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Simon Barraclough

Introduction to Psycho Poetica

When I was nine years old, my mother warned me not to watch Psycho when it was on TV but while she was out, my sister and I flicked back and forth between channels, growing increasingly scared and intrigued. Years later, when I saw the film complete, that strange sense of dislocation and fragmentation remained: it’s already part and parcel of the visuals, the narrative, and the characters.

Saul Bass’s legendary opening credits set the tone, as horizontal and vertical bars slash the screen on their menacing, driven mission. The words themselves split, jag, and disintegrate while they deliver their information. This visual language extends throughout the film as space, plots, identities, and destinies are flung together and torn apart. Even time is shattered: 45 seconds never passed more slowly yet more energetically than it does in cinema’s most memorable scene.

When it came to mounting a poetic celebration of the film at 50, I thought it would be appropriate to fragment the film again, slashing it into twelve segments and allotting (in a literal lottery) one each to twelve poets (“Twelve cabins, twelve vacancies,” as Norman Bates might say). Their task was to write a poem in close response to their segment and then we would read them together as a sequence (without titles or introductions) to create a new poetic version, or “a faithful distortion,” of Psycho. The rules had a little give in them I found but that was okay.

We threw in some still images to contextualize each poem and I commissioned a new piece of music from Bleeding Heart Narrative to divide the reading between the sixth and seventh poems. We performed the sequence at the British Film Institute in London on April 10th 2010 to a packed house. Another performance, with a slightly different line-up, followed at The Whitechapel Gallery on May 13th. I’m delighted that this sequence is now available in The Manhattan Review. As the great man once said: “Don’t give away the ending, it’s the only one we’ve got.”