“I’ve never seen anything like this!” “Beautiful.” “Extraordinary.” “Who makes these? Poets or filmmakers?” “Where can I see more?” “How can I do this?” “Is it expensive?” “Is there a class?”
Those were just a few of the comments and questions I received when I gave my first presentation on video poetry in February. The event was part of a yearly program here in Santa Clara County called “Silicon Valley Reads.” (For a complete description of the program, visit here)
Silicon Valley Reads’ theme for 2014, “Books & Technology: Friends or Foes?” included this summary: “From the Gutenberg press to ebooks, new inventions and innovations have made books more accessible to a wider audience.” This sentence could easily describe video poetry; i.e., “new inventions and innovations have made poetry more accessible to a wider audience.”
With that in mind, I proposed a presentation to the organizers of SVReads: an evening of video poetry titled Off the Page. I selected nine video poems that I felt represented the art form well, but kept in mind the fact that most, if not all of the audience had never seen anything like this before. I wanted videos that were accessible, not too challenging, visually stunning, and that showed a variety of approaches: animation, archival film, and documentary-style, to name a few.
I also made a visual and audio version of a collage poem that Santa Clara County’s first Poet Laureate, Nils Peterson, created several years ago. Nils asked residents to send in lines describing Santa Clara County, a place that has undergone an enormous transformation since the 1960s: from the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” to “Silicon Valley.” As one writer put it, “high-tech hotbeds” replaced miles of orchards. Nils selected one hundred lines from over five hundred, and assembled the Santa Clara County Family Album.
Since the poem is one hundred lines long, I had to find one hundred images that fit. I used the work of two local photographers: George Sakkestad and Jacqueline Ramseyer, as well as a few of my own and some from other sources. The video is made entirely of stills, matched with recordings of each line of poetry. I recorded thirty people and got a variety of voices: teens, adults, women and men. None of the readers had seen the poem before, but they cheerfully recorded their voices for me with little idea of the outcome. I made a trailer, which I posted on Facebook a week before the event.
Matching the voices to the photographs was a lot of work. In many cases, I was happily surprised when a photo fit perfectly with a line of poetry – people, flowers and birds seemed to occur equally in the poem and in the photographs – but in far more instances, I had to think hard when matching an image to a line. For example, the line “Two lizards doing pushups. Qui es mui macho?” stumped me for awhile, until I got the idea to pair it with a photo of two little boys, going down a slide head-first. Another happy juxtaposition occurred between the line “In the early evening, unknown neighbors stroll” and a photograph of geese crossing train tracks.
Santa Clara County’s rapid and devastating change from a bucolic paradise rich with orchards to the freeway-crisscrossed home of high-tech informed a large number of photographs and lines of poetry. Both included a high degree of nostalgia for bygone days, a peculiar quality of this place: even people who came here long after its transformation sense the valley’s past.
The reaction from the audience was very positive. Quite a few people came who had contributed lines to the original Family Album poem, and they were pleasantly surprised to see and hear the line they wrote.
The presentation’s video poetry section consisted of nine videos. Some were newer and some were old favorites. The album is on Vimeo. In selecting these videos, I wanted them to flow from familiar film style (The Barking Horse) through archival film (Need) to animation (The Trees) and end on a high note (Danatum Passu). I added brief commentary to each video.
Many of the audience members wanted more information about making their own video poems, and wondered if there was a class they could take. This made me think that there might be a need for instruction outside of video poetry festivals. (Anyone want to help me design a video poetry course?)
Audience members who wanted more information received my “Video Poetry Starter,” a short document that provides background and links to the major sites. You can download it here. Watch the Family Album here.
I enjoyed creating and presenting Off the Page. More people now know what video poetry is, and are eager to explore this art form – and even try it themselves. I am grateful to the arts community and the local media for helping with promotion, and to Silicon Valley Reads for allowing me to be part of this important cultural event.
Here is the list, in order, of the videos I showed for Off the Page:
Santa Clara County, A Family Album: Nils Peterson, Erica Goss
The Barking Horse: Patrick Sheridan, Christine McQuillen
Need: Bill Yarrow, Nic Sebastian
Telegram: Amy MacLennan, Swoon
The Tress – They Were Once Good Men: Todd Boss, Angela Kassube
Swimming Into Winter: Freya Manfred, Gregory Winter
Swimming in the Rain: Freya Manfred, Gregory Winter
The Cloudy Vase: Jane Hirshfield, Scott Olson, Jeff Saunders
At Freeman’s Farm: Marilyn McCabe, Peter Verardi
Danatum Passu: Shahid Akhtar, Umang Poetry