Psycho Poetica

Psycho Poetica was a brilliant take on Hitchcock’s classic film, devised by Simon Barraclough for the 50th anniversary of Psycho in 2010, with a composer, musicians and twelve poets recreating this extraordinary work in a haunting poetry-music performance .

Simon Barraclough sliced the film up into twelve segments – ‘twelve cabins, and twelve vacancies’ at the Bates Motel – and then recruited twelve poets to write a brand new poem in response to their randomly-allocated segment. When read together in sequence, with no titles or introductions, a new version of the classic film emerges, by turns chilling, amusing and moving. To intensify the experience, Oli Barrett of Bleeding Heart Narrative composed a new score to accompany each poem, along with an interlude piece called ‘Cop Shy’.

With the poets' commissioned scenes picked randomly (and literally) from a hat, I got the penultimate scene – the shocking discovery in the Bates house –  and wrote a poem titled ‘Trappings’. But I also wrote a second, somewhat more oblique poem, ‘California Gothic’, as I was asked to introduce the screening of the film at the British Film Institute, reading my Psycho poem, and I realised I needed a version with no ‘spoiler’, for those in the BFI audience who hadn’t seen the film before.

Twelve different poetic voices and visions created a “faithful distortion” of Psycho, focusing in and out of the original. After packed performances in 2010 at the British Film Institute, the Whitechapel Gallery, Latitude Festival and the Royal Festival Hall, the StAnza International Poetry Festival in St Andrews featured a new “portable” version of the show, using three readers: Simon Barraclough,  Joe Dunthorne, and me, with pre-recorded music. I have a vivid memory of rehearsing the timings, listening through my iPod headphones on the train up to Scotland. Having to perform the work of other poets in the show was a wonderful experience too, reinforcing my sense of the work of depth and richness produced in response to Hitchcock's great film - as striking and economical as the best poetry itself, so skilfully constructed and integrally interwoven with Bernard Hermann's unforgettable score and Saul Bass's title sequence.

In The List, Charlotte Runcie wrote that ‘the effect was a parallel universe version of Psycho, with poetry that read like woozy psychological reports and fragmented witness statements, the film’s subconscious articulated through a score of deeper, crazier strings than the original.’

On the StAnza blog, James Harding described the show’s ‘brilliant recipe’, adding that ‘the result of applying this recipe to Hitchcock’s Psycho was a thirty-five minute poem cycle inspired by the film, but in sometimes unexpected ways. It was a moving experience, and the poetry was read in suitably dramatic tones by Simon Barraclough, Isobel Dixon and Joe Dunthorne. The score by Oliver Barrett from Bleeding Hearts Narrative really helped contributed to the meditative yet frantic mood.’

And poet David Morley put it most succinctly, describing Psycho Poetica as ‘finely carved’.

The poems were collected in a beautifully designed anthology, edited by Simon Barraclough and published by Sidekick Books. It featured 16 poets and 18 poems – with a 'Main Feature' and 'Alternate Takes'. My 'Trappings' was included in the former and 'California Gothic' (with no spoiler!) in the latter section. As I write, Sidekick’s Psycho Poetica edition is sold out and out of print, but you can read various poets’ contributions in their own collections. For mine, ‘Trappings’ can be read in The Tempest Prognosticator (out of print with Salt, but available from some sellers online and the collection is to be reprinted by Nine Arches) and I’ll include ‘California Gothic’ in a future publication.

In December 2012 Mark Sanderson picked Psycho Poetica for 'The Best Recent Poetry' in The Telegraph and said:
'Psycho Poetica (Sidekick Books), edited by Simon Barraclough, splits Hitchcock’s film into 12 sequences to which a dozen poets respond. Isobel Dixon’s take on the denouement, “Trappings”, is both clever and creepy: “black-and-white / music’s whetted sharps spill / from her open mouth, come / ricocheting off the mummy’s / scene-consuming empty-socket grin.”'

I was of course hearing Bernard Hermann’s glorious anxiety-inducing strings in my head as I wrote those lines, with a bit of Saul Bass visual synaesthesia to complete the mix. Nothing can match the masterful melding of Alfred HItchcock's film though. If you haven’t watched it, do. If you have, watch it again!

Some More Details on the Psycho Poetica project:

The work of the twelve poets featured in the show are:

  •  Matthew Welton – Untitled
  • Dzifa Benson – The $40,000 Pill
  • Simon Barraclough – Being a Woman You Will
  • Heather Phillipson – 1960s Monochrome Hollywood Paraphernalia ($47, collection only)
  • Richard Price – Only My Share
  • Jane Draycott – Untitled
  • Emily Berry – Two Birds on the Wall Point Two Ways
  • Chris McCabe – Untitled
  • Joe Dunthorne – Dear Arbogast
  • Luke Heeley – Untitled
  • Isobel Dixon – Trappings
  • Annie Freud – The Yes and the No and the Terrible Thank You

Psycho Poetica’s musicians for the original performance were: Oliver Barrett, Clarissa Carlyon, Phil Noyce and Simon Trevethick, part of Oliver Barrett's Bleeding Heart Narrative ensemble. Oliver Barrett composed a new piece 'Cop Shy' for Psycho Poetica.

The poets featured in the Psycho Poetica anthology are Matthew Welton, Dzifa Benson, Simon Barraclough, Heather Phillipson, Richard Price, Jane Draycott, Emily Berry, Chris McCabe, Joe Dunthorne, Luke Heeley, Isobel Dixon, Annie Freud, Roddy Lumsden, Liane Strauss, John Stammers and Catherine Smith.

A performance and discussion of Psycho Poetica by Simon Barraclough and Isobel Dixon featured at ‘Visible and Invisible Authorships’: The 7th Annual Conference of The Association of Adaptation Studies at York University, 27th-28th September 2012.

Simon Barraclough and I also collaborated on another Hitchcock project Much Ado About Marnie, which we wrote and performed together for the 3:AM Magazine/Maintenant’s Camarade III event run by Steven Fowler.

Katy Evans-Bush described the London performance as a ‘a film riff (with the odd Shakespeare ruff) on red, black-&-white, Hitchcock, the fear of the camera, Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, Thelma Schoonmaker (Martin Scorsese’s collaborator/long term editor, also married to Michael Powell of Powell & Pressburger), and modern anxiety – I think – by Simon Barraclough in black and Isobel Dixon in glorious red.’

We also performed the piece at a waterlogged Nova Festival, completed by earthworm wriggling through the puddles…

I think Hitchcock will continue to find a way into my work and I’m always up for a commission, collaboration or performance of Psycho Poetica or Much Ado About Marnie again!