In this month’s column: a close reading of three video poems: “The City,” “Profile,” and “I-poem 6.”
Happy 2013! I am looking forward to another year of discovering, watching, and writing about video poetry. I will do my best to bring you the most interesting, provocative, and compelling video poems I can find, and to present them in a way that helps all of us better appreciate this art form. I hope you will join me in this exploration, and I welcome your comments, suggestions and submissions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m starting the new year with a close examination of three video poems: The City, by Marie Silkeberg and Ghayath Almadhoun, Profile, by R.W. Perkins, and I-poem 6 by Pablo Lopez Jordan. I also have interviews with Marie Silkeberg and R.W. Perkins, as well as commentary from Pablo Lopez Jordan.
These three videos share an urban aesthetic, but each one has its own window on the world. We see images that are gritty, vibrant, and edgy, filtered through the sensibilities of their makers. “I am a voyeur,” the speaker in R.W. Perkins’s “Profile” states, lurking from behind his living room curtains, and we instantly recognize ourselves. Who hasn’t locked eyes with a neighbor in the act of spying? Or fantasized about the attractive person passing by on the sidewalk? Or had a moment of soul-destroying panic when confronted with which brand of yogurt to buy in a supermarket stuffed with too many choices? See for yourself:
I spoke to R.W. Perkins in early December from his home in Fort Collins, Colorado. Profile is part of a series that includes Over Breakfast and The Laundry Room. Profile is a collage of “little bits and pieces of people’s lives. A stream of consciousness made from samples of on-line chatter,” Perkins told me. “It’s an amalgam of many conversations.”
R.W. Perkins started writing poems as a young guitarist in a high school rock band. “I thought I was writing song lyrics,” he said. He uses his skills as a musician and professional video producer in his video poems, mixing and remixing soundtracks, some of which include his original music. “I had tons of poems lying around. The videos were a way to add visual representation.” Dave Bonta’s site, Moving Poems, was a strong influence on Perkins. “I was inspired when I saw what other people were doing. The first video poem that I was comfortable showing other people was Challenge Me Vista.” Challenge Me Vista contains distinctive characteristics of his future style: an ironic man’s voice (Perkins) narrates a private commentary to scenes of everyday, unvarnished life as a bluesy soundtrack plays in the background. I especially enjoyed the scenes I recognize: the prairie of northern Colorado seen from Highway 25, and an occasional glimpse of the Rockies. Watch it here:
“The idea for these videos came to me from looking at other people’s on-line presences,” Perkins said. “People put photographs up on Facebook for everyone to see.” Perkins’s work shows us a somewhat desperate view of ourselves, and our compulsive need to share the most intimate details of our lives with total strangers.
Although grounded in irony, Perkins’s work is never caustic – he approaches his subjects with an unexpected gentleness, inviting the viewer in. By contrast, The City keeps the viewer at a distance. A collaboration between Marie Silkeberg, a poet and creative writing professor from Stockholm, Sweden, and Ghayath Almadhoun, an Arab poet and artist, The City, which I included in December’s list of notable video poems from Zebra, is about the ongoing violence in Damascus. Damascus, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world and the center of Arab culture, has been damaged repeatedly in Syrian civil strife. View The City here:
The City opens with an eerie rumble, the screen boiling with sepia-tinted dust clouds. A young woman’s voice states, “Even if the way to Ithaca is more beautiful than Ithaca, the way to Damascus is not more beautiful than Damascus.” Two poems, “What Gas” by Silkeberg and The City by Almadhoun, intertwine in the voices of men and women.
“We asked people on the streets of Stockholm to read the lines,” Silkeberg said. Some voices are heavily accented, some sound like American tourists, and I detected British and Australian speakers in the narration. The sound of so many voices emphasizes Damascus’s role as a center of world culture, yet the video transcends location with its startling use of film footage showing building after building collapsing.
These scenes of dying structures spewing dust and debris are disturbing at first, then oddly moving. It’s important to point out that these buildings are being demolished on purpose, not from violence; these are scenes from planned take-downs, not attacks. Yet that makes the symbolism even more interesting; the tidy removal of enormous buildings suggests the surgical nature of modern warfare. We can remove a tall building from within a busy, crowded city in just a few minutes – a building that once held hundreds of people while they worked, ate, slept, and dreamed. The City emphasizes the ephemeral nature of even the most solid-appearing structures.
At the end of The City, the uncanny music of WWII air raid sirens begins. The use of sound in the video is one of its strongest elements. Silkeberg has been working with sound, recording city sounds and making collages for several years. Listen carefully as you watch; you will hear traffic, bells, chanting, rain, and thudding noises that could be construction or destruction, mingled with fragments of music from Imri Sandstrom and Miriam Karpantschof.
Sound is also an essential element of Pablo Lopez Jordan’s I-poem 6. Part of a planned series of I-poems, in I-poem 6 a camera tracks empty playgrounds, chain link fences, and city walls covered in street art. A slightly ominous soundtrack accompanies the visuals, which Jordan created from a poem by Vangelis Scouras. “I read the text and asked him if I could use it for a video poem. I thought it could be interesting to recreate that special mood with images and sound.” Jordan is a filmmaker, not a poet, but he states that “to use a poem as a script for a video is a great exercise of liberation. When you work with a poem, the structure is more open and increases the chances of experimentation.” Watch it here:
I-poem 6 starts with a black screen, upon which the words “i got a tiny paper in my wallet…” appear. From there, we take a walk that moves through an urban landscape at eye-level. The shadow of a dog on a leash places our view on the sidewalk, where it rises to graffiti-covered walls. The walls show sophisticated street art: cartoon figures, stencils a la London artist Banksy, and the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh. The dog’s shadow reappears, and we see his view of leaves and trash collected in the gutter.
“I wanted to show little things from ordinary life; words make those insignificant things grow in importance,” Jordan said. The poem appears as text on fragments of torn paper at the bottom of the screen, where it becomes part of the visual collage of shadows, graffiti, trees and sky. Jordan writes that he stayed away from high definition for this video, preferring what he calls a “domestic camera.” This gives the video a handmade look, like that of a very well-done home movie. This was to honor the poem, which Jordan describes as “very emotional, bright and totally real.”
I-poem 6 is an example of the whole becoming more than its individual parts. It’s difficult to imagine the soundtrack without the images, and either without the poem. Each element supports and enhances the others. The key is in the editing; Jordan states that “image and sound can change the meaning of words and create a new atmosphere, so the filming, and especially the editing, turn into a great game where you can interact with the writer’s talent.”
These three videos are linked by more than their gritty, urban sensibility. They use juxtaposition to create a viewing experience based on the manipulation of images, some ordinary, some jarring. Watching these videos back-to-back reminds me of the sensation I get when I wander through a flea market or a second-hand store: the jumble of odd things, from valuables to outright junk, serves as a foil for random treasure.
More video-poem treasure is forthcoming from these three artists. R.W. Perkins is working on a 15-20 minute-long video chapbook, collaborations with other poets, and he has launched Colorado’s first-ever video poetry film festival, The Body Electric, scheduled for Spring 2013 in Fort Collins. Submit your video poems here. Marie Silkeberg and Ghayath Almadhoun have a third film collaboration in the works, and Pablo Lopez Jordan plans another installment in the I-poem series.
Next month: collaborations, festivals, and more video poems.
“The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours.”
– T. S. Eliot