~ Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest ~

Muscle Memory by Michael Biegner

The last of the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest runner-up poems was written in response to the very same footage by Lori H. Ersolmaz that prompted the winning poem by Amy Miller. This time, the poet is Michael Biegner:

Muscle Memory

This ocean is a gray tidal yank,
That speaks with a blurred accent
of wild greens and blue – the yellow
skin, the sad-eyed light,
these make up the neurons of dark storms.
This frame is a blight of opaque water and dying
movement: go on and be brave.
Sea birds carry word of a drowning in the canals,
To all the lost faces,
To the pink buildings. Helium
lifts the mylar thinking. Salt drops are alive everywhere.
Slog on, unfocused – to the place
where breathing cannot be felt,
where it is not the kind of music we can play by ear.

The resulting film is, I think, quite different from Backward Like a Ghost — which suggests just how central the poem is to our experience of a poetry film. Peter Danbury is the reader.

Biegner described his writing process as follows:

Writing is a generative process for me. I chose Lori’s film because it was rich in composite images. I quickly realized that I could view her work as one views an abstract painting. I found a cozy corner in my favorite coffee shop one afternoon and played the video over and over, each time writing feelings, emotions, suggestive links that came to me as I watched the video and took in the soundtrack. I did not worry about line breaks (I tend to write for voice anyway, so most breaks occur during natural breath points).

After developing the mass of the poem, I began to whittle it away, almost like a sculptor chiseling away flecks of marble. I wanted the end piece to be stark, because the sound track made me feel a barrenness; its repetitiveness paints a great dearth.

The recurring theme of water in Lori’s work also finds its way into this poem. I start with the ocean tugging, suggesting muscle, gravity, a primal force. The drowning is an invented conceit implying the inherent dangers of water. It highlights the struggle of making one’s way (slogging) through primal forces that surround us.

The looseness of the focus of many of the shots connects me to memory: its fragility, its subjectivity. The flashing lightning reminded me of firing neurons of a brain. So when I was done, I had a poem that dealt with these two diametrically opposed aspects of humanity: the physicality of existence, and the realm of memory where we seem to dwell.

Muscle memory, of course, is the way the human body is able to repeat movements with little or no input from the brain. Lori’s video evoked in me the contrast of what we plan versus what we do; what we contemplate in action versus what we allow ourselves to do from some other parts of us.

Lori Ersolmaz has already written at length about the making of her first film from the contest, but had this to add about Muscle Memory:

I am honored to have been able to work with not one, but two wonderful poems from the Poetry Storehouse 2014 Anniversary Contest.

When I received Michael’s poem I re-read it numerous times and felt that it was important to let it breathe. The poem gave me the room to spread it out from beginning to end. I find it incredibly interesting that visuals can help stoke emotions across mediums in subtle, varied, yet common ways—vice versa! Michael’s poem provided a wonderful screenplay that in many ways touched upon my own emotions when I first created the film. For instance, at the beginning, “Yellow skin, sad-eyed light, these make-up the neurons of dark storms…” is a concept about capitalism that I often grapple with and captured my feelings perfectly. I wanted to allow that idea to merge with the imagery from the very beginning and is why there’s such a long break until we hear a voice again. Peter Danbury’s narrative arrived the night before I started editing and his inflection and annunciation of Michael’s poem clicked with me immediately and influenced my use of space within the three-minute film.

I am grateful for everyone who I had the opportunity to collaborate with on the Poetry Storehouse Anniversary Contest, but in hindsight I wish I had more time to actually spend conversing with the poets before I finished the composed pieces. I feel in the future I can gain additional perspective if I connect with them in advance of the final cut. Nonetheless, the process I experienced while working with and viewing all the poems and remixes for the contest will stay with me for some time.

Thanks again to all the poets and filmmakers who took part in this challenging and, I think, ground-breaking contest. We’re all the richer for it.

Foretold by Luisa A. Igloria

Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, probably needs no introduction here. Nor was this the first time he’s ever worked with a poem by Luisa A. Igloria, though this may be my favorite of their collaborations to date. And their usual working order was reversed, because Luisa’s poem was written in response to a “first draft” of the video, one of the three prompts in the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. Poetry judge Jessica Piazza selected Luisa’s poem as a runner-up:


In that future which pressed
ever closer toward us, time was a room

whose shape we could no longer determine.
In every city, men stood on platforms

gesticulating and making pronouncements.
Armored tanks rolled into the last

encampments, leaving tracks in the river’s
boiled mud. We knew when to flee,

what to gather up, what to leave behind.
We walked deeper into blind forests,

climbed as high as our feet allowed
up the thinned hair of trees. They let us

cocoon there, they let us make hammocks.
At night, we watched as distant flares

limned the unnavigable horizon.
At night, some of us told stories,

making shadows with our hands
to mimic the movement of wings.

Marc explained how he put together the video used in the contest:

I had footage of several Psychic TV performances by Allan Chumak. Once, I re-edited a bunch of them for a collab with another poet, but that didn’t happen. The cuts were not wasted and waited on the shelves for another occasion.

I had also footage of an ASMR performance by Epehemeral Rift waiting to be used.

Around the time of the Poetry Storehouse contest proposals, I thought it might be a good idea to put those two pieces of footage together. For the purpose of viewing quality I added an extra layer of light and colour to the Ephemeral Rift recordings. Not really a match, but an interesting pairing.

I created a track and edited the different pieces loosely to the music, hoping it would give some writers an idea.

Luisa told us:

My writing process in response to Marc’s video, which resulted in the poem “Foretold,” was to open two screens on my computer: on the left side, Marc’s video, and on the right, the first page of a new (blank) Word document. I decided that I was going to compose—start immediately to write—as soon as the video started. Almost all of the poem’s lines were generated exactly in this manner, with very slight revisions afterwards (mostly having to do with lineation and spacing, tightening some of my word choices). In Marc’s film, the images—and their strategic juxtaposition—were immediately striking, as was his choice to strip them of sound and instead use music and ambient sound. Though I realized they may not have had anything specifically to do with each other, their pairing in the film’s sequences began to suggest an underlying narrative to me, filled with foreboding and portent. The occurrences of repetition in the film suggested that. The closeups of hands and mouths spoke to me of something both very intimate and very distant, and in some instances those mouths looked as if they could very well be on the verge of varying emotions: rage, for instance; or pleasure, or fear.

Marc added:

Once I got Luisa’s poem, it all came together perfectly. Suddenly these images and their pairing become very political. Nic S. provided a very suitable reading for the track. It all needed a bit of re-editing (in length and pace), but the main visual idea is still the same, but much more powerful because of Luisa’s fantastic poem.

I Was Grass by Amy Miller

Spanish director Eduardo Yagüe’s film for the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest runner-up poem by Amy Miller. As mentioned in the contest results, poetry judge Jessica Piazza actually selected two of Miller’s poems: one as the first-place winner (see “Backward Like a Ghost“) and the other as one of three runners-up. Here’s that second poem, Miller’s response to Yagüe’s contest footage:

I Was Grass

Under the city, I grew
and sabotaged
the alleys.
What did I have to drink
but cracks of sun
and the sometimes slash
of paint? Or was that
song? I heard it too. Bachata,
an imagined circle step.
You don’t think
grass can dance?
The bending
blade and its shadow.
No, watch. Can you see me?
The stem, the glint,
the green.

Yagüe had this to say about the making of the film:

Nic S. suggested I make a video as inspiration for poets writing for The Poetry Storehouse’s first anniversary contest. I am always very honored to collaborate with TPS, so I told Nic that I would be delighted to make the video.

I spent September and October in Stockholm, Sweden. I recorded footage for Marc Neys (Deze zachte witte kamer, poems by Runa Svetlikova). I also directed a videoclip called La viuda, for Spanish singer Pablo Werner, and started several personal projects (such as the Storehouse remix Broken Figure, by Kathleen Kirk). I also took a lot of pictures of the beautiful Swedish capital and its magical light.

Close to Kungsholmen, the district where I live when I go to Stockholm, there is a place that one might find in every big city (it could be New York, Paris or Madrid) and that’s the set I used for the video. A rough stage full of graffiti, concrete and passing trains contrasting with the fragility and tenderness of the great little actress Emma Sjöstrand (10 years old). The general idea was to capture claustrophobic urban images of this place and contrast them with a few shots in a park (Kronobergsparken) with a very different light, air and colors. The only idea I was sure about was the girl snapping her fingers, staring at the camera and disappearing.

I chose for editing some very beautiful music by Kosta T. But my idea was to ask for an original musical score for the final cut from Four Hands Project — the great, imaginative film and TV composers Alberto Ayuso and David Gómez. They composed an exclusive score for what I consider a very special video.

I am quite sure Amy Miller recorded her poem while she was watching the video. When Nic sent me the audio I hardly touched anything, just added a shot or two and revised the rhythm of some images. Amy’s poem was perfect for the images and the music fit incredibly well with both images and words.

I hope you like the final result. I am very happy to have been a collaborator in this amazing project of TPS. Congratulations to Amy Miller and the other winners and participants in this year’s contest, and very special congratulations to Nic S. for her great and generous work of spreading poetry and connecting artists all over the world.

We asked Miller about her writing process. She wrote,

I was moved to write a poem for Eduardo Yagüe’s video—of course—because of that girl. That beautiful, innocent, wily girl. She owns that alley. She is that alley. But she’s something else, too: a spirit of defiance.

The video opens and ends with grass. And I couldn’t help thinking of what that city will look like long after humans are gone, that apocalyptic vision of the vines engulfing the concrete, the wilderness taking over again. And the Carl Sandburg echo is no accident; his grass covered the battlefields, but this girl’s grass uproots the city, grows up—as she does—right through it. She is the blackberry, the kudzu, the bindweed that splits apart the pavement of every civilization and imparts her wildness into it. I think there’s a youthful hope to that, a reminder that every kid has dreams that reach far beyond the walls of where she’s growing up. Every kid is capable of bringing down the old city, of changing the drab old ways—just watch out.

I wanted the girl to ask questions, to get in the reader’s face: “You don’t think grass can dance?” And I wanted her to talk about an actual dance. In the theatre festival where I work, we’re doing a play next year that features Puerto Rican Jíbaro folk music, and it’s been on my mind a lot. I started looking on the internet for a dance that Latina girls in New York might aspire to do, and I found Bachata, which originated in the Dominican Republic. I chose it for the sound of the word and its popularity in clubs. But when I realized I was going to have to record the poem, I had to go back online and listen to recordings of people saying the word because I’d never heard it spoken. (I’m in Southern Oregon; Bachata, along with many other cool things, has not reached us yet.) I had practice the word over and over before recording the poem. Probably still didn’t nail it.

Is Eduardo Yagüe wonderful, or what? Such lyric beauty in this film. What a privilege it was to work with it.

Backward Like a Ghost by Amy Miller

This is the film made for the prizewinning poem from the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. Lori H. Ersolmaz is the filmmaker (see the recent Poetry Storehouse interview with her), and as announced on Monday, Amy Miller’s poem was selected by Jessica Piazza along with three runners-up in the Poetry category of the contest. In each case, the poems were written ekphrastically, in response to one of three, brief clips — which can still be viewed in the contest guidelines. Here’s what Miller wrote after watching Ersolmaz’s clip:

Backward Like a Ghost

They came so far to see this.
Then up close, the hollering and arrows,
the flash of something they should know
but can’t quite understand. The lonely
talk of everyone. Together
we make a city, close
and warm but blinding
in its multitudes. Night,
then open glass. Backward
like a ghost, they move against
what comes. If they find
the solace of sunlight
in a shallow field,
we’ll know them
by the dark birds
of their eyes, the home
only they can conjure.
It’s coming,
the clearing and the day.
They’ll step out into our city.
We won’t see them after that,
their parties and rising,
their dust that settles
just like ours.

When Ersolmaz read the poem, she decided to call on not one, but two readers to lend their voices to the soundtrack: Nic S. and Robert Peake. She told us:

Amy’s poem feels embedded with the imagery in an esoteric way. Amazing how she was able to do that. I now completely see the piece the way she’s written the poem. I knew what I wanted to do with your voices and they fit so beautifully together too! I am so pleased you asked me to participate and honored that the winning poem was with my piece.

UPDATE (15 Nov.): Read Ersolmaz’ short essay “The making of ‘Backward Like a Ghost’” at Moving Poems Magazine.

We asked Miller what it was like to write in this way.

It was so much fun to write poems for the videos in the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. I’ve always liked writing ekphrastic poems based on photos, paintings, and musical pieces. But a video is a different animal, with the visual and aural elements already working together to form something more complex than their parts alone. And writing specifically to pair a poem with a video, there’s the added element of time: The video has its own rhythms, and it only goes on for a finite time. Coming up with a poem for that that feels a bit like songwriting—fitting an idea and voice to a structure imposed by something outside of the text.

To start the process, I watched Lori’s video over and over. To me, the predominate images are the arrival by sea at the start (a hint of Liberty Island), the blurred people and cityscapes in the middle (including that backward ghost, reflected in a bus window, maybe?), and that clear shot at the end of the tall buildings on a canal, a place that felt like Amsterdam. All of this, in my mind, added up to a story of immigrants, and specifically, refugees. It’s the “after” image of what happens to refugees after the part of the story that we usually hear—the displacement and the journey—ends. They reach the shores of their new home—and then what? That blurry, confusing middle part of the video is a picture of alienation, of culture shock and skirting the scene without quite being able to understand what it’s about. There’s also a deep, world-ending loneliness in the images of water and sky. And the hazy shots of people speaking—so close, right at hand, yet indistinct—evoke the blurriness and dimming of communication when you know a little of a language and then are bombarded with it full strength, all day.

Originally I wrote the poem in first person plural—“we,” from the viewpoint of the immigrants. But that began to feel too precious and disingenuous, the appropriation of someone else’s story. I have never been an immigrant. But I’ve lived in cities where there are lots of immigrants, and I’ve heard and seen the attendant bigotry all too often. So I chose the POV of a collective “we,” of the city itself, a polyglot community built on the waves of immigrants who came before. I wanted to evoke a collective compassion for the newcomers and the stories and realities they come from.

Congratulations again to Amy, and a huge thanks to her and Lori for this wonderful film. In my opinion, the ekphrastic approach is a great way for writers and filmmakers to collaborate, and I hope these contest results encourage more of it. (We’ll be sharing the other three films from the contest here and on Vimeo in the coming days.)

First Grade Activist by Nic S.

This film by Marie Craven is the remix category winner of the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. The challenge was to “Create a remix (a video remix, an art collage, a soundscape, a sound collage, or surprise us) in response to any Storehouse poem currently up at the site.” Erica Goss, Marc Neys and I were the video judges, but in fact all the remix entries were videos, so our top pick was the category winner.

On the poetry side of the contest, Jessica Piazza picked a winner and three runners-up, and I’ll be sharing the resulting ekphrastic videopoems by Neys, Eduardo Yagüe and Lori Ersolmaz as they are completed. Please see the full announcement at Moving Poems Magazine. Let me just quote what Erica Goss wrote about why we selected First Grade Activist.

In judging the contest, we looked for an overall fit between the poem, images and soundtrack. The winner had to demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of the elements of video poetry, blending them to create an artwork that is more than the sum of its parts.

As we evaluated the contest entries, we watched the videos many times over. Dave watched each video on different days, to try to eliminate the influence of whatever mood he might be in at the time, while Marc says he looked at “the total package, the crafting, as in editing skills, original camerawork, and the visual concept and originality.” For my part, I watched looking for that indescribable quality that a good video poem has, the juxtaposition of poetry, sound and image that jumps from the screen.

We agreed that “First Grade Activist” has those qualities. Dave said it had a “great populist aesthetic, as is appropriate for the subject matter. The music is fitting and compelling. The split screen with text on the left is on one hand reminiscent of a classroom blackboard, and on the other just a good choice for a self-referential poem like this one. I like everything about it.”

I thought it dealt well with a subject that’s gotten a lot of attention lately: bullying. I love that the poem imagines a “first grade activist” who combats bullying with a poem praising her friend’s red hair, the very attribute she’s getting teased for. As the children march down the hallway, little ones first, we feel the pain of the child who doesn’t fit in and the courage of her friend, who imagines a way to help.

Marc added, “The video is as crisp and fresh as a first school day, with a strong and taut concept in a tight execution. Good rhythm and good use of split screen in combination with the poem on screen (and the use of red in the letters). The music brings it together and gives it a nice build up, while the visuals remain the same. The video is clever and actually lifts the poem to a higher level.”

Congratulations to Marie Craven for winning the contest, and thanks to all who sent in their work.

The music in the soundtrack is by Dementio13, and the film footage is courtesy of the Prelinger Archives. See the contest results announcement for Craven’s bio.

On a personal note, I was pleased that the winning film was made with a poem by Nic S., even though this barely registered when I was evaluating the entries. Nic is of course the driving force behind The Poetry Storehouse, and added some of her poems at the beginning (as did I) mainly to set a good example and get the ball rolling. She works tirelessly to promote others’ poetry, lending her wonderful reading voice to many projects and creating a huge number of remixes herself, but her own poetry deserves to be much better known.