What comes first, the video or the poem?

…The videopoet’s version of the chicken-and-egg question. I was discussing this with my fellow amateur videopoet Brenda Clews over at a new online community site called Writing Our Way Home, where Brenda set up a videopoetry group, and I thought I’d pose the question here, too. Brenda wrote:

Do you plan out beforehand what you might create a videopoem out of, and then go looking for footage? Or do you take what you find and make something out of it?

I am fully in the latter camp, working with ‘found’ images, sort of ‘oh that looks good, can I videotape it, & then what can I do with this footage?’ though think to try to storyboard a little might be good just to see what that might produce.

My reply is a bit long-winded, but I guess it boils down to “sort of”:

I rarely plan anything in advance, and when I do, it doesn’t tend to work. For example, for that Egyptian poem, I thought it might be cool to start with some footage of the front of my woodburner, which has an isinglass window with bars on it — I thought the image of flames dancing behind steel bars would be interesting and suggestive. It wasn’t. Instead, I decided to make my first documentary-style videopoem, without hopefully getting unbearably literal: for example, when the poem says, “From Tunisia, to Egypt, to Lebanon and Yemen,” it would’ve been cheesy to flash shots of each of those countries — but I still had to do something to suggest movement. And I was pleased when, during my playing around with juxtapositions, images of police soaking a crowd with a water cannon coincided with the line about people becoming as combustible as dry wood.

But that was a rare-for-me example of a videopoem done on assignment. Usually I am working with my own footage in an ekphrastic manner: watching the raw footage prompts a poem — maybe right then, maybe a week later. When I’m satisfied with the text, I record and edit the audio. Then I start cutting video to fit and looking for other sounds or music to fill out the soundtrack. It is usually at this point that I become acutely conscious of my limitations as a visual artist…

I’d love to hear from other videopoets on this.


  1. Reply
    Peter Stephens 5 February, 2011

    I’m just starting out in videopoetry — well, in video of any kind.

    I’ve done three videopoems, but I’ve done only one that I still like. It also was the only poem of the three that I hadn’t written. (It was part of an Eliot poem.) I wonder if I come at something fresher if it’s not my material. (Nic S. speaks about a similar discovery in the context of reading poetry aloud in Dave’s recent Woodrat podcast interview of her.)

    In the Eliot video, my choice of the poem was inspired by a recent wet snow. I had some shots of a few earlier similar snows, but I sort of re-soaked myself in the poem and went outside with my camera. I found that a lot of what I shot went well with the poem even though I didn’t have particular lines or images from the poem in mind. So my video was a mix of both camps that Brenda describes.

    I seem to relate to videopoetry the way I did several years ago when I first started writing some poetry. I’m satisfied — thrilled, actually — with small triumphs and am unencumbered by the stifling effect of thinking that somehow I should be better at this. It’s like a child’s effortless smile that captures her father’s heart. No amount of her later work or maturity can rival it.

    I’ve always loved implied associations in poetry. What I’m enjoying about video is its contribution of another layer of implied association or contrast. When it so contributes, it adds to the poem as maybe a unique reading might. I guess sound can add even more, and I look forward to learning more about that.

  2. Reply
    Heather Haley 5 February, 2011

    The poem. Poem as script. I write and then decide which verse to adapt to video, as obviously, some is more suited than others. I take a cinematic approach in that I come up with a shot list first, then a storyboard. I go from there lining up a crew, organizing shoots, etcetera. I’m flexible though. Recently I’ve been collaborating with a video artist with heaps of material. I recorded my voice, sent him the mp2 which he fused into the visuals. Writing is a such solitary pursuit, I really enjoy collaborating with other artists. I’m a vocalist as well and adapt some of my works to music, to what I call *spoken word song.*

  3. Reply
    Heather Haley 5 February, 2011

    Oops! I meant “mp3.”

    And I guess I’m saying I can work both ways, via chicken or egg first. :-)

  4. Reply
    Emma Passmore 6 February, 2011

    Hi Dave
    Off the top of my head, I think for me it’s images first, poem after. Although I would source the images with an idea of what I wanted to write about – just not have anything specifically written down.

    For the film I made last year, Breathe, I used existing footage I already had and wrote the poem whilst watching the film over and over.
    I tried using some other old footage, to make a 2nd cinepoem but nothing resonated with the images. So there does need to be an emotional connection for me to write the words.
    I am about to start another cinepoem and this time I shall be hunting for shots based on ideas/themes I want to explore, but it shall be a dialogue between the two. I am sure I shall go back and forth, between the images and words.
    When I was editing Breathe, I played around with layering the voice over/poem, so in the end the editing process also led to a new form for the poem I had written.
    It’s a constant dialogue between all the parts!

  5. Reply
    Emma Passmore 6 February, 2011

    Hey Dave, you can watch the English version of Breathe here now:
    http://www.emmapassmore.com/site/Film.html or on my vimeo site.

    I’d just like to add that I think perhaps it also makes a difference if you are the poet/writer who is making the film or if you are a film maker using someone else’s poetry. The approach will be different.

    Heck, it’s all good. I love this genre, so wild and wide in its subject matter and form.
    When I was at the Berlin Zebra Poetry Film Festival I was intrigued by how varied the films were.


  6. Reply
    Brenda 6 February, 2011

    Where to enter this discussion… perhaps my blurb at YouTube: “As a painter and poet, I find myself, like many, drawn to experimenting with video. Self-taught, I explore the possibilities of videopoetry with delighted abandon.

    To me, the videopoem turns back the direction of film, in which narrative develops visually without language [referring to film theorist Gaudreault]. It attempts to marry word and image [thank you, Heather! such a perfect phrase]. The true videopoem, in my view, is not of pictorial scenes illustrating the narratorial sequences of poetry, but of unique and different partners who combine in a new art form. We move beyond the illustrator’s art. We are not ‘giving a visual’ for ‘a poetic line.’ The two, visual and verbal, connect not as simile, like to like, or allegory, this represents that, but as metaphor, surprising leaps that unfold new possibilities.”

    Yes, that’s it. Being entirely self-taught, I am still exploring the possibilities of the software (FCE). As an artist, I find I compose the screen as a painting, and use filters, layers, and recently cut-outs. There are virtually no narrative sequences – and I think storyboarding would perhaps introduce me to narrative because I am fascinated with it. I find footage, am intrigued, play with it, the filters often slow down rendering enormously and so it’s slow work, and either write a poem to go with what’s emerging or search through my archives to find something older that can be adapted. I’ve come to accept that I’m a lyrical poet, and all my poems are love poems in one form or another, and often in the first person, and so I’ve had to accept that my inclination is towards the lyrical videopoem, first person, intimate, and definitely not mainstream. My videopoetry seems to be developing off in an eddy somewhere, and that, too, I’ve come to accept. With me, it’s ‘follow your muse…’ (since my muse is somewhat rebellious and doesn’t like to be told what to do).

  7. Reply
    renkat 6 February, 2011

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately, though not here… I finally finished my thesis and then turned back to pick up the animations to finish the animated book that my publisher is/was waiting for… when I realized that I absolutely hated what some of the animations had done to the readings of the poems.

    I had been told not to pursue the animations for my thesis because the committee felt that animations restricted the readings too much. I understood, but didn’t feel it was true. Now I do. When I returned to Hydrotherapy during the edits for the final manuscript, I found I could not push the video out of my mind. I could not create a new reading — hermeneutic reading was impossible.

    I don’t think this means that video and poetry shouldn’t or can’t go together, but I did realize that beginning an animation with my very “academic” (for lack of a better word) finished work doesn’t provide a foundation for any kind of gestalt artwork. And it weakens the creature I started with. The same with most of my more modernist poems that rely so much on the layout on the page. Marrying them with images ruins them for later readings.

    I have decided to try the other way around for a while. Film first, then write. Good old fashioned ekphrasis, I know, but maybe it will help me explore a little.

    I have also returned to writing for the stage and am reading more Stephane Mallarme (the “father” of performance art)… excited about how the poet Tim Etchells works with the visual stage with the ensemble company Forced Entertainment, and what that has in common with videopoetry: the role of language text in the context of a larger text.

    I am particularly interested in how artists are using words – if the language elements are not works of art in themselves does that have an impact on the gestalt work’s quality?

  8. Reply
    renkat 6 February, 2011

    Tim Etchell’s website, for those who may not know his work. http://www.timetchells.com/

    and… sorry that all sounded so dry and pseudo-academic. I am in a weird place at the moment.

  9. Reply
    Heather Haley 6 February, 2011

    I never said “marry.” :-o I said “the wedding of word and image.”

    • Reply
      renkat 8 February, 2011

      My remark wasn’t a response to your wedding :-)

      • Reply
        Dave 8 February, 2011

        Heather’s comment was actually in response to Brenda, above. (Unfortunately the “reply” links for individual comments aren’t as obvious as they could be. I could try to remedy that, but this theme is real bitch to tweak.)

      • Reply
        renkat 9 February, 2011

        Oh :-). I just need to pay more attention.

  10. Reply
    James Brush 7 February, 2011

    I’m also new at video poetry; I’ve only done 3 video poems, but I’ve made and worked on a lot of videos that follow scripts and schedules, and one thing I’ve enjoyed about video poetry is that I can sit down to edit without any real idea of what I’m going to do, which is kind of like how I sit down to write poetry. I guess the poem is something of a script but not in the sense of a proper script which is really just a set of instructions for a director and actors. Still, the poem has come first for me in 2 of those 3 videos.

    The first video poem I did started as a poem based on some photographs taken on my iphone of my guitar. I decided to record audio of me reading, but since I use video software to record audio, I started thinking about doing a video by sticking those photos into it and then started building the video timeline from what I thought it needed as I was doing it. I made it without any sort of planning or anything. If something seemed to be missing, I dropped some black in and then shot something I thought might look good there. Winging it, in other words. No plan but starting with the poem. It was kind of analogous to composing the poem itself, but instead of using Word, I was using video software (Vegas). It was a simple project, but I liked doing it that way.

    The second one I did was for a poem by someone else, and I used a similar approach, though in that case, I happened to be out of town when I started thinking up the video and so I did some shooting, but since I didn’t have a video camera with me, I used a series of still images to create a video effect. When I got back and sat down to edit, I began with the audio track and built the video around the poet’s voice, some sound effects and some bass feedback I’d recorded, but again the poem and the sound came first. When the audio was basically right, I started playing with the video. In film school we learned that the images should dictate the rhythm, but I find that the audio tends to drive the bus for me, at least that’s been the case in my very limited video poem making experience. Since the audio comes from reading the poem, the poem-first approach seems to be the way I do this.

    The 3rd one I made intentionally went the opposite way. I recorded some video and then wrote a haiku based on the video. That one was very simple and required no editing as it was just a single stable shot. Mostly it was an experiment in video haiku inspired by some of Dave’s work last year. (In fact, all 3 of these videos owe something to Dave whose enthusiasm for the form reminded me of why I like making videos and got me doing it again after years of not having made one for fun.) That one got me interested in the idea of collecting footage, especially since I can shoot video with my iphone. I like the idea of having a bank of images I can use as needed or even as inspiration for poems.

    I’m looking forward to doing more video poems in the near future and exploring this further, but for me, so far, the poem has typically come first and the video is created not so much to illustrate the poem but to… I don’t know, illuminate it, maybe?

  11. Reply
    Viral Verse 8 February, 2011

    Very interesting discussion! Great answers so far. I sympathise completely with Renkat’s view that video can ruin a good poem, as a film can ruin a good book. I know – I’ve killed a fair few!

    I did 14 video poems last year – my own poetry and other peoples. In each case the poem came first. The videos were both literal interpretations as well as ‘mood’ pieces. From the feedback I’ve received, the 2 favourite videos are both literal, short narratives: ‘Waitress in Waiting‘ and ‘Clearing Out the Fridge‘. They were easy to put together because I could use the poems as scripts. I think narratives appeal to people who have no interest in poetry or video art (most of my family and friends – heck most of the world!)

    I filmed one poem as a narrative, ‘Easy to Love a Beautiful Woman‘, and then scrapped all of the film – all of it! I loved the reading, the voice, but I felt the video’s literal interpretation killed the poem. So I used bits of vacation videos from a small digital camera, to evoke a sentimental nostalgia for our world. The quality of the video is crap but the images work with the reading – the voice became the focal point, conjuring up a picture that I could not portray. Ultimately it was best to leave things the listeners imagination, especially because the poem is set in the future – a tired embittered alien comes to collect yet another batch of humans abandoning the Earth. I loved the results but no one ‘got’ it (does it matter?), so I added a one minute prelude to explain it, which I now think takes away from the poem. Oh well… lesson learned.

    I would love to hear what anyone thinks of my videos – please let me know if you have time and inclination. I miss the days of university feedback.

    Filming poetry has been wonderfully instructive. I’m working on a longer film (not poetry) and I find that this last year’s experiences have sharpened my eye and expanded my image vocabulary.

    • Reply
      Viral Verse 8 February, 2011

      I see that the links to the videos didn’t work, so no point in asking for feedback. Dave how do you make a link in a comment?

      • Reply
        Dave 8 February, 2011

        Easiest way is to paste in the full URL, as renkat did above.

        If you’re logged in, you should be able to edit your comment also. In the text editor, you’ll have access to easy HTML buttons — which is what I did to make the link in the preceding paragraph, being too lazy to hand-code. (And if you need help logging in, shoot me an email.)

  12. Reply
    Viral Verse 9 February, 2011

    Thank you Dave!

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