~ Martina Pfeiler ~

Some Thoughts on Tom Konyves’ “Videopoetry – A Manifesto”

Of its definition.

Videopoetry1 is a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of images with text and sound. In the measured blending of these three elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience.

Presented as a multimedia object of a fixed duration, the principal function of a videopoem is to demonstrate the process of thought and the simultaneity of experience, expressed in words – visible and/or audible – whose meaning is blended with, but not illustrated by, the images and the soundtrack.

This definition is an interesting approach as Tom Konyves puts videopoems into the tradition of poetry, rather than film per se and therefore allows a media-specific transgression of the genre from the page to the stage to the screen. From a scholarly approach, this expansion provides a back-bone for analysis that one can rely on. The challenge that many teachers (especially from literature departments) face, but will hopefully embrace, is to stay open to new media developments and experimental art forms that have merged with poetry at specific points since the early 20th century and will continue to do so.

At this current juncture, I believe that it will be important to learn more about certain trajectories as well as about individuals, i.e. where videopoets see themselves aesthetically, ideologically, where they think they come from, who they felt was inspirational for their work and what it is that drives them into this complex relationship between words, images and sounds in a world that is already saturated with media. George Aguliar’s machinima Warriors of Aliveness is a vivid reflection of that current mode of existence. Poetry has always had the potential to express an alienation between the self and its environment for numerous reasons. In the course of a century, poetry has begun to adjust to and align itself with the visual arts and sound in order to continue to explore its own (up)rootedness and to branch out to new media art forms.

Consequently, it requires people in the arts and academia to see multiple strands of traditions and trajectories where the arts have crossed their creative paths. In my book Poetry Goes Intermedia (2010) I treat videopoems/Cin(E-) poems/poetry films as an intermedia art form, which requires an openness towards the sheer power of the intermedia arts that one can only hope will begin to flood universities. Some of the best works today – such as The Dice Player by Nissmah Roshdy – come out of media departments, so change is already happening. Where academia is still lagging behind is to introduce students (i.e. practitioners and non-practitioners alike) to a century-long practice of an art form that has so far largely been ignored. We need more experts who know about various styles of filmmaking as well as about new media art developments.

The vast collection of videopoems on Dave Bonta’s movingpoems site will help us to begin to see various forms of relations. By archiving and curating videopoems one may begin to be able to draw connections between them, such as, for example, “nature videopoems”, “feminist videopoems”, “anti-war videopoems” and many other thematic relations. The website will help us to investigate who creates these films and who collaborates with whom to be able to further explore where certain networks have emerged on a local and global scale.

The literary and oral legacy of written and recorded poetry provides artists globally with a range of poems that have not yet been put to screen. It is different with poems that are written for the screen. Opening oneself up to different media will put the verbal back into the picture (literally), which might be the one critical tool that keeps our responses to various forms of media in a productive distance and provides us with new perspectives on literary creations as well.

One unifying criteria that Tom Konyves proposes in order to define a videopoem is that it holds “a poetic experience.” It would be interesting to exchange ideas with people from various parts of the world as to see how they define a poetic experience, i.e. if it still retains its universal quality that it seems to have and whether this transcends the medium of verbal poetry. A poetic experience is something one can have in nature, in a city, by looking into the face of another person, as a response to injustice, to the news on television etc.– i.e. the source can be located anywhere (without ever even expressing it). It can also revolve around the construction of emotions, thoughts, images etc. that emerge from a digital remix that is driven by creative insights on previously mediated forms of poetic expressions. From the point of the viewer, in order to get in contact with this “poetic experience” on the screen, what may be the best place to experience a videopoem? A computer screen? A movie theater? A museum? A videopoet’s home studio? A handheld device?

If meaningful image-sounds-word relationships change and evolve, then so will our thoughts on these creative productions, and we will ultimately develop a critical language to analyze them together with our students, who will be more and more exposed to videopoems and new media art.

A question that comes up, and about which Tom Konyves goes into detail in his manifesto, is whether there are limitations with regard to the narrative mode and a poetic experience, and whether a visual impression can create this poetic experience despite or even because a documentary or narrative style accompanies it. How “poetic” do each of the media (verbal/sound/images) have to be? What makes this “balance”? What if the medial components blend perfectly, i.e. create a poetic experience, but are not necessarily juxtaposing each other as in one of my favorite short animated films, Ryan Larkin’s Walking, but as well in Billy Collins’ The Dead? In short, how does the art of blending come into play as opposed to the art of illustrating?

It seems to me that the poetic achievement of a verbal-visual-acoustic poetic experience on film can unfold in at least two interesting ways (and so many more and overlapping ones): one mode of poetic experience may come from the juxtaposed space between the medial components – i.e. something one learns from and appreciates in regard to the achieved discrepancy and disrupture. The second mode of poetic experience may thrive from connections between the media precisely because they are in sync with each other.

Yet, regardless of how analytically one may want to approach these questions, the power that videopoems hold is that they give us the chance to explore poetic experiences from many parts of the world, to collaborate and share them online, and to allow poetry to continue to shape us as human beings.


lIn a German context the term videopoem may evoke a video tape and thus comes across as dated, but I am using the term here in my response as it points to Tom Konyves’ manifesto where it has many layers of meaning. (back)

YouTube video of slam poet Julia Engelmann surpasses 7 million views

With 7,061,845 views to date, this video has set a new popularity benchmark for online poetry videos. It was first uploaded on July 1, 2013, and I’m not sure how rapidly it gained popularity — probably not quite rapidly enough to qualify as viral in the strict sense of virality according to that quote I shared in my post about “Speke, Parrot” last month: “A video … is ‘viral’ if it gets more than 5 million views in a 3-7 day period.” But I think we can agree that given the relative lack of popularity poets enjoy in Western European societies, 7 million views is extraordinary. “Speke Parrot” attracted the attention of the BBC after just 110,000 views in four days.

I’m indebted to Martina Pfeiler for bringing this video to my attention. I don’t know any German, so I asked her what the poem was about. She replied,

Julia Engelmann takes up Asaf Avidan’s Reckoning Song (One Day), which has 16,000,000 hits on YouTube. In numerous stanzas she talks about procrastinating on things rather than taking one’s life into one’s own hands. The final part of the poem turns into an appeal to do the things one really likes to do, so that by the end of one’s life one may have a chance to tell the stories that one really wants to tell about one’s life.

Martina Pfeiler on poetry film

Martina Pfeiler is a German scholar of literature and American studies specializing in, among other things, the history of poetry and technology. She’s the author of the book Poetry Goes Intermedia: US-amerikanische Lyrik des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts aus kultur- und medienwissenschaftlicher Perspektive. We spoke in the garden of the Pfefferbett Hostel in Berlin on October 19, 2014, during the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival.

Reference is made to the following films:

The conversation was wide-ranging (and I’ve edited out more than half of it—please excuse all the jump cuts), covering such topics as how poetry film fits into the larger context of poets’ use of technology, how poetry films may be used in the classroom to introduce students to poetry as a whole, and how the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival has changed (or not changed) over the years. My favorite thing that Dr. Pfeiler said was this:

I could see myself going to something like an international poetry museum, where you have different rooms where you can explore a poetry film, or poetry films, either theme-based or throughout the last century, and interact with it again—just me and the film. So that experience: like an installation, where you take time, you sit in your little installation box, it’s all black, maybe some other, four or five people are sitting on the floor but you don’t necessarily know where they sit.

Yes! I love watching videos in art museums. Someone needs to do this. Surely there’s a billionaire out there looking to put his or her name on a new, unique museum?