Co-Creating a Poem About the Cinema Beth Calverley
Since I started reading and writing poetry, I’ve been mesmerised by its cinematic power; its potential to transport me to faraway worlds through the magical screen of my mind’s eye.
Perhaps more importantly, poetry, cinema and other creative experiences can guide us, blinking, back to the everyday brightness of the real world. Shared creative experiences bring us together while reminding us of our individual identities. They can connect us with the people, places, and experiences that matter to us. They can also show us how to encounter the unexpected in our own lives.
For the past two years, I’ve been the Poet in Residence at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust’s Arts and Culture Programme, made possible by local charity Above & Beyond. I host poetry sessions with patients, staff members, families and carers in hospital. Being in hospital is often stressful, whether you’re coming to terms with an illness, visiting a loved one who you’re worried about, or working a long shift under pressure. Having a piano to tinker on, a nature-inspired mural to explore, a garden to help you catch your breath, a cinema afternoon in the day room, or a creative writing lunchtime session can connect people with their personal identities, fellow patients and colleagues, and the world beyond the hospital walls and windows. For long-stay patients, it can make their time in hospital feel less like a scary movie and more like an interval to prepare for the next scene in their life’s story.
I co-created ‘Feel Good’ with a group of older adults at South Bristol Community Hospital, hosting a conversation about cinema. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, our conversation took place online. Before we started, I explained that I would weave their words into a poem and they would have a chance to suggest changes. I also explained that this poem could be shared in an essay for the Bristol Festival of Ideas programme if every member of the group would like this.
First, we showed photos of historic local cinemas to warm our memory projectors up. We perused black-and-white photos of the Odeon in Broadmead (showing The Sound of Music in 1966), the Triangle in Clifton (in 1940, before it was destroyed in the Blitz), the Concorde on Stapleton Road, the Metropole in Ashley Road, the Van Dyck in Fishponds (now a pub), the News Theatre on Castle Street, the Gaiety on Wells Road (with children waiting outside), the Picture House on Staple Hill, and the Coliseum Picture Theatre on Park Row (which also used to be a skating rink).
I made notes of everyone’s words and phrases as they were expressed. While the conversation continued, I wove these fragments of dialogue into a poem on my manual typewriter and read it aloud to the group twice. I’ve transcribed the poem below with the permission of all the co-creators.
‘Feel Good’ (March 2021)
I came out of the cinema
and there he was – waiting for me
home from leave.
Just an ordinary cinema,
just a single balcony.
Art deco. So luxurious.
An old mini parked outside.
My parents courted in his car –
amazing how many times it broke down.
They used to drop us off outside
the skating rink and we’d sneak
off to go bowling.
On Saturday mornings, they’d play
children’s shows. We cut out
the stamps from the teabag boxes.
I met my husband at jive class.
He’d forgotten his money for the
pictures, so I paid the 1/9d – each –
to get us in. We’ve been married for
61 years. My brother still remembers
me taking him to Keynsham cinema.
You used to pay 6 pence back then.
Before the film, they played the
lion’s roar, the news, trailers
of what was coming soon.
The ads for PG Tips – the monkeys
with their teapots. So cute.
The taste of butterscotch,
strawberry and vanilla.
I don’t mind salt but I prefer sweet.
And singing along to the musical
together with my friends.
Such a good night. Feel good.
After our group session, the wonderful members of staff who organised this event took copies of the poem to every co-creator so they could read it and ask for any changes. Each group member received their own copy of the typewritten poem to do with as they wished. In this way, the memories they had collectively expressed became a tangible reminder of our shared conversation.
As everyone contributed their thoughts and feelings, we heard memories of childhood cinema trips, romantic dates with partners, and musicals with friends. Some of the group members were local, others were from further afield, yet the cinema theme transcended space and time. It shone a light on shared experiences, as co-creators fondly discussed key elements of cinema-going, such as interval ice-creams and trailers before each movie. The theme also brought individual differences into play. Each co-creator had their own favourite flavour of ice-cream: ‘butterscotch, strawberry, and vanilla. . .’. One person described going to an ‘ordinary cinema’ while another remembered the foyer of a ‘luxurious’ Art Deco cinema.
To me, it felt significant how vividly the participants emphasised who was with them; the loved ones meeting them outside, sitting in the seats beside them, or sneaking off to go bowling – the siblings, parents, friends, and lovers. Another noticeable theme was the admission fee that co-creators remembered paying for cinema tickets when they were younger (a lot less than we pay today). This reminded me that, while the value of money changes over time, the intrinsic value of shared experiences never changes, though we may notice its value more or less vividly at different times.
The poem starts with a co-creator’s memory of seeing their partner outside the Triangle Picture House, home from leave on a surprise visit. This story resonated with me, as I’ve seen films with my partner at the nearby Whiteladies Picture House, which opened in 1921 and still operates today. We’ve also been to the Odeon on Broadmead together, which opened in 1936. A cinema trip often reminds me of the brief intensity of life. We enter the flickering chrysalis and emerge changed, older, wiser – just as we emerge from each scene of our own lives. One moment, we’ll step out of the cinema after a first date, and the next we’ll take our great-grandchildren to see the latest animated adventure in a VR theatre powered by solar panels on Mars. Which cinema experiences will we see through a nostalgic lens in decades to come?
As the conversation progressed, musicals took to the stage. One co-creator shared a recent memory of singing along to a musical (Mamma Mia!) with her friends at the cinema. She described the film as ‘feel good’, which became the title of the poem. Personally, I believe the feel-good factor in art is often under-rated. Feel-good saves a seat for hope, and hope brings popcorn for our hungry hearts. Particularly during times of disconnect, when we don’t feel so good, creative experiences can provide emotional nourishment.
From our conversation, I learned that the red plush seats at the Gaiety Cinema used to be itchy. I learned that families used to save the stamps from teabags towards the cost of tickets for the Saturday morning children’s shows. Most of all, I was reminded of the need to preserve more time for collective experiences with loved ones, no matter how difficult it can be to escape from the daily demands of work and life. I’m grateful to the co-creators of ‘Feel Good’ for this reminder.
Cinema is a feeling that brings us together, whether our particular version has a vintage curtain or a high-definition screen, a live orchestra or surround-sound. It feels like sitting with others as the lights hush, safe in the knowledge that something unexpected is about to happen.
Thank you for reading. Now I’d love to invite you to write some poetry of your own about a time you have spent in the cinema, at home watching a film, or a time in your life when a movie inspired you. Where were you? Who was with you? How did you feel?
With thanks to Jillianne Norman, Chaplain, and Karen Nash, Patient Flow and Administration Co-ordinator, who co-hosted this session and made this collaborative poem possible.
Beth Calverley is the Poet in Residence at University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust. She co-creates poems with people via her supportive practice The Poetry Machine. She is also part of House of Figs, a music and poetry duo, and co-produces Milk Poetry, a nurturing platform for spoken word.