~ AWP 2012 ~

That’s Entertainment: AWP Panel Presentation

by Jordan Stempleman
Associate Editor, The Continental Review

for the AWP panel, “Poetry Video in the Shadow of Music Video—Performance, Document, and Film”
Thursday March 1, Chicago Hilton

I don’t know how close poems come to occupying the nearly abandoned, televised space of the music video. I believe what they often occupy, when sent into the frame of the prerecorded visual presentation, is often what ends up feeling so similar to a band like The Jam when, in their song “That’s Entertainment,” Paul Weller sings of this one long day where the city looks to almost come apart, eat itself up to the chin, and him with it, but doesn’t. I could easily, in the context of worsening and hope and entire awareness of place, swap The Jam with the poet Daniel Borzutzky standing headbent in the sunlight in a white walled room, and reading, ”There are small children who live on my block and eat glass. They eat eggshells from the garbage. They eat nails in the wood from the house that was destroyed after it was foreclosed and its occupants decided to bury themselves underground.” I see both of these forms of entertainment speaking of the same distress, striking the head-heart with the same relentlessness and sadness and beauty.

The footage of the voice. The footage that keeps, that remains when someone has something to say. Both Weller’s song and Borzutzky’s poem reject the romanticism of suffering. So in the land of entertainment, a place that welcomes lull and diversion, they are both in jeopardy of being shown the door. But if art is something that takes hold of entertainment by turning its head inside out, stopping time with thought and sight and awe, then the poem, with the poet accompanying the poem with her voice or her re-rendering of the page, is in the process of interrupting the durability of distraction for an instant, just long enough to close in on a life witnessed, a life lived. And the video, that which preserves this instant with the poet in body and voice, expands into territories that were once reserved for the television, the boombox, a few games of Hasbro’s electric and talking Battleship.

We are in an age when the art and the artist are more simultaneously absorbed at the click of a touchpad than ever. I will continue to read alone, but I now have the comfort of the coalesced force that brought the poem into the world. The holographic poet and their agency, their aurality, a double encounter that feels both private and public, performative and resistant to those deadening types of entertainments that look to be purely escapist in nature. In both the music video and the poem, the multiplicity of the experience is endless. This of course has been going on for some time now, in the form of the printed page, on any of the sound storage mediums that have branched into our ears. But what appears to have changed is how we guard our own emptiness with an endless supply of entertainments that wait publicly to be taken in, more often than not, in the private space of our briefest of freed-up moments.

In Paul Chan’s excellent essay, “What Is Art and Where It Belongs,” he stresses the idea of being at “home in the world” by surrounding ourselves with things. “Things are things because they help us belong in the world, even though their place in our lives can sometimes dispossess us,”1 writes Chan. There’s something immutable about watching, on my laptop, a video of a poet reading his work, while I wait for a redeye in an empty airport. This rebroadcast is much different than the page, as it produces much of the same movement and sounds and shifts in light that’s also found in the terminal. There’s a sense of presentness meeting presentness; an animation that seems so reasonable and important in the wiped out rush of an airport. But in the home, too, there is sensible globalization that takes place when, while eating a sandwich at my dining room table, I can engage for 30 minutes with video by Max and Kate Greenstreet, in the presence of my sandwich, my living room, with the sensation building that when the video ends I will create a response. For I believe that’s what the best kind of entertainment does to us: compels us to seek out, to respond. It takes what would otherwise remain as a part of our interiority, and sparks it towards any number of paths that all lead to some engaged outwardness.

Toni Morrison, in her phenomenally moving and instructive Nobel Prize Lecture from 1993 began by saying, “Fiction has never been entertainment for me…I believe in one of the principle ways, we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative.”2 And I know what Morrison means, how she’s basically reiterating Williams’s, “yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there,” but, you see, I grew up in the late 80’s/early 90’s. I learned while dunked in media. I sat in my basement bedroom and listened to Ice Cube’s Death Certificate from side A to side B and back again. This is the entirety of my memory of one summer. I didn’t read. I’m sure I played whiffle ball, horsed around and thought about how I wished I could horse around as someone a few years older than I was, etc. But from those days in my bedroom, I know I felt awakened by information, by a variation of ideas, when I heard for the first time:

Now in ninety-one, he wanna tax me
I remember, the son of a bitch used to axe me
and hang me by a rope til my neck snapped
Now the sneaky motherfucker wanna ban rap3

And like Denis Johnson writes in Jesus’ Son, “It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere.”4 The best poetry since Mallarme has always been engaged in some manner of hypertextual tunneling, flea market and sample sale news making, writing between worlds of illusion and reality, entertainment and the serious, inescapable seriousness.

Many of the poets I know, myself included, feel the phantom limb of the musician’s audience, the musician’s reception, within the voice of the poem, out and about in the silenced audience at the polite and attentive poetry reading. I feel the video, when allowed to wean the poet from their possessive self-seriousness, allows for the free flow of both power and vision and play. I, for example, may only realize after recording myself reading a poem where my face morphs into that of a werewolf that I have written something that contains more whimsy than I thought. In realizing this, I have access to my work that a bare reading may not have released for me. The overlay of new forms of amusement to underscore the subtle amusements the poem, as one of its greatest gifts, welcomes. The face and the voice of the poet refracted back on the poet, intense yet blushing, vulnerable yet sneering with a newfound utility.

1Paul Chan. “e-flux.” Last modified 2011. Accessed January 9, 2012. http://www.e-flux.com/journal/what-art-is-and-where-it-belongs/.

2Toni Morrison. “Nobel Prize.org.” Last modified 1993. Accessed January 9, 2012. http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1993/morrison-lecture.html.

3Ice Cube. “lyricsdepot.com.” Last modified 2012. Accessed Jan 9, 2012. http://www.lyricsdepot.com/ice-cube/i-wanna-kill-sam.html.

4Dennis Johnson, Jesus’ Son (New York: Picador, 1992), 9.

Motionpoems at the AWP book fair

A brief interview with Todd Boss, poet and co-founder of Motionpoems — the most ambitious poetry animation project in the U.S. to date, on a par with Comma Press’ film division in the U.K.

Videopoetry: What Is It, Who Makes It, and Why?

for the 2012 AWP panel, “Poetry Video in the Shadow of Music Video—Performance, Document, and Film”
Thursday March 1 from 10:30 A.M.-11:45 A.M.
Boulevard Room A,B,C, Hilton Chicago, 2nd Floor

Let’s begin with a quote from Heather Haley, a poet, filmmaker, former punk rock singer and organizer of Vancouver’s long-running Visible Verse film festival.

I define a videopoem as a wedding of word and image. Achieving that level of integration is difficult and rare. In my experience the greatest challenge of this hybrid genre is fusing voice and vision, aligning ear with eye. For me, voice is the critical element, medium and venue secondary considerations. Unlike a music video — the inevitable and ubiquitous comparison — a videopoem stars the poem rather than the poet, the voice seen as well as heard. (Emphasis added)

There are certainly other valid ways to think about videopoetry and related genres, but Haley’s sense of it happens to coincide with my own.

Let’s consider one example of my videopoetry, a piece I did for a poem by the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral called “Riqueza” (Riches). This came about in an ekphrastic manner, which is fairly typical for me: I will shoot some footage — or discover some public-domain footage online that I really like — and then write or find a poem that somehow seems to go with it.

view on Vimeo

When I shot the footage, I didn’t know what I’d use it for, if anything. I happened to be visiting a normally camera-shy, wool-spinning friend when she was in a mood to let herself be filmed, as long as I promised not to include her face. When I got home, I stared at the film for a while until the Mistral poem popped into my head. I emailed Nic S., poetry reader extraordinaire, and asked if she might record a reading of the Spanish text for me — something she could also post to her new audiopoetry site Pizzicati of Hosanna. She readily agreed. Then I did an English translation and began searching through various sites where musicians and composers post Creative Commons-licensed work. After a couple hours, I found something at SoundCloud.com that seemed to work. A Celtic tune on pennywhistle might seem an odd match for a Chilean poem, but I thought it had just the right mixture of sweetness and melancholy.

So that became something I could add to MovingPoems.com, a site where I’ve been sharing poetry videos from around the web for three years now. I post five new videos a week, and everything is indexed by poet, filmmaker(s) and nationality of poet. It’s not a high-traffic site — it only gets about 10,000 visitors a month — but it’s helping to bring together people working in videopoetry, sparking new collaborations and inspiring new works.

I’m not necessarily the best-suited candidate for the job. I grew up without TV and still live way out in the sticks, which means my exposure to art films is mostly restricted to what I can watch online — on a 1M/sec DSL connection. I’m part of an informal network of literary bloggers, and I started making videos originally for the same reason I began taking still photos: to feed my writer’s blog, Via Negativa. I think I had the idea originally that making poems into watchable videos would bring them to a wider audience. I’ve actually seen very little evidence that that’s the case. But I’m having too much fun making the things — I can’t stop. In fact, I’ve even managed to entice several of my poetry-blogger friends into trying their hand at it, too, with some very interesting results. Some of them don’t even have video cameras, and just use public-domain footage.

As a blogger, I’ve been working ekphrastically for a long time: sometimes when I’m too tired to think of anything else, a photo can make a great writing prompt. In 2008 and 2009, I was co-curator of a site called Postal Poems, where we asked poets to create and submit what were essentially modern equivalents of haiga.

Lazarus by Teju Cole

A poetry postcard by Teju Cole from PostalPoems.com

That experience really prepared me, I think, to appreciate the effectiveness of a creative juxtaposition between text and image. It’s that juxtaposition, more than anything else, which makes a videopoem work. One-to-one matches between text and image are much less interesting to me, except sometimes in the hands of a skilled animator.

Aside from the necessity of feeding a poetry blog, what are some of the other reasons why people make poetry videos? Here are a few I’ve noticed:

  • To document live readings or other performances.
  • To accompany live readings, etc.
  • For art installations.
  • To share audio of favorite poems on YouTube.
  • To show at film festivals.
  • To broadcast on television.
  • To serve as book trailers or to accompany books as DVDs.
  • To publish in online magazines.
  • To fulfill course requirements.

Naturally, these uses shape the kinds of videos that are made. I include some but not all kinds of poetry videos at Moving Poems, where my categorization system reflects my own interests and also my relative ignorance when I launched the site. (The numbers in parentheses are numbers of videos in that category as of Oscar Night 2012.)

Videopoems (621)
Animation (150)
Author-made videopoems (119)
Concrete and visual poetry (16)
Spoken Word (74)
Dance (30)
Musical settings (28)
Documentary (18)
Interviews (15)
Miscellaneous (12)

In hindsight, I might’ve done well to include a couple of sub-categories to animation, such as machinima and kinetic text. I do insist that a video include a poem or poem-like text either as graphic text or in the soundtrack; films or videos that are merely inspired by, or made in response to, poems don’t make the cut.

O.K., now let’s talk semantics. In a nutshell, no one can agree what to call the hybrid genre that I refer to as videopoetry, and critics argue about what does or doesn’t quality as a filmpoem or videopoem. Historically, the term film poem came first. Trouble was, modernist filmmakers didn’t want to include text in any way—a film poem should merely imitate the approach of poetry, they said. Poetry-film was a term coined in the 60s to specify a new, hybrid genre which did include text, though some people still called everything film poetry anyway. George Aguilar coined the term Cin(e)poetry, which stands for cinematic electronic poetry, in the early 90s. Poem film, film-poem, film/poem and filmpoem have all been deployed at one time or another, especially in the U.K. Videopoetry, a term originally coined by Tom Konyves in 1978, seems ascendant on the web.

As for “film” versus “video,” digitization has greatly muddied the waters. In North America, “film” seems too specific to the actual, physical medium, whereas in the U.K., according to Scottish filmmaker Alastair Cook, people feel the same way about “video” — it makes them think of videotape. So there’s no consensus on what to call digital moving pictures (which can be expanded to include Flash animations as well).

Well, whatever you call them, filmmakers have been making them for quite a while. Here are some highlights from the filmpoetry/videopoetry tradition:

1920: Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand — the first feature-length poetry film.

1952: Bells of Atlantis by Ian Hugo with text by Anais Nin.

1973: Frank and Caroline Mouris’ Frank Film wins an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.

1975: Herman Berlandt launches an annual poetry film festival in San Francisco.

1978: Tom Konyves makes the first videopoem as part of the Montreal Vehicule Poets.

1987: Tony Harrison’s V airs on Channel 4, is hugely popular and politically controversial, and sparks a minor craze for film-poems on British television.

1995: Electronic Poetry Center goes online.

1996: UbuWeb goes online.

2005: YouTube is born.

Poetry film festivals now regularly occur in every continent except Antarctica, featuring poems from many languages. Videobardo in Buenos Aires, Orbita in Latvia, ZEBRA in Berlin and Visible Verse in Vancouver have each been going for at least a decade, and more poetry film festivals seem to be popping up every year. Meanwhile, I keep finding newcomers whose very lack of familiarity with this tradition brings a fresh perspective. “I call these ‘video poems,'” enthuses artist Elena Knox about her installation at a London bookstore, and yes, looking at her documentary on Vimeo, one can see that’s clearly what they are. Like the eye itself, the videopoem has evolved independently many times.

For further reading:

Tom Konyves, “Videopoetry: A Manifesto

Alastair Cook, “The Filming of Poetry

Weldon C. Wees, “Poetry Film

Fil Ieropoulos, “Poetry-Film & The Film Poem: Some Clarifications

Michelle Bitting, “The Muse and the Making of Poem Films

Swoon & David Tomaloff interview with Ken Robidoux for Connotation Press