Artistic collaborations are often tricky. They can range from the successful (Frank O’Hara and Larry Rivers with Stones, a book of lithographs) to the questionable (Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat with The Collaboration Paintings). When projects between artists work, they amaze and delight in unexpected ways; in his autobiography, Rivers wrote of making Stones: “I had the idea that the assault on the senses coming from two directions, pictorial and poetic, would be twice as strong.” However, the public was less kind in its assessment of The Collaboration Paintings; one critic stated “Everything . . . is infused with banality. Who is using whom here?”
In this month’s column, I look at two video poems that are the result of collaborations between poets, artists, and videographers. Each brought surprises, insights and quandaries to its creators. Each opened unexpected doors, built new relationships, and furthered artistic possibilities.
Cheryl Gross is a digital motion artist, illustrator and painter, as well as an adjunct professor at Pratt Institute in New York City. Cheryl first encountered Nicelle Davis’s poem, “Composition 101,” on the website Broadsided . Broadsided invites poets to post their work in hopes that an artist will create an illustration for it. “I have to be honest, the poem creeped me out at first,” Cheryl told me. Nevertheless, she saw the possibilities in Nicelle’s words, and created the broadside that led to several more projects. Here’s Circe, based on Circe by Nicelle Davis (Lowbrow Press, 2011):
“I knew how to do this immediately. I deal with a lot of art directors, and they always want you to change this or that. Nicelle loved everything I did.” Nicelle and Cheryl live on opposite coasts, so they didn’t meet in person until recently. “We worked independently, for the most part. I left her alone and she left me alone” until the final edits were made.
For poet Nicelle Davis, the collaboration was not at all what she expected. “You have to allow yourself to enjoy the surprises. Writing is lonely, and this is a way to broaden the conversation with yourself and the rest of the world. It was good to work with Cheryl. She ‘got’ my work right away.” Nicelle offers this bit of wisdom: “Poetry is recursive. Cheryl was able to find the end place.”
The video poem of “Becoming Judas” includes five poems from Nicelle’s book of the same name, soon to be released from Red Hen Press. There’s so much going on here to notice: Cheryl’s elaborate, edgy, detailed animations, Nicelle’s innocent, girl-next-door voice, and the poetry, with topics that range from the shooting of John Lennon outside the Dakota in 1980 to accidently observing one’s parents in the act of sex:
As Cheryl told me, “I took the poems literally. I didn’t want the videos to be too vague or hard to understand. You can’t bore the viewer – the video has to move.”
Cheryl and Nicelle had few trepidations about creating videos from Nicelle’s poems, but Marilyn McCabe, a poet from New York, was worried about “dolling up a poem with images or music.” “At Freeman’s Farm” is the result of a grant Marilyn received from the New York State Council on the Arts, which came with the stipulation that she involve the community in her project. (For a detailed and enlightening description of her project, see “At Freeman’s Farm: The Making of a Video-poem." .)
“At Freeman’s Farm” is based on Marilyn’s poem of the same name, with the voices of Marilyn and several war veterans making up the soundtrack (Marilyn also sings “Les Berceaux” by Gabriel Faure, adding to the film’s elegiac mood). It was filmed on the location of the first battle of Saratoga, which took place in 1777 during the Revolutionary War. Today that site is calm and pastoral, filled with woods and fields. The gentle landscape, coupled with the stories of battles and violence, create a feeling of disconnection for the viewer.
In an interview with Marilyn and Peter Verardi, the project’s videographer, I learned that the project quickly changed from her original vision. “I thought I would add war footage to the video, but the voices of veterans were enough.” Peter, a Vietnam veteran himself, agreed.
“I had to figure out how to involve the community,” Marilyn said. “It was hard at first, but then I found people who had been affected by war. It helped that Peter was a veteran and could put people at ease – there’s a language that veterans share.” Marilyn reached out to veterans at her college, and learned some surprising things: “Vietnam veterans are much more willing to talk. They’ve all been in therapy so long that they’re used to it,” Peter said. World War II vets are much more reluctant. “They come from a different generation, where men kept their feelings locked up,” Marilyn added.
“I think the poem is better for what we did,” Marilyn told me. “The poem deepened for me. We had to keep it tight and cut some things, which made it stronger. We had to build an arc to the poem – it had to rise and fall.”
The project had some surprising outcomes. One respondent finally sought treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Being part of the project helped him “fall apart” and admit he needed help. Marilyn connected with an active duty soldier, Army Sergeant Michelle Lindsay, deployed to Iraq and the only woman besides Marilyn whose voice is heard on the video.
Watching “At Freeman’s Farm” is a deeply moving experience. War is “beautiful, addictive, terrible,” as Peter Verardi puts it. The voices of the veterans as they tell bits of their stories, interspersed with the scenes of the landscape where “so many people’s blood sank into the earth,” as Marilyn put it, hits just the right emotional note:
Both of the collaborative teams have plans to work together again. Marilyn has ideas for artworks that include music and dance, and Peter takes writing classes and enjoys reading poetry. Cheryl and Nicelle worked together on a book titled In the Circus of You, with poems by Nicelle and illustrations by Cheryl, due in 2014 from Rose Metal Press.
Next column: Video poems from the under-35 crowd.