By Alexandra Alter
Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an aspiring poet who steals a student’s verses in “The Kindergarten Teacher.” (Netflix)
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 using his verses as her own.
When Ms. Gyllenhaal was preparing for the role, she thought a lot about what sort of poetry her character, a 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 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, a friend of Ms. Gyllenhaal, weren’t quite plausible. They were too layered and complex.
“I called her and said, ‘I think we need to make them more conventional, maybe just, in a way, not as good,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said.
Ms. Townsend tried to revise the verses to be worse. “As you might imagine, it was a strange process,” she said. “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 Ms. Townsend delivered.
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.”
Ms. 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.
“The Kindergarten Teacher,” which is adapted from an Israeli film, posed other challenges. In addition to Lisa’s poems, the filmmakers needed verses for the boy, Jimmy — poems that had to be exceptional and memorable, but also plausibly written by a 5-year-old.
They focused on work by two 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,” Ms. Colangelo said.
The poets were enthusiastic. “As it turns out, poets are not often asked to have their work included in films,” Ms. Gyllenhaal said.
After reading the script, Mr. Vuong sent around 10 short poems, some cannibalized from works he had already written. He stripped down his verses, 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.
“It’s not often that a poet gets to see their words on a movie theater screen,” Mr. Akbar 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 poets and filmmakers also shaped the movie. One of the core themes is the question of why some artists are nurtured and celebrated, but others ignored. Ms. Townsend said that in later drafts of Lisa’s poems, she conjured the mind-set of a woman whose aspirations were 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,” Ms. Townsend said. “That was all in my mind, along with the sense that she’s not very good.”