This month, I'm turning the spotlight on the poets whose words have inspired filmmakers.I recently had this experience myself: my poem, "Darkroom," was made into a video by Swoon, one of the most prolific and accomplished creators of video poems. Watching the visuals that my poem inspired generated some unexpected emotions. I was curious about how other poets felt when they saw the videos made from their poems.
Todd Boss is well-known as a poet and co-creator of Motionpoems (see my interview with Todd from The Third Form's September 2012 column). "I warn poets that something about the video will throw you off – the voiceover, sound, or images won't seem quite right." Todd makes sure to set expectations for the first viewing, "because eventually they come to love the video poem. It's not at all what the poem looks like in the poet's head. The poem is a script for the film, so you're seeing what it looks like to the filmmaker."
Al Rempel is a Canadian poet and teacher, whose work has appeared in The Malahat Review, GRAIN, CV2, Event, subTerrain, and in The Best Canadian Poems, 2011. His website is can be found here. "Bring Me My Sky Canoe" is from This Isn't the Apocalypse We Hoped For, forthcoming from Caitlin Press in 2013.
Al commented about "Sky Canoe" becoming a video: "It's fascinating to see this interpretation of my work, but I had to let go of the poem. I'm mostly ok with that." Al was involved in some of the creation of the video version of "Sky Canoe," but it was still a surprise to see the finished product. Sculptor Phil Morrison carved the words of the poem into a canoe, through which light, refracted by the water, shines.
I asked Al if some of the imagery of the video seeped into his own imagination. "Some has, for sure. The video has become its own thing, even though it carries the same words as the poem." One of the downsides to being involved is that "it's time-consuming, and takes away from writing time." However, Al plans to collaborate on another video poem in the near future.
Watch "Sky Canoe" here:
"Sometimes I feel like I have to watch the videos between my fingers," says Howie Good. "I don't feel like it's my poem anymore." Howie is a professor of journalism at SUNY New Paltz, and the author of four poetry collections, most recently Dreaming in Red from Right Hand Pointing. "It's flattering, and brings recognition for the poet, but the poem is a creation in itself. I want it to generate its own pictures in the reader's mind."
Howie told me that "the poet and the filmmaker have different goals. The video is a separate object. It's good that a poem inspires the filmmaker, but then it's not my poem. Now it's out in the world, away from me." Howie doesn't feel that videos diminish poetry. "They don't enhance poems either. They are simply different things." The worst thing that might happen would be if the video "pre-empted the imagination. We need our consciousness liberated. Poetry does that." In April 2011, Moving Poems held a contest inviting filmmakers to create videos based on Howie's poem "Fable." Here are the first and second place winners, who have quite different interpretations of the poem.
The first is from Swoon:
The second comes from Rachel Laine:
"My poems have a non-linear structure, and perhaps that makes them good for videos," Howie said. Tightly packed, concise poetry does seem to work well for videos, like the poems of Erin Belieu. Erin is a poet and the Director of The Graduate Creative Writing Program at Florida State University. She is also the co-founder and co-director of VIDA, a literary organization that seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women. Erin's poem, "When at a Certain Party in NYC," was animated by Amy Schmitt for Motionpoems.
"I got an email out of the blue," Erin told me. "'When at a Certain Party in NYC' was in Best American Poems 2011. Motionpoems has a relationship with Best American Poems, so that's how they found the poem." Erin's experience was almost totally positive. "Amy (Schmitt) got the humor just right. One of my favorite moments is the dog in the elevator," in which something that resembles a fried egg appears, then the camera pans to the eye of a desperate-looking dog. "I love the video. It's become a wonderful connection for me."
Erin's poems have been turned into libretti, art songs, and choreographed into dance performances. She had some trepidations about the video project – "my greatest fear was that the video would end up looking like something from the comic strip Cathy, complete with 'Aaaacks.' But it's just right." She admits to being caught off-guard by the voice of Andrew Reynolds, who narrates the poem. "The poem is voice-driven. I had to get used to a male voice – especially regarding that line about looking for a tampon in a stranger's bathroom."
"When at a Certain Party in NYC" has been screened at film festivals, used in classrooms, and generally raised Erin's profile as a poet. Watch it here:
Late last year I received a request from Marc Neys, the video artist known as Swoon. He read my poem "Darkroom" on Connotation Press's website and asked if he could make a video from it. This is the first time I've had a poem turned into a video, and to quote Cheryl Strayed from her wonderful book Wild, I found watching the video version of "Darkroom" "layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing." (Strayed is describing her first experience climbing a mountain – I think the similarities are apt.)
Watching a documentary about photographer Sally Mann, titled What Remains, inspired the poem. In my opinion, which I admit is biased, Swoon extracted the dreamy, mysterious qualities that impressed me from Mann's work, adding an edginess I really like. This is a case of visual art inspiring a poem, which in turn inspired more visual art:
Next month: an in-depth interview with a cutting-edge poet/video artist.
"Painting was called silent poetry and poetry speaking painting."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson