~ The Poetry School ~

Recent talks on filmpoetry and videopoetry: Alan Fentiman, Tony Williams, Ross Sutherland, Valerie LeBlanc and Daniel Dugas

Terra Incognita: Mapping the Filmpoem is a beautifully shot conversation between filmmaker Alan Fentiman and poet Tony Williams. Two years ago, they collaborated on a documentary about the link between walking and poetic inspiration called Roam to Write, which is also very worth watching. As for Terra Incognita,

This film paper was shown at the “Topographies: places to find something” conference at Bristol University on 15th May 2015.

This is the beginning of an ongoing discussion. We would welcome any comments or suggestions for other film poems to look at. [link added]


And here’s a very different talk: Ross Sutherland‘s Thirty Poems / Thirty Videos: End of Residency wrap-up for The Poetry School. I’ve been sharing some of those videos at the main site, but you can watch them all in chronological order at the Poetry School blog or in reverse chronological order at Sutherland’s Tumblr.

It’s instructive to compare these two videos. Right away, the difference in production values should clue us in to the gulf that separates these two aesthetic philosophies. Fentiman is a trained filmmaker, as shown by the care taken even to coordinate their wardrobe with the background, while Sutherland’s vlog-style video seems relatively unpremeditated and completely unedited, with the annoying result that the sound and picture get badly out of sync by the end of it. But Sutherland’s background as a maker of poetry videos is in literal videotape:

So in some respects, the aesthetic differences between these two talks, both in their style and in their substance, can be ascribed to the distinction between poetry film and videopoetry often drawn by Tom Konyves, for example in his recent essay, “Redefining poetry in the age of the screen“:

The way I see it, the writer who uses “poetry film” automatically designates the work as more film than poetry. I myself began to create what I called “videopoems” when I was more a poet than a video artist, so I naturally considered these works as “poetry”.

However, it’s not quite that simple, because none of these gentlemen seems quite ready to think of a film or a video as a poem per se; some of Sutherland’s videos are mere illustrations of pre-existing texts, while Fentiman and Williams speak favorably of Alastair Cook’s Filmpoem model, which goes part-way toward Konyves in its embrace of the centrality of poetic juxtaposition of images and text. But most interesting of all, I think, is the fact that the talks converge in emphasizing the positive results that can come from working ekphrastically: starting with film footage or found video and writing a text in response. So more than anything, I think, the differences here reflect a difference in venue and audience. Sutherland is making web videos for a younger audience weaned on YouTube remixes, vlogging, and live performance poetry, while Fentiman and Williams are oriented toward the film world with its focus on art houses and festivals, and perhaps share a preference for more mainstream, page-poetry.

Incidentally, for those who’d like to see Sutherland in person, there are still tickets available for the second run of his Standby For Tape Back-Up performance at London’s Soho Theatre, July 6-11.

Bridging the gap between these two talks is a third pair of talks given by Valerie LeBlanc and Daniel Dugas in late April at the Galerie Sans Nom in Moncton, New Brunswick, as part of the Text(e) Image Beat videopoetry exhibition. These however are available not in video form but as a PDF. LeBlanc alludes to the influence of yet another audience and medium: television.

Creators are now presenting their texts visually and / or performing their poems. Many have realized that messages can be effectively conveyed using the multimodal character of video poetry. Similarly to advertisements created for marketing campaigns, these works are characteristically short, less than 5 minutes in duration. You have probably all seen the new ads that read like poetry, drawing you into new lifestyles through product placement. Picture the mood and a message without the bottom line and you might be closer to the concept of video poetry.

She goes on to say:

While many of the historical examples of text(e) / image / beat used in combination do come from advertising / product placement / war propaganda, the tools and techniques out there for relaying messages have become highly accessible for artist use in this new century. In the late 1990’s when access to digital tools opened up, artists stepped in to embrace the possibilities for expanding their use. While New Media currently tends to imply experimental computer programming, video use in storytelling continues to hold interest.

Whether working with images, text and sound or all three, these media tools offer the possibility of bringing something that has escaped from the marketing machine we are all rolling with, and sometimes under. It is the possibility for impacting an internal change through a product that is not defined by its bottom line. It might be through ideas embedded in a world apart from imagined clichés. It might be an opportunity to change the pace, which at times might be useful for resetting the clock.

Do read the whole thing. Brief as it is, her talk opens up new avenues for thinking about videopoetry, at least for me.

As for Dugas’ talk, “DONNER UN SENS AU MONDE ENTIER,” I don’t know French, so I’m not entirely sure what he said, but I gather from Google Translate that there’s some emphasis on the influence of video art, the relationship with political and environmental activism, and the central role of the digital revolution. His conclusion:

Lorsque j’ai commencé à écrire de la poésie, j’ai aussi commencé à expérimenter avec le super-8, créant des bandes sonores en direct pour mes films. Le mélange du texte, de l’image et de la musique semblait une opération naturelle, mais aussi magique. Il ne s’agissait pas seulement d’un va-et-vient entre le texte, l’image et le son : la nouvelle entité devenait une traverse pour découvrir quelque chose de nouveau. Nous savons maintenant que l’espace entre les disciplines est fragile, que les murs sont maintenant pénétrables et nous sommes reconnaissants pour cette évolution des choses. Nous pouvons enfin voyager d’un genre à un autre pour essayer de donner un sens au monde entier.

[When I began to write poetry, I also started to experiment with super-8, creating soundtracks live for my films. The mixture of text, image and music seemed a natural process, but also magical. It was not just a back-and-forth between text, image and sound: the new entity became a crossbar for discovering something new. We know now that the space between disciplines is fragile, the walls are now penetrable, and we are thankful for this evolution of things. We can finally travel from one genre to another to try to make sense of the world as a whole.]

Pythagoras in 60 Seconds by Ross Sutherland


As part of Ross Sutherland‘s “30 Videos/30 Poems” digital residency at The Poetry School, he welcomed challenges from students. So Nick Halloway suggested that he try to fit a poem to this short film by Alan Kitching, and he succeeded brilliantly, I think, adding his reading on top of the original soundtrack (Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours” from the opera La Gioconda) and managing to make it seem as if the animation had been created for the text rather than vice versa. I don’t know if Sutherland sought permission from Antics Animation to remix the film, but if not, I hope they don’t force him to take it down, because it’s a great example of ekphrastic videopoetry—while still illustrating the Pythagorean theorem as well as it did before.

555 by Ross Sutherland


This is #29 in Ross Sutherland‘s “30 Videos/30 Poems” digital residency at The Poetry School. His description at Vimeo reads:

The relationship between screens and metaphor seemed like a good way to bring this residency towards a close.

How does TV like to portray itself? Short answer: usually as an oracle of some kind, or as a device to show a character’s inner thoughts. It’s right up there with “tortured protagonist looks in a cracked mirror.”

Although I know I’ve seen it a hundred times, these scenes are hard things to seek out on the web. If anyone can name any more, please comment below! I’d like to make a super-cut someday.

(Comment at Vimeo, not here, if you have suggestions for Ross.)

I wonder if anyone’s ever used footage of people watching videopoetry in a videopoem? Now that would be meta!

The Blockade by Ross Sutherland


It’s time to check in on the progress of Ross Sutherland‘s “30 Videos/30 Poems” digital residency at The Poetry School. He’s uploaded 27 videos so far, and intends to finish by the end of this week. As promised, the videopoems in the series have been highly diverse, “exploring the different ways that the two mediums can shape and influence the other” in a wonderfully witty and experimental spirit—which means that even the ones that don’t wholly succeed are still instructive. I’d count this one as a success, a remix of a newscast from Irish television that offers one answer to the question: How the hell do you make a videopoem with a text describing another work of art? I’m not saying that’s quite what he’s done here, but that’s the pretense. The viewer is rewarded with a kind of double seeing, trying to picture the painting described by the museum-docent narrator while simultaneously re-evaluating the newscast in light of it.

To see Sutherland’s picks of his four favorite videos from the series so far, check out his April 29 blog post. He’s also archiving the videos on a Tumblr site.

Karawane by Hugo Ball (2)

When is a sound poem a found poem? When it’s Marie Osmond Explains Dadaism with Auto-Subtitles, one of the latest uploads by UK videopoet Ross Sutherland as past of his 30 Videos/30 Poems project for the Poetry School. He’s been doing some really interesting stuff with remix, swapping in his own voice-overs for existing videos, but in this case all he’s done is share the results of turning on the auto-subtitling function for a YouTube video of Marie Osmund explaining Dada and reciting Hugo Ball‘s “Karawane.” The software’s “misreadings” are at times wonderfully apropos. And then there’s Marie, in her yellow bathrobe and 80s hair… I don’t think I’ve gotten this much joy from a web video since Cat Wearing A Shark Costume Cleans The Kitchen On A Roomba.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, why in the heck was Marie Osmond holding forth on Dada and and sound poetry? It turns out she was a regular host of the TV show Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in its 2nd series, which ran from 1982-86 on the American ABC Network. The TV show derived from a long-running syndicated feature in American newspapers—kind of the original “news of the weird.” According to the Wikipedia article,

Character actor Jack Palance hosted the popular series throughout its run, while three different co-hosts appeared from season to season, including Palance’s daughter, Holly Palance, actress Catherine Shirriff, and singer Marie Osmond. The 1980s series reran on the Sci-fi Channel (UK) and Sci-fi Channel (US) during the 1990s.

Six of the segments hosted by Osmond have been uploaded to YouTube, including another one about a poet, Renée Vivien. I’m not sure who the director was for this particular show (which apparently aired on 29 September 1985), but it didn’t go unnoticed. According to a post at Dangerous Minds,

In 1993, Rough Trade records put out Lipstick Traces, a “soundtrack” to the book by Greil Marcus. It’s one of my favorite CDs of all time, with tracks by The Slits, Essential Logic, The Raincoats, The Mekons, Buzzcocks, The Gang of Four, Jonathan Richmond and the Modern Lovers, Situationist philosopher Guy Debord and others. It’s an amazing collection, but one track in particular stands out from the rest, a recitation by none other than Marie Osmond, of Dada poet Hugo Ball’s nonsensical gibberish piece from 1916, “Karawane.”

The post goes on to quote the liner notes from Lipstick Traces:

As host of a special (Ripley’s Believe It or Not) show on sound poetry, Osmond was asked by the producer to recite only the first line of Ball’s work; incensed at being thought too dumb for art, she memorized the lot and delivered it whole in a rare “glimpse of freedom.”

In a YouTube comment on a different upload of the segment, art-video maker Ethan Bates does throw a bit of cold water on Marie’s performance:

Great upload and interesting video, but Ripley didn’t appear to get their dada facts quite right…
‘Karawane’ was performed and written by Hugo Ball, and was also performed in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich as the video says. But his costume for that show was a kind of ‘Cubist’ tube-esque costume made from different coloured sheets. It can be easily found in images online.
The ’13’ costume discussed in the video was worn by Theo Van Doesburg, not Hugo Ball, in 1922 when he performed ‘Does At Mid-Lent’ at the Bauhaus.

This info is from the book ‘Dada’ edited by Rudolf Kuenzli. As a product of its time, though, this clip is fascinating.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that this is not quite the strangest video of “Karawane” on the web. That honor belongs to Lucas Battich’s binary code translation. Still, kudos to Ross Sutherland for recognizing the re-Dadaifying potential of YouTube auto-subtitling.

No Table Anymore Wankers by Ross Sutherland

Another of Ross Sutherland‘s quick-and-dirty videopoems for his “30 Videos/30 Poems” digital residency at The Poetry School. I love his process here. This is videopoeming at its purest:

A piece of graffiti I found on the side of the law courts in Newcastle (just around the corner from my hotel). I have no idea why anyone would write this (which automatically makes me want to write it myself). I quickly wrote down some notes in my jotter & tried to extend the moment a little bit longer.

I recorded image first, then sound after, then put the two back together.

Poem Looked Up On Google Streetview by Ross Sutherland

Here’s an approach to videopoetry that I’ve never seen before: using Google Street View as a poetry prompt, then turning screen grabs of the prompt location into a visual accompaniment to a recitation of the poem. Or, as Ross Sutherland rather more eloquently explains it in the description on Vimeo:

Few years ago, I was commissioned to write a poem about “living in London and being a Londoner”.
I don’t live in London. But I also don’t like to disappoint people.

I took the little Google Streetview man, dropped him into London, then wrote about the street he landed in. The result was this poem, which ended up in my 2012 collection, Emergency Window.

The video was uploaded by The Poetry School, where Sutherland is currently the digital poet in residence.

For his residency – ’30 Videos / 30 Poems’ – Ross will create thirty new films over March to April 2015, while he tours across the UK with his show Standby For Tape Backup. Each new film will be a synthesis of poetry and video, exploring the different ways that the two mediums can shape and influence the other. Ross will use his residency to respond to the places he visits and the people he meets while on tour, hence, the project also doubles as a video diary of a working poet in the world.

This is the 10th (and latest) of these videos. (Watch the others on Vimeo.) In three additional videos, Sutherland “answers questions about his ’30 Poems / 30 Videos’ project, the distinctions between film poetry and poetry film, and what all this writing lark is about anyway.”

For more on Ross Sutherland, see his page at The Poetry Archive.