Last May, I was honored to serve on the jury for the second Weimar Poetry Film Award, along with Nigerian-German artist and filmmaker Ebele Okoye and German writer Stefan Petermann. All three of us, along with other poets and filmmakers in attendance, were interviewed during the course of the festival, and the resulting video, released on 23 December, serves as a sort of précis for poetry film in general:
Then in July (or was it early August?) Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron of the poetry-film production company Elephant’s Footprint, who edit the journal Poetry Film Live, met me in London for a several-hour-long conversation about poetry film and videopoetry. Just today, Helen released an 11-minute segment, in which I fear I am given the lion’s share of the screen time. (It’s not like I dominate conversations in real life! OK, maybe I do.)
Wow, my hands sure move around a lot while I talk! I had the same reaction to Ebele’s delightful silent film of our jury proceedings in Weimar. Some people who watched this thought we were on the verge of fisticuffs, but I can assure you it was a highly civilized — if somewhat frenetic — proceeding.
London, Cornwall, Belgium, Berlin… 2014 was a year of traveling. Somehow or another, people seem to gotten the idea that I know something about videopoetry/poetry film, so I was invited to take part in a panel discussion at the biannual ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin this past October. They paid me and everything. It was nuts! The best part was, Rachel came over from London to join me, and we spent a week exploring Berlin and taking in poetry films from all over the world in a grand old theater, in the company of friends old and new.
The panel was titled “Poetry Films in the Digital World,” and it was surprisingly well attended, by which I mean that every seat (100 or so?) was taken—at least until the one-hour mark, when we took a break and half the audience fled. The thing I liked about it was that it was a real colloquium discussion, not one of those wretched series of Powerpoint presentations that passes for a panel at most American academic conferences. Then again, this was a festival, not a conference. Our job was not just to inform but to entertain, and I did my part as best I could in my usual, hyper-caffeinated, words-tumbling-all-over-each-other fashion. Also, there was simultaneous translation into German and English! It was just like being at the U.N. The two translators took turns, and they seemed equally good. I was in awe.
After the festival was over, Rachel said: “You’ll get more invitations to attend poetry film events around the world, I’m sure, but this is probably the last time you’ll get paid to do it.” I imagine she’s right. Of course, as with all conferences and festivals, a lot of the important stuff happened at the nearby pub. In part as a result of the new connections I made — and the new energy I felt from attending so many screenings — I converted the old Moving Poems forum into (ahem) Moving Poems Magazine, and created a Top Ten Films feature to help newcomers quickly get a feeling for what the genre is all about. (Judging by this post from a Swedish books blog, it’s working: “A great way to explore the material is to start with the top lists,” they write.)
The trick for me, I think, will be to keep the work-load manageable. So far it has been. I feel particularly fortunate to have gotten a new columnist, the artist and animator Cheryl Gross. Yep, we met in Berlin.
I define a videopoem as a wedding of word and image. Achieving that level of integration is difficult and rare. In my experience the greatest challenge of this hybrid genre is fusing voice and vision, aligning ear with eye. For me, voice is the critical element, medium and venue secondary considerations. Unlike a music video — the inevitable and ubiquitous comparison — a videopoem stars the poem rather than the poet, the voice seen as well as heard. (Emphasis added)
There are certainly other valid ways to think about videopoetry and related genres, but Haley’s sense of it happens to coincide with my own.
Let’s consider one example of my videopoetry, a piece I did for a poem by the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral called “Riqueza” (Riches). This came about in an ekphrastic manner, which is fairly typical for me: I will shoot some footage — or discover some public-domain footage online that I really like — and then write or find a poem that somehow seems to go with it.
When I shot the footage, I didn’t know what I’d use it for, if anything. I happened to be visiting a normally camera-shy, wool-spinning friend when she was in a mood to let herself be filmed, as long as I promised not to include her face. When I got home, I stared at the film for a while until the Mistral poem popped into my head. I emailed Nic Sebastian, poetry reader extraordinaire, and asked if she might record a reading of the Spanish text for me — something she could also post to her new audiopoetry site Pizzicati of Hosanna. She readily agreed. Then I did an English translation and began searching through various sites where musicians and composers post Creative Commons-licensed work. After a couple hours, I found something at SoundCloud.com that seemed to work. A Celtic tune on pennywhistle might seem an odd match for a Chilean poem, but I thought it had just the right mixture of sweetness and melancholy.
So that became something I could add to MovingPoems.com, a site where I’ve been sharing poetry videos from around the web for three years now. I post five new videos a week, and everything is indexed by poet, filmmaker(s) and nationality of poet. It’s not a high-traffic site — it only gets about 10,000 visitors a month — but it’s helping to bring together people working in videopoetry, sparking new collaborations and inspiring new works.
I’m not necessarily the best-suited candidate for the job. I grew up without TV and still live way out in the sticks, which means my exposure to art films is mostly restricted to what I can watch online — on a 1M/sec DSL connection. I’m part of an informal network of literary bloggers, and I started making videos originally for the same reason I began taking still photos: to feed my writer’s blog, Via Negativa. I think I had the idea originally that making poems into watchable videos would bring them to a wider audience. I’ve actually seen very little evidence that that’s the case. But I’m having too much fun making the things — I can’t stop. In fact, I’ve even managed to entice several of my poetry-blogger friends into trying their hand at it, too, with some very interesting results. Some of them don’t even have video cameras, and just use public-domain footage.
As a blogger, I’ve been working ekphrastically for a long time: sometimes when I’m too tired to think of anything else, a photo can make a great writing prompt. In 2008 and 2009, I was co-curator of a site called Postal Poems, where we asked poets to create and submit what were essentially modern equivalents of haiga.
That experience really prepared me, I think, to appreciate the effectiveness of a creative juxtaposition between text and image. It’s that juxtaposition, more than anything else, which makes a videopoem work. One-to-one matches between text and image are much less interesting to me, except sometimes in the hands of a skilled animator.
Aside from the necessity of feeding a poetry blog, what are some of the other reasons why people make poetry videos? Here are a few I’ve noticed:
To document live readings or other performances.
To accompany live readings, etc.
For art installations.
To share audio of favorite poems on YouTube.
To show at film festivals.
To broadcast on television.
To serve as book trailers or to accompany books as DVDs.
To publish in online magazines.
To fulfill course requirements.
Naturally, these uses shape the kinds of videos that are made. I include some but not all kinds of poetry videos at Moving Poems, where my categorization system reflects my own interests and also my relative ignorance when I launched the site. (The numbers in parentheses are numbers of videos in that category as of Oscar Night 2012.)
In hindsight, I might’ve done well to include a couple of sub-categories to animation, such as machinima and kinetic text. I do insist that a video include a poem or poem-like text either as graphic text or in the soundtrack; films or videos that are merely inspired by, or made in response to, poems don’t make the cut.
O.K., now let’s talk semantics. In a nutshell, no one can agree what to call the hybrid genre that I refer to as videopoetry, and critics argue about what does or doesn’t quality as a filmpoem or videopoem. Historically, the term film poem came first. Trouble was, modernist filmmakers didn’t want to include text in any way—a film poem should merely imitate the approach of poetry, they said. Poetry-film was a term coined in the 60s to specify a new, hybrid genre which did include text, though some people still called everything film poetry anyway. George Aguilar coined the term Cin(e)poetry, which stands for cinematic electronic poetry, in the early 90s. Poem film, film-poem, film/poem and filmpoem have all been deployed at one time or another, especially in the U.K. Videopoetry, a term originally coined by Tom Konyves in 1978, seems ascendant on the web.
As for “film” versus “video,” digitization has greatly muddied the waters. In North America, “film” seems too specific to the actual, physical medium, whereas in the U.K., according to Scottish filmmaker Alastair Cook, people feel the same way about “video” — it makes them think of videotape. So there’s no consensus on what to call digital moving pictures (which can be expanded to include Flash animations as well).
Well, whatever you call them, filmmakers have been making them for quite a while. Here are some highlights from the filmpoetry/videopoetry tradition:
1920: Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand — the first feature-length poetry film.
Poetry film festivals now regularly occur in every continent except Antarctica, featuring poems from many languages. Videobardo in Buenos Aires, Orbita in Latvia, ZEBRA in Berlin and Visible Verse in Vancouver have each been going for at least a decade, and more poetry film festivals seem to be popping up every year. Meanwhile, I keep finding newcomers whose very lack of familiarity with this tradition brings a fresh perspective. “I call these ‘video poems,'” enthuses artist Elena Knox about her installation at a London bookstore, and yes, looking at her documentary on Vimeo, one can see that’s clearly what they are. Like the eye itself, the videopoem has evolved independently many times.