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Silent River Film Festival gives poets a voice

Under the glare of lights in a room typically kept dark for performances, David Worthington took the microphone and gave voice to a man who hadn't been heard that evening — not in person, anyway, in this theater half a world removed from his home in Iran:

I hear the 15th bone snap … a razored stem piercing my mottled skin.

The hooded men retire for evening prayer.

It's cold, and I've no letters, no photographs.

The microphone faltered, and Worthington, who read his newly crafted poem in a screening room at the Edwards Westpark 8 in Irvine, dispensed with it and walked closer to the front row. Clad in a porkpie hat, a checkered blue shirt and black pants, he projected his voice across the theater, where a few dozen attendees dotted the seats:

I lie crumpled, torn and tossed aside.

Disfigured, coagulating, bloated, shattered and lifeless.

Any tears I shed have long calcified.

Playhouses may be built for theater and clubs for music, but live poetry, by and large, borrows venues created for other means: coffeehouses, art galleries, college lecture halls. So when Worthington, one of three readers at the Silent River Film Festival's awards night, stood before the curtain at the Westpark 8 on Sunday, the setting felt as appropriate as any.

This year, for the first time, Silent River invited poets to view movies and create works inspired by them. Worthington crafted a poem from the festival's opening film: "Alex & Ali," a documentary about two men — one American, one Iranian — who found themselves torn apart by the Iranian Revolution and reunited briefly more than 30 years later. Worthington wrote his poem in the voice of the Iranian, who returned to Iran after the reunion and was imprisoned and tortured for dissidence.

Worthington, a geologist and independent musician who lives in Costa Mesa, has more experience with songwriting than written poetry; to psych himself up on the festival's opening day, he listened to songs by Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder and Bruce Springsteen about overcoming oppression. But, as he noted before the "Alex & Ali" screening, cinema has a connection to poetry as well.

"It's like liquid poetry or liquid music," Worthington said. "It flows. And it's like, you can hear with your eyes and you can see with your ears in this medium. It teaches troglodytes like me that we're all bilingual on this planet, as far as humanity goes."

The poets who participated have been invited to join in a workshop Oct. 30 to further develop their pieces, and their works will appear in a future issue of Life and Legends, the literary magazine that Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, the festival's director, launched this spring. Silent River, now in its fourth year, has had poetry in its blood from the beginning: The name "Silent River" comes from the title of one of Singh-Chitnis' poems.

At the awards night, she explained to the crowd that she conceived the writing project after getting ideas for her own poetry from so many festival entries.

"That was like giving me another set of eyes to see the world I had never seen, which I saw from the eyes of the filmmakers," Singh-Chitnis said. "And I felt, if I can be that inspired, of course, this can affect other writers, too."

Singh-Chitnis called the poets up to read their work in between award presentations; all the pieces read Sunday were inspired by nominated or winning films. Heather Matley, the festival's event coordinator, read on behalf of Jennifer Reeser, who wrote a lament based on the short documentary "Rainy Season: Five Years in Vietnam." Steve Sasaki read his own piece inspired by the college-campus drama "Boiling Pot," with the filmmakers standing by him onstage.

Sasaki's poem, titled "From the Inside Out," wasn't about the film itself; rather, he tapped its racial theme to create a story of a former baseball star who winds up in prison and finds that skin color, rather than team uniforms, divides people behind bars ("We were grown men playing a child's game / shunning others only for how they acted / when, inside the prison bars, they played for keeps").

Sasaki, a traffic engineer who lives in Laguna Beach, said afterward that he had never read a poem in public before.

"Once I started, I was OK," he said. "I have had some broadcasting and a little bit of acting experience, so I wasn't unfamiliar with public speaking. And, for my job, I do a lot of public speaking. But to read something personal, that was definitely a little bit frightening before it actually started."

Unlike Sasaki, Worthington wasn't able to meet the man who inspired his poem, as "Alex & Ali" director Malachi Leopold didn't attend the ceremony. Worthington brought a partner onstage, though: Singh-Chitnis read the second half of his piece, sometimes visibly growing emotional as she read the last lines:

As it is with man

So with communities

As it is with the leaf

So with trees

As it is with another brick

So with walls

As it is with bones

So with body, heart, and soul.

The poem once over, the audience applauded, while the two readers turned and embraced.

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