Hollywood Has Long Turned to Novelists for Help. But Poets?

Posted November 25, 2018 7:10 p.m. EST

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.

The first verses they solicited, from the poet Dominique Townsend, an old friend of Gyllenhaal’s, weren’t quite plausible. They were too layered and complex — too good.

“I called her and said, ‘I think we need to make them more conventional, maybe just, in a way, not as good,” Gyllenhaal said.

Townsend tried to revise the verses to make them worse — an odd request that one could read as simultaneously flattering and mildly offensive.

“As you might imagine, it was a strange process,” said Townsend, who teaches at Bard College. “It was like, ‘We love your work, and also can you write for this woman who is dying inside and feeling strangled and is a mediocre writer?’ That was a strange prompt to receive, to write a bad haiku about flowers.”

Strange as it seemed, it was an intriguing challenge for a poet, and Townsend delivered.

Early on in the movie, Lisa sheepishly shows her flower haiku to her husband after it gets panned by her poetry workshop. He picks up her notebook and reads aloud, “A dream garden blooms, rose, iris, phlox, but here? A white crocus pierces concrete,” and assures her that he thinks it’s good.

“They didn’t like it,” Lisa tells him. “Someone said it was derivative.”

Townsend said that having her verses fall flat on screen didn’t feel like a personal affront, since she was writing for a character, not as herself.

“I don’t take it personally, because it’s not my voice,” she said. “I typed those words and pressed send, but I wrote them with the sense of, this is a woman who’s being strangled.”

Still, the reaction to Lisa’s poetry from audiences and critics made her “somewhat uncomfortable,” she said. (A review in The Times referred to Lisa’s writing as “mediocre.”)

“Part of the painfulness of the movie for me is reflected in those reviews,” Townsend said.

“The Kindergarten Teacher,” which is adapted from an Israeli film, posed other unusual challenges. For one, Colangelo and Gyllenhaal wanted to dramatize the elusive and subjective feeling of poetic inspiration, not an easy thing to pull off cinematically. And in addition to Lisa’s poems, they needed verses for the boy, Jimmy — poems that had to be exceptional and memorable, but also plausibly written by a 5-year-old.

“The movie wouldn’t really work unless what was coming out of him was really compelling,” Gyllenhaal said.

They zeroed in on work by two young contemporary poets, Ocean Vuong and Kaveh Akbar.

“They’re both lyrical and rooted in storytelling and narrative, so I thought they would be perfect for crafting Jimmy’s poems,” Colangelo said.

The poets were enthusiastic.

“As it turns out, poets are not often asked to have their work included in films,” Gyllenhaal said.

After reading the script, Vuong sent around 10 short poems, some cannibalized from works he’d already written. He stripped down his verses to make them feel raw and spare, building them around a central image.

“The trick was to have this prodigy have sufficient poetic depth, but also to be faithful to the mind of a 5-year-old,” he said. “I had to take out a lot of subordinate clauses out and write more independent statements, to build through parataxis. I had to shift the complexity from the syntax to images.”

One of Vuong’s poems — which he adapted from a longer poem about a bull — is recited by Lisa in her poetry workshop, where she presents it as her writing.

“The bull stood aloneIn the backyard. So dark.I opened the door and stepped out,Wind in the branches.He watched me, blue eyes.He kept breathing to stay alive.I didn’t want him. I was just a boy.Say yes,Say yes, anyway.”

In another scene, Jimmy, who is played by Parker Sevak, paces around the classroom and begins reciting verses about a lion. Lisa rushes to him, only catching the final lines of the poem, which was written by Akbar:

“It gets so dark it stays dark,Even when I turn on the light.Then, it gets so bright the flowersbow to the sun. Do you remember the lion?So angry and so strong. He has no master.When his master is sleeping. And all hismaster does is sleep.”

Akbar said writing poems for a character in a movie was weird, but not so different from using a writing prompt or a formal constraint. “It was almost like working within a received form, like a sonnet or a villanelle, to write into the context of the script,” he said.

The bizarre nature of the exercise didn’t sink in until he went to the film’s New York premiere last month, which “was wild,” Akbar said.

“It’s not often that a poet gets to see their words on a movie theater screen,” he said. “So much of being a poet is very isolating, sitting in your pajamas over a notebook for 14 hours on end, so it’s cool to get to do something with poetry that’s very collaborative.” The collaboration between the poets and filmmakers also shaped the movie, especially Gyllenhaal’s performance.

The poems that Townsend wrote for Lisa gave Gyllenhaal new insights into the character, she said, and helped her refine one of the film’s core themes — the question of why some budding artists are nurtured and celebrated, and others are ignored. She began to see Lisa not as a mediocre poet, but as a woman whose creativity is stifled because no one expects her to produce anything worthwhile.

“The movie is so much more tragic and more interesting if Lisa’s poetry is compelling,” Gyllenhaal said. “If it’s worth paying attention to and it isn’t paid attention to, that’s a tragedy.”

Townsend said she tried to incorporate that tension into later drafts of Lisa’s poems, as she conjured the mindset of a woman whose literary aspirations are being stifled.

"She does have a poetic sensibility and an alertness to the world and an attentiveness that I associate with poetry, so I was interested in what prevents her from finding her voice, and what prevents people from hearing it,” Townsend said. “That was all in my mind, along with the sense that she’s not very good.”