Poetry videos on the web: some preliminary observations

In preparation for a panel discussion at ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival 2014, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts on “poetry films in the digital world.”

1. When we talk about poetry videos on the web, we’re generally talking about videos shared on YouTube and Vimeo, and to some extent Dailymotion, Blip.tv and a few other places: huge sites that thrive on user-generated content, often monetized through advertising, and available to share and embed anywhere on the web unless the uploader specifies otherwise. Yes, it’s still possible to embed a Quicktime video, but why would anyone want to do that? I have yet to download Quicktime software on the computer I’m using now, and I’ve had it for more than two years. Flash is also rapidly becoming passé as more and more people access the web through devices that don’t use Flash to display audio and video players, but HTML5 — an open, non-proprietary format.

2. Poetry fans often focus on the potential of the web to bring poetry to larger audiences, which I agree is exciting. But just as exciting to me is the way in which the availability and popularity of free video-hosting sites, combined with the proliferation of digital film-making tools online and off, have made it possible for a vastly larger number of people to engage with poetry in a more creative way — to go from being passive consumers to active translators of poems. Because what is the making of a poetry video if not the translation of a poem into a new medium?

3. Not all poetry videos are highly creative, though, and I think it’s important to situate them within the larger context of online communities, cultures and behaviors. Who made this particular video, and for what purpose? What is their intended audience? It can be anyone from a bible study group to a film class to a potential buyer of a new poetry chapbook. So when I talk about online poetry videos, I mean everything — from expertly produced animated poems to experimental films, from masterpieces of video art to simple documentary videos of poetry readings, without ignoring the vast sea of very basic videos, many focused simply on sharing audio of favorite poems, with or without images thrown in to give the listener something to look at. I estimate that this last type accounts for 80-90 percent of the poetry videos on YouTube.

4. Lawrence Lessig distinguishes between a read-only culture of passive consumers and a read/write culture where the relationship between the producer of culture and its consumer is more reciprocal. Far from a new thing, read/write or remix culture is basically the normal way in which poems, songs and stories were created and passed along in pre-industrial societies, before professional poets, musicians and storytellers came to dominate so-called popular culture as well as elite culture, and before copyright laws were drafted to discourage creative remix.

So the web has enabled a remix revolution. But empowering the reader/viewer/listener really begins as soon as websites make it possible for people to leave comments, to share or even embed videos elsewhere, and — most critically of all, perhaps — to have complete control of when, where, and how often they can watch a film or video. Contrast this to the much more passive experience of visiting a cinema or taking in a video-art display in a museum. (Television is kind of a middle ground, with more and more viewers choosing to record programs for watching later, or to use streaming services such as Hulu or Netflix. If only there were a cable TV channel devoted to poetry! But poetry films do make their way onto television from time to time, especially in the UK.)

Watching poetry videos on the web is in some ways more akin to reading a book than to visiting the cinema, inasmuch as one can dip into the video at any point and return to it over and over. The experience is generally solitary… but can also be highly social, thanks especially to the way videos from YouTube and Vimeo can be watched and commented upon right in Facebook and Twitter, without leaving one’s feed. And just as one can take a felt pen or crayon to a book and create a new text through erasure (to say nothing of more drastic collages with scissors), any video on the web can be downloaded and made into something new. I can’t think of any other viewing environment where the raw material of a film is so vulnerable to immediate expropriation.

This vulnerability is inherent to any artifact published on the open web, and as a poet who has chosen to blog drafts of all my poems for more than a decade, it’s something I’ve learned not to fear but to embrace. We poets are vulnerable whenever we create something, and especially whenever we attempt to share it — which is why submitting work to a journal, contest or publisher can be such a debilitating experience. Self-publishing on the web, by contrast, can feel empowering. Sharing poetry is supposed to be a public act, not a private negotiation with omnipotent gatekeepers. And the read/write culture of the web does something else: by letting anyone become an author, it makes authorship less exalted… and also much easier to share the burden of through collaborative partnerships.

5. The poetry film world cannot ignore this culture; too many breath-taking films are emerging from online collaborations, often between poets, film-makers and composers who have never met in person. But the sheer proliferation of poetry videos on the web does present some interesting artistic challenges. Certain styles of poetry videos might become so dominant as to crowd out competing ones, for example. Influenced by music videos, performance poets tend to produce videos in which they are the star. Creators of animated poems often seem to treat the text as a straight-forward narrative screenplay. And countless poetry video-makers on YouTube seem enamored by the Ken Burns effect, ignoring the fact that it’s his masterful soundscapes that let viewers forget they’re watching still images. Serious videopoets should be conscious of the gravitational force such popular approaches can exert if they want to “make it new.”

6. In the larger world of viral videos pullulating with crazed cats and twerking pop singers, video remixing is often satirical and always subversive. What does it mean to use the same language of remix for videos created in response to poems at The Poetry Storehouse? Do poetry video remixers risk subverting the texts in some sense? I would argue they do, but that that’s actually a helpful way of looking at what happens any time a filmmaker decides to bring a poem to the screen. The worst sins are committed by filmmakers who are too respectful, unwilling to go beyond what the text explicitly describes. It’s no accident that some of the most inventive poetry videos are created by the authors of the poems. If they don’t feel reluctant to take the poem in a new direction when adapting it to film, neither should any other filmmaker.

7. Another thing that makes some poets and many publishers uneasy about online poetry videos is their very share-ability. It’s kind of frightening to realize that if you upload a video to YouTube or Vimeo and don’t change the default settings, anyone can post it anywhere. Poets wonder, what if it shows up on some hateful site where people will only mock it? And publishers of online journals wonder how they can claim to have published something themselves if anyone else can grab the embed code and do the same. If a journal can’t claim to have exclusive content, why would anyone visit their site?

This is a real issue, but I think publishers need to ask themselves whether their primary mission is to promote their own brand or to give good work as wide an audience as possible. If the latter, then they should certainly not restrict who can share it. But they can also insist on uploading copies of all videos they publish to their own (branded) account on Vimeo or YouTube. For one thing, that’s free advertising for their website everywhere the video is shared. But more importantly, it helps guarantee that the video will still be there in five or ten years… and suggests what the real value of online journals is now, when we are so overwhelmed by so much ephemera: not primarily to publish — anyone can do that — but to curate and to preserve.

8. The growing popularity of videopoem-making presents its own challenges. I had an interesting exchange on Twitter this morning with the Belgian poetry film-maker Marc Neys (A.K.A. Swoon). He had shared a recent video whose screenshot I recognized immediately. Our conversation went something like this:

Me: I almost used that same Phil Fried Ferris wheel footage in my latest. I thought it looked familiar…

Marc: We’re all fishing in the same pool.

Me: I’m wondering if the popularity of certain stock images poses a risk to online videopoetry, a creeping homogenization, a cliché effect. (I’m thinking not just about stock videos, but also iconic images from newscasts, for example.)

Marc: Let’s hope the really good combinations will survive…

Me: Yes, though survival may have a different meaning in the internet age. Repetition itself is key to keeping something in public consciousness. Whatever doesn’t go viral sinks out of site in the feed.

Marc: Yes indeed.

9. On balance, I think that the rewards of participating in online poetry video communities far out-weigh any potential pitfalls. For one thing, poets and artists get to learn from one another in an often quite intense manner, one that tends to stoke the creative fires of each. Poets in the U.S., accustomed to being ignored by society at large, are usually grateful for any attentive readers, and who reads (or hears) a poem more attentively than someone making a film or audio track out of it? We’re often told that the internet is a great distraction machine destroying our attention spans, but I think that’s true only if one takes a “read-only” approach to it. Read/write culture, remix culture, encourages just the opposite.

10. Another great thing that can happen with any poetry film, but is especially easy to do online, is to make a poem more accessible to audiences unfamiliar with its original language. Poetry film offers the unique possibility of hearing all the music of a poem in its original language while reading a translation in subtitles or closed captioning (easy to add on YouTube or Vimeo) — and with the film-maker’s images and soundtrack as additional bridges or vantage-points.

This might relate to another thing that I think can happen as a consequence of online sharing: reducing or eliminating what I call the socio-cultural intimidation factor. I’m talking about the tendency of many people to feel intimidated in social contexts that may be unfamiliar to them, such as poetry readings, art museums or art-house cinemas, preventing them from seeing or hearing with an open mind. I’m relying on anecdotal evidence based mainly on my own experiences with sharing poetry videos on Facebook, where I have a wide variety of contacts including many who wouldn’t be caught dead at any of the aforementioned types of venues. But it’s not uncommon to elicit positive reactions from such people to a supposedly high-brow videopoem. And I suspect that bilingual poetry videos, especially when artfully made with suggestive, allusive imagery, help us overcome a similar sort of intimidation that hearing an unknown language can otherwise provoke.

11. Poetry videos differ from other videos in the same way that poetry differs from other kinds of writing. It requires a different kind of attention and elicits a different, perhaps more thoughtful, kind of response. YouTube comments, generally speaking, are a cesspool, but for some reason poetry videos tend to be spared. I’ve been publishing poetry, my own and others’, online for a while now, and one thing I’ve noticed is that it doesn’t attract the kind of bloviators who otherwise infest online comment sections and message boards. I helped publish the literary magazine qarrtsiluni for eight years, and despite a fairly large readership, we never had a problem with rude or inappropriate commenters. The same has been true at Moving Poems and my literary blog Via Negativa, which is mostly original writing with very little commentary. Somehow, online poetry seems virtually troll-proof.

12. Returning to the earlier question of how poets and publishers might come to terms with the reality that online videos have no single, canonical location, and can be easily subverted by remix artists, it’s worth remembering that poems in general have always been rather slippery as artifacts. They’re difficult to monetize because they are so easily reproduced, and reproduction in the imagination is what poems are uniquely engineered for. In an oral society, poems are the original ear-worms, the original viral content. Despite what copyright laws may say, once a poem is released into the wild it never comes back to its master. Its only owner is the one who can call it up at will. In the past, this could only mean committing it to memory, but now, with the web and good search engines at our fingertips, we can recall a poem almost as reliably in electronic form. I’m not saying it’s an equivalent experience; there’s no substitute for memorization, just as there’s no substitute for silent reading from a paper book. But I think audio and video allow us to hear, see, “read” and internalize poems in new ways — ways that can elicit a profoundly creative response.

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.

6 Comments

  1. Do poetry video remixers risk subverting the texts in some sense?

    I like the language of transformation rather than subversion. This is the language we use at the Organization for Transformative Works, talking about fanfiction and fanvids, but I think it works as a broader descriptor of remix. Any artwork which engages with another artwork is transformative. When someone else reads one of my poems, they’re transforming it by articulating it in their voice. When someone makes a videopoem featuring one of my poems, they’re transforming it by giving it new meaning through the juxtapositions of audio and visual.

    • That’s an excellent point. One person’s subversion is another’s radical transformation. And “transformative” is of course one of the main qualities suggested by U.S. copyright case law to gauge whether a remix, mashup, parody, etc. qualifies as fair use. (People interested in this topic should read the Center for Media & Social Impact’s document “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.”)

  2. When you talk about Lessig–Clay Shirky talks about this too, I would hope we learn something about active collaboration and community building. The potential is to find ways to work together for the betterment of culture and society, without always looking for a ‘financial reward’ (as tough as that is in a capitalist society). I see it less as subversion and more a “transformation” or re-forming (not to be considered a dirty little word) that helps people seek new ways of seeing, knowing and understanding. Enjoyed reading your observations. Will be interesting to hear what insights you bring back from the festival.

    • Thanks for commenting. I certainly don’t see reform (in a political sense) as a dirty word (having long ago grown out of a youthful infatuation with revolutions), and I like the way you link collaboration with community building. So true.

  3. Wow, Dave–really good overview that not only overviews but brings up salient points and opens up the conversation to a much wider group of…citizens? artists? artist-citizens? reading/engaging audiences?

    I think collaboration (especially cross-cultural collaboration, not just interdisciplinary) is perhaps the most exciting aspect of videopoetry online. I hadn’t thought of it in terms of “remix,” so I’m still mulling over that idea; but the way online shared work of this sort operates in the wild, so to speak, does have interesting parallels to memorized favorites or canonical poems. It’s out there for the reader/participant/audience to re-create and hence transform.

    • Hi, Ann. Glad you got so much out of my brain dump here! I think you’re right about the cross-cultural nature of a lot of the videopoetry collaboration going on these days. As for “remix,” Nic S. at The Poetry Storehouse has been the one to really latch onto the term as a way of describing what we do, especially when all the footage is reused from other, usually out-of-copyright films. As I say, I do find remix culture a useful conceptual framework for poetry videos on the web — rather than, for example, looking at them as just copies or poor cousins of “real” films intended for screenings at art houses and festivals.

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