Posts By Erica Goss

Erica Goss is the author of Night Court, winner of the 2017 Lyrebird Award from Glass Lyre Press. She has received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations, as well as a 2023 Best American Essay Notable. Recent and upcoming publications include The Colorado Review, The Georgia Review, Oregon Humanities, Creative Nonfiction, North Dakota Quarterly, Gargoyle, Spillway, West Trestle, A-Minor, Redactions, Consequence, The Sunlight Press, The Pedestal, San Pedro River Review, and Critical Read. Erica served as Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, California, from 2013-2016. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she teaches, writes and edits the newsletter Sticks & Stones.

Wings of Desire is a Poetry Film

Every Angel is terror. And yet,
ah, knowing you, I invoke you, almost deadly
birds of the soul.
Rainer Maria Rilke, The Duino Elegies

When I read that Swiss actor Bruno Ganz died on February 15 of this year, I immediately recalled the iconic photograph of him as the angel Damiel, the character Ganz played in Wim Wenders’ 1987 film, Wings of Desire. Dressed in a black trench coat that hangs past his knees, Damiel stands on the edge of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, looking down on the city of Berlin. Huge white wings erupt from his back.

Wings of Desire is an extraordinary film on many levels – the cinematography, acting, and directing are all of the highest quality. The film’s success, however, is not the result of any of these. The film succeeds because it’s based on poetry.

Poetry determined the film from the beginning. In an article published in the Criterion Collection, Wenders states

I really don’t know what gave me the idea of angels. One day I wrote ‘angels’ in my notebook…Maybe it was because I was reading Rilke at the time—nothing to do with films—and realizing as I read how much of his writing is inhabited by angels. Reading Rilke every night, perhaps I got used to the idea of angels being around.

Needing a screenplay, Wenders approached his old friend and frequent collaborator, Austrian writer and poet Peter Handke. Handke, worn out from having just completing a novel, told Wenders, “I’m completely drained. I don’t have any words left in me. Maybe if you come down here and tell me your story, then I can help you out with a few scenes. But no more; nothing structural, no screenplay.” Wenders and Handke “spent a week thinking up a dozen key situations in a possible plot, and Peter started writing on the basis of that.”

From that initial meeting, the screenplay evolved from weekly dispatches Handke sent to Wenders: “I would get an envelope full of dialogue, without any direction or description, like in a stage play. There was no contact between us; he wrote, and I prepared the film.” Their process sounds remarkably similar to the way in which many video poems arise: one person, usually the filmmaker, creates a film using an existing poem. There is generally little or no contact between the poet and the filmmaker until the film is completed.

Wings of Desire starts with Damiel writing and reciting the opening lines from Handke’s poem, “Song of Childhood:”

When the child was a child
it walked with its arms swinging,
wanted the brook to be a river,
the river to be a torrent,
and this puddle to be the sea.

When the child was a child,
it didn’t know that it was a child,
everything was soulful,
and all souls were one.

Gradually, the plot emerges: Damiel (Ganz), weary of his existence as a supernatural being, longs for the messy, sweaty world of humanity. Sitting in a car with his friend, the angel Cassiel (Otto Sander) Damiel imagines what life would be like as a human: “To come home after a long day and feed the cat like Philip Marlowe,” – “to have a fever” – “to get your fingers black from the newspaper” – “to lie – through the teeth!” None of these is enough to convince Damiel to make the plunge; that decision comes when he falls in love with the beautiful Marion, an angel-winged trapeze artist performing in a cheesy, one-ring circus.

As Damiel becomes infatuated with Marion, he begins to hover, unseen, around her, influencing her thoughts and moods (the angels in Wings of Desire possess the ability to read people’s minds). In a couple of unsettling scenes, he enters her circus trailer and watches her undress, once reaching to touch her bare shoulder. Since he’s an angel, we assume that he is completely harmless, but once he’s developed feelings for Marion, his presence in her private sphere seems at least somewhat improper. In abandoning his immortality for the love of Marion, Damiel demonstrates that he shares that view: he can’t keep hovering around, spying on her. He must take his chances in the real world.

Wings of Desire is not only a love story between angel and human, but also a film-poem of place: Berlin in the late 1980s. Angels move freely on either side of the Berlin Wall, a privilege not allowed the city’s human population until two years later. Considering its affect on both the film and the city, the Wall imposes limitations as if it were a poetic form, forcing the filmmakers to create within its boundaries. As Nick Bugeja writes in “Discord and new beginnings in Wings of Desire,” “the Wall towers over the lives of those living in Berlin and Germany, physically and metaphorically constraining them.”

Handke’s “envelope(s) full of dialogue, without any direction or description,” form the overheard thoughts of Berlin’s citizens, edited into poetic snippets. I.e., in one scene, a man with a baby in a backpack thinks, “The delight of lifting one’s head out here in the open” while in another, we hear the thoughts of a woman riding a bicycle: “At last mad, at last redeemed.” When Damiel and Cassiel communicate vocally, it’s in elevated, cryptic speech. To quote Bugeja again, “The effect of Wings of Desire is startling. Its poetry seeps from every frame, as feelings of loss, impotency, and later renewal and warmth spill out.”

Poetry gives Wings of Desire its intuitive leaps and eccentric charm. Poetry elevates Damiel’s decision to leave immortality for love beyond cliché and into the sublime.

When he says, “Now I know what no angel knows,” he means he has found his humanity. This is the value of poetry, and all the arts: they awaken the shared sense of what it means to be human. That seems a fitting way to end a film that began with the word angel scribbled in a notebook.

2016 Video Poetry Summer Camp for Teen Girls Wraps Up

Media Poetry Studio logo with pen and notebookOn Sunday, July 31, seven teen filmmakers, all female, showed off their video poems in front of an appreciative audience. This year, our second running the Media Poetry Studio camp, students ranged in age from 12 to 16 years old. Each student gave a short introduction, talking about inspiration, writing poems, learning videography, filming, and editing.

Our students’ videos this year displayed a diverse range of themes. Almah Galan’s “What I See” focuses on social justice and includes an interview with her great-grandfather, while Caila Bigelman’s “A Game of Chess” features her own, fanciful drawings. Rachel Schultz’s impressionistic, untitled video deals with the passage of time, while Carol Liou’s video (also untitled) questions the value of sacrifice. Emilia Rossmann’s video is a touching reflection on the loss of loved ones, while Dasha Dedkovskaya’s depicts one person’s struggle with insomnia. Finally, Shachi Prasad takes a philosophical look at the price of being gifted.

teacher working with two students

David Perez explains ISO, shutter speed, and aperture.

Lessons began each morning in our outdoor classroom at San Jose’s History Park. Students spent the mornings writing, listening, reading and critiquing each other’s work. Our goal for the first day was for each student to write a haiku, which she turned into a short video that afternoon. MPS co-founder and former Santa Clara County Poet Laureate David Perez, along with special effects and videography teacher Jennifer Gigantino, introduced them to film techniques, and worked with the students throughout the two weeks. For the rest of the two weeks, we coached the students in writing and filming their videos.

two gilrs looking through empty picture frames

Students use paper frames to define subjects.

For inspiration, I brought art and photography books for the students to browse. The books range from the classic, 1955 collection The Family of Man, edited by Edward Steichen, to pocket editions of Magritte and Chagall’s paintings. The students marked pages that stood out for them with Post-It notes. Going over the books after camp was over, I could see where many of their ideas began. For example, a drawing of a building reminded Caila of a chess piece; Almah was struck by Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother.” Magritte’s eerie “The Musings of a Solitary Walker” inspired Dasha.

Students created a community of artists and writers on the first day. The supportive spirit continued throughout the camp. It was a pleasure to see how the girls jumped in to help each other, from acting in each other’s videos to holding the camera still in order to get an extreme close-up (of each other’s eyes – eyes were a theme this year!) to offering help with setting up scenes.

teacher writing on whiteboard

Videography teacher Jennifer Gigantino working on haiku videos with students.

Our curriculum this year included some wonderful teachers new to Media Poetry Studio: the fabulous Mighty Mike McGee, a well-know spoken-word poet who performs around the world, and the talented Freya Seeburger, a cellist who runs JAMS (Juxtapositions Avant Music Symphony). Mike gave a presentation on using spoken word techniques in voicing video poems, and Freya composed original music for each student’s poem. Freya also gave us a mini-concert, playing the music she created and offering commentary about her creative process. Much of that beautiful, haunting music is heard on the students’ videos.

students and teacher working with camera on tripod

Erica Goss setting up the camera for Almah Galan’s video.

We are also grateful for Elaine Levia, whose skills went far beyond her job description as “aide” – Elaine helped with writing, recording, filming and editing. Videography expert Jennifer Gigantino ushered the students into the mysteries of Adobe Premiere and After Effects. Students were particularly intrigued with masking, a technique that allows one layer of video to show through another. You can see how the students used masking in their videos.

Co-founder and poetry teacher Jennifer Swanton Brown gave us a wonderful ekphrastic lesson using art postcards; this lesson resulted in the seeds for quite a few of the students’ final poems. And last but certainly not least, I give huge thanks to my partner in this endeavor: David Perez, one of the hardest-working people I know, for his intelligence, creativity, energy, and artistic excellence.

filming a poetry reading

Vocal recording.

One of the best things about Media Poetry Studio is its location: History Park in San Jose. We use the Edwin Markham House, an old-fashioned two-story house that Edwin Markham once lived in. We all agreed that the spirit of Markham, a well-known poet who died in 1940, gave the house a special quality.

We could not be more proud of our talented students. Once again, we are grateful for the support of the video poetry community and our funders, including major support from the City of San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs, Macy’s, and our fiscal sponsor, California Poets in the Schools. Thanks to Poetry Center San Jose for the use of Markham House. We could not have done this without you.

students and faculty group picture outside the Markham House

Group photo in front of Markham House.

Erica Goss: Video Poetry Summer Camp for Teen Girls Wraps Up

Instructor Jen Gigantino demonstrating how to use special effects

Instructor Jen Gigantino demonstrating how to use special effects

Media Poetry Studio wrapped up its first summer camp on Saturday, August 1, with a screening of student films. Parents, friends and members of the arts community watched the eight short films our students created over the two weeks of camp. The students, who ranged in age from eleven to sixteen years old, were on hand to answer questions about their work.

In spite of the technological aspects of making videos (cameras, editing software, etc.), everything started with paper and pen. Each student received her own hard-bound journal, and spent much of each day writing. During the mornings of the first week, they worked with me on generative writing, and in the afternoons, they attended classes with MPS co-founder and Santa Clara County Poet Laureate David Perez, who introduced them to film techniques. The girls made their first video, using haiku they wrote on the first day of camp, by mid-week. After that, we focused on writing the poem each student would use for her final video.

The camp shifted in the second week to video instruction, and by the middle of the second week, we were in full film-crew mode. Students worked very hard to finish their films by Friday. Some finished early, while some students worked right up until the last minute of camp. The students who completed their films early assisted the students who still had work to do.

Camp curriculum included a number of guest speakers and instructors, who taught students topics that ranged from spoken word to 2D animation. Our highly talented and dedicated staff consisted of instructional aide Elaine Levia, poet Lucia Misch (spoken word), Jennifer Swanton Brown (MPS co-founder and poet-teacher), Jen Gigantino (video special effects) and the team of Annelyse Gelman and Auden Lincoln-Vogel (animation).

We held the camp at the Edwin Markham House in San Jose’s History Park. The house is the headquarters of Poetry Center San Jose, and its location in History Park gave our students a wide range of filming opportunities, from the house itself to the park grounds, which include more historic houses, a train, covered wagon, and gardens. The park is adjacent to the Japanese Friendship Garden, which we made use of for field trips.

Each video was decidedly individual, reflecting the personality and interests of the girl who made it. Our students expressed their feelings about the future, about struggles with control, the idea of home, having time to themselves, and the pressure they feel at school. Each video reflected the unique thoughts and vision of the maker. No two were alike.

David Perez, Jennifer Brown and I are very pleased with our first Media Poetry Studio camp. We’re already planning for next year! We will run another camp next year, and would like to add an advanced camp for this year’s students. We are grateful for the support of the video poetry community and our funders. We could not have done this without you.

Visit the MPS website’s About page for more photos. Three of the girls’ films are on the front page, and we reproduce them below as well.

Written, filmed and edited by Emilia Rossmann.

Written, animated and edited by Maggie Gray.

Written, filmed, animated and edited by Carol Liou.

Erica Goss: Video Poetry Summer Camp for Girls & San Francisco Writers Conference

I hope to light some creative fires this summer at Media Poetry Studio, a camp for teenaged girls I’m running with David Perez, the Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County, and Jennifer Swanton Brown, the Poet Laureate of Cupertino. Here’s the video from our IndieGoGo campaign:

Getting girls to participate more fully in technology and expressive writing

The camp is the result of a brainstorm between David Perez and me. I ran a poetry-writing summer camp in 2013 in San Jose, and I wanted to do something like that again, but with video poetry. I was aware that Alastair Cook and Marc Neys had taught video poetry to children, with very successful results. Since I’ve taught mostly teens, I imagined a camp for students of that age group. David took it a step further: why not run a camp for teen girls? It would combine art, writing and technology, and serve an audience that might otherwise not have this kind of experience.

Studies show that girls generally outperform boys academically until middle school, when they fall behind. This is exactly the same time that boys leap ahead of girls, exploring, taking risks, and experimenting with technology. We wanted to do something about that, using video poetry as our medium. Video poetry, a blend of art, writing, and technology, will teach our students many new skills: filming, photography, editing, story-boarding, and how to envision their poem as visual art. They will also be able to share the films they make with their friends and family.

The three of us have worked extensively in teaching, writing and performance to students in middle and high schools. David is also a filmmaker and photographer, and has made his own video poems. (As the columnist for The Third Form, I’ve watched hundreds of video poems, and commented on many, but I’ll be teaching poetry.) Jennifer Gigantino will teach video editing, videography and special effects. Jennifer Swanton Brown, co-founder and Poet Laureate of Cupertino, has worked in the classroom teaching poetry to children since 2000 as part of California Poets in the Schools, a 50-year-old arts organization. We also have spoken-word poet Kim Johnson on board, a performer and youth poetry instructor.

We aim to get our students out shooting film and taking pictures on the first day. Our curriculum will be mostly hands-on, with demonstration and guidance from our staff. We’ll have the girls create video-haikus to start, and then longer works as they gain skill and confidence. They will be engaged in a course of study that will encourage them to participate more fully in technology and expressive writing.

When poets see video poems for the first time

Technology and expressive writing were evident on February 13, 2015, when I participated in a panel titled “Powering Up Your Poetry with Film” at the 2015 San Francisco Writers Conference. Among panel sessions with titles such as “The World of Romance Fiction” and “The Elements of Killer Thrillers,” a group of poets gave the outsider art of poetry film their full attention. I was one of three panelists. The other two, poets Joan Gelfand and Chris Cole, are well-known in the Bay Area arts scene, as is our moderator, Rebecca Foust.

Although we did not prepare as a group beforehand, Joan, Chris and I agreed to introduce our work with little explanation, letting the films speak for themselves. It’s fairly difficult to describe video poetry to someone who has never seen it before. It’s better to just show the film and answer questions later, allowing the first-time viewer his or her own discovery. And that’s how we ran the panel: a short intro, the films, and then an extended Q&A.

Chris Cole made several short films, which he calls “journal entries,” as complements to his novel, the speed at which I travel. He used still shots, his own and public domain images, combining them with narration to create highly watchable, well-edited visual collages:

Joan Gelfand’s video was based on her poem, “The Ferlinghetti School of Poetics,” a poem from her 2014 book, The Long Blue Room. It is not ready for release yet, but Joan promised that it’s coming soon. A Hollywood filmmaker created the video for Joan, and it’s a compelling blend of images, both moving and still, and sound.

I showed the video poem “Arrhythmia,” which Swoon made using my poem, some film I shot of my son drawing, and Michael Dickes’ narration:

The audience for the panel leaned forward in their seats, clearly impressed and—as Rebecca, our moderator stated—“intruded upon.” In general, when poets see video poems for the first time, they are both amazed and empowered: amazed because they’ve never seen anything like a video poem before, and empowered because they immediately want to make their own (or have someone make one for them). That’s how I felt the first time I stumbled across Moving Poems a few years ago, and I recognized the combination of excitement and enthusiasm that sparks creativity.

Erica Goss: Ten Favorite Video Poems Made by Women

Here are ten current favorite video poems, all made by women. One of the things I like about video poetry is its cultural and gender diversity. Many more than these exist, of course, and my list is much longer than only ten, but enjoy these from the US, Canada, Pakistan, Egypt and Taiwan:

goodbye (poem by Kate Greenstreet)
Kate Greenstreet, 2010


I Said Yes (poem by Luisa Igloria)
Nic S., 2014


The Dice Player (poem by Mahmoud Darwish)
Nissmah Roshdy, 2013


kindness (poem by Jana Irmert)
Jana Irmert, 2012


Whore in the Eddy (poem by Heather Haley)
Heather Haley, 2012


Self Portrait as Beast (poem by Justine Post)
Cecelia Post, 2014


Danatum Passu (poem by Shahid Akhtar)
Shehrbano Saiyid, 2014


At Freeman’s Farm (poem by Marilyn McCabe)
Marilyn McCabe, 2013


In the Circus of You (poem by Nicelle Davis)
Cheryl Gross, 2014


They Are There But I Am Not (poem by Ye Mimi)
Ye Mimi, 2009