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.