January 3, 2019

Poets and Hollywood: The Kindergarten Teacher


Have you seen the film The Kindergarten Teacher, now available on Netflix?

"In her new film “The Kindergarten Teacher,” Maggie Gyllenhaal plays a frustrated aspiring poet who discovers that a boy in her kindergarten class may be a budding literary genius, and begins co-opting his verses as her own.

When Gyllenhaal was preparing for the role, she thought a lot about what sort of poetry her character, a Staten Island teacher named Lisa Spinelli, would write. She figured Lisa’s poetry would be somewhat labored and clichéd — maybe verses about flowers and butterflies. So she and the film’s writer and director, Sara Colangelo, decided to ask a real poet to write some lines for the movie.

Commissioning poems wasn’t easy, it turns out..."       continue reading

Films have never quite known what to do with poets. And when poetry appears in a film, there is the question of how to judge it. If the poet is supposed to be a good poet, where do they get the poems? And who determines what is "good poetry?"

Some recent films that have portrayed poets, both famous - A Quiet Passion (about Emily Dickinson)  and Bright Star (about John Keats) - and unknown, as in Paterson. In portraying the life of a famous poets, at least you have the poet's own work to use and it has been already stamped as "good."

But if your subject is an unknown poet, you need to get the poems from somewhere. In the case of Paterson,  the poet Ron Padgett provided the poems attributed to the character Paterson.  The film features four of Padgett's existing poems and three new poems written for the film. The film's director, Jim Jarmusch wrote the poem "Water Falls" attributed to a young girl in the film.

For The Kindergarten Teacher, the poems written by the were solicited, from the poet Dominique Townsend, who had to rewrite he contributions to make them more "mediocre" (as one film critic called them).  They also needed poms for her young student. Jimmy's poems had to be exceptional and memorable, but also plausibly written by a 5-year-old. For those poems, the filmmakers turned to two young contemporary poets, Ocean Vuong and Kaveh Akbar.

The plot of this new film, as described on Wikipedia, begins this way:   Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a kindergarten teacher from Staten Island, is struggling with feelings of dissatisfaction in her life. She is in a loving yet passionless marriage with her husband Grant (Michael Chernus), and her teenage children, Josh (Sam Jules) and Lainie (Daisy Tahan), are distant with her. Lisa attends a poetry class every week led by Simon (Gael García Bernal), but her poetry is dismissed as derivative. One of Lisa's students, Jimmy, is routinely picked up late from school by a babysitter. One day, Lisa overhears Jimmy reciting a poem he wrote while he is waiting to be picked up. Lisa reads the poem at her poetry class, where her classmates and Simon are struck by it and compliment Lisa on her talent. Lisa decides that Jimmy is a prodigy, and begins to dedicate her time to nurturing his talent.

Have you seen the film The Kindergarten Teacher?  If so, what do you think about what it has to say about poets and poetry? Leave a comment on this post.


A review of the film at nytimes.com/





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