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.
“Publishing: where content goes to die.” So reads a slide from a recent talk by media scholar Ernesto Priego. I thought of this an hour later when I happened to check the website for an exhibition of sound-enhanced poetry and film-poems at the Cube Gallery in Leicester, UK last month, and discovered that even more of my poetry had been included in the film reels than I had thought would be: in addition to my own videopoems Note to Self and The Banjo Apocalypse, Marc Neys’ film Taking the Waters, which includes a prose poem of mine, was also among the videos projected in a continuous loop onto the wall of a gallery for three weeks. And my soundtrack for Shackleton’s Banjo was available at one of the listening stations.
That’s an almost embarrassing level of exposure for a writer who rarely bothers to send anything out for publication. My attitude tends to be why bother, when I can just post stuff to the web? Besides, any time I don’t spend on my own work is devoted to curating other peoples’ work at Moving Poems. But I sometimes wonder how many web visitors watch anything longer than a minute all the way through, or read any poem longer than ten lines.
The quality of attention of gallery- and museum-goers, on the other hand, is in a class by itself, something a skillful curator can turn into a kind of active participation. I gather that the listening stations and film-poem screens at the Poems, Places & Soundscapes exhibition were deliberately juxtaposed in such a manner as to encourage visitors to make connections between unrelated audio and film footage. And that’s pretty wonderful, I think.
But whether it’s YouTube or an art gallery in the UK, non-traditional venues offer as well the always-tantalizing possibility that one’s poems will be heard by people outside the sometimes claustrophobic community of professional poets.
Which is not to say I don’t also value the kind attention of my fellow writers, of course. I was honored this winter when two of the poems from my Bear Medicine series were remixed into videopoems via The Poetry Storehouse, one by Nic Sebastian and the other by Donna Vorreyer — two of my favorite poets. Translating a poem into another language or medium entails a special kind of very close reading, as I know from my own experience, so it was gratifying to realize that writers this good were reading my work in that way.
Thanks to Nic, Donna, and Marc, as well as the organizers of the Poems, Places & Soundscapes exhibition—Mark Goodwin of air to hear and Brian Lewis of Longbarrow Press—for helping to keep my web-published content alive.
With the completion of Shackleton’s Banjo last night, I’m up to ten videopoems for one little chapbook, and a couple of questions naturally arise: Why am I doing this? And how many more videos will there be?
I kind of answered the first question in this morning’s post at VN: I’m doing it because it’s fun and exercises a somewhat different set of mental muscles from those used for writing a page-poem. It’s not mainly about promoting the chap, even though they take the form of book trailers — at least for now. Very shortly I’ll begin work on a new incarnation: an amalgam of all the banjo videos so far without my readings in the soundtrack for karaoke-like public performance. I have a reading coming up at Webster’s in State College next week, and I’m planning to project this amalgamated video on a screen behind me while I read. Obviously it would get pretty repetitive to keep mentioning the author and book information before and after each videopoem in a live performance, so the credits will have to be altered, which will entail additional editing as well, I’m sure. So that’s the short-range goal.
In the long term, I would like to explore making a print-on-demand DVD, and I have definite ideas about how I’d do that. But I don’t look at that as a goal per se, because I don’t want to feel pushed to make videos that are less than inspired. I’m pretty pleased with the quality of what I’ve made so far, which I think happened in part because I was just focusing on making one at a time and enjoying the process.
I do have an intermediate goal: a free-to-download audio chapbook of as many tracks as I can produce for the collection. This will be going out under somebody else’s label, and we have a handshake agreement, but I won’t say anything more about that until plans are finalized. I’ve also been uploading some of the audio tracks to SoundCloud. I’m not hugely active there, but I feel that since I’m using the site I should also be giving back.
As for the presentation of the online videos, I continue to update my Videos page here, and have also just added links to the process notes about each video (including the Swoon videopoems) to make the page more useful. They are also grouped together into a YouTube playlist and a Vimeo album. And they’re all included in the Breakdown series at Via Negativa, which at some point I’ll reorganize so videos follow the texts that prompted them.
I’ve added a top-level page here to display a sampling of videopoems made for my own work, including my on-going series in support of Breakdown: Banjo Poems, and seven films by the Belgian musician and videopoet Swoon (Marc Neys). Given my attitude that the print version of a poem is not necessarily the last word, I think it’s important for my author website to include such a section right next to, and therefore symbolically on a par with, the Books page on the main navigation menu. (Also, I’m damned proud of those Swoon videopoems!)
I’m using a plugin that should re-size the videos to fit whatever screen you’re using. Please let me know if things aren’t displaying correctly.
Thanks to the editors for choosing the video, and for doing such a nice job with the layout and accompanying text. To me, the poem says something deep about giving and taking, so perhaps it’s no surprise that the video came together through several acts of generosity: my normally camera-shy friend letting me film her; Nic Sebastian providing a reading for the soundtrack, and Chris Kent letting me use his tin whistle tune. I hope other, more talented filmmakers will consider making videos with Mistral’s work, too. She deserves it.
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.