Issue X, Volume IV : June 2013
This is the first installment of Erica Goss’s new column for Connotation Press: The Third Form. This column will explore short films based on poems, an art form rapidly gaining ground. Video poems are a hybrid between poetry (first form) and film (second form); therefore, we’ve decided to call this column The Third Form.
Hello, readers! I am honored Connotation Press chose me to edit The Third Form. By way of introduction, I am Erica Goss, poet, freelance writer, and consultant for Poetry Center San Jose. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’m married and I have two sons. In this column, I will explore the art form I call video poems, also called poetry videos, movie poems, and poem films. In the coming months, I will feature a selection of video poems, interviews with poets and filmmakers, links, news and reviews.
My intent with this column is to open up a conversation about video poems. Every month I will feature a selection, so if you make video poems, please send me your work. We’ll post several submissions here. I will explore other topics such as the origins of video poems, their significance as an art form, screenings at festivals, and in-depth interviews. I’m also interested in the technical aspects of making video poems, so feel free to send me any craft tips you’ve picked up, whether they deal with cameras, software, royalty-free film footage, or sound.
What, exactly, is a video poem? No easy definition exists. In my meanderings through the internet, I’ve come across videos based on poems and poems based on videos; video poems that include narration, music and sound effects as well as videos that have no narration or text; poems interpreted through dance, sign language, and collaged bits of old film; videos made by filmmakers, poets, artists, students, and businesspeople; and much more. The simplicity of today’s cameras along with video editing software means that just about anyone can take a stab at making one. Of course, this makes for uneven quality, but to quote Dave Bonta, who runs Moving Poems, “Having a good idea and being able to execute it effectively with the tools at hand trump everything else; there are so many professionally made poetry films that I would never share here because they are filled with visual or musical clichés.” Hear, hear, Dave! I agree that some of the most captivating video poems are made with very basic camera equipment and software.
I first became aware of video poems through the San Francisco Writers Corp, a branch of the San Francisco Arts Commission. They sponsor The Poetry Projection Project, a festival of short films based on youth writing. Well-known local filmmakers create short videos (five minutes and under) based on student poems. In 2011 and 2012, the videos were screened during National Poetry Month, and winners received cash prizes.
The films and poetry from these young writers completely captivated me. I was fascinated and impressed with how the filmmakers envisioned the poems, bringing them to life in a way that was new to me. From that point, I discovered Motion Poems, Moving Poems, and many other websites that feature video poems. I experimented, and started working on a video poetry project of my own (more on that later).
How poems and video come together is a bit of a mystery, but “Animation” shows up most frequently under the categories on Moving Poems. A small but significant number of animated poems are student work; I’m guessing that animating a poem is short enough to serve as an assignment in art school. Many of these student poems are quite wonderful; for example, Lawrence Ferlingetti’s “Underwear,” animated by film student Aja Rose Matthews.
Todd Boss and Angella Kassube run Motion Poems, which features exquisitely animated video poems. This short beauty, based on “The Cloudy Vase” by Jane Hirshfield, shows how visuals, sound and voice can enhance a poem.
“Author-made” follows “Animation” as the next-largest category of video poem. It doesn’t surprise me that poets want to create videos for their poems, but just as with the category of Animation, the quality varies. I have no way of proving this, but I have a theory that poets are more likely to make video poems than filmmakers are to write poems. Some very talented filmmakers, i.e., Alistair Cook and Andy Lawrence, have made many video poems; the artist who goes by “Swoon” put a call out in April 2012 for a poet to respond to prompts he connected with video imagery. The result, “Escape,” encompassing three poems by Donna Vorreyer, is stunning.
What these collaborations tell us is that video poetry is ekphrasis at its most unique. Poetry, film and sound comment on each other “in a totally new way,” to quote Todd Boss from Motion Poems. Video poems transport the viewer, offering some of the same magic as a film, but with the added depth of poetry. “A Poetry-film is a single entwined entity, a melting, a cleaving together of words, sound and vision,” writes Alistair Cook. “It is an attempt to take a poem and present it through a medium that will create a new artwork.”
A video poem that achieves this cleaving particularly well is Cynthia Cox’s “Departure,” which creates an emotional juxtaposition between the visuals, text, voiceover and music. In “Departure,” Cox uses vintage film of a woman dancing on the beach to Stephane Grapelli’s “Amanda.” We are not prepared for the cracked and grieving voice of the narrator, who begins with the poem’s first lines:
When the nurses wheeled you away
on the shuddering gurney, your simple body
steering down the corridor, your toes
pointing back at me like a little constellation
of stars, you gestured a goodbye
I didn’t recognize until later, and it was like
you’d already died, and I’d missed my chance
to honor that soft instant of your disappearance,
like a pilgrim slipping over a dark border.
The film splices images from another film – a woman slowly opening a box, a slender greyhound settling on its pillow, an antique clock resting on a table – with the exuberant dancing woman. The narrator’s voice deepens as the poem reaches its conclusion, and the last line, “another gentle, merciless afternoon” (which recalls Emily Dickinson’s line “how ruthless are the gentle”) ends with the fleeting vision of a woman laughing. I found myself watching “Departure” over and over, wanting to relive the peculiar blend of melancholy and nostalgia it conjured up in me. All over the world, people are dancing on the beach while others disappear down the long hallways of illness and death, and this blend of imagery and poetry perfectly captured that.
The animated video of Erin Belieu’s “When at a Certain Party in NYC” is a completely different take on a video poem. The male narrator’s jaded delivery contrasts with the perky young female character, creating just the right tone for an inner monologue: “Wherever you’re from sucks, / and wherever you grew up sucks,” he sneers, as our heroine wanders through a surreal landscape where the food is “so confusingly beautiful that it makes itself / impossible to eat.” It’s snarky and brilliant, and funny with a dark edge, a precise illustration of the extremes people will go to. The poem’s descriptions of the desperately hip: “the razor-blade women with their strategic bones / and the men wearing Amish pants with interesting zippers” are illustrated in an appropriately cartoonish style.
In 1969, William Carlos Williams wrote that “a poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words” and “as in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.” A video poem is also a machine, small or large, and capable of transporting the viewer to a new place of understanding.