Zillah Bowes is a writer and filmmaker. As a cinematographer, her films include Enemies of Happiness, which won the World Cinema Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival. Her debut as a director, Small Protests, was nominated for a Grierson Award, and won the Current Short Cuts Award and Best Short Documentary at the London Independent Film Festival. For her writing she has been awarded Special Commendation in the 2016 Wasafiri New Writing Prize, received a New Writer’s Award from Literature Wales in 2014 and a Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council of Wales in 2017. And now she has won the prestigious Wordsworth Trust Prize for her poem “End of August”. Gary Raymond caught up with her shortly after the announcement of the award.
Gary Raymond: Firstly, congratulations on winning the Wordsworth Trust Prize for your poem ‘End of August’. This comes as another chapter in a career that is successfully developing year on year. What does a prize like this mean for you?
Thank you. It’s always an honour to win something, to know that other people value what you’re doing. I’ve only started to devote serious time to my poetry writing in the last two or three years, and the prize will help give me confidence to keep going with my own ideas and subject matter. My winning poem is quite a humble, simple one, so it was also a bit of a surprise!
What brought you to writing poetry?
I started writing poetry in moments snatched while filming around the world. It was something I could fit around my work, often in a pause at the end of the day, during prep or between shoots, and I could express myself differently and directly. I first attended a poetry workshop at the Tate Modern with poet Pascale Petit, who encouraged me. She used to be a sculptor and I loved the courses she ran there on the artworks. I owe her a debt of gratitude for her support and inspiration! At the time, I was also working on films with visual artists such as Turner-prize winner Martin Creed (who I still collaborate with) and Tacita Dean, and writing around art seemed a natural progression.
Your other life is as a filmmaker. Do you see parallels or cross-overs between making films and writing poems?
I work now as a writer/director in film, but I first trained as a cinematographer at the National Film and Television School with great tutors such as Brian Tufano (“Trainspotting”) and Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”). I’m naturally a visual person but I think my time studying and working as a cinematographer honed my visual awareness. When I first started to write poetry, I just wrote as I saw the world, or as I saw images of the particular “world” in my head I was describing. I didn’t really see any difference between making an image for a film or a poem. It’s only afterwards that I’ve come to understand that image-making is a specific element in poetry, and to bring more consciousness to it. I think I was just doing it anyway.
Poetry always seems to be an isolated artform. And filmmaking such a collaborative one. Do you think these aspects speak to different aspects of your creative impulses?
I’m not sure that is the truth. Film is definitely collaborative, right from the start. For example, I’m writing a script at the moment and working with a script editor, and will continue to work with many more people as I go through stages to create the finished film. I love this aspect of filmmaking – working with different people, influencing each other. But I think the process of writing itself, of having ideas, and letting them onto a page, especially the initial stage before editing, is pretty similar for me in films and poems. The difference is less in how isolated I am, but more in the type of writing. In poetry, I can be pulled into myself more, explode something small and vital inside me outwards. In film, the scale is greater, and the characters and story come first.
You have travelled all over the world with your film work; how has this informed your voice as a poet?
I hope it will influence my poetry more. I’d like to write more about my experiences around the edges of the films I’ve made, kind of ‘marginalia’ poems. At the time I often wrote about unrelated things, probably because I needed to give the film all of my creative energy. So if I wrote poetry, it was as an inner pause, a way of connecting with myself. But there are many things I’d like to revisit. I’ve been very lucky to work on documentaries, as well as fiction films, and witness people’s lives intimately. I’m toying with the idea of writing about Afghanistan, where I made one of my first films as cinematographer, “Enemies of Happiness”, about freedom-fighter Malalai Joya. It was a formative experience – the first time I saw a world I’d learnt a lot about on the outside deeply from the inside, and drew my own conclusions, made my own observations.
Landscape is obviously important to you in your poetry, but in so much as it shapes people. Would this be an accurate representation of your work?
I grew up in nature in the first part of my childhood, and have always relied on it to ground me. I’ve just moved, but I lived for the last few years in the mountains in southern Snowdonia between working on film projects in London and abroad, and still visit often. I was drawn to writing about the landscape there, and my place in it, or perhaps, its place in the world beyond me. I was also inspired by people, my neighbours, as well as one of my relatives who was a mining engineer and naturalist in Wales’ ‘gold rush’ era a century ago. So in a way, yes, I was writing about landscape and its relationship with people. I think more, I was just writing outwards from the experience of grounding myself in nature, a very experiential process. My latest poems, however, are about darkness, and also the psyche, a bit different! Although nature appears a lot too…
You are currently the recipient of a Creative Wales Award from the Arts Council. Are you at liberty to tell us a little bit about how that’s going?
Yes for my Creative Wales Award I’m developing a way of combining film and poetry. I’m in the middle of refining the formal process right now – filming, writing poetry to the filmed footage, re-editing the footage, re-editing the poem, and so on. I’m thinking of making a series of pieces on different places, although this is evolving! I’m hoping to collaborate with other writers too. I think they will be more like films than film poems, where usually the spoken word takes precedence, but I’d also like the words to be poems in their own right, and to publish them in some form.
You have also been one of the Writers at Work at the Hay Festival for the last two years – what was that experience like?
I’ve benefitted so much from the Writers at Work programme, I feel very lucky! For a start, I learnt about the publishing industry. Before going to Hay, I didn’t really know much or think of myself as a writer, more a filmmaker who wrote on the side. I now feel connected to the literary world. I’ve met agents, publishers, all sorts of writers (including legends!), translators, and have been totally inspired. I’ve also made friendships with the other writers on the programme, who are all talented and supportive, and developed the confidence to move my writing career forward in a serious way.
Yesterday a piece of hot coal
landed on the landlord’s acrylic rug,
which sizzled as it melted into a crater.
The postman who knocks a tune
delivered my new coal tongs
and asked if I went up Cader on Friday.
I described the long ridge I followed
next to the fence without a path.
And I could see in his eyes that my eyes
were still bright with the mountain.
You can read more about the Wordsworth Trust and The Poetry Business here.