translation, otherness, identity and death in cinepoetry from across the Americas
presented by Dave Bonta as part of REELpoetry/Houston TX, January 24, 2020
I realized as I was putting this program together that there was a kind of theme to the films, as expressed in the subtitle, and I mention this because I don’t want to give the impression, to people who aren’t as familiar with Latin American poetry, that there isn’t also light and playful poetry south of the Rio Grande! The screening also happens not to include any explictly political poetry—another rich part of the tradition. The borders transgressed in these poems may be political, but are just as likely to be existential, including the borders between self and other, sanity and insanity, and life and death.
But what I most hope to show is that the linguistic divide isn’t nearly as insurmountable as many gringos might suppose, because of the way film can mediate between languages while showing us the world through another’s eyes. We’ll see an array of strategies for handling translation: subtitles in one language and voiceover in another, titles for both languages, voices for both languages, and monolingual versions of films made originally in a different language—the last probably the best strategy for anyone with dyslexia.
The genesis of this program was an online, international collaboration which I instigated in 2015 with a Facebook group called Poetry From the Other Americas, where amateur translators like me with my bad high-school Spanish and professionals like my friend Jean Morris in London, plus people with native-level fluency in Spanish, Portuguese and French, all worked together to translate and raise awareness of Spanish American, Brazilian, and Quebecois poetry. We posted the most successful results in my literary blog Via Negativa (vianegativa.us) where you can read the results by clicking on the Poetry From the Other Americas link in the Series section of the sidebar. If you’re a film-maker looking for ideas, I should mention that most of the poems have yet to be adapted to film. But a few have: by me; by the Belgian artist and musician Marc Neys, aka Swoon—one of the most prolific and prominent videopoetry makers of the past decade; and by Eduardo Yagüe, a Spanish director with a background in theater, who formed an on-going collaborative relationship with Jean Morris that’s led to a number of additional films. And just the other week I invited Marie Craven, an experimental filmmaker and musician in Australia who is now my co-editor at Moving Poems, to re-make a film I’d largely failed at several years before, adapting three micropoems by my favorite poet in this whole screening, Alejandra Pizarnik.
In addition, I reached out to several film-makers whose works I’ve featured on Moving Poems over the years. Charles Olsen, a poet and filmmaker from New Zealand living in Spain and his partner, the Colombian poet and actor Lilián Pallares, have made several poetry films together, and we’ll see two of them today. Miah Artola is an artist and creator of interactive installations teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and the short we’ll see by her is part of a still-unfinished experimental documentary about her father’s homeland, Nicaragua, and how it has survived U.S. military intervention. Tomás (formerly Paola) Proaño is an Ecuadorian musician and video artist who learned how to make videopoetry in order to adapt his countryman Efraín Jara Idrovo’s epic lament for the death of his son, from which I’ve selected the fourth of five parts. The finished audiovisual composition earned Proaño a masters in music cum laude from Berklee College of Music. And the program concludes with a light-hearted adaptation of a poem from north of the border—because turn-about is fair play—from Juan Bullón, a Spanish poet and audiovisual professional who teaches videopoetry workshops in Seville.
I’ve included perhaps one or two more of my own videos than is entirely wise, but keep in mind that they were meant to be shared online, at Moving Poems, and don’t look half-bad on the small screen! I feel a bit like a grasshopper among eagles—as Ogden Nash once said at a reading in celebration of the 50th birthday of Poetry magazine—but I will share my most ambitious hops.
El otro / The Other
dir. & trans. Dave Bonta (2017)
poet Rosario Castellanos (Mexico, 1924-1975)
I couldn’t believe my luck when I found this footage on one of those free stock photo sites. There’s nothing stock about it! As soon as I saw it, I thought of the Castellanos poem—the translation that had kicked off the whole Poetry From the Other Americas project. I contacted the uploader to get the performer’s name, Stephanie Leathers, and make sure that she was fine with it, too. Evidently it was a rehearsal for a piece of performance art.
When I started to make videos I thought that it would be great to have subtitles translated into English in order to have more audience, or at least try to. It was a great help to be invited to be part of the Facebook Group Poetry from the Other Americas, where I met Jean Morris, who is very important to my projects. I am so grateful to her, to her sensibility and huge knowledge of Spanish; she became a very important part of the process (sometimes long process) of making a video. I especially remember with profound respect how she translated La canción del espejo and the care and love she put into this work. Another project that was very important was Antesala Altísima, where Jean and Estefanía (whose knowledge of English is also huge) had so interesting conversations via mail about the convenience of one or another word, and was a privilege of learning for me. Jean is an amazing professional and her support (like yours) has been very important in the way I feel myself as an artist, you both gave me confidence and I am always grateful to this.
This was made originally as a book trailer, to capture the essence of Lilián’s latest collection Bestial published in Zaragoza, Spain, by Papeles de Trasmoz, Olifante Editions, 2019. Her collection explores her Afro-Colombian roots and the death of her father. While writing the poems she was taking African dance classes in Madrid and we wanted to capture something of the African influence in this poetry film.
We live in a neighborhood of Madrid with a large migrant population, with people from Senegal, Guinea-Conakry, Morocco, Bangladesh, China, etc., and us (Colombia and New Zealand), and we decided to film this at night in streets with the dancer Marisa Cámara (Guinea-Conakry) and the poet and performer Artemisa Semedo (Galicia/Cape Verde). The music is ‘Zuru’ by the Colombian duo Mitú.
In 2020, Lilian and Charles have been awarded a year-long Arts Residency at the Matadero Madrid Centre for Creative Arts on the theme of ‘Childhood, Play and Public Spaces’. For more on their creative partnership, see antenablue.com.
Verde embeleso / Green Enchantment
dir. & trans. Dave Bonta (2015)
poet Juana Inés de la Cruz (New Spain/Mexico, 1648-1695)
I roped in my Via Negativa co-author Luisa Igloria to contribute a reading for the soundtrack. The norm for videopoems of translated texts is to put the original language in the soundtrack and the translation in subtitles, but I decided to reverse that here, just as an experiment. I wanted to make the poem feel less foreign to an English-language audience.
I thought of the poem only after I filmed the meadow footage featured in the video. The original plan for this videopoem was to have that, the titling, and nothing else. But mid-way through the editing process, I woke up early one morning with the idea of adding crowds of people as an overlay. One thing led to another, I found some crazy-ass 1960s TV ads in the Prelinger Archives, and a few days later I had something that seemed to work. For the music, I used a public-domain guitar interpretation of Albéniz from Wikimedia, reasoning that something from the 19th century would help bridge the gap between the 17th and 21st centuries.
To my mind, a videopoem that doesn’t reinterpret the text in a manner different from what its author intended isn’t a real videopoem. But as Lorca much later showed, verde (green) is one of those words with an almost unlimited number of connotations. So this is more than a translation; it’s a complete re-imagining. Then again, human nature hasn’t changed in the last 400 years, and deciding to live in the moment rather than living in hope is, if anything, wiser than ever.
On working with other languages: it’s a cliché maybe, but for me poetry is music and music has no ‘language’ even when used as text on screen as in Lo Fatal.
This poem depicts Nicaragua’s long struggle against American imperialism and I wanted to depict the resilience and power of the Nicaraguan people in their recitation of this poem. It was recited by random Nicaraguans throughout Granada, San Marcos and Masaya and most of the participants were familiar with the poem.
Nicaragua is often called ‘The Land of the Poets’ as the most remote village to the busiest town and the old and young alike, have an impressive knowledge of the country’s literary figures as well as international poets and writers. There is enormous esteem placed upon poets in Nicaragua and top government posts have been filled with poets, especially during its strongest period when the Sandinista party was still for the people.
I see culture as global and I’ve always thought that my background is not only my Spanish culture, which I love with all my respect (from the medieval jarchas to Antonio Machado or Lorca and, of course, Cervantes and all the theater and poetry from El Siglo de Oro or the amazing poets and writers from Iberoamérica), but also English, U.S. and European, and that is thanks to translators, basically. I think that part of my sentimental and cultural education are equally Lorca, Shakespeare, Whitman, Luis Rosales or Sam Shepard… And if speaking about cinema I usually think on Lynch, Buñuel or Bergman, and there are not many differences between them (and many others), artists taking risks and giving deep works to the whole world.
Riqueza / Wealth
dir. & trans. Dave Bonta (2011)
poet Gabriela Mistral (Chile, 1889-1957)
One of my first successful videopoems, made back in 2011. Who’d have thought a Chilean poem and an Irish folk song (“The Foggy Dew” on pennywhistle, by British software developer Chris Kent) would go together so well? But the mix of sweetness and melancholy was just right, I thought.
This is one of those videopoems that began with some of my own footage (of a spinner who wishes to remain anonymous). When I thought about what sort of poem to match it with, Gabriela Mistral came to mind almost right away — those who know her work will understand what I mean.
Dicha can mean happiness, joy, good luck, or good fortune. Many translators, influenced by the title and the “stolen” part, have gone with “fortune,” but I think it’s better to keep our options open. So often, the simplest poems are the hardest to translate.
Re-edited and re-sized to 16:9 ratio in 2020 for the REELpoetry screening.
Historia de mi muerte / Story of My Death
dir. & trans. Dave Bonta (2015)
poet Leopoldo Lugones (Argentina, 1874-1938)
I really like stationary single-shot videopoems. The shot has to be sufficiently suggestive and interesting, of course, and relate to the text in several possible ways. The goal is to put the watcher/listener/reader in a contemplative frame of mind maximally conducive to the reception of poetry.
I translated the poem (with some invaluable assistance from Alicia E-Bourdin on Facebook) specifically with the intent of pairing it with this footage of cabbage white butterflies—which, when I shot it, I already recognized as having a certain Lugones-like feel. So it was just a question of finding the right poem.
This almost didn’t make the cut for the program, due to the lack of sharpness in the footage, but among other things I wanted to show off the approach to bilingual subtitling I’d hit upon for the video.
English and Spanish are not so far apart, we are part of the same culture, and the time we are living in makes approaching and mixing with other cultures very productive. Generally speaking, this is what I think videopoetry is doing, mixing genres, artistic languages and sensibilities. I am also thinking about Spanish language being so important in USA, despite bad politicians.
A few weeks ago, Dave Bonta invited me to participate in this “Poetry Without Borders” program at REELPoetry, by making a video remix of his 2016 piece, “A Glimpse from the Gutter”, from three poems by Argentinian poet, Alejandra Pizarnik (1936-1972). Having previously made a number of films with Dave’s poetry, and being involved in some of his wider projects, I was keen to rise to the challenge.
Like the majority of Australians, I speak only the dominant English. Nonetheless, this is the sixth film I’ve made involving different languages. My interest in doing this has arisen in part from a personal impulse to in some way transcend the xenophobia and racism that has long been a lamentable aspect of my own geographically-isolated culture. Aside from this, and despite being in my late 50s, I retain a child-like wonderment that our single human species communicates in so many richly varied ways. In addition, my film-making over 35 years has been largely directed towards international audiences, via the film festival circuit, and now also the web, where poetry film has by far its greatest reach. I also simply love the expressive sounds of different languages as a kind of music.
Dave translated Pizarnik’s poems with advice and in discussion with Jean Morris, a poet and professional translator. Jean voiced the poems in Spanish, while Dave spoke them in English. For my film, I retained only the text and voices, which I re-arranged and mixed with new music and images. I have remained true to Dave’s impulse in his earlier piece to make a truly bilingual film, spoken in both Spanish and English, and therefore without the need for subtitles.
As in a number of my films, the raw images were sourced from Storyblocks, a subscription website with a vast library of short, random clips from videographers in many different countries. The collection of shots I selected were then transformed via changes to speed, light, framing and colour, and the addition of long dissolves that blend and juxtapose the images via superimposition.
Some of the images I selected touch on the literal meanings of the poems. These direct connections of image to text are sometimes seen at moments other than when they are spoken. The film also contains a number of shots that bear no direct relation to the words. My overall impulse was to create a series of moving images that might form a kind of visual poem in themselves, while remaining connected to the resonances I found in the text and in the qualities of the voices. The final visual element is a faintly-flickering overlay containing animated x-rays of human anatomy.
The music is an ambient piece by Lee Rosevere, who for several years has generously released much of his music on creative commons remix licenses, enabling film-makers and other artists to create new works incorporating his sounds. I chose this piece for its slow pace, beatlessness and meditative quality, that left room for the voices to take by far the greatest prominence.
I am delighted to have especially made this film for REELPoetry, where it is having its world premiere.
My next film-making project this year will be the completion of a film started in 2019 called “Metamorphosis”, based on a poem by Jean Morris, and featuring Spanish actor Pedro Luis Menéndez. It is the first film I am collaboratively directing, with Spanish film-maker, Eduardo Yagüe.
The poem sollozo por pedro jara (1978) is an elegy written by Efraín Jara Idrovo after his son Pedro’s suicide. It can be seen as his masterpiece because of its expressiveness and the meticulous work done on structure, which was inspired by musical serialism, specifically by Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI and Boulez’s Piano Sonata No. 3, as stated by the poet. This poem consists of 63 verses divided into 5 series, and each series has three parallel developments. In the first edition of this poem, Jara Idrovo shares suggestions on how the poem could be read and combined and this is interesting, especially, for the oral performance of this piece and for
I started this project as part of my M.Mus. thesis project. The main goal was to compose music for this elegy by finding creative approaches to translate its emotional content and avant-garde structure into a musical composition arranged for guitar. This is the musical aspect of the frame I wanted to provide for this poetry. The five resulting audio tracks are part of five audiovisuals, which include a recitation, ambient sounds, footage and video editing that supports the emotional environment and English subtitles based on a translation by Dr. Cecilia Mafla Bustamante.
Regarding the translation, at certain times she preferred to change some verses in order to produce rhymes. I admire her work, especially because the metaphors she changes in order to preserve original rhymes are similar to the original and yet provide new images and beauty, which makes this a very thoughtful translation.
Marc blogged at the time:
My mother passed away.
This is a tribute to her and the way she directed her own ending.
Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca / Black Stone on a White Stone
dir. Dave Bonta (2017)
poet César Vallejo (Peru, 1892-1938)
trans. Jean Morris, Natalie d’Arbeloff, & the Poetry from the Other Americas group
This is so far the only time I’ve paid for stock footage to use in a videopoem. (I’m not opposed to that; I’m just cheap.) The music really makes this one work, I think.
Translating by committee can be a challenge. In this case, I think one or two lines never got complete buy-in from everyone. But it’s such an iconic poem, I just had to envideo it.
Eduardo’s most recent film (as of January 2020), continuing his collaboration with translator Jean Morris, is the final piece of his TRILOGÍA DE LA SOLEDAD (Trilogy of Solitude), which began with an adaptation of a piece by a Spanish poet, Pedro Luis Menéndez: La vida menguante (Waning Life), and continued with the previously shared A media voz. He says the trilogy is “sobre la soledad y el vacío existencial, creativo y amoroso” (about solitude and existential, creative, and romantic emptiness).
Inspired by the cinematic techniques of Georges Méliès such as differences in scale, the actor appearing multiple times in the same frame, and the language of silent cinema, we had a lot of fun taking the poem off the page and into film. Lilián Pallares is both the poet and actress and we filmed it in the streets of Madrid, constructing a bed from a cardboard box to support the pillow so we could easily carry it around. Why try to film real ants on sugar when you can film a giant paper cut-out ant on large salt grains?
I’m interested in the use of translation as a way to understand another culture, both the physical translation – Lilián from Colombia to Spain and me from New Zealand to the UK before moving to Spain – and the move into a new language in my case. We both were writing when we met in 2009, but Lilián encouraged me to start writing and reading my poems in Spanish and introduced me to the local poetry circuits in Madrid. Lilián had studied Audiovisual Communication at Universidad del Norte, Barranquilla and I came from a Fine Arts background and had recently begun filming, and so we complimented each other and learned from one another.
The flamenco pianist Pablo Rubén Maldonado composed the music especially for the video. We had previously worked together on my flamenco short film ‘La danza de los pinceles’ (‘The dance of the brushes’) and we have performed together with Lilián and the flamenco dancer Selene Muñoz with our show ‘Agita flamenco’. Moving to Spain in part to study flamenco guitar has connected me with the world of flamenco and provided amazing opportunities.
The internet has also been very important in my creative work. With poetry I have run the online Spanish poetry competition Palabras Prestadas and the last four years I have run the equivalent, ‘Given Words’, in New Zealand for National Poetry Day, so I receive hundreds of poems from New Zealand and across the Spanish-speaking world. Lilián and I have also collaborated with musicians and dancers in Madrid, the Netherlands, and in the United Kingdom, on poetry film and performance projects.
In this case the starting point was to make a film inspired by the French film director Georges Méliès, and we chose Lilián’s poem ‘And the alarm rang’ from her first collection Voces Mudas (Silent Voices) because it told a simple story that gave room for surreal treatment. She wrote the poem in Madrid as a way to comment on the daily grind as she worked in jobs that weren’t satisfying creatively so it was fun to play with her poem in the streets and metro (subway) of Madrid.
The translation of the poem for the film was quite straightforward as the text is inserted between the images. In other text-on-screen pieces where the text is integrated with the image I will also do two versions. In pieces with voice I have recorded separate soundtracks in Spanish and English, especially for my own poems, or if the Spanish text is in the voice of one of the actors then I prefer to use subtitles rather than dub the voice. I sometimes question whether I shouldn’t just do my poetry films in only one language and use subtitles – there is something attractive about this that accentuates the different cultural contexts, and it maybe makes the audience feel like they are having a more ‘cultural experience’ – but I also want to make the work accessible so the English viewer can appreciate it immediately as a Spanish audience does when it is in Spanish and visa-versa. I guess this works best where the poet speaks and writes in both languages.
El hombre imaginario / The Imaginary Man
dir. & trans. Dave Bonta (2018)
poet Nicanor Parra (Chile, 1914-2018)
As I wrote in my blog when I first posted this, the great Chilean poet Nicanor Parra died on January 23, 2018 at the age of 103, so I wanted to make a video for one of his poems as a tribute, especially since there didn’t seem to be any real videopoems or poetry films of his work on the web. I asked some fellow fans of Latin American poetry on Facebook for suggestions of poems, and “El hombre imaginario” came up. It had been translated before—by Edith Grossman, no less—but we all found her decision to depart from the plain meaning of the text in order to imitate the word order of Spanish odd and unfortunate. Eduardo Yagüe agreed to read the poem for the soundtrack when I mentioned I had an idea for a videopoem. I found the music—an accordion track by the composer Steven O’Brien—on Soundcloud, and the footage was something I’d downloaded from the one-person stock video channel Beachfront B-Roll a while ago.
I’m a Spanish film maker and writer. I write with creative, narrative or poetic intention for about twelve years. I come from the audiovisual world (television and advertising mostly). In recent years I have attended several creative writing workshops. Now, far from audiovisual as a profession, I dedicate myself to writing and coordinate a creative writing workshop in Seville. It is a workshop to experience the fact of creating and feeling literature. We try to go beyond writing or correct narrative, poetic, autobiographical or reflective texts, beyond knowing techniques and writing tricks. Creativity is the goal without end. We give great importance to reading aloud as a way to recognize and work the literary voice of each one, and also, we experiment with the audiovisual format as another way of learning to know how to interpret our texts, to voiceover them, and act on them. Video-poems are another part of the creative process and the recognition of each as an author, it is another way of creative knowledge. The essential is to pose, think and act, and in our case, create from writing to let go and leave our point of view, and be able to share it. And this ability to narrate and tell should be transferable to another means of expression, as another complement, as another revelation of our creative capacity.
Transferring our texts (or those of other authors) to an audiovisual format, relying on the image and music to create these video-poems is a challenge where the fundamental is the literary burden of the text. We do not consider it as a struggle between the greater or lesser relevance of the image, music or text. The written is the important, it’s essential, then, the interpretation and performance of these texts with a suggestive audiovisual dress. The direction and production of these video-poems must be guided by the simplicity and speed of creation in the event that they are self-produced or by taking advantage of what the internet offers with the royalty-free images and music that can be used and shared, with that democratization of the media. In turn, the video-poems we make are posted on the internet for anyone’s free enjoyment, helping to fill in that great library of Babel.
Moving the texts to an audiovisual format is a part of the creative process, a moment of enjoyment and self-knowledge. The important thing is to act, to be and to write it.