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The opening poem in Breakdown: Banjo Poems gets a video at last! And for once, there’s no banjo (or banjo-like instrument) in the soundtrack at all, for obvious reasons. I played around with industrial noises for a while, but ultimately settled on something much more angelic, courtesy of a young Irish composer of film and video scores named Steven O’Brien who gives his work away on SoundCloud under an attribution-only Creative Commons license. This particular track, interestingly enough, was used in a humor video that went viral, True Facts about Morgan Freeman. Given the god-like powers attributed to Mr. Freedman in that video, if any viewers of this videopoem are reminded of that, so much the better.
The imagery comes from a World War II propaganda film made by Warner Bros. for the U.S. Maritime Commission (and therefore in the public domain): A Ship is Born, directed by Jean Negulesco. I am indebted to Rachel for the suggestion to try using shipbuilding imagery for this poem.
I was surprised and pleased this morning to see this stunning new videopoem by my friend Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, for another poem in Luisa Igloria’s new book, The Saints of Streets. She wrote “Oir” back on January 7, 2012, sparked by that day’s entry in The Morning Porch.
As with his previous collaboration with Luisa, Mortal Ghazal, Marc has blogged some very interesting process notes incorporating remarks from Luisa in his narrative. I’ll just quote from the first part of his post:
Some weeks ago we’ve had a thunderstorm at night. I recorded it, added some sounds and improvised piano…
For some reason I thought about the recording of ‘Oir’ Luisa sent me earlier. I combined them all and forwarded the result to Luisa.
I very much love the broody thunderstorm background and the improvised piano. I like the sound of rain very much. A hard rain on tin roofs is a particularly strong memory trace I have from my growing up in a tropical country. Anyway, for me rain has the capacity for both amplifying and muffling/softening the atmosphere. It’s full of emotional portent,
Luisa also gave me the idea of using ‘café-ambient’ noises and provided me with some insights about the poem;
…but in part the poem is partly triggered by a conversation I had in a cafe. We talked about work, creative nonfiction essays, family…
As usual the cafe was crowded and noisy. it struck me then but perhaps more afterward, when I was writing the poem, that in the spaces that teem with so much everyday life, activity, business as usual, we strive to hollow out spaces for the intimate to be enacted and reenacted.
Read the rest.
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My eighth video using a text from Breakdown: Banjo Poems. (If you missed some of the others, they’re all collected on my author website in the order in which they appear in the book.) The images come from a 1956 documentary about St. Louis, The Big City, directed by Charles Guggenheim and now in the public domain. The soundtrack uses two-thirds of a track from SoundCloud, “Uchina noir: The Cocktail Party” by Yoshimasu Kamiya, licenced Attribution-ShareAlike under the Creative Commons. The banjo-like instrument is actually not a banjo but a sanshin, a three-stringed instrument from Okinawa.
“The instrument proper to them is the Banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.” Thomas Jefferson, 1781. It would’ve been hard not to write a poem responding to that quote. It’s one of my personal favorites from the collection.
The clawhammer banjo here is played by my brother Steve, an old modal tune whose name neither of us can remember. I don’t strive for authenticity in these videos, but Jefferson’s “banjar” might’ve been played in a not dissimilar style, though it would’ve been made from a gourd and thus would’ve had a somewhat softer sound. It’s worth remembering that a little later, escaped slaves were told to “follow the drinking gourd” (the big dipper) to find their way north to Canada. A nightjar, of course, is any bird in the goatsucker family, including the whip-poor-Will (which has the delightful Latin name Caprimulgus vociferus).
Additional sounds are from freesound.org user Meffy Ellis, a recording of a swamp in Virginia. The images come from an old, hagiographic educational film in the Prelinger Archives, Jefferson and Monroe, directed by Stan Barnett. I don’t know if non-Americans will immediately recognize Monticello, the plantation house that Thomas Jefferson designed himself, but it’s a fairly iconic building, and shares the white domed roof with Jefferson’s other famous building, the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
I recorded Steve playing a half-dozen banjo tunes in my living room on Friday evening. My voice-over is stitched together from several different readings. Sometimes I mess up one stanza and sometimes another, but I find if I read a poem four or five times in succession, I can pick and choose the best parts from each.
Update: I made an alternate version of the audio track including the quote from Jefferson (which appears on-screen in the video). It’s on SoundCloud.
Watch on YouTube
Watch on YouTube
Two more videopoems in support of the new collection. I’ve included YouTube links because for me, at least, the versions on Vimeo are not entirely satisfactory. They sort of hesitate and pop at a few places. (Is anyone else getting this?)
“Banjo vs. Guitar” is the first in this series to use public-domain images from somewhere other than archive.org. I had the idea of using solar eclipse imagery, so went straight to NASA’s YouTube channel. There were some pleasant surprises in the editing process, for example the way the sun’s corona evokes a stringed instrument, and I liked the way it added a cosmic dimension not present in the original text. But as is almost always the case with me, I started with the soundtrack: a version of the famous Mexican folk song “Cielito Lindo” for clawhammer banjo and classical guitar from a guy on SoundCloud named Juan Cordero, who turned out to be very friendly and open to my using the piece. Here’s his original version.
The second videopoem, “Out of Tune,” presented an obvious challenge for the soundtrack, and I experimented with samples of bluegrass bands tuning up, but it just seemed too literal, and I decided I would have better luck with a very basic piece of music played very slowly. Again, SoundCloud delivered: “Slow Met De Banjo” by SoundCloud user David12801280, licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike licence. The images are from an old home movie of a road trip across the U.S., much of it on the storied Route 66. Whoever shot it seems to have had ADHD, but there were plenty of interesting shots nonetheless. I’m worried that the truck-in-a-ditch part is too obvious and the rest of it not obvious enough, though the visual analogy of meteor crater to ear pleases me, and I like the ramshackle, wind-whipped roadside stands as symbols of breakdown.
I broke the mold a bit with this one — the first videopoem I’ve made in the slideshow or kinestasis style, which I’ve generally avoided in part because I don’t have the software tools to make it look like anything more than the low-rent copy and paste job that it is. But I’m excited about it anyway, because the text gave me an excuse to explore the rich visual legacy of a chapter in American women’s history I’ve just been learning about: the elevation of banjos into a symbol of (white) women’s social, political and sexual liberation beginning in the late 19th century. I’m indebted to the Penn State Press exhibition catalogue Picturing the Banjo, edited by Leo G. Matzow — especially the essay by Sarah Burns, “Whiteface: Art, Women, and the Banjo in Late-Nineteenth Century America” — for cluing me in about this. Some of the images that were most instrumental in creating this new market for banjos are in the video, including Mary Cassatt’s painting The Banjo Lesson and Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photograph of the Washington DC socialite Miss Apperson playing banjo beside a statue of Flora (a more traditionally Victorian representation of femininity). I had nary an inkling of all this when I wrote the poem back in 2010, so I’m pleased that it managed to evoke an interesting old meme despite the author’s appalling ignorance of it at the time of composition: “luck” indeed! Thanks to Steve Sherrill for loaning me the book.
This is the first I’ve actually used images of banjos or banjoists in this videopoetry series. I’m sure it won’t be the last, but I’ve been avoiding it just because it seemed like the obvious thing to do. (Not that including banjo music in the soundtrack is any less obvious.) In this case, it seemed worthwhile to use such images to suggest a historical dimension that otherwise didn’t make it into the poem, except possibly for the line about looking in the rear-view mirror. At some point, in other videos, I imagine I’ll have to deal with the more stereotypical, racist and classist images of banjo players as well. There’s really no avoiding them; they’re part of our cultural legacy whether we like it or not.
The soundtrack this time comes from my cousin Tony Bonta and his Towson, Maryland-based Bald Mountain Band. He extracted the vocal track from a short number they do called “Jenny Got Naked at a Party in 1989″ and gave me carte blanche to use the instrumental version however I wanted. You can listen to the original version, which also happens to be spoken-word, on the band’s page at Reverbnation. Also, audiophile listeners may notice a dramatic improvement over the three previous videos in the quality of my reading here. That’s due to the fact that I got my old Zoom H2 microphone working again, thanks to persistent encouragement from Rachel, who used to work in radio and is sensitive to such differences. Eventually I suppose I’ll redo the other three videos with new voice recordings, but for now it’s more fun to work on new videopoems, which I guess I’ll keep doing until I run out of steam or out of banjo poems, whichever comes first.
You can watch all the banjo poetry videos I’ve made so far at their dedicated page on Vimeo. And of course if you haven’t ordered a copy of the print collection yet, visit the publisher’s website.
I made another short video from a poem in my new collection, Breakdown: Banjo Poems. If you missed the other two, I created a new album on Vimeo for Breakdown videos. Or simply scroll down through the latest posts in the Videopoetry category here.
The music for this one, found once again on SoundCloud, is by Tem Noon (tabla) and Christen Napier (banjo), one of seven improvisations they recorded, all licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence.
Thanks to the Prelinger Archives once again for the public-domain footage: a 1928 short documentary called Queerosities: A Negro Baptism (yes, the framing was ever so slightly racist) and two untitled home movies of church camps, one also from 1928 and one from 1970. I wanted to include both Southern whites and African Americans in the scenes of religious enthusiasm, since the banjo, like Pentecostalism, has such a potent history with both groups. I don’t know if it matters that the different source materials in the video are so easily distinguishable in quality. My hope is that that just lends it more of a documentary feel.
Thanks also to Rachel for critiquing an earlier version of this video. (If you’re one of the three other people who watched it before 10:00 PM East Coast time tonight, please watch again.) I think it tells a more coherent story now. I also turned down the volume of the music just a bit.
I made this videopoem entirely out of found text and footage from American television commercials of the late 1940s and early 50s. I’ve been intrigued by the possibilities of collage in videopoetry ever since I saw what Matt Mullins did with a sermon by Oral Roberts in Our Bodies (A Sinner’s Prayer). This doesn’t rise quite to that level, either technically or conceptually, but it was a fun experiment. Thanks to the Prelinger Archives for the material, all in the public domain.
(Update 9/30) I suppose I should add some notes about my process here. I’ve been downloading compilations of old television commercials for possible use in videos for poems from the new chapbook. While making poetry videos for pre-existing texts is fun, it’s easy to get sidetracked by a wealth of good material, and yesterday I decided to give in to the temptation. I went through one of the compilations, writing down all the good lines in a text document, in order as they appeared so I could re-find them easily. Then I wrote a rough draft with some of the most interesting lines, loaded the source material into Windows Movie Maker and began to cut and paste the snippets containing the lines I’d liked into the order I’d put them in the written draft. Once I had fully assembled the first rough draft of a videopoem, however, I found the words went by rather too quickly. I had the idea of using wordless or nearly wordless segments from a single ad both to give space to the lines of found poetry and to act as a sort of refrain.
At this stage, the working title was “Industry at Work” (taken from a clip that I subsequently removed). However, after a couple of hours of trimming and moving things around, it became clear that the refrain segments just weren’t gelling, and the video overall seemed too scattered and miscellaneous. I began looking at another compilation, and the very first ad in it — a commercial for Budweiser — had lots of wordless footage that I liked. It was only after pasting some of those segments into the draft project that I got the idea of using the first half of Budweiser’s then-slogan, “Where there’s life, there’s Bud,” as title and refrain.
I go into all this (hopefully not too boring) detail simply to show that the process of composition doesn’t differ all that wildly from the way regular poems are made. If I were teaching poetry, this is the sort of thing I’d make beginning students do. Of all the possible approaches to videopoetry, found-poem collage with public-domain (or otherwise free-to-use) footage has the lowest barrier to entry. All you really need is a computer with a DSL or faster connection and whatever video editing software the operating system came with. Moreover, this way of making videopoems comes much closer than the typical poetry video to Tom Konyves’ conception of videopoety as
the Duchampian “assisted readymade”. Consider the recorded image as the readymade; the function of the videopoet is to discover whether there exists something significant, yet still incomplete, a collaborative property beneath the surface of the present moment.
Another videopoem in support of my poetry chapbook, Breakdown: Banjo Poems. For this one, Steven Sherrill — the same Renaissance man responsible for the cover painting — supplied the banjo playing on the soundtrack. He uploaded it to SoundCloud, where I messed with it just a little and layered in my reading of “The Fifth String.” (I don’t have a very good microphone these days so the recording quality is a little primitive, but primitive seems all right here, at least for this track.) The footage comes once again from the Prelinger archive of ephemeral films, in this case two television commercials from the 1960s or late 50s, now in the public domain. I was a little worried that the result might be too weird, but Steve tells me he loves it: “The tone/look of the video is akin to what I paint.”
I might mention that, in addition to a sub-par microphone, I have been using very basic video editing software as well: Live Movie Maker for Windows 7! The version of Adobe Premiere Elements I’d been using before does not work very well in my new environment, and frankly, for this simple kind of remix, Movie Maker is almost good enough. It’s certainly a lot more versatile than the older version I had on my desktop. For audio editing, I use Audacity, which is free and open source — and so good nowadays I find I don’t miss Adobe Audition at all.
My thinking about these audiopoems and videopoems, by the way, is that they don’t necessarily drive more sales of the chapbook; if that were my primary reason for making them, I suspect I’d be disappointed. They’re just fun to make, and the publication of the book provides a handy pretext for spending many enjoyable hours exploring SoundCloud and archive.org. Plus, they will give me something else to do during a live reading besides just read from a podium. I do have this notion that audiences at poetry readings deserve first and foremost to be entertained.
This new film by Marc Neys (AKA Swoon) grew out of our shared experiences in Dunbar, Scotland at the beginning of August, where Rachel, Marc and I spent a great deal of time together, walking, talking, and taking the local beverages. (Unmentioned in the prose poem is the fact that a fairly major brewery, Belhaven, is located there. When we arrived at our campground that Thursday evening, the air was suffused with the sweet smell of boiling mash.) Since we were in town for the Filmpoem Festival, it seemed only fitting that a new filmpoem/videopoem should come out of it. However, Marc’s first attempt with footage he’d shot on the Dunbar shore used an old poem of mine with which I’d become somewhat disenchanted. In the meantime, I’d written the prose poem “Taking the Waters” and suggested he try working with that instead, and obviously that’s what he did — but with almost all new footage, shot not on the North Sea but high in the Austrian Alps.
Marc describes the whole process in a recent blog post at his new website. As he quotes me as saying in the post, prose poetry is closely associated with surrealism, but sometimes, as here, real-life incidents provide more than enough bizarre material to keep the prose from getting too prosaic. Rachel’s story about a man reading to the sea was obviously key to the success of the text, so I’m glad she has a major part in the videopoem as the primary reader. Marc himself is “our friend the musician.” It’s interesting that he ended up not using much of the footage he shot that weekend, but I think avoiding too close a correspondence between subject matter and film images makes for a more suggestive videopoem. There are still enough visual and auditory artifacts from that weekend in the film to make it an apt memento for the three of us without, I hope, coming across to other viewers as exclusive or overly self-referential.
It’s always hugely satisfying to collaborate with artists like this, despite or perhaps because of the fact that the results aren’t the sort of publications that more ambitious American poets climb all over each other to bag for their CVs. I can’t think of a filmmaker I’d rather have envideo my poems than Marc; he’s the most-published filmmaker on MovingPoems.com for a reason.