention on love and sex and intimacy feels freeing. What’s surprised me is how capacious the love poem can be. Olds, Neruda, Clifton, Keats — it holds entire lineages! What began as an exercise in beholding joy, however, soon became a way of exploring simultaneity: how our experiences of love overlap with grief, anger, hope, conflict. Roughly a year ago, while visiting a friend, I remarked that I had begun to see the love poem as a Trojan Horse for other obsessions. My friend then said to me: “That’s the title of your next poem.” And she was right. It’s become a kind of Ars Poetica. The best love poems disarm us. They put us back in touch with our bodies, with wistfulness and desire. In doing so, they slip past our emotional armor. They take our hands and walk us toward what we might otherwise recoil from.

I can’t say my screenwriting operates by the same logic. (I’m not currently writing a romantic epic, for example.) But I do deploy a similar maneuver in my work for the screen, where one might substitute “genre” for “love.” I choose very specific genre conventions — The Coming of Age Adventure, The Western Frontier Story, The Odd Couple Comedy — and use them as a sleight of hand. One of my current projects is a 60-minute television drama about teenaged boys who raid foreclosed houses and land themselves in the middle of a murder mystery. The show channels a lot of influences — the Stephen King tradition, in particular — but smuggled beneath the adventure is a thorny exploration of class and masculinity. Will I be successful? Who knows! That’s the frightening part of working in entertainment: there are so many cooks in the kitchen, often with their own agendas, and a long road from concept to execution. At my core, though, I try to welcome the viewer into the story with something that feels familiar or comforting. I then attempt to redirect their attention toward what truly interests me: doubt, difficulty, penumbra, nuance.

As far as perception and the instigation of ideas, what are the overlaps you see occurring in poetry and filmmaking?

When thinking about the intersections of film and poetry, I have a constellation of artists I return to, but my North Star is the poet Lynda Hull. Hull strikes me as someone deserving of more attention than she receives. Her work is often referred to as “film noir,” in part, I think, because of her subjects: cities after nightfall, addicts and runaways. But I don’t think the label quite fits. “Film noir” conjures a narrow set of conventions. Instead, I see her work as uniquely cinematic. It was (poet, mentor, friend) A. Van Jordan who turned me on to Hull’s work — fittingly, as his own work is deep in conversation with the cinematic arts. I love Hull for her ability to set the scene in a very descriptive way. There’s a sense of what is inside and outside the frame in any given poem. She then uses lyric meditation to move the reader through time and space. She wields contemplation the way a cinematographer wields their camera, while also remaining tethered to narrative with her lush depictions of the physical world. If I’m pairing her with a kindred spirit in cinema, it’s Wong Kar Wai, whose work also straddles lyric and narrative.

I know I’m running long but I do want to circle back to my man Tarkovsky for a moment. I frequently reflect on how one-sided the dialogue between poetry and cinema feels today. A great deal of poetry reflects the influence of film and television, but that influence doesn’t always work both ways. It strikes me that there’s so much filmmakers and screenwriters could learn from the language of poetry. I hope very much to see the two disciplines move closer together.

Obviously, artists today are facing difficult challenges. What has shifted in your practice during the last year?

The love poems mentioned above — that’s one change. I’ve been with my partner for 13 years, and even still, this year has reminded me how grateful I am for her companionship, her playfulness, her perspective. More recently, I find my new work is (pardon the dramatic turn of phrase) calling out to my community — so much so that I find myself summoning them onto the page, literally, by name. Increasingly, my friends populate my poems. They appear in my characters. This returns us to the question of audience: my friends, my loves — this is my audience, always. Without being able to embrace and spend time with them, their presence looms even larger in the work.

Maggie Nelson, in her brilliant 2011 book The Art of Cruelty, identified the prevailing problem we continue to face as “the ‘fact’ -versus- ‘truth’ divide.” In your view, do artists have a responsibility that goes beyond reflection? Can you address how this affects your screenwriting and poetry?

When it comes to the role of the writer in this struggle, I don’t actually gravitate toward fact, or even Truth with a capital T, the way we often see it discussed. I gravitate to the importance of imagination. If I adhere to any manifesto, it would be this line from A. R. Ammons’s poem “Play”: “Drill imagination right through necessity.”

I believe in urgency, in the need to testify to and about the world around us. But I also worry that urgency can make us fear-based. When we’re afraid, we gravitate toward certainty. We embrace binary. The more we embrace binary, the more ensconced we become in our own echo chambers … which returns us to the root of the problem. A central question for me, as an artist, is: How can I disarm the audience of their comfortable certainties? I ask this of myself, as well.

For me, the answer lies in imagination. Now, when I say imagination, I don’t necessarily mean, say, angel-winged pigs flying over the Los Angeles cityscape. (Although I enjoy my share of escapism and return to Ursula K. Le Guin’s defense of the genre: “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what exactly is escapism an accusation of?”) Rather, I mean the willingness to imagine a simultaneity of experience that destroys binary altogether. What does it mean to acknowledge pleasure within shame? Trauma within nostalgia? To recognize that any one experience contains a kaleidoscope of different angles? We are so seldom one thing and one thing only, but we love to impose our neat categorizations. Imagination requires the ability to say what if? I don’t know. It could be. In this way, it moves us away from certainty toward empathy.

One example I return to is Guillermo del Toro’s film Pan’s Labyrinth. This film takes our artificial boundaries — of real versus fantasy, young versus old, peaceful versus violent — and chucks them out the window. The result is magnificent. The film’s fantasy elements put us in touch with our childlike capacity for wonder even in the midst of violence and trauma. It soothes even as it frightens. It weaves two worlds, superimposed on one another, and neither is invalidated. As a result, I leave the film with my notion of the world expanded.


Author Elena Karina Byrne is a private editor, freelance lecturer, poetry consultant and moderator for The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, and literary programs director for the historic Ruskin Art Club.