~ craft ~

Filmmakers, video remixers, and other artists talking about how they do it. If you’d like to contribute a craft essay, please get in touch.

The Inevitability of Narrative

As humans, we are driven to narrative. It is almost impossible for us to experience a sequence of events and not attempt to ascribe some kind of narrative arc to it. What just happened? What does it mean? How did it start? What will happen next?

There is a considerable literature on the theory and practice of creating narrative in different contexts: fiction or non-fiction; in print or on stage or screen; or via any other medium. Narrative can be language-based, as in a novel, or non-verbal, as in a choreographed dance, or a combination of both, as in a movie. But the basic structure of narrative mostly boils down to a few key points: there is a beginning, middle and an end; something changes along the way; it occurs in some kind of contextual framework. If any of these key elements is missing, we, the readers or viewers, inevitably will try to fill in the gaps.

Over the last 20 years, neuroscientists and cognitive scientists have made significant advances in understanding how – and to some degree, why – the brain creates narrative. Much of this new research complements well the ideas of theorists and practitioners concerning the role of narrative in literature, cinema, theatre and dance. Indeed, many authors have integrated data across the sciences and humanities to build new appreciations of how and why narrative works. Key foundation texts in this field include The Poetics of Mind: Figurative Thought, Language and Understanding by Raymond W Gibbs, Jr (1994); On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction by Brian Boyd (2009); and How Literature Plays with the Brain: the Neuroscience of Reading and Art by Paul B Armstrong (2013).

From a cognitive point of view, we can consider the construction of a narrative as coming in different flavours: for example, we can describe a series of external events, that is, things that others can also describe from their own experiences of the same events; we can create a story from our own remembered experiences that is essentially private, since no one else can have those same memories; or we can create a fiction, a story that no one has ever actually experienced, even though such a narrative necessarily contains elements that are relatable to the external world.

Autobiography, memory and narrative

In order to create a narrative, we must access several different elements of memory. There is no single phenomenon called “memory”. Rather, there are many forms of memory, some of which are so fundamental to neural processing that we are not consciously aware of them. The duration of different types of memory can range from a few tenths of a second (eg the early steps of processing visual or auditory stimuli) to a lifetime (eg learning to walk or knowing what a flower is). Furthermore, many forms of memory lie outside easy verbal description, eg how to button up a shirt; how you solved a crossword puzzle; how you felt at lunch-time yesterday.

The components of a traditional first-person narrative (“I did this, and then I did that…”) rely on what is generally known as “autobiographical memory”. This is memory of what you have done in the past. It is fully private, in that only you can access it. Unless you have a very specific type of brain injury, it is updated continuously as you consciously experience the world. There are several remarkable features of this memory system:

  • It is initially encoded by the same part of the brain (the hippocampus) that also encodes and keeps track of our movements through space and time in our local environment. 
  • This means that salient events are automatically linked to a time and place.
  • Some time after these events are first recorded into memory, they are transformed into long-term memory stores elsewhere in the brain where they are associated with other memories of varying degrees of relevance or significance: the nature of event itself, the weather beforehand,  the person who wasn’t there, the name of the movie, the music playing at the bus-stop…
  • Each time these long-term autobiographical memories are actively retrieved they are remade: in effect, they are re-remembered.
  • The neural processes involved in imagining a future autobiographical event are almost the same as those remembering a past autobiographical event. People with a damaged hippocampus not only cannot remember what they did in the past, they cannot imagine themselves doing something in the future.
  • As a consequence, autobiographical memory, most of the time, is hopelessly unreliable (there are other factors contributing to this, but that’s another story).
  • And as a consequence of that, virtually all narrative is a construction of unreliable memories. In other words, I suggest, all narrative can be considered to be first-person fiction (and that is yet another story…)

For the reader or viewer of a narrative, we automatically feed the story (such as it might be) through our own autobiographical memory processor. We identify the temporal sequence, the salience of each component, the relationships between the components, assign meaning to elements we recognise and make a guess at the meanings of elements new to us. Even the most abstract, abstruse, uneventful “narrative” will have a beginning, middle and an end, a context in which it is viewed, an emotional and cultural framework within which we will evaluate it. And so we create our own narrative version of “the story”, almost certainly incomplete when compared with the narrator’s intent, perhaps remembered only fleetingly, but more likely, generating a new entry of our own autobiographical memory (“Let me tell you about the movie I saw last night…”).

Selling the story – you don’t need much…

This ability for the viewer to make narrative out of minimal clues has been well recognised for many years. A famous experiment by Heider and Simmel (1944) showed how moving abstract shapes are commonly read as behaving like people within a strong narrative arc.

Similarly, short form texts such haiku, one-sentence poems, even Tweets (!!) can be commanding in their narrative intensity. Advertisers have known all this for a long time. Successful television advertisements must tell a story in as few as 15 seconds (“Look at this! See, it’s amazing! That’s why you need it… Buy one now! Get it here!!”). Indeed, some television advertisements have been recognised as stand-out examples of short-form video narration, for example, highly-regarded productions for Budweiser and Google.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZhO57NBJm0

Most television advertising lacks such sophisticated production values, but even the most simple, hackneyed approaches can inspire a poetry video narrative. In my 42nds, the timing of the scenes and the amount of text per scene closely follows that of typical advertisements 15-45 seconds long. This video was commissioned for outdoor screening in a downtown shopping mall and has since been screened on other public locations mixed in with genuine advertisements.

I’ll finish with two examples of masterful, albeit unconventional, poetry videos, both of which have featured on Moving Poems previously, that incorporate many of the elements mentioned above. These episodic narratives subvert the tropes of commercial television whilst illustrating the highly mutable state of autobiographical memory: Profile by RW Perkins and Human Condition by Rich Ferguson and Mark Wilkinson.

The success of these videos relies totally on our ability to:

  • recognise the contexts of what is happening in each episode;
  • hold the episodes in our short-term working memory long enough to understand the relationships between them;
  • synthesise the meaning of the full narrative in terms that make sense to us, thereby embedding the external narrative in our own autobiographical memory, ready to reappear, perhaps in a subsequent narrative of our own. Which is more or less what has happened in this essay…

Video, Poetry and Translation

From Greek to English… We also have a version in Greek and Spanish.

I’ve always loved language and languages. I did Latin, French and German at school and I could easily have ended up studying linguistics in a slightly different universe. For me, poetry and experimental writing are fundamental ways to explore the limits of language: to try to describe what cannot be put into words, to find out what happens when language is stripped down to its essentials (whatever they are…), to discover how the visual, oral and aural aspects of language interact.

Combining video with poetry and experimental writing has been a revelation in this context. In a video, text can be dynamic, as it changes and morphs in multiple dimensions. Voices can be added, distorted, re-timed, presented in counter-point to each other and to on-screen text; they can even be made to articulate the literally unspeakable via increasingly sophisticated text-to-speech algorithms. And then there are all the possible interactions between the text of the video and its audio-visual content.

Over the last few years, I’ve been increasingly interested in how we deal with translation in poetry videos. I have had many videos screened in non-English speaking festivals and installations where there is usually a requirement for subtitles in either English or the native language. But sometimes, there is an absolute requirement for subtitles in the native language. I also have collaborated with non-English speaking poets which has required me become familiar with at least some aspects their native tongue. And I have even created a genuine bi-lingual video poem.

English and French as equal partners…

So how do we deal with multi-lingualism? How should the translations work? There is a large literature on the nature of translation, as well as the underlying neuroscience of bi- and multi-lingualism. But I have been strongly influenced by a couple of books in particular, both of which have been written by authors who have translated some of the most influential experimental poetry and writing :

Poetry videos offer a unique slant on translation that is not available for written text: videos give us the option to hear the original language, and, indeed, read the original written text itself as well as a translation. And we still have access to all the same audio-visual material and its interactions with the text. One corollary of this is that the translated text does not necessarily have to be as “poetic” as the original. It may not even need to be a complete translation, if the sound of the original and its accompanying imagery allow.

It is very common for translated poetry videos to have subtitles added in a similar way to any other video or film. However, conventional subtitles can clash with the visual aesthetic of the video. Nearly all my poetry videos have at least some of the text embedded in them, as part of the overall visual design. When adding translated text, I try to use the same fonts, layouts and designs as the original, so that the look of the video is not changed and the translation is seen as a natural component of the work. Another option is to use closed captions for a translated version. It does not look very elegant, but it allows the user to turn the translation on or off. A further advantage is that the text exists as a separate underlying time-stamped file (eg .srt format) that can be translated by a third party as required.

English and Spanish translation share a common design…

So now to the big question: how do we actually get the translation? Ideally, you are sufficiently knowledgeable in the appropriate languages to do it yourself. I can do that well enough for German or French, and I have made a genuine bilingual English-French video based on a poem of mine, Signature, originally published in the French journal Recours Au Poème. But although I have become familiar with some aspects of other languages, most notably Spanish, Italian, Greek and Swedish, I cannot translate from English into them. Instead, I rely on machine translation, good dictionaries and, when necessary, advice from a native speaker.

Machine translation…

My preferred machine translation system is DeepL which, when tested on languages I do know, performs better than Google Translate across the board, especially when the language becomes more idiomatic or figurative. The suggested translations can be checked and fine tuned in several ways. One is to simply back-translate the phrase to see if you get the same thing. Using a different system for the back-translation (such as Google Translate) can also be useful. Another good strategy is to replace some of the words in the original with synonyms or near-equivalents and compare how they get translated. If the translation offers options, I often look them up in the native language dictionary or thesaurus (eg Wiktionary) that shows how they understand the meaning of the word and how it should be used. And I always keep a grammar book at hand for the language in question to find out how it is structured and how things like tenses, cases, pronouns, adjectives, etc, actually function. These resources have been critical for most of my translations.

Sometimes, the translation simply will not work. An implied meaning in one language perhaps cannot be made in another, often because of the way the grammar rules operate. As is well known to translators, there are idioms and turns of phrase that do not cross languages or cultures. Experimental writing or visual poetry that relies on the intrinsic structure of words and their grammatical variations may be impossible to translate in any literal manner. What do we do then? We simply watch the video, listen to the ebbs and flows of words that even a native speaker may not understand, and revel in the uncertainty of it all.

Click here to see all Ian’s videos with translations.

This essay first appeared on Ian’s blog, which anyone with a serious interest in videopoetry ought to follow. —Dave B.

Finn Harvor: Isolation Trip Remix

Finn Harvor was invited to write for Moving Poems about two publicly-released versions of his video Isolation Trip Remix, both of them collaborations with musician Ian Peninsolar (aka Peninsolar). Ian composed the music soundtrack, which includes found sound and dialogue that forms a kind of ‘found poem’ in itself. Finn directed the videos and created an additional layer of poetic text for the second version.

Isolation Trip Remix (original version)

Finn’s process notes:

This began as a sound and visual collage based on a late evening bike ride along the Han River early this summer. The coronavirus crisis was still in its early stage, and the mood throughout South Korea — as most of the world — was eerie.

I often do projects by building them up in layers; that is, by starting with shot footage and adding my own music, or not using music at all and simply creating a visual/aural collage. Because it takes a long time to get poetry published, this method of working allows me to get projects “out into the world” without worrying about the stigma of self-publishing my text (though occasionally I’ve done that also (and want to emphasize I think it’s a good idea when artists and writers occasionally do this)). Generally, the completed videopoem doesn’t become public for quite some time — often, years.

Ian Peninsolar had been suggesting we collaborate on a project. I messaged him and suggested this. He added a soundtrack, which included sampled audio of very unusual weather systems from several years ago. The voiceover adds quite a bit to the project, and meshes perfectly with Ian’s musical soundtrack. It has the stentorian seriousness of an authority, which is what we’re used to hearing during crises.

It seemed like a good metaphor for what the world is going through this year. Later, I added text of my own to make it a videopoem in the more conventional sense of the term.

Isolation Trip Remix (with added text)

Note: aside from his substantial body of work as a maker of videopoems, Finn is notable too for his critical writing. This can be found at the UK journal, Poetry Film Live.

Ground-breaking documentary about videopoetry now at Vimeo On Demand

At long last, the documentary Versogramas or Verses&Frames by Galician director Belén Montero—a unique, multicultural look at contemporary videopoetry through the eyes of 14 filmmakers—is available to watch on the web:

We have great news to share with you: Verses&Frames is now available at Vimeo On Demand. Watch it here!

Now you can enjoy the documentary at home, at any time, for a really low price. Moreover, we have released all the different linguistic versions of Verses&Frames, so you can choose five screening possibilities: original version in Galician with Galician subtitles, Spanish version with Spanish subtitles, English version with English subtitles, reduced Spanish and reduced English versions.

This is how it works: For 3€ you can “rent” the screening of the version you choose. It will be available for 24 hours so you can watch the documentary as many times as you want. You can reproduce it on iOS, Android, Apple TV, Roku and Chromecast.

One of our main objectives when producing Verses&Frames has always been to contribute to the knowledge, research, enjoyment and diffusion of videopoetry. As well as the screenings conducted at festivals, museums and television, we believe that this is a good way to deliver the content of the documentary directly to the public, and to share with you all the emotions that videopoetry arises.

So, just a click away: Verses&Frames On Demand.

That rental price in US dollars is just $3.32. The Vimeo description doesn’t include links to the videopoets interviewed in the film, but you can find that on the project’s website (also available in three languages). I wrote a somewhat critical but generally positive review of Versogramas for Poetryfilm Magazine in 2018. I wrote, in part, that

The interviews are creatively shot and well edited, and the interviewees all come across as fascinating people with uniquely unconventional approaches to making poetry and art. There wasn’t one of them whom I didn’t want to immediately track down on the web and watch every one of their videos, and I was pleased by how many of them were new to me, either because their work had never been translated into English, or because they just hadn’t happened to have crossed my radar.

This is testimony to the sheer breadth of the international videopoetry community, I think. It’s impressive that the producers can focus on just one part of the world—Spain, especially the Galician region—add a handful of filmmakers and videopoets from outside that region, and still end up with a highly varied, complete-feeling snapshot of the state of videopoetry in the 21st century.

So go check it out! I know I for one will definitely be watching it again.

Tom Konyves, Kristian Pedersen and Nicholas Bertini at Poetryfilmkanal

Poetryfilmkanal, the Weimar-based website that also produces an annual print Poetry Film Magazine, has posted three new essays in English over the past month. First, the Italian author and animator Nicholas Bertini described the making of his experimental work in New Alphabets:

Encoding and decoding signs and shapes is the main focus of the research behind my work. It’s legitimate to say that communication is based on an alphabet, or better many alphabets, that lead back to writing. But what happens if, instead of a blank sheet having width and height, we have one including the dimension of time? Paradoxically a blank sheet that erases the hic et nunc of a mark, or that can contain hundreds or thousands.

Here shapes and signs, besides appearing in their two-dimensionality can mutate over time, allowing a level of communication that writing as we know it can not transmit. That’s what interests me in my research: the possibility to communicate through signs that can be decoded as new alphabets, thus including movement as part of the alphabet, like a sign or word.

In this process traditional writing is not left aside, there’s no intention to discredit or surpass it. Instead I find myself mixing this two languages, morphing and fusing them together.

On September 3, the prominent videopoet and theorist Tom Konyves weighed in with some Talking Points, which are divided into three sections: “Terms of service”; “Illustration and the function of the image”; and “Performance and the function of the poet’s body on screen”. Konyves’ points are well illustrated with embedded videos. I thought his consideration of literal interpretation in poetry film vs. the more allusive approach of videopoetry proper was especially interesting:

To convey a clear, unambiguous meaning of a pre-existing poem, the most effective visual approach an artist can take is a literal interpretation. While it presents a coherent relationship between word and image, any content on the image-track that is a direct representation of key words in the poem is bound to alert the viewer to a world view that values order, harmony and singular meanings.

Interviewed for BBC’s Sunday Feature: Crossing the Border – Poetry and Film, Alastair Cook commented on his 2013 filmpoem, Lifted, based on the poet Jo Bell’s experience at Lock 30 of the Trent & Mersey Canal, one of a series of canal-themed poems commissioned by the Canal & River Trust: »There is a literalness in this … I am visually illustrating what she is talking about,« which he then qualifies with »but very quietly, very much in the background.« In the background of the work, we can hear Jo Bell’s voice reciting the poem. It is accompanied by a series of (well-composed) shots at Lock 30: the canal, the water, the lock gates closing, close-up of the water, back to the lock gate, back to the water, extreme close-up of the lock gate, back to water, an extreme close-up tilt on the gate, back to water, back to the canal … This series of »establishing« shots does indeed convey the background to Bell’s poem. The shots say simply, quietly, Here. Here is where the poet gathered her observations and subsequently wrote the poem. Without ambiguity, the images connect the viewer with the spatial references in the poem. Jo Bell’s poem comes through unchanged, loud and clear. You have only to listen.

On the other hand, the world view revealed through a »metaphorical lens« cannot accept a coherent, orderly universe. Its approach takes for its subject the critique of conventional word-image associations, organizing its elements – in this genre by enlisting the image-track as the »dominant« element – to make associations surprising and »strange«, to be open to multiple interpretations of these associations and, most importantly, to use the unstable nature of language (the ambiguities in the text) to help us experience a videopoem in a new, playful, indirect way.

And most recently, the Norwegian animator Kristian Pedersen has a craft essay up, Graphic listening — “Visualizing The Bøyg: About my tribute to Oskar Fischingers concept of visual music in my film Bøygen (2016).” Pedersen has always been one of my favorite poetry animators, so it was great to read — and see, thanks to the copious illustrations — where one particular animation of his came from.

When making films tied to poetry or prose, I find abstraction to be a successful vessel. Like music, it can connect directly to emotion, and facilitate individual experience. I always turn to history of visual music – these works of art, some of them close to a century old, still stand as monuments of inspiration. The masters of abstract cinema paved such a vast area of experimentation, and stunningly beautiful works, there is always something new to learn from them. In every case, I always come back to Oskar Fischinger (1900–1967).*

This was especially significant with my visual music short Bøygen of 2016: From deep in the misty Norwegian mountains comes the unnerving sense of numbing apathy. This is The Boyg, in old Norwegian folklore known as a large, invisible serpent that seem to surround you and suggests you avoid challenges. Made famous by playwright Henrik Ibsen, the Boyg is today a term for a formless obstacle; lack of initiative, creeping anxiety or a problem difficult to untangle.

To express an abstract idea with an abstract visual language was a labyrinth of trial and error. But a successful marriage of sound and image can open a doorway directly into the synapses. Research for this project covered both ancient Norwegian folklore and film history. The starting point was a journey to the Center of Visual Music in February 2015.

Fascinating stuff. Do click through and read all three essays.

Practicing Like Water

A state of the luminal…

I recently realized filmpoetry provides an escape for me. In nearly forty years of creating I have never been one to pressure myself. My professional and personal creativity always flowed organically. Then, suddenly my creativity stopped. There was just no time, nor feeling for it. In early 2017 I was working on a large client project, going through a separation and then divorce, sold a home and moved to another state. It was overwhelming and a joyful creative outlet ended, just like that.

Shortly after I moved, I slowly began to film and photograph whenever I felt emotionally moved, curious or inspired. At times I even experimented. Then, this past February, Donna, a friend and mentor who owns a spiritual center spent a few days with me in my new home. While I was at my emotional worst, she provided support, spiritual growth and compassion. We share a love of the beach and ironically when we were together symbolic events would magically appear right in front of our eyes. A turtle circled our beach chairs, a gigantic 3-foot jellyfish came ashore and as seen in “Practicing Like Water,” an island-like sandbar appeared in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, where at least a hundred birds were peacefully hanging out. Donna walked gently through the bird oasis so as not to disturb their well-being and the birds simply moved aside with her every step forward. This went on for some time until eventually the sandbar was about to disappear and fall into the water. Suddenly the birds were spooked and flew upwards. In another scene, Donna, beautiful in a white bathing suit and hat floats like an angel. I filmed both scenes with my iPhone 6s Plus. It was the perfect tool for the spontaneity of those moments in the water. For months the experience stuck with me because I would look for the little sandbar every time I visited that particular beach, but I never saw it again.

Sometime during the summer I felt as if I needed to go back to my roots—when I first began creating filmpoetry. I listened to narrated audio for poems I saved from the now closed-down Poetry Storehouse website, a wonderful place where poets, filmmakers and remixers collaborated. The beautiful voice which first spoke to me in 2013 was also the impetus five years later which led me back to creating this piece. When I read Kate Marshall Flaherty’s poem (see below), it immediately resonated with me and I knew I had footage which would work well for the piece. Still I wasn’t ready and the printed poem sat on my desk for months.

While I hadn’t been editing projects in the past year, I was producing content. More importantly, I spent time on innerwork and participated in an online course and forum conducted by the Centre of Applied Jungian Studies in South Africa. Carl Jung’s theories are concentrated on the conscious and unconscious mind, archetypes, dreams, synchronicity and symbolism. In fact, I’ve also been keeping a dream journal and analyzing them on occasion. These are the ways in which I found my way back to my authentic self, my personal journey and living a life of joy and gratefulness. It’s all a practice, along with tools like meditation and mindfulness.

Suddenly one day in June, out of nowhere I felt compelled to organize footage for the poem and put together some sequences in a stream of consciousness manner. I knew I was missing imagery and sought some stock footage to fill in additional tone. Then I left it unfinished for at least a month. When I looked at the sequence again I was quite surprised to find that I had it in pretty good shape. The final edit took me about eight hours to complete. The original image sequences were not changed in any way. I added in stock fashion imagery from the Creative Commons and made color refinements. I didn’t labor on it, I knew exactly when it was complete. I remember wondering if I could pick up on creating quality filmpoetry where I last left off. I feel this filmpoem is consistent with my other work in the genre.

When I look back I realize I allowed myself time to absorb the poem into my unconscious mind. I saw it sitting on my desk everyday. Everything came together working with Kate Marshall Flaherty’s poem in a semi-conscious dream-like way. It’s almost as if I worked on it with my eyes closed. Ironically, when I asked Kate to add comments to this writing (she knew little about my thoughts), she replied,

I’ve always been fascinated with dreams, and I actually have several poetry dream sequences. I also give guided meditations, where we relax and go into that luminal state—that amazing threshold between sleep and waking—that place of the unconscious, of dreams and symbols. When I do my Stillpoint writing workshops, I always start with the meditation so that we can drag up some of those riches from the subconscious and alpha brain wave state and let it pour into our writing. Some will say that state is where we encounter the true self. It’s also a state biblically and throughout religious texts that angels and the divine appear.

I was floored to read what she said because of course this totally resonates with me and I didn’t know any of it when I chose the poem.

My spiritual and Jungian work certainly found its way into this filmpoem. Until I began writing this I hadn’t noticed repeated images of screen symbolism. In the beginning the screens are quite dense. Looking at it metaphorically screens are a framed construction designed to divide, conceal or protect. By the end of the piece there’s still a large lanai screen. But, notice while there is framework it is open to blue sky and clouds. There are also several images of floating mirror balls. According to Carl Jung, the sphere represents a universal symbol, one that illustrates time movement and analyzing the self. For me the poem is also memory closure and brings to light an important time in my life (when I was less conscious), which I will always remember gratefully. The dark, eerie trees and lightning were shot at night out the window of my old house, not long before I left. It is relevant metaphorically because it is the last vestige of my prior life and is the only footage from there included. The shadow side is exposed by the light and is ‘filtered’ back into the cleansing fluidity of water and openness——my life now. Donna’s smile when the birds lift away clearly illustrates “…peaceful silence dissolving into one smile like water.”

Filmpoetry has been a source of meaningful self-expression which offers me the ability to be abstract, esoteric and dream-like. I clearly appreciate what Kate says:

I wrote this particular poem after a very moving dream about an encounter with a dear old love. The dream was so vivid and the feeling so real that when I awoke I was in that luminal state—not sure if I was awake or still asleep and dreaming—and the feeling was so beautiful that I thought I had been visited by an angel or some wonderful part of myself, or perhaps the spirit of that first love. The dream left me with an incredible peaceful and radiant feeling.

That space is exactly where I was as I created the visual tone for the piece. I have an affirmation by Idil Ahmed above my desk which reads in part, “What belongs to you will effortlessly flow into your life…” Surely that is what happened here.

Practicing Like Water can be perceived in many ways. For me, it simply floated into my reality and it reminds me to keep growing. Kate wrote:

Lori’s images really capture that encounter with love and with self and with that incredible lightness of being. I think the music as well enhances the idea of calm and beauty; the lifting of birds so like a spirit taking flight.

All I can say is… thank you Kate Marshall Flaherty for arousing and inspiring my creative spirit to take flight once again.

Practicing Like Water

by Kate Marshall Flaherty

I.
Crumbs of sleep in my eye.
Dream residue.
I squeeze my lids tight,
burrow deeper
into the warm blanket-folds,
wanting to go back
where I am sharing a meal with you
at a sunny pine table.
Cascade Mountain through the glass.
No need to speak,
or hold hands,
peaceful silence dissolving
into one smile like water.

II.
The weightless feeling still fluttering
in the cage of my ribs.
Why do we waken
with such longing, sometimes?
Have we been floating with angels?
Practicing for death,
in sleep?
Are we slipping into a pool
where dream and dreamer are one?
Are we each a cup of water
poured into the sea?

Conversation with Poetry Film Live editors

Last summer, I met with Helen Dewbery and Chaucer Cameron, the editors of Poetry Film Live and co-producers of many poetry films themselves, for a wide-ranging discussion that lasted several hours. Helen has just edited and released an 11-minute video from that conversation:

I’m told that at least one more selection from our conversation might be in the works. In the meantime, I believe there are still some openings for the two-day workshop Helen and Chaucer are leading in Poole on 13-14 January.

Exploring Contemplative Effects in Text-Based Video Poems

In 2005 I first began experimenting with rhythmic effects in relation to text-based, minimalist video poems as an extension of my work as a painter, filmmaker and writer. Influenced by a fusion of concrete poetry, feminist inquiry and structuralist and surrealist experimental film, I wanted to approach the essence of poetic structure in a reductive way, reconsidering the route to meaning through the traditional double pattern of verse – metre and rhythm – in moving, audiovisual terms.

Whilst contemplative effects exist across all forms of conventionally character and narrative-based poetry film, I wanted to strip down and magnify the prosody (rhythm) itself, and the letter became an ideal form, bringing less-suggested context to the inquiry. My aim was to focus on a series of minimal, visual text-based video poems as a way of exploring the remediation (Bolter and Grusin, 2000) of aural or verbal prosody in page-based verse. I am terming these video poems rather than poetry films as they weren’t created from pre-existing poems, but more as artworks with the screen as canvas. Within this formal definition I was interested in creating a particular type of contemplative effect, where a letter or word slowly disappears and reappears, that I termed de/rematerialising prosody. (Apologies for the weighty terminology!) The combined sequential, linear word with the cyclical form for me represented the two essential formal components of the verse form, but revised in a dynamical way through motion.

My initial experimentation with moving visual verse became a research project entitled Re: Turning – From Graphic Verse to Digital Poetics: historical rhythms and digital transitional effects in Graphic Poetry Films. I went on to deliver papers or organise exhibitions/talks around the subject at: Chelsea College of Art and Design, including the work of artist Liliane Lijn; VideoBardo ‘For The Earth’ conference in Buenos Aires 2012; MIX conference in Bath (2012 and 2013); the e-poetry conference, Kingston, 2013; The Southbank Centre Poetry International Festival of Love in 2014; and TARP audiovisual festival, Vilnius National Gallery of Art, 2015. A more in-depth account of contemplative effects and prosody will be included in the forthcoming publication The Poetics of Poetry Film, co-authored with Zata Banks, including essays from many of the top practitioners in the field.

My work has always looked over its shoulder to historical forms that expanded on the dual verbal/visual letter (or verbicovisual as the Brazilian concrete poetry Noigandres group have stated, following James Joyce’s neologism in Finnegan’s Wake). As is commonly known, in the mediaeval period illuminated manuscripts such as ‘Books of Hours’ (commissioned books of religious/spiritual contemplation) featured large initial letters of opening paragraphs that were also pictures depicting the scene being verbally described. In a similar way, several hundred years B.C. prayer wheels containing short, linear texts were turned or spun by Buddhist monks as a means of attaining enlightenment, effectively turning texts according to the natural rhythm of the wheel of life, dissolving the linear word in the cyclical elements beyond human control.

As such the dual word as image and the deconstructed linear word, subject to turning, has historic precedents, and these deconstructions of the word align with the need to access spiritual concerns. It is hard to ignore that the very foundations of verse, metre and rhythm are also said to have a spiritual base. As the English critic and poet T.E. Hulme (1883–1917) has noted in his Lecture on Modern Poetry (1908):

The older art (double pattern of traditional form) was originally a religious incantation … The effect of rhythm, like that of music, is to produce a kind of hypnotic state, during which suggestions of grief and ecstasy are easily and powerfully effective …

The binary, dual aspect of a letter as both visual and verbal, and also linear but also turned in poetic verse form, sat at the centre of my research. However, I was deterred by my supervisors from mentioning anything to do with spiritually related matters. And I should point out that I am not inferring in an absolutist way that a moving poetry film can create spiritually uplifting effects. What I have aimed to do is to appropriate and translate, in a form of broad metanarrative, historical structures and conventions as approaches to weaving a thoughtful and contemplative surface in its own right, as opposed to creating a poetic dramatic narrative containing effects. As can be imagined, many types of poetry film can be argued to utilise contemplative effects (knowingly or not) and I will discuss this further in the upcoming publication.

In 2005 I made a work that referenced the ‘carmina figurate’ in Renaissance texts, where typically a sacred image was picked out in red letters against a field of black type so that a holy figure could be seen and meditated on during the process of reading. The resulting film, Blanks in Discourse 3 — which became known as Mistaken Identity — was a commentary on consumer depictions of female identity. Found black text copy from women’s magazines became a foil against which the words I and Home were added in red, but juxtaposed with a computer error beep.

The resulting beep made a sonic pattern that, when shown in a gallery in Lithuania, created a delicate, random, plaintive ‘tune’ or irregular sequence. In some ways the pattern of notes, without direction or timing, evoked a sense of disconnection, but also pathos; of subjectivity and soul trying to play out within an out-of-control social environment.

Mistaken Identity, colour, sound, Sarah Tremlett, 2005.

As poetry is a temporal art, I sought to integrate metronomic time or interval measure with the durational or flowing rhythmic elements. This applied to both the aural and also the visual patterns before our eyes. In the early films I did not include voice, as I considered that an extra decipherable element in meaning creation, so that text, sound and image became the sole fusion of forms. I also examined ways of thinking about audiovisual structure as pure structure: repetition, blank space, cut-ups alongside minimal soundscapes. It is also important to note that my films and all the films in this essay have no definite beginning or end, which is why they cannot be defined by length; there is no narrative trajectory, simply a continuous play of audiovisual pattern that can be endlessly looped, and gradually interpreted.

There is some correlation between non-dramatic poetry films (more or less without a plotted narrative) and a more consciously affective reliance upon metronomic and rhythmic patterning. A still, framed space that changes and alters durationally, but not in tune with a sequential narrative, can have an effect on us that may be hard to put into words. One aspect of such a space can be its non-referential function. It does not talk of another space or time, but only its own being; which is why this sort of film is more accurately described as a video poem and most purely when the audio as well as the visual is newly composed, and relates back to the space, rather than associated with any other situation.

AMAM/AMMA, contemplative, minimal, graphic video poem; colour, sound, Sarah Tremlett, 2010.

As a minimal, contemplative form of graphic video poem, my work AMAM/AMMA in its letter formation comprises two paradoxical parts concerning the binary nature of the relationship between self and mother or mother and daughter. This work takes the words AM and MA, which not only palindromically, phonetically and visually but semantically create a parallelism of prosodic form with content. It asks the viewer to consider how the paratactical relationship between the two groups of letters which seem interchangeable function alongside the sound of a heartbeat. In minimal video poems we are not only examining a gestalt dialectical play between the parts and the whole or the text and the rest of the image, but also the dynamic motional play within the text itself. This work uses an irregular, fluttering, pulsing motion to explore a different understanding of beat or metre, and how blurring can have a conceptual relation to content, the tremulous nature of new life, as well as blurring boundaries of identity. Meaning is saturated throughout audiovisual form and content, supporting but testing Roman Jakobson’s theories of equivalence (1960) based on purely verbal poetic forms. On a wider scale, the dual pattern of constant beat (the heart) that underpins the rhythms of life in the womb and ‘outside’ also happens to be the core double essence of traditional verse-based poetry. The parallel between the way of human ‘being’ and the prosody of poetry might have a correlation that could explain the effects of poetry far deeper than we can imagine.

Thought Acts, B&W, Steve Fossey, Liberated Words II, 2013.

Another film concerned with de/rematerialisation of text and included in Liberated Words II at The Arnolfini, Bristol, in 2013, is British artist Steve Fossey’s Thought Acts. Here the sway of text and light with a moody soundtrack shifts between legibility and pattern: a fluctuating de/rematerialisation of text operates, as in AMAM/AMMA. The filmmaker is concerned with the visual effects of light and pattern and their inclusive relation to meaning. The disappearance and reappearance of visual text in itself encapsulates a form of gradual change through motion, a transitional effect that could be utilised to produce either slow cyclical repetitive rhythms, sometimes in relation to metronomic aural beats, or metronomic visual effects.

Les Lieux de Memoire by British artist Tamsin Taylor, which I included in Liberated Words poetry film screening at MIX 2012, is a slowed-down filming of a verse poem that has been scattered with water (seemingly tears), reconstituting itself through film reversal. Slowly we see the poem reappear, transcending conventional temporality, accompanied by the occasional blip, blip sound of what must have been the flicking of water onto the page. This echoes my film Mistaken Identity, in the heightened attunement to the smallness of random, repeated, identical sounds. This sublime video poem, which also engages with the liminal aspect between materiality and language and what I would term ‘elemental sound’ is an example of a de/rematerialisation process in a very profound and direct way. Les Lieux de Memoire asks us to engage with its very process of creation, its fundamental becoming or dynamic of change.

Les Lieux de Memoire, B&W, sound, Tamsin Taylor, Liberated Words I, 2012.

In Unrest by Italian artist Marco de Mutiis (included in Liberated Words I, 2012), the beginnings of a de/rematerialisation process have come into play, bringing forward the blank into a type of temporal form. Here words are diffused before blurring or disappearing alongside an eerie, repetitive, muffled ‘bleep’ sound, creating a metronomic sense of isolation — a non-narrative within a semi-narrative of scenes that seem played out rather than lived.

Unrest, colour, sound, Marco de Mutiis, Liberated Words I, 2011.

The metronomic interplays with the abstracted rhythms, and it is as if we are the systems that control us; we are discourse, but a discourse that is pre-written and out of our control; we don’t make it, we align with it. In fact, at a far bleaker and catastrophic level we are written or we are erased. To me this film contains signs of traditional prosody but in a new, conceptual way; and these rhythms appear to be embedded in the very fabric of our accelerated, overly-constructed human condition.

In my video poem She/Seasons/Contemplating Nature I aimed to blur the conceptual divisions between culture and nature, combining de/rematerialising prosodic texts from women’s magazines accompanied by metronomic star sounds and a pulsing coloured sphere that changes from cool to hot colours. She/Seasons/Contemplating Nature generates a cyclical return in four chromatic movements or phases which begin with ‘winter’ (in terms of colour) and return to it again and again on an endless loop. As the blurred effect increases, so the figure/ground (Arnheim, 1974) distinction lessens. Letters lose symbolic meaning as they become diffused into pattern. This cycle of chromatic prosodic change occurs as the text and the image slowly emerges and disappears. In some senses then, we can view the text and image as we might view the simple shapes of nature around us: trees and flowers which are subject to alteration due to the passage of seasons and time. American poet Stephanie Strickland’s notion of text decay (Kac, 2007) springs to mind but in this film the whole screen changes at once.

She/Seasons/Contemplating Nature, Sarah Tremlett, 2010/11.

In all the films mentioned, text has remained in its traditional, linear form yet also operates as visual, turned text. Meaning shifts between and as a fusion of text-based verbal language and audiovisual rhythms and effects, with almost non-existent narrative and a screen behaving as a contemplative canvas. Examining prosodic elemental forms is an attempt to naturalise how poetry works: how it weaves sounds and felt moments to create what we call ‘poetry’, or measured words through time. But whether an absolute comparison can be made between the verbal notational structures of verse prosody and those created via the moving audiovisual image is another question completely — one we will continue to debate for years to come.

REFERENCES

Arnheim, R., Art and Visual Perception – A Psychology of the Creative Eye. London, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1974.

Bolter, D.J, & Grusin, R., Remediation – Understanding New Media. Cambridge, Massachusetts & London, England: The MIT Press, 2000.

Hulme, T, E., Lecture on Modern Poetry, 1908.

Jakobson, R., ‘Closing Statements: Linguistics and Poetics’. In: Thomas A. Sebeok, ed. Style In Language. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1960, 357.

Kac, E., Media Poetry – An International Anthology. Bristol: Intellect Books Ltd, 2007.

Lucy English on poetry-film collaboration

The British poet and poetry-film scholar Lucy English has a very interesting essay in Sabotage recounting the genesis of her Book of Hours project and how she’s adapted her poetic style to the exigencies of collaborative poetry-film creation.

When I tell people I am working on a poetry film project they make the assumption that I am creating films of myself reading or performing poetry. This is a natural response as I am a spoken word poet and, typically, my work is delivered live to an audience. My desire to create poetry films has made me re-evaluate the type of poetry I write, what word choices to use and what form it takes. As I developed The Book of Hours I have experimented with the placement of spoken poetry in a poetry film and formulated definitions of how a ‘poetry film’ differs from other filmic interpretations of poetry such as films of poets reading their work or ‘film poems’; short poetic films. The poetry I have written for this project is leaner, and more focused. There is more ‘space’ within the words for the moving images to interact and more silence. In The Book of Hours I have attempted to bring the delicate poetry film form, which is a growing but niche area of poetry, into the populist and digitally distributed arena of spoken word.

Read the rest.

Lucy English interviewed about filmpoetry on Carpool Poetry

The latest episode of a new YouTube series from Burning Eye Books features a lovely interview with UK poet and poetry-film expert Lucy English.

Clive Birnie talks to Lucy English about her filmpoem project Book of Hours (http://thebookofhours.org), Liberated Words (http://liberatedwords.com) and Rebecca Tantony’s one-to-one poetry show All the Journeys I Never Took (http://rebecca-tantony.com/projects) which Lucy produced.

Burning Eye Books are “a small independent publisher in the South West predominately specialising in promoting spoken word artists.”

Incidentally, Lucy English wasn’t the first poet to draw a connection between Medieval illuminated manuscripts and poetry films; I suppose it’s a natural association to make. The Chicago-based poet Gerard Wozek, who has been making poetry videos with artist Mary Russell since 2000, has a good essay about poetry video on his website which was invaluable to me when I was starting Moving Poems back in 2009. I still quote his succinct definition on MP’s About page:

A poetry video is an illuminated electronic manuscript that records the voice, the spirit, and vision of the poet, and frames this technological intersection between visual art and literature.

Flick the Switch: The Making of “Homeopathy”

When I shared Lori Ersolmaz’s film Homeopathy on Monday, she got in touch and offered to write up some process notes. The resulting essay is of exceptional interest, I think, in showing just how closely a poetry-filmmaker can identify with a text—and how much she can make the resulting filmpoem or videopoem her own. —Dave Bonta

This filmpoem is a very personal endeavor, reflecting my feelings and emotions while I was undergoing treatment for an ovarian mass. From the time I received the head-spinning news, I spent most of my time trying to gather as much information as possible from the Internet, and spoke with friends who had been through a similar situation. At the onset of my symptoms I found myself awake at 2:00 AM experimenting with video in a darkened hotel room lit only by the TV. The footage is quite metaphoric in numerous ways. My conversations with doctors, family, and friends were often chaotic and distressing at best. I quickly found that my primary care doctor’s bedside manner didn’t mesh well with me because she insisted that I had ovarian cancer, while my oncologist surgeon and gynecologist gave me somewhat better odds.

While in despair and feeling incredibly uncreative, I searched for an appropriate poem on The Poetry Storehouse to re-create my feelings with visual storytelling. I didn’t have to look very far. Nina Corwin’s poem “Homeopathy” had just been uploaded, and I downloaded it along with the poet’s narration, which I used in my final piece. Corwin writes in “Homeopathy,” “We can play in the dark” and ironically this was represented with my hotel footage before I even read her poem.

I sat on the poem for several months, but during that time I made notes of additional visuals needed, filmed more and searched on Pond 5 and Archive.org for horror movies and nuclear bombings. While I edited the first minute or two prior to my surgery, it was largely left unfinished until a month after my recovery.

This is my longest filmpoem, and I purposely wanted it that way. Although I only had to wait two and half months to hear whether I had cancer or not, it felt like an eternity. Even though I kept a positive attitude, every waking moment I considered how my health issue would change my life and those around me forever. It was nothing short of gut-wrenching, and felt like it would never end. When I awoke from the five hour surgical ordeal and heard the good news from my husband—benign—indeed, as Homeopathy reveals, I felt incredibly lucky to be able to “play flick the switch…”

The film uses linear imagery that reflects the known yet unknown, and darting screen movements resemble the chaos and lack of control I felt. In the end I’m left with five new linear scars as a reminder of my experience.

As for the music, I hadn’t realized it, but on an earlier visit to Pond 5 I downloaded the free Chopin Sonata No. 2 in B-flat music file. The music was familiar to me, and I didn’t know why, but it hit the somber note of my feelings. Slow. Deliberate. Making peace with what could be next. Little did I know until I Googled it that this is Chopin’s well-known Funeral March!

I couldn’t be happier to have had access to Nina Corwin’s fine poem, and the process provided me with recovery and closure, yet helped me to document my emotions before, during and after a traumatic life event.

[UPDATE] I asked Nina Corwin if she would be willing to share a bit about the composition of the poem and her reaction to my filmpoem. This is what she wrote:

Homeopathy started with a line from an e-mail to a poet friend coming in from out-of-town. A riff on “playing” sick associated playing hooky, playing doctor and the healing powers of child’s play. Once the homeopathic references suggested themselves, the poem found its name.

This is one of those rare poems that wrote itself—much more quickly than is usual for me. It got accepted by an on-line journal I admired (and had previously been rejected by) called Anti- before I knew it.

There’s something wonderful about poetry (and other art forms), especially poetry that makes such associative leaps, is that people reading it can evoke their own associations. It’s the ineffable connection between expression and experience.

Lori had a very different experience of the poem. I have had my poetry rendered by composers on several occasions. Sometimes the piece involves collaboration, though others given with the idea that once I “hand it over,” I give free rein to the interpretations of that artist. It’s rather like a game of telephone. Another sort of play (maybe something I could weave into the poem after the fact),

The result that Lori has created gives a whole new life to the poem.

Swoon’s View: Videopoetry Workshop at the Annikki Poetry Festival

Last week I had the opportunity to visit Tampere, Finland. The Annikki Poetry Festival had invited me to give a workshop on videopoetry (as well as do a short live reading). The festival asked J.P. Sipilä to select a collection of videopoetry to showcase, and he suggested a workshop by Swoon.

Invitations like these are hard to decline and I want to say thanks to J.P. and to Simo Ollila for getting me there.

photo by Sini Marikki

The objective beforehand was to create a few brand-new videopoems in one day. First I showed some examples of videopoetry and talked about the genre a bit—not too long, though. Doing it is the best way to learn in my opinion.

Experimenting is fun; I showed eight small, one-minute films (animation, film, archive, abstract…) in a loop, asking every participant to write one line (sentence, word, etc.) inspired by each minute of film. So everyone had an eight-line ‘poem’. I made them all pick out one of the minute-long films and let them read their lines aloud during that film. The others could observe, look and listen. It’s a fun exercise to create something ‘right there, right now’. Words suddenly fit a certain shot (though not written for that image). The participants get to experience the importance of timing, the power of coincidence, and, hopefully, the fun of playing with words and images.

After that, four groups were formed to work on projects of their own, making sure each group had someone familiar with film and/or video and someone willing to write. I kicked them out of the classroom with two tasks: go out, film, write, have fun… and come back with two minutes of film and a short poem/text to go with that.

photo by Sini Marikki

Once they were back they started to combine and collect all the material. Choices were made about which visuals to use, while others started to write (inspired by those choices and the things they saw outside). Music and readings were recorded. Each project was scripted out for me to edit.

The room was buzzing. It’s a joy to experience that.

Time’s up!

At night in my hotel room, I edited three of the four videos, following the instructions and scripts the groups had provided me with. The last one was edited by the group at their school/home.

I must say I am very pleased with how it all worked out. Enjoy!


Read a longer account of the whole festival at my blog
.