~ HNA Haibun Film Festival ~

HNA Haibun Festival 2023: a brief report

I was delighted to be able to present nine unique poetry films in Cincinnati last Thursday for Haiku North America 2023. HNA had sponsored a haibun contest last fall to pick model texts for filmmakers to work with, as they note:

All submissions were evaluated anonymously by our haibun judges, Jim Kacian and Jannifer Hambrick, then sent to Moving Poems. Not all haibun selected by the haibun judges were made into films.

Close to 100 people attended a panel on new directions in haibun, moderated by Jim Kacian, with my talk on haibun and videopoetry bringing up the rear, which allowed me to prepare the audience for what they were about to see. The other panelists were Lew Watts, Rich Youmans, and Jennifer Hambrick. The new book Haibun: A Writer’s Guide, by Watts, Youmans, and Roberta Beary, was hot off the presses, so there was considerable interest in the overall topic. Jim had convinced us to each close our talk with a haiku, as if it had been a haibun, because why not? So as abstruse as we got, we still had to bring things back to earth at the end, which felt right. This was not a typical academic conference!

I’ll paste in the text of my talk below, though as I said on Thursday, I am not a brilliant scholar, and in fact often find it painful to get out of “poetry brain” long enough think in a straight line. Anyway, I was grateful that most of the audience stuck around for the festival, oo‘d and ah‘d at all the right places, and seemed genuinely inspired and/or energized by the screening, judging by the many kind comments I got afterwards. I showed the five adaptations of Joseph Aversano’s haibun “The Gone Missing” first, then the other four. Audience discussion afterwards focused on a couple of questions: Why did that one haibun appeal to so many filmmakers? (Watch them for yourself and decide.) And: How can we encourage more of this? Which for many poets, of course, means: How do I find a filmmaker to work with? I suggested that haiku people might want to set up something similar to the sadly defunct Poetry Storehouse, aggregating texts whose authors have licensed them for remix under the Creative Commons at a site that can then be shared with filmmakers. If anyone does anything like this, or has other ideas, be sure to let us know.

I’ve now posted all nine films to Moving Poems: watch them here. I don’t know whether we’ll do this again, but we’re certainly hoping it prompts more filmmakers to consider working with haibun—and maybe spawns a few new videopoets, too. Here’s my argument for why that might make sense:

Haibun and Videopoetry: some considerations

presentation for the Haibun Innovations panel at HNA 2023

Videopoetry (AKA cinepoetry or filmpoetry) is a hybrid of film and poetry that can work especially well with haibun. Like haibun, it hijacks a narrative medium for lyrical ends in a creative subversion of a typical audience’s expectations.

To understand how videopoetry works, a haiku poet need look no further than haiga, because in both cases, the relationship between text and imagery is tricky to get right, and the best videopoems, like the best haiga, avoid mere illustration in favor of more subtle and suggestive interplay. The hope is that the right juxtaposition of images and ideas will produce a kind of gestalt.

Videopoetry pioneer Tom Konyves has stated that the best texts to use in a videopoem should have a quality of incompleteness—something also associated with Japanese-derived poetry forms, where indirection and ambiguity are often prized. Otherwise, a film adaptation can feel superfluous and unnecessary: the poem was already complete without it. You need a text that doesn’t spell everything out.

This happy coincidence between traditional Japanese and avant-garde aesthetics makes haibun videopoetry a fruitful area for poet-filmmakers to explore, especially given the democratizing of access to video-making tools in the digital era. Learning to make videopoems can be very challenging, but no more so than learning how to make an effective haiku. As shareable online content, haibun videos have the potential to enlarge the audience for modern haiku.

Whether or not that actually happens, learning how to shoot and edit videopoems, or collaborating closely with a filmmaker, does offer the possibility of a change in how we compose and think about haibun.

Film is so closely identified with storytelling in most viewers’ minds, that it becomes a challenge to prepare audiences for more avant-garde uses of the genre. I used the term “hijack” above, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. Pushing people out of their comfort zones, especially by removing that anticipation of what might be coming next in a narrative, can be a real challenge for directors of poetry films. But since many haibun begin with narrative prose, film adaptation can follow a pattern intimately familiar to most older audiences from watching commercial television, whether they’re conscious of it or not: a narrative segment followed by a lyrical non sequitur. (And in fact, many directors of poetry films these days are moonlighting from their real gigs with the advertising industry.)

Film, like music, like the spoken word, is a temporal art: it unfolds over time rather than in three-dimensional space. But making a film is like making virtually anything, in that hours of effort are required to make something that goes past really very quickly by comparison. Haiku poets must be acutely conscious of this disparity. Make a haiku into a film and you can suggest something of the mental process or circumstances that led up to a given ah-ha moment, while also showcasing the asymmetry so central to Japanese aesthetics. Make a haibun into a film, and the bun portions serve something of the same function. A haibun film, then, might glibly be described as art imitating life imitating art. Less glibly, it offers a way to represent fleeting moments of insight within a temporal flow, with the tantalizing possibility of communicating something of the flow state itself.

lakeshine on my shirt
i gain an audience
of mallards