~ TNP Labs ~

First installment of The Nantucket Poetry Project debuts at The New Yorker

Watch at The New Yorker.

A poetry film made earlier this year by media and video production company TNP Labs has just been posted to the web by The New Yorker, which hosts its own video (including six previous examples of “poetry and such“). The poem, Robert Pinsky’s “Shirt,” was first published by The New Yorker in 1989.

Twenty-five years later, “Shirt” has been brought to the medium of film, as the first installment of The Nantucket Poetry Project, an initiative by the Harvard professor Elisa New and the Nantucket Project to disseminate poetry through video and other multimedia platforms. In this visualization of the poem, several people read the text—including Kate Burton, Nas, and Pinsky himself—while the camera captures the details of stitching and fabric, spinning and sewing, and nods to the poem’s account of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in Manhattan. New said, “ ‘Shirt’ is neither short nor simple, but I knew it had the power to reach anyone who heard it, to live in every voice that lends itself to the text.”

The link goes to a blog post from last June announcing the collaboration. What makes this especially noteworthy, aside from the involvement of elite institutions such as Harvard and The New Yorker, is the promise of more to come.

Our vision is simple. We believe that great poetry is meant to be read aloud, and whenever we gather together to do this, our culture is enriched. We also believe that poetry lends itself to multiple interpretations and can find exciting expressions through various forms of media – from music to dance to video art. And so we are assembling a group of world-class artists, thinkers and performers whose interpretations will bring to life the many diverse textures in “Shirt,” in the form of a short film.

So six months later, we can see the results. The poem was already available on YouTube in a reading by the poet at the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival, but the audio there is a little, uh, dodgy, so this film is already a big improvement in that regard. Also, the production quality overall is excellent, as one would expect — TNP Labs have had “more than 50 Emmy Award nominations (and 16 wins),” they tell us. I liked the use of different readers and the blend of reading footage with other imagery. I’m guessing that the filmmakers were not well versed in the poetry-film/videopoetry tradition and were feeling their way — which is not always a bad thing, because completely original approaches are what keep the genre fresh. Here, we see a bit of that freshness with the innovative use of multiple readers. But otherwise the film struggles to escape the gravitational pull of narrative filmmaking, though I did like the use of mannequins as ironic stand-ins for faceless workers.

I’m indebted to Ruben Quesada for bringing this to my attention. At my request, he shared his own impressions via IM:

I found the inclusion of readers from different cultural backgrounds exciting, at first, but it didn’t go beyond simply having them read to the camera, and the literal images were too on-the-nose. I expect video poems to offer a figurative interpretation of a written poem instead of a literal, linear narrative translation. The use of a Latina woman made me a little uncomfortable and not in a good way—the way an image challenges us to learn something new about others or about ourselves. Perhaps it was my own personal experience of growing up in Los Angeles and being aware of the many women of color, mothers of many of my peers, who would ride the bus into Beverly Hills to work as housekeepers or nannies at the start of the week and not return again until the week was over. This woman of color in the video who appears to work in a dry cleaning business echoed this memory—it reinforced the idea of a woman of color as a domestic worker. An image seen many times and caricatured more recently as Seth McFarlane’s animated character Consuela in Family Guy.

In any case, it was a pleasant surprise to come across the video and I’m very glad to see The New Yorker making space for video poems. 

It will be interesting to see how many more poetry films The Nantucket Poetry Project produces; this can’t have been cheap to make. I hope it gets plenty of exposure at film festivals and on TV. The poem is compelling and certainly deserves a large audience. Also, big ups to The New Yorker for making their videos fully shareable and embeddable. I hope they continue to publish poetry films, whether through a partnership with The Nantucket Poetry Project and/or through an open call for submissions. (Needless to say, we’d be sure to publicize the latter.)

Now if someone would just make a feature-length film with Chris Llewellyn’s harrowing collection of persona poems about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, Fragments from the Fire