Why don’t more literary websites feature poetry videos?

From a high point of semi-trendiness six or seven years ago, I’ve watched poetry videos slowly disappear from U.S.-based online literary magazines, where one would think they belong. Internationally, videopoetry and poetry film are in robust health, with more festivals, screenings, and critical attention than ever. I think it’s useful to consider possible reasons for this puzzling decline of interest if we’re going to have any chance of reversing the trend.

For one thing, it parallels a decline in the popularity of blogging, eclipsed by Facebook and other social media platforms. Independent bloggers really helped spread the word about videopoetry and electronic literature generally, though I always felt that the more serious writers were rather backward about getting online. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, there are probably more writers on the web than ever before… but I’m not sure they really understand that they’re on the web (as opposed to on their phone, hanging out with their friends). There’s much less of a push to find (or make) new material to share than there was back when people were concerned with producing quality content for their blogs; most social media shares are from other users on the same site. And the Facebook algorithm seems to suppress views of videos not uploaded to its own platform.

Another thing that’s changed in the past decade: Flash, once the darling of e-lit creators, has been virtually killed off by Apple’s decision to stop supporting it on iPhones and iPads in favor of HTML5. YouTube, Vimeo and the other big video hosting platforms made the switch in less than a year, but websites that had put all their eggs into the Flash animation basket—including Synesthesia and the great Born—were screwed.

So journal editors have a right to be frustrated by regular changes in technology. Online journals that had featured poetry videos pre-YouTube generally used embedded Quicktime players, for example. A few linger online, with blank holes where their videos once were.

Generally speaking, I think literary magazine editors are a fairly conservative lot (and one could easily build a case for this being an asset rather than a liability for the culture at large). Poetry videos were rarely a part of regular content; magazines such as Atticus Review, Gnarled Oak and TriQuarterly are the exceptions that prove the rule. Most editors, I suspect, viewed poetry videos as curiosities, supplements to the real content, to be posted on associated blogs only as long as they were the shiny new thing.

For some literary magazine editors, videopoetry and poetry film may never have crossed their radar in the first place, and many remain firmly wedded to the idea of poetry as text. The editor of one of the most widely circulated print and online poetry journals once told me that he simply had no interest in poetry apart from the (literal or digital) page. For many others, poetry videos are at best illustrations of texts rather than a new medium for poetry — an impression many poetry animations do little to dispel. Videopoetry or cinepoetry, by contrast, may seem too avant-garde for mainstream editors.

A lot of online literary magazines, or print magazines with online components, appear to be edited by folks who aren’t terribly tech-savvy, to put it kindly. Flummoxed by the challenges of presenting poetry in HTML with widely varied viewing environments, an increasing number of journal editors are opting to go PDF-only, which precludes any moving images. Others may simply not be aware of how easy it is to share videos these days, especially if they’re using WordPress (or other CMSs deploying the oEmbed API) with a responsive theme: just drop the YouTube or Vimeo URL into a line by itself, and let it re-size automatically to fit the space available.

I think there’s also a bit of a culture-clash between journal editors and the kind of poets and filmmakers who make poetry videos to be shared on the web. The overwhelming majority of U.S. poetry journals still require that all submitted or solicited content be previously unpublished, and once they publish it, they prefer that people visit their website to view it. Hosting video on one’s own website is complicated and expensive, but if you host it elsewhere, doesn’t that mean that people can share it anywhere? (No, but I’d wager most editors don’t realize that.) If you let the video producers upload it to their own YouTube or Vimeo accounts and embed that, can your journal really be said to have published it? But if you want to put your branding on videos and upload them to your own account, that may require creating a new editorial position, and in all likelihood you’re running a shoestring operation. Then, too, there’s the copyright permissions situation with remixed material: complicated, to put it mildly, and possibly not worth the risk.

And speaking of risk, many U.S. literary magazines are intensely competitive and therefore wary about anything that might damage their prestige. So are videopoetry or poetry film in general really a safe bet? If you don’t have anyone on staff with a background in film, why risk choosing videos that experts in the field may sneer at? Publishing authors whose books will go on to garner critical acclaim and awards is the overwhelming focus, and anything that gets in the way of that will not be looked on kindly.

So far I’ve speculated about possible factors influencing the demand side, but I think it’s also the case that the supply of poetry films/videos is still too small. It’s easy to follow Moving Poems and think wow, look how many poets are getting into videopoetry! But I’m afraid they’re a drop in the bucket. And in the U.S., at least, I’d suggest that this is due in part to the capture of poets by the academy. (Something I don’t decry in general, by the way: I’m happy for any system that employs poets, and MFA programs are turning out great numbers of highly skilled writers.)

As with everything else in this blog post, my “evidence” for this contention is anecdotal, based on personal experience and hearsay. Most academic poets I know do seem excited by the possibility of having their work translated into film/video, but they don’t have any idea how to make it happen. Why not? Well, for one thing, just like the editors I mentioned above, their first allegiance must be to print publication. Getting your work made into a film, even one that wins awards and gets screened around the world, doesn’t count for promotion or tenure at most (any?) universities. Given how much of their time is already taken up by teaching, why would they want to sacrifice valuable writing time just to learn how to make videos? Collaborations are a better bet, but American universities are pretty Balkanized, so there isn’t likely to be much communication between English and Film departments.

And finally, we come back to the inherent conservatism of poets. Writing students at most MFA programs of which I’m aware aren’t taught any other aspects of poetry unconnected with text composition, such as coding, audio production, or live performance techniques, so of course videopoetry and poetry film aren’t on the curriculum, either.

I have a number of suggestions about how to reverse this situation, at least from the demand side, but I’ll save that for a future post. In the meantime, I’d like to hear other people’s impressions and suggestions.

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.

10 Comments

  1. This is something I think about _a lot_. I was nodding my head along through the read, and then stopped cold at the end when you mentioned conservatism of poets; something I hear from a lot of poets, especially performance poets is, “But I just want to focus on the writing.” And then at the same time, from poets in the more academic circles – who I really thought, hey, this poetryfilm stuff is right up their alley (I means, for real, it’s study-worthy!) – I hear things like, “Don’t you think it dilutes the craft?”

    I’m a little confounded by the whole thing, especially as a relative newcomer who has fallen into a giant bunch of work and study I never knew existed coming from non-North American places (and reveling in the wealth). Part of me keeps chalking it up to just being a multi-disciplinary artist who doesn’t really get the whole super-focused thing, but still – sometimes it seems a bit like covering one eye just for kicks…

    Poetryfilm and video poetry give us this delicious permission to escape the literal, and the freedom to shift perspective and focus. I’m constantly surprised it isn’t more frequently championed, especially in online spaces where it could be so readily accessed.

  2. For me, video poetry changed my artistic focus profoundly. When I discovered video poems, I devoured them for hours, days, weeks, months. I could not get enough. I soon found my favorites, and the thing they had in common was a transcendence of both forms: the poetry and visual images became a “third form” (which is why I named my column The Third Form). Through conversations with artists who’d made these beautiful little films, I learned that in many cases, they also felt that a really successful video poem made the poem a richer experience. I believe that most people who write are also interested in other art forms, i.e., music, painting, sculpture, photography, etc. It seems natural that some of these people would try to create their own films. As Dave pointed out, it’s easier than ever to share video, but from other conversations I’ve had, most writers feel intimidated by the editing process (video editing, I mean). Besides that, I am also saddened by the dwindling number of on-line magazines that feature videos. I have no problem publishing in either print or digitally, but of course, digital offers many benefits that print lacks: instant access, sharing on social media, etc. I agree with Apple that video poems should be more available online.

    As a teacher of teens, I can share that younger people seem to get this art form much quicker than older ones. They need only a little instruction, a few basics with cameras and editing software (which many of our students already have) and away they go. So, in response to Dave’s point about the inherent conservatism of poets, I say look to the younger generation. They’re making video poems and not looking back! When we screen the students’ poems for their families, the recognition of the accomplishment of our students is immediately apparent. People – yes, even parents of poets – who don’t always “get” poetry, “get” the films.

    Let’s keep making them, sharing them, teaching others how to make them, and celebrating the art form. I want to thank Dave for keeping Moving Poems going all these years. It certainly changed my life, and allowed me to see my poems as the scripts for films, getting them off the page.

  3. I find making videopoems to be a treat as a multi-disciplinary artist. I work mainly with nonprofit organizations to portray social issues and to progress policy. It is my main source of income and I don’t get to work on videopoems as much as I would like to. I feel videopoetry offers a invaluable mix of media that has the potential to reach wider audiences. But alas, what Dave alludes to as well is that it needs to be shared, experienced and distributed to a wider audience. It will soon be co-opted, (if not already — Beyoncé Lemonade as example) through mass marketing tactics which may eventually dilute it’s value. However hybrid forms have the potential to provide astounding inspiration for instance — Marie Craven’s recent work comes to mind. I have definitely felt the resistance from conservative poets, yet others also applaud when new heights are reached. If you believe in an idea, those who value and are committed (like Dave!!) will keep persevering and continue to grow, making videopoetry all the more exciting.

  4. Thanks Dave for this post. it is so not easy to find fresh insights and suggestive reflections on the field of video poetry/poetry films/e-poetry etc.

    one most interesting point you have accented is :
    “Writing students at most MFA programs of which I’m aware aren’t taught any other aspects of poetry unconnected with text composition, such as coding, audio production, or live performance techniques, so of course videopoetry and poetry film aren’t on the curriculum, either.” – and i think that this observation lies at the heart of the (im)possible(?) change or shift i assume we agree is needed in the ‘iMage’ that is collectively hold on the traditional buttle between balkanisation & interdisciplinary in almost any field of studies research and artistic expressions.

    it was Jorge Luis Borges that said : “Poetry remembers that it was an oral art before it was a written art.”
    and in another phrase : “I had thought of language as away of saying things, of uttering complaints, of saying that one was glad, or sad, and so on. Yet when I heard those lines … I knew that language could also be a music and a passion. And thus was poetry revealed to me.” (Borges locates his literary awakening in the first time his father read to him Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”).

    No doubt that from time immemorial poetry was oratorical. it had to be performative, pronounced, voiced, delivered, performed etc. ….. and in our digital webby era it deserves novel translations unto the “e” plane which connects us all and interconnects all our possible ways of thought and living. (art, science, culture, and more…).

  5. on another note …
    i have a blog-page of Quote-Collage where i place short inspiring text together with still and moving images to enrich ambiguity & possible clarity 🙂 and especially in order to save the printed letters that compose online texts from their ‘dreary destiny’ and place them together with an image. few samples:
    1. http://spacecollective.org/syncopath/8722/a-Bohr-quote
    2. http://spacecollective.org/syncopath/8959/ReaL-as-UnReaL
    3. http://spacecollective.org/syncopath/8833/Hopping-Over-yet-aNother-Day

    This page is located on Space Collective platform, once was an innovative space for highly intelligent reflections on the human species, yet today is quiet a latent inactive territory.

    i will be very thankful for any link or advise as for how should i re-place my page (which i hold as a kind of a poetic page) and migrate it onto a more relevant platform (?) ….Thanks.

    • Great content. It would be a shame to let it go down with the platform. I tend to recommend WordPress.com because of the parent company’s strong commitment to open source, data portability, and creative blogging. It’s also very secure and hardly ever goes down.

  6. 10x for your reply. as i understand WordPress is quiet general. i will check it again. i got a recommandation on Medium (not sure if you know this one ?)
    my intention is to find a platform that can be general but preferably with more artistic inclination (image and moving image…). Other option is to find a platform that is directly dedicated to art, design, poetry etc. and to make this page of quote-collage a kind of a column that is updated regularly. thanks again.

    • I’d recommend against Medium. They’re floundering — and don’t have creators’ interests at heart. You would not own your own content there. With a WordPress site, of course, you’d have to find your own community: comment on and link to compatible sites and hope they reciprocate.

  7. Well, you could take the approach that the ‘Internet’ is dead for cinepoetry in some respects.

    You are probably better off achieving your goals by taking hard copies of works and showing them to small gatherings via HQ projectors. It kind of solves a lot of issues.

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