Videopoetry: What Is It, Who Makes It, and Why?

for the 2012 AWP panel, “Poetry Video in the Shadow of Music Video—Performance, Document, and Film”
Thursday March 1 from 10:30 A.M.-11:45 A.M.
Boulevard Room A,B,C, Hilton Chicago, 2nd Floor

Let’s begin with a quote from Heather Haley, a poet, filmmaker, former punk rock singer and organizer of Vancouver’s long-running Visible Verse film festival.

I define a videopoem as a wedding of word and image. Achieving that level of integration is difficult and rare. In my experience the greatest challenge of this hybrid genre is fusing voice and vision, aligning ear with eye. For me, voice is the critical element, medium and venue secondary considerations. Unlike a music video — the inevitable and ubiquitous comparison — a videopoem stars the poem rather than the poet, the voice seen as well as heard. (Emphasis added)

There are certainly other valid ways to think about videopoetry and related genres, but Haley’s sense of it happens to coincide with my own.

Let’s consider one example of my videopoetry, a piece I did for a poem by the great Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral called “Riqueza” (Riches). This came about in an ekphrastic manner, which is fairly typical for me: I will shoot some footage — or discover some public-domain footage online that I really like — and then write or find a poem that somehow seems to go with it.

view on Vimeo

When I shot the footage, I didn’t know what I’d use it for, if anything. I happened to be visiting a normally camera-shy, wool-spinning friend when she was in a mood to let herself be filmed, as long as I promised not to include her face. When I got home, I stared at the film for a while until the Mistral poem popped into my head. I emailed Nic S., poetry reader extraordinaire, and asked if she might record a reading of the Spanish text for me — something she could also post to her new audiopoetry site Pizzicati of Hosanna. She readily agreed. Then I did an English translation and began searching through various sites where musicians and composers post Creative Commons-licensed work. After a couple hours, I found something at SoundCloud.com that seemed to work. A Celtic tune on pennywhistle might seem an odd match for a Chilean poem, but I thought it had just the right mixture of sweetness and melancholy.

So that became something I could add to MovingPoems.com, a site where I’ve been sharing poetry videos from around the web for three years now. I post five new videos a week, and everything is indexed by poet, filmmaker(s) and nationality of poet. It’s not a high-traffic site — it only gets about 10,000 visitors a month — but it’s helping to bring together people working in videopoetry, sparking new collaborations and inspiring new works.

I’m not necessarily the best-suited candidate for the job. I grew up without TV and still live way out in the sticks, which means my exposure to art films is mostly restricted to what I can watch online — on a 1M/sec DSL connection. I’m part of an informal network of literary bloggers, and I started making videos originally for the same reason I began taking still photos: to feed my writer’s blog, Via Negativa. I think I had the idea originally that making poems into watchable videos would bring them to a wider audience. I’ve actually seen very little evidence that that’s the case. But I’m having too much fun making the things — I can’t stop. In fact, I’ve even managed to entice several of my poetry-blogger friends into trying their hand at it, too, with some very interesting results. Some of them don’t even have video cameras, and just use public-domain footage.

As a blogger, I’ve been working ekphrastically for a long time: sometimes when I’m too tired to think of anything else, a photo can make a great writing prompt. In 2008 and 2009, I was co-curator of a site called Postal Poems, where we asked poets to create and submit what were essentially modern equivalents of haiga.

Lazarus by Teju Cole

A poetry postcard by Teju Cole from PostalPoems.com

That experience really prepared me, I think, to appreciate the effectiveness of a creative juxtaposition between text and image. It’s that juxtaposition, more than anything else, which makes a videopoem work. One-to-one matches between text and image are much less interesting to me, except sometimes in the hands of a skilled animator.

Aside from the necessity of feeding a poetry blog, what are some of the other reasons why people make poetry videos? Here are a few I’ve noticed:

  • To document live readings or other performances.
  • To accompany live readings, etc.
  • For art installations.
  • To share audio of favorite poems on YouTube.
  • To show at film festivals.
  • To broadcast on television.
  • To serve as book trailers or to accompany books as DVDs.
  • To publish in online magazines.
  • To fulfill course requirements.

Naturally, these uses shape the kinds of videos that are made. I include some but not all kinds of poetry videos at Moving Poems, where my categorization system reflects my own interests and also my relative ignorance when I launched the site. (The numbers in parentheses are numbers of videos in that category as of Oscar Night 2012.)

Videopoems (621)
Animation (150)
Author-made videopoems (119)
Concrete and visual poetry (16)
Spoken Word (74)
Dance (30)
Musical settings (28)
Documentary (18)
Interviews (15)
Miscellaneous (12)

In hindsight, I might’ve done well to include a couple of sub-categories to animation, such as machinima and kinetic text. I do insist that a video include a poem or poem-like text either as graphic text or in the soundtrack; films or videos that are merely inspired by, or made in response to, poems don’t make the cut.

O.K., now let’s talk semantics. In a nutshell, no one can agree what to call the hybrid genre that I refer to as videopoetry, and critics argue about what does or doesn’t quality as a filmpoem or videopoem. Historically, the term film poem came first. Trouble was, modernist filmmakers didn’t want to include text in any way—a film poem should merely imitate the approach of poetry, they said. Poetry-film was a term coined in the 60s to specify a new, hybrid genre which did include text, though some people still called everything film poetry anyway. George Aguilar coined the term Cin(e)poetry, which stands for cinematic electronic poetry, in the early 90s. Poem film, film-poem, film/poem and filmpoem have all been deployed at one time or another, especially in the U.K. Videopoetry, a term originally coined by Tom Konyves in 1978, seems ascendant on the web.

As for “film” versus “video,” digitization has greatly muddied the waters. In North America, “film” seems too specific to the actual, physical medium, whereas in the U.K., according to Scottish filmmaker Alastair Cook, people feel the same way about “video” — it makes them think of videotape. So there’s no consensus on what to call digital moving pictures (which can be expanded to include Flash animations as well).

Well, whatever you call them, filmmakers have been making them for quite a while. Here are some highlights from the filmpoetry/videopoetry tradition:

1920: Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand — the first feature-length poetry film.

1952: Bells of Atlantis by Ian Hugo with text by Anais Nin.

1973: Frank and Caroline Mouris’ Frank Film wins an Academy Award for Best Short Subject.

1975: Herman Berlandt launches an annual poetry film festival in San Francisco.

1978: Tom Konyves makes the first videopoem as part of the Montreal Vehicule Poets.

1987: Tony Harrison’s V airs on Channel 4, is hugely popular and politically controversial, and sparks a minor craze for film-poems on British television.

1995: Electronic Poetry Center goes online.

1996: UbuWeb goes online.

2005: YouTube is born.

Poetry film festivals now regularly occur in every continent except Antarctica, featuring poems from many languages. Videobardo in Buenos Aires, Orbita in Latvia, ZEBRA in Berlin and Visible Verse in Vancouver have each been going for at least a decade, and more poetry film festivals seem to be popping up every year. Meanwhile, I keep finding newcomers whose very lack of familiarity with this tradition brings a fresh perspective. “I call these ‘video poems,'” enthuses artist Elena Knox about her installation at a London bookstore, and yes, looking at her documentary on Vimeo, one can see that’s clearly what they are. Like the eye itself, the videopoem has evolved independently many times.

For further reading:

Tom Konyves, “Videopoetry: A Manifesto

Alastair Cook, “The Filming of Poetry

Weldon C. Wees, “Poetry Film

Fil Ieropoulos, “Poetry-Film & The Film Poem: Some Clarifications

Michelle Bitting, “The Muse and the Making of Poem Films

Swoon & David Tomaloff interview with Ken Robidoux for Connotation Press

Dave Bonta

Dave is the founder of Moving Poems, and posts videos for his own poems (along with lots of other stuff) at Via Negativa. Here's a bio.

8 Comments

  1. this material points in the direction i want to go in now,and is one of the major ways i want to present my poetry. moving poems is a great site and i want to be on it among others. i will be sending you things from time to time. definitely lets begin to generate ideas and images. i would like to do ‘the winter in arizona ‘ the dance piece first. it should be shot in a ruin or abandoned lookong place. maybe the storage side of the dry river space,which is beautiful 100 year old adobe brick. anyway have a great weekend and we’ll talk soon! h.falak

  2. Hi Dave,

    Nice attempt at trying to wrangle together and make sense of the intriguing mixture of poetry, image and sound. There was a time, in the 1990’s, where hardly anybody was around to discuss the various treatments and styles. Here’s a link to my perspective on how I helped bring the genre to a national and global audience. http://www.george.aguilar.com/history1.htm

    This might help you get a bit more detail about that period in time where poetry was leaving the page and the stage and into the Internet and big screen.

    I do have a substantial collection of poetry films, videopoems and cinepoems stemming from my time as festival director and i hope some day to get it online to share with everyone.

    Best of luck,

    -g

    • Hi George,

      Thanks for stopping by! I did read that article a little while back, and probably should’ve included it in the suggested reading list above. It’s very informative indeed, and you obviously played a crucial role during a pivotal period for the genre. It would be awesome if you can get some of your collection online. Do keep us in the loop about that.

      Dave

  3. Hi Dave,

    I’m the new columnist for Connotation Press, and my column is about video poetry. I would love to interview you for my next column. I’m completely taken with video poems, and as a poet myself with a strong sense of the visual, I find them endlessly fascinating. Some work better than others, at least in my opinion, and I’ve watched enough of them (many on your site) to identify certain stylistic elements and trends. I was at AWP in Feb/March and saw your presentation with Todd Boss the others. Please contact me and we can chat. Thank you very much!

    • Hi Erica,
      I’m really interested in your comment about ‘stylistic elements’. Do you have an email address I can contact you on?
      Best wishes,
      Polly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *