The UN, Beyoncé, Volvo, and Dareen Tatour: What’s at stake in the mainstreaming of poetry videos

As poetry films and videos enter the cultural mainstream, they are being put to a variety of political and commercial uses. But this growing relevance brings into sharper relief questions that have always dogged them, given how difficult and expensive it can be to produce them: Who gets to make videopoems and poetry films? Whose stories get told? Whose creative license is at stake?

Exhibit A: a recent, widely circulated poetry video about the plight of refugees featuring no actual refugee poets or speakers.

Most coverage led with variations on this headline from The Guardian: “Cate Blanchett leads celebrities in UN video poem for refugees.” Here’s how they reported it:

A host of celebrities are seeking to highlight the plight of refugees in a video in which they read a poem listing items people have grabbed as they fled their homes.

Oscar winner Cate Blanchett leads a cast including Keira Knightley, Stanley Tucci, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jesse Eisenberg and Kit Harington in performing the poem “What They Took With Them” in the film, which UN refugee agency UNHCR said was released on Facebook on Monday to support its WithRefugees petition.

Written by Jenifer Toksvig, the poem was inspired by the stories and testimonies of people fleeing their homes and the items they took with them.

Among those listed by the actors in the film are a wallet, an army service record, a high school certificate, a mobile phone, house keys and a national flag.

“The rhythm and words of the poem echo the frenzy and chaos and terror of suddenly being forced to leave your home, grabbing what little you can carry with you, and fleeing for safety,” Blanchett, a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, said in a statement.

UNHCR said the petition is asking governments to ensure refugees have access to safe places to live, education and work.

Whatever one might think about the decision to have other people speak for refugees in an effort to make their plight seem more relatable, it is certainly impressive that a poetry video incorporating filmpoem-style sequences would be the major tool in a high-profile campaign to influence refugee policy at the UN General Assembly. Poetry film has arrived, people! And using celebrities certainly seems have been a successful strategy to draw attention. I saw the video being shared on Facebook, Twitter, and even the venerable Women’s Poetry listserv. It was a story on Reuters, NPR, Time, People, Access Hollywood, Hindustan Times, Mashable, International Business Times… well, you get the point. It would probably be easier to compile a list of places it didn’t appear. And I’m guessing that it was the first poetry video ever to be featured in a few of these magazines and newspapers. As Poets House in New York discovered with its popular YouTube video of Bill Murray reading poetry to construction workers, people will watch anything if celebrities are in it — even a poetry film.

But you don’t have to be an expert trend-spotter to see that 2016 was the year that poetry film hit the mainstream. It’s all Beyoncé’s fault. When the greatest superstar in American pop music releases a video album that includes imaginatively filmed interpretations of poems by Warsan Shire, a hell of a lot of people who didn’t pay any attention to poetry film before are going to take notice, including the New York Times.

When the credits roll on Beyoncé’s new visual album, “Lemonade,” which had its premiere on Saturday on HBO, one of the first names to flash on screen doesn’t belong to a director, producer or songwriter. It belongs to a poet: Warsan Shire, a rising 27-year-old writer who was born in Kenya to Somali parents and raised in London.

Ms. Shire’s verse forms the backbone of Beyoncé’s album and its exploration of family, infidelity and the black female body.

That was in April. Most of the videos are still behind a paywall, but “Hold Up” was released to YouTube two weeks ago. I like both the poetry portion itself and how seamlessly the film transitions from poetry film to music video:

Another video chapter from Lemonade, “Sorry,” is also on YouTube, and you can read the entire script at Genius.com.

Poetry film is already a hybrid genre, so further hybridization with music video is a logical extension, in my view. And while many poetry films are made with little input from the writer, this particular collaboration between poet and singer-producer seems to have been a true partnership, with Shire apparently modifying her texts (which preexisted the album) in close consultation with Beyoncé, and receiving full credit for her contributions. This makes sense, since Black and female agency seem very much at the heart of Lemonade‘s message. And both partners stand to benefit from the collaboration: Shire gets to reach a vastly expanded audience, and Beyoncé gets to burnish her image as a serious artist engaged with the urgent issues of our time.

Barring seances, dead poets get no such opportunity for input in film adaptations. If their work is out of copyright, they may not even be credited at all, as in this new television ad for the Volvo S90, directed by Niclas Larsson, which incorporates an excerpt from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road“:

A post in Ad Age claims that “Volvo’s Beautiful Ad Imagines a Modern-Day Walt Whitman,” but I’m not sure that’s what is going on here. For one thing, the real Whitman was not exactly interested in picking up women. As I see it, the film depicts a pick-up artist passing off the poem as his own, or at least fantasizing about doing so (the film is nicely oblique on that point). Whitman is credited after a fashion: we get a brief glimpse of his name on a book cover at the top of a stack at the writer’s elbow. This may not be the first ad to use Walt Whitman’s poetry — I believe the honor goes to Levi’s for that — but  as far as I know it is the first poetry film about a plagiarist. And given that plagiarism is a growing problem in the academic poetry world in the US and UK, it’s certainly a timely topic. I’m not exactly sure what’s in this for Volvo, but I salute the filmmaker for an inventive remix of poetry-film and advertising cliches in a story about authorship, power and fantasy that appears to acknowledge the sleaziness inherent in the commercial exploitation of poetry.

Since advertisers are always eager to make their brands and products appear authentic, it’s a given that they will continue to deploy poets, who are generally seen as incorruptible in part because, ironically, they tend to write for little or no expectation of remuneration. In Anglo-American culture, at least, poetry remains a peripheral art. But it’s worth remembering that in some parts of the world, poets are superstars, and can be jailed, flogged, and even executed for their poems. At this point, the question of who gets to tell their own story becomes very urgent indeed.

The case of Dareen Tatour has gotten quite a lot of attention this year, because it marks the first time that Israel has jailed one of its own citizens for expressing the wrong thoughts in a poem, leading critics of the Israeli government to draw uncomfortable parallels with Saudi Arabia and Iran. One of at least 400 Palestinians arrested for social media posts over the past year, Tatour is “charged with incitement to violence based on a poem posted to Youtube.” I can’t embed the video because YouTube restricts it to logged-in adult viewers, but as Al Jazeera‘s description indicates, it’s a pretty standard videopoetry remix of news footage:

The poem, whose title translates roughly as “Resist my people, resist,” is read aloud against background images of Palestinians clashing with Israeli security forces.

To me, Tatour is a great example of a modern poet at home with all the technological tools of the digital age: blogging, photography, social media, and video remix. At the same time, she shares that stubborn love of language and truth-telling that has set poets apart for millennia:

“I cannot live without poetry,” Tatour told Haaretz. “They want me to stop writing. For me to be a poet without a pen and without feelings.”

Tatour remains under house arrest; the prosecution wrapped up its case earlier this month. Here’s a video interview with her from AJ+:

A poem she wrote in prison has been translated into English by Tariq al Haydar. It concludes:

The charge has worn my body,
from my toes to the top of my head,
for I am a poet in prison,
a poet in the land of art.
I am accused of words,
my pen the instrument.
Ink— blood of the heart— bears witness
and reads the charges.
Listen, my destiny, my life,
to what the judge said:
A poem stands accused,
my poem morphs into a crime.
In the land of freedom,
the artist’s fate is prison.

But thanks to digital editing tools and the internet, the artist’s words and images may have an altogether different fate.


Note: While this article isn’t entirely a bait-and-switch, if you’ve read this far, there’s a pretty good chance you have some strong opinions of your own about videopoetry and poetry film. Why not share them with Moving Poems’ readers? We’re always looking for new contributions of essays, reviews, interviews, and curated lists. If you’re interested, please get in touch.

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.

2 Comments

  1. Excellent analysis Dave. Hybridization is exactly what I’m after, as well. I’m beginning more-and more to move my own work in that direction. In my opinion filmpoetry is a powerful way to express social inequity in the world and provide alternatives to the typical documentary form. However, having said that, it’s concerning for advertising to appropriate the genre for consumption as that will water down the truth and beauty that poetry holds.

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