Wednesday Jun 19

EricaGoss2014 At the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in 2012, I attended a panel titled “What makes a poetry film a poetry film?” I was hoping to see Tom Konyves, one of the pioneers of video poetry (he created the term “videopoetry”) and the author of “Videopoetry: A Manifesto.”  Unfortunately, Tom was not able to attend the festival, but he has been gracious enough to provide a fascinating glimpse into the origins of video poetry for this month’s column.

Tom Konyves is a survivor of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 who came to Canada with his family at the age of 9. His early experiences created an affinity for poetry, and he went on to experiment with many forms of written, spoken and visual art. In 1977, he joined Vehicule Art Gallery in Montreal, creating the Vehicule Poets with six other poets.

From the beginning, the Vehicule Poets “were interested in exploring other ways that poetry could be used,” to quote Claudia Lapp, an original member, from the article “This is where we used to live” (The McGill Daily, April 9, 2004). Poet Endre Farkas, whose film “Blood is Blood”  with Carolyn Souiad won Best Film the 2012 Zebra Poetry Film Festival, added “We’ve always been busy trying to make the poem fresh and new and kinetic and lived.” The Vehicule Poets took poetry into new directions, creating multi-voiced text, collaborative poems, concrete poetry, and film.

Here are two of Tom’s videopoems:

All This Day is Good For

Beware of DOG:

In this interview, Tom discusses, among other things, making his first videopoem on ½” reel-to-reel videotape, the medium of video being “unrecognized” by Herman Berlandt, Director of the San Francisco Poetry Film Workshop, what text-image relationships have in common with male-female relationships, and falling in love with language as a child:

Can you describe your childhood? Your Wiki page states that you came to Canada as a child, after the Hungarian Revolution. How did this experience influence your development as a poet and video artist? Is there any one event that has special significance?

As a child who walked in the middle of the night across a frozen field to freedom, I was ready for anything new. When I arrived in Montreal in early ‘57, I wanted what every 9-year-old wanted – watch TV, taste a cheeseburger, play soccer, make friends. And fall in love. I fell in love with the language, first. Poetry became my expression of freedom. Throughout my school years, I sensed a special bond with poetry, as if we belonged to one another.

Why do you think that video poetry needs a manifesto? Why did you write yours?

To develop a creative visual writing course for the University of the Fraser Valley here in BC, I began researching videopoetry in 2008. I spent 3 years visiting film and video archives in Berlin, Budapest, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago, Vancouver and New York. I watched hundreds of film poems and videopoems. Of course, there were many more works on the web. In April of 2011, I found myself with four months free to write. The Manifesto was conceived as a provocation, an “artistic” gesture to revivify a conversation between (what I perceived as) two competing signifying systems. What was “needed” was a position differentiating the videopoems that arrived with the video revolution in the 1970s from experimental films (French Impressionist Cinema of the 1920s, Maya Deren’s ‘poetic’ dream films, the structuralist films of Brakhage and the American avant-garde, as well as their contemporaneous expression in “video art”) with the insistence on the presence of displayed or voiced text and the abrogation of illustration. What was also “needed” was a response to Ron Silliman’s call for videopoetry (and visual poetry) to ‘define their territory as distinct from the various other art forms that often influence & inform them.” The ‘territory’ defined by the Manifesto invited poets to seize the “means of production” – technology – for redefining their role in the 21st century.

Are you at all surprised by the proliferation of video poems (poets making book trailers, writers using video to promote themselves, their books, etc.)?

Not at all. Video is an accommodating medium for all “motivated” types of expression, experimental or commercial. I would like to see less poems from books – unless the poet is prepared to have it reinterpreted in a totally novel context (watch Dave Bonta’s “Las oyes cómo piden realidades…? Do you hear how they beg for realities?” poem by Pedro Salinas).

Appropriation, collage, found poems, “stealing” - when does a work of video poetry become your own creation?

It’s all about providing a new context for the appropriated material. Any change in the function of the appropriation will reveal the “author” of the work.

Any plans to write a book about video poetry beyond the manifesto?

I had always intended to write a book about videopoetry. The first section was to define the form, its categories, functions of its elements, etc. The second section would explore individuals’ works. A section of the book was also to include my conversations with the artists as well as some scholars who had written on the subject (there were four, William C. Wees and Scott MacDonald in America and Fil Ieropoulos and Peter Todd in England, whose writings were for the most part examinations of works to be screened at one festival or another). Since the Manifesto, I have taken to writing Addresses. I have posted some of these as “papers” on the website.

Please describe how you made your first video poem, including technical aspects and how they differ from today’s technology.


Experiments in presenting poetry using video (the few that I was aware of at the time) were performance-oriented, like the work of Toronto experimental poet Steve McCaffery, who sat on a park bench and held up signs or sat at a typewriter which spewed forth a Kerouacian endless paper roll.

My first videopoem, Sympathies Of War, was produced in the spring of 1978. Essentially, it is a poetry performance recorded on 1/2” reel-to-reel videotape by Richard Elson at the artist-run Vehicule Art Gallery in Montreal. 75 seconds of Kinetic Text introduces the work. One objective was to prevent the performance from being identified as a “poetry reading” (as organizer of the Vehicule Art Gallery’s 1978 poetry reading series, I had been documenting a great many readings on video) – I would avoid facing the camera, sitting behind a rear-projection screen, onto which was projected a series of slides I had made of the interior of a STOP sign.

On the screen, I am seen sitting in profile, silhouetted, as if talking off camera. Each time the text specifies a STOP, Endre Farkas (then Andre Farkas, one of the Vehicule Poets) would say STOP! just as a slide of the STOP sign would appear and I would immediately lean out of the frame; simulating the cinematic technique of editing, it was a self-referential gesture. (Another Vehicule Poet, Ken Norris, advanced the slide projector.) Juxtaposing the visual context of the frame – silhouetted against the backdrop of two signs – with the performance of reading – in profile, purposefully away from the viewer, leaning in and out – resulted in my first videopoem.

In addition to slides of the STOP sign, I had shot some 50 slides of the interior of a DANGER sign—black and yellow squares. The sign had a bolt driven through its center. When the sun shone on the bolt, two beams of light were refracted left and right of the bolt. The last such slide in the series shows the bolt without these rays, flat, devoid of life.

But it was presenting text in motion that became an interesting addition to the work. I tilted the camera over a series of words, revealing them at a measured “rate”, forcing on the viewer a specific rhythm to the reading of words on a screen, which was to become a significant device used in a videopoem (think Michael Snow’ “So Is This”). The words were “letraset” on cardboard – there was no character generator (CG) available to me at the time. Special effects were very limited; for a scene to run in reverse, I had to manually rewind the open reel while recording the effect on a second machine.

The music at the beginning and end – suggesting an atonal Dadaist march – was a “sampled” appropriation of Composition 6C, an Anthony Braxton piece I recorded live at The Rising Sun, a local jazz club.

The poem was first suggested by a couple of lines I had written in an early attempt to write Ubu’s Blues: The First Voyage of the Vehicule R. After a few pages, I suffered a strange "block." I had the intuition that another work was gestating within, refusing to allow me to proceed with Ubu until it was revealed. I searched through those early pages and found the phrase which led me to write Sympathies of War:

     "Words magically happily dance between curtains of stop"

The stop became the STOP sign with which I could visually interfere with – or punctuate – the narrative of the poem. The cries of “STOP!” were delivered by Endre Farkas with intonations varying from urging, dangerous and authoritative to imploring, whispered, intimate...

The narrative concerns the contents of a letter sent to a woman whose daughter (Carmen) had died in the war. The cryptic, “broken” text mimics the form of censored letters; the punctuation of STOPs throughout also alludes to telegraphic messages. Structurally, narration and interruption clash from beginning to end.

What war in Sympathies of War? The war of spirit and flesh, the war of words and images, the war of traditional poetry and the modern medium, video. The war of experimentation and conservatism in poetry, of regionalism and nationalism in society, the war of reward and loss. Sympathy for the imagination at war with rationalism and sympathy for the viewer who was probably very confused by the entire performance. 

Sympathies of War is intended to be viewed together with its companion piece, “A Postscript”, produced in the days following. “Mummypoem” explores the postscript concept, literally “writing after the original; after in time, after in the manner of. The frame, as in Sympathies of War, is frozen, self-referentially "mummified:" it is the close-up of the VTR, the camera focused on the moving needle of the audio level meter, as the video of Sympathies of War begins to play. 

The soundtrack is the sound from the original video. A 3" x 5" tear-off writing pad is underneath the meter. Lines are written on the pad, torn off, new lines are written; like the original, it is a performance in real time. Words are written, letters crossed out to form new words, new contexts. Simulating the act of video editing, no cuts are made of the “live” performance; the act of writing is “performed”, displayed, then torn from the pad. The “new scene” is the new writing on a fresh page of the notepad. Presence and absence alternate; the moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on… the past returns as a recorded moment but it, too, moves on.

What was the reaction of other people to what you were doing in the 70s and 80s? Were they confused, appreciative, hostile or supportive (or all of those)?

The work was screened only a few times, always as an event on the gallery’s calendar. So the audience was made up of the regulars who attended our art events. With plenty of performance art, video art, installations, public interventions, etc., it was greeted with “another attempt to always present something new.” The poetry of the work was taken for granted; after all, it was art. In a new context, but art just the same. A couple of years later, Herman Berlandt, Director of the San Francisco Poetry Film Workshop, was invited to present an evening of poetry films at McGill University. I was so excited to meet him and show him my works – I called them videopoems. By this time, we were using ¾” U-matic video cassettes. I had one of these cassettes under my arm, entered the hall and approached Berlandt. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” I said, “I’ve been working on some videopoems.” Berlandt stepped back as if he feared being infected. “We don’t recognize video. We work only in film.” I turned and walked away. Never got to see the poetry films shown that night.

30 years later, researching in San Francisco, I met the magnificent George Aguilar – originator of the term cin(e)poetry – who had worked with Herman Berlandt and acquired the inventory of the Workshop. There, in George’s living room, I watched all the films I had walked away from decades before. Would I have been influenced? Not at all.

Please elaborate on your comment “Text and image don’t get along very well,” from the Visible Verse speech.

Text-image relationships are no different from male-female relationships. Sometimes they get along, sometimes they don’t. They get along when they are totally aware of the other’s “potential” as well as their own. For each has the potential to be effective in different ways. They don’t try to overpower the other or usurp each other’s roles in the structure of the work. A particular image provides the only possible context in which the words are intended to be experienced. When they “complete” each other, the work is “pure poetry”. And once you’ve realized that, you will always associate the images with the text of the work. They have become soulmates. How many “video poems” have this attribute? Watch one, then close your eyes and listen to the words. Can you picture the scene? Throughout?

As for the ones that don’t get along very well, well… they weren’t “right for each other”, were they? Did one dominate the other, perhaps? How easy is it nowadays, with all the texts (especially pre-existing poems) and images available, all the manipulation software available to transform the look and sound, to select the right “coupling”… or not to!