A month of women’s poetry film: some observations and questions

Film critic Laura Mulvey in 2010 (photo: Mariusz Kubik, CC BY 3.0)

Did you notice? I didn’t notice myself until about two weeks in that I’d only been posting videos or films directed by women and featuring the work of women poets. At that point, I wondered how long I could keep it up (pretty much indefinitely, it turns out) and whether anyone would ever notice and ask about it (no one has). The last video featuring a male poet was on 27 October (“The Laundry Can Wait” by Cyril Wong, directed by Sarah Howell), and the last film directed by a man was on 24 October (“Dancing Lesson” by Rachel Kann, directed by Bradford L. Cooper). Which is not to say that men haven’t played key roles in making some of the things I’ve featured since, as editors, videographers, composers, etc., just that women occupied the lead roles.

The point of this post is not what a great, enlightened guy I am (ask my partner how often I interrupt her in the course of an average conversation). But it seemed like a fitting response to the on-going revelations of rampant sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood and beyond. And the exercise does raise some interesting questions, I think:

1. There are a LOT of good women directors of poetry films at all levels of professionalism and ability. So many of them are now “regulars” at Moving Poems that I can go quite a few days without posting anything made by a man, purely by chance, just as sometimes I may go for a week or two without posting any women. Does this mean that the number of men and women active in poetry film and videopoetry is roughly equal? Or might it be partly because male directors gravitate toward certain types of poetry (Charles Bukowski, for example) or filmmaking (superficially pretty shots) that don’t interest me as much? I’m really not sure.

2. Contrary to stereotype, female poets might be, if anything, less likely than their male counterparts to shy away from the technical challenges of making their own videopoems. Or perhaps women are just more adventuresome, or less likely than men to be narrowly focused on following traditional routes of advancement as poets?

3. Thinking about the major, long-term collaborative partnerships in the world of English-language poetry film, I actually can’t think of any that are exclusively male. If both partners aren’t female, than either the poet or the filmmaker is going to be a woman. I’m sure there must be exceptions to this, but the fact that I can’t think of any off-hand dovetails with another thought I’ve often had over the years: Could it be that women are more open to creative collaboration in general?

4. As hybrid forms, videopoetry and poetry film benefit from hybrid visions. An openness to collaboration would therefore be a huge advantage. But mightn’t it also be a disadvantage from a careerist perspective, luring people away from a single-minded focus on their own work necessary to, for example, qualify for tenure at an American university?

5. The male gaze has long been a tool of oppression, reducing women to objects. It’s worth remembering that this very insight came originally from a feminist film critic (Laura Mulvey). So wanting to have more women behind the camera is potentially more than just a matter of wanting to be fair and give equal opportunity. Might it not open up the possibility of depicting the world in new, potentially revolutionary ways, as feminist film critics suggest? What might the female gaze and hypermediacy mean for poetry film in particular?

6. Do videopoems or poetry films made by women have any unique characteristics that we might identify? For example, are there certain kinds of shots that female filmmakers use more often than men? Do women gravitate more than men to certain strategies of juxtaposition or disjunction in videopoetry?

7. What about poems and films of feminist advocacy? Is it possible to be prescriptive and suggest the best poetry film-making strategies to move viewers toward a greater sympathy with and understanding of diverse perspectives?

8. I’m obviously no scholar, but I can think of one cynical explanation for why women directors and poets might be so well represented in poetry film and videopoetry right now: it’s not prestigious yet. Historically speaking, as soon as a woman-dominated art, craft or industry begins to make money, men elbow in and quickly take over, whether it’s brewing beer, making textiles, or even writing computer code — a woman-dominated field until the mid 1970s. Could the same thing happen with poetry film? If it does, one day editors like me might have to work quite a bit harder to avoid posting any male-directed films for a month.

I invite comments below on any of these points. Email me if you’d like to submit a post. (And personal stories are just as welcome as critical analysis.)

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.

5 Comments

  1. Dave! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this subject. This is so interesting to me – especially after this year at Rabbit Heart Poetry Film Festival where the winners were all work by women (either as directors, poets, or key collaborators). We’ve been women heavy with winners (and with submissions) since year one.

    Some thoughts:
    I’ve been conducting interviews with women poetryfilm makers over the last four years, and one of the things I’m hearing repeatedly is that this artform allows for choosing how one is represented: in front of the camera, there is the option to appear as one wishes, or even to remain behind the camera & let the work represent us (and remove us from the male gaze).

    As a woman who has made poetryfilm (and is incredibly camera shy), I absolutely and personally agree – the freedom here, and the permission to work the footage as one likes, is an exercise in agency unlike very few others. Also, as the medium grows and becomes better known in the States, and as the ability to complete a quality film on a (small) budget become more and more available, I find it’s becoming less of a stretch for women to endeavor too, without fear of judgement, in film. (Digital gives us the freedom to start from scratch if we don’t like the results, without harm or costly side effect.)

    I’m mulling over your last item – the question of dominance and prestige. This is the fly in the ointment – because it is something that historically happens, and frankly, it’s rife with suck. I wish I had more to speak to it, but it’s still a sticky bit for me.

  2. A few personal thoughts. I came to poetry video from an earlier life as a writer and director of short narrative and experimental films on celluloid. I feel one of the reasons for the many women in poetry video, is that this hybrid form can arise on no budget, using domestic technology, thus allowing for highly personal, subjective and idiosyncratic approaches to film-making. The process of making a poetry video is so liberating, it’s almost as creatively available as writing itself. For various reasons, I think women have often been drawn to ‘domestic’ art forms such as this, and to personal forms and approaches that are mostly unacceptable in ‘bigger’ film. I also sometimes think of making poetry videos as similar to painting miniatures. Long may this sense of liberation last, and long may it be a rich ground for our creative engagement!

  3. Hi Dave,

    Thank you so much for this post with these excellent thoughts and questions. You bring up so many good points. I’m honored to be one of the videos you mentioned, and extremely grateful that if I’m going to work with a male director, it is someone such as Brad Cooper, who is so sensitive and such a good listener that he finds things in my poetry that I never thought anybody would. So I just wanted to give him a shoutout there.

    I am most interested in your questions and thoughts about the male gaze, and whether men will start elbowing in as we grow in mainstream recognition. Your observations in these two areas are most deeply appreciated by me. I look forward to talking with you and working with you more and more. And thank you as always to Sou, Who said a lot of the things I wanted to say, more articulately that I may have most likely!

  4. Thanks all for the comments so far. Sou’s remark about women being well-represented in the submissions to Rabbit Heart reminded me of something I meant to say in my post. It is perhaps obvious, but I’ll point it out anyway: the fact that women have been so involved as organizers of poetry film festivals and screenings for so long probably has something to do with women feeling encouraged to submit to them, which in turn drives the production of more work. Consider that North America’s longest running videopoetry festival, Visible Verse in Vancouver, was Heather Haley’s baby, while in the UK, Zata Banks has been holding PoetryFilm screenings since before online video hosting was really a thing. Sou is obviously the driving force behind Rabbit Heart; there’s Lucy English and Sarah Tremlett with Liberated Words, now being asked to judge at other UK film festivals as well; and women run the poetry film festivals in Athens, Vienna, Oslo, and Kiev, and probably others I’ve forgotten.

  5. O! Omigosh – really, I had no idea – how cool is that? It also brings us chicken and egg, tho’ – what about this medium brings women to feel empowered to not only create films, but also to organize around them?

    I love what Marie has to say here – “For various reasons, I think women have often been drawn to ‘domestic’ art forms such as this, and to personal forms and approaches that are mostly unacceptable in ‘bigger’ film.” From a very personal standpoint, I can tell you that I was driven not only by curiosity, but also by the fact that there was minimal risk associated with making my first film – I was able to experiment on a small scale, all digital, all by hand. There’s something I can’t quite put a finger on here, about creating from the ground up in the safe space of one’s own home (or studio) that I believe really appeals to women engaged in new-to-them artforms. It feels natural and cottage-industry-ish, but I think there’s something bigger at play. Maybe it has something to do with sanctuary from self-alienation that women have sought for, really forever..? Again, I’ve been struggling to really tease this apart for a while now; it’s really not a fully-formed idea for me yet.

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