Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Sideways | Poetry | Line-Scan

The film Sideways did a very bad but very necessary thing; it taught people with no previous knowledge of wine how to talk about it. It gave us just enough insight into the process of wine tasting, fermentation, grape-harvesting, etc. to bull-plop our way through a bourgeois dinner date, pontificating about the superiority of Pinot Noir over effing Merlot.

Five years down the line and we’re still all at it due to that bloody film. Granted, it’s added another ungodly dimension to the ‘pretentious doosh-bag pseud’ persona (you can spot them by the way that they use the phrase ‘cab-sav’ without a whiff of irony) but it’s worth it by a long way. It’s worth it because it has flung open the doors of wine-banter and kicked those ritualistic, elitist wine-connoisseur bastards out of their ivory tower. Now we all know how to shove our nose in a wine glass and pass abstract comments about the ‘bouquet’… don’t feel so special now do you?

It strikes me that poetry needs the same cinematic treatment. It’s not that Joe Public doesn’t like poetry, it’s just that he doesn’t feel confident discussing it with the self-appointed experts. Come on, Hollywood, give Joe a chance. Make a film which gives us just enough of a sample of poetry’s nomenclature and throw in a few arbitrary opinions that people can parrot when faced with that god-awful situation of having to talk about a poem.

Yes, there have been bio-pics aplenty in the world of poetry, but they have all been too specific, too niche. What poetry needs is something incredibly broad that anyone can use as a blueprint for farting through your average vacuous poetry-blah-blah situation.

What’s that, Hollywood? You can’t be bothered to think of a storyline yourself? Alright, I’ll bail you out this time Hollywood, but I want an invite when this sum-bitch gets an Oscar.

Line-Scan … two best friends, one woman, a whole load of poetry.

James Lee , a paunchy thirty-something poet from London, has just received the latest in a long line of rejection letters from potential publishers of his third collection. In a desperate, ‘all-in’ last effort to get his latest collection in print, he heads to the Ledbury Poetry Festival, having heard that Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, will be there at some point.

Taking his best buddy, a handsome philistine on the edge of divorce called Steve, he hits the road in the hope of forcing his way into publication. Because the lads have no idea where or when exactly Astley is going to show up however, they have to hang around for the entire festival, going to as many events as they can.

What follows is essentially an hour of James teaching Steve how to behave at poetry readings and how to fit in amongst poetry-people when they sneak into the green room. These ‘training’ sections will be the selling point of the movie, for they will contain valuable advice like “when in doubt, say you find the line-breaks unsettling” or “always suggest that the poem feels like it’s a couple of drafts short of the finished product”.

INT. A small room with about seven people sat on plastic chairs watching a young man at a microphone read a poem called ‘Angelic Intervention’. Steve and James stand at the back of the room, whispering to each other.

This is bullshit, man, this guy just spent twenty minutes introducing a fuckin’ poem. What’s the point in writing something that needs a fuckin’ instruction manual to understand it?

Shhh, man. That’s just how it works. You can tell how much of a bad-ass a poet is by how many obscure quotations they use when introducing their work.

But wouldn’t it be more creative to just say as much original stuff as possible without constantly dredging up references to books that few people have read?

Please tell me you’re joking.

And what’s with this guy on-stage anyway? He literally hasn’t rhymed a single thing since we got here.

Dude, it doesn’t work that way anymore. People only rhyme if they are being sarcastic or discussing something contentious. It creates a jarring effect by mixing humorous form with serious content.


There will of course be the moment where the handsome philistine ends up having sex with a famous poet’s wife and the bit where James overhears his favourite writer bitching about his last collection.

When James finally tracks down Neil Astley and manages to push a manuscript into his hands, he is crushed by the suggestion that his latest work seems far more suited to a publisher like Seren. “I hate Seren! With all my heart I hate Seren! They print all their poetry in Arial goddamit!” shouts a bemused James before driving back to London, defeated.

The film finishes in Spearmint Rhino. James tips a stripper with his signed first-edition of Prufrock and Other Observations. He is kicked out of the premises.

Fade to black.

*Please note, there is nothing wrong with Seren, just like there was nothing wrong with Merlot before the writer of Sideways decided to give it what for. Seren do not print their poems in Arial. It is however, important to have an arbitrary negative opinion in a film like this to save people the hassle of coming up with their own.


Obviously the synopsis needs a bit of reworking, but I reckon there’s definitely enough here to attract some serious financial backing.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor 


  1. I demand a happier ending in which James gets an ansaphone message from the woman he loves telling him how much she enjoyed his poetry, and he comes to realise that being published is meaningless - what really matters is having one misguided, obsessive fan who thinks you're the Second Coming of Keats.

    Also, mate, I am seriously impressed that, somehow, you've managed to make Sandra Oh not look like a nice person. Her mouth is twisted into a drunken goblin's sneer.

  2. A whole film in this vein would be great, but you'd need to fictionalise it even more: James and Steve wouldn't have had to stay for the whole of Ledbury Poetry Festival to grab me because I went to over a dozen including the one at which 'Angelic Intervention' was read.

    But there already IS a novel out there which could be turned into script for a film about poets and poetry in no time at all: Nicholson Baker's "The Anthologist" which even mentions "Staying Alive"!

  3. I really need to check that book out Neil, thanks.

    I think 'The Savage Detectives' by Bolano could make for a pretty decent introduction to certain aspects of the poetry-community.

    Apologies for your fictional hard-to-find-ness... for Hollywood's purposes we will try and portray the Ledbury Festival on the scale of the Edinburgh-Festival. I think having you cameo in a film about a poet looking for a publisher would be a great parallel with Stan Lee's various Marvel-film appearances.

  4. Do it in the style of Whithnail and I

  5. Neil Astley in cameo a la Hitchcock or Colin Dexter: why do I find this thought vaguely disturbing?

  6. I should also have said I thought the script was great. So book me for the cameo and let's disturb Harry Owen!

  7. Cheers Neil. I'm thinking if we got Jonny Lee Miller to pile on the pounds a bit he could play James.

    Lot of buzz about the project already, thinking I might go with Miramax.

  8. I have just downloaded iStripper, and now I can watch the sexiest virtual strippers on my desktop.