This is the 6000th post at Via Negativa — and also, by a strange coincidence, the fourth anniversary of Luisa’s incredible poem-a-day project! I had to do something by way of commemoration, so I made this video. The haiku (technically, a hokku — and one that was used to lead off a 36-poem linked verse sequence with Basho in 1682) is difficult to translate because much is alluded to rather than stated outright. But with the help of Earl Miner’s notes from The Monkey’s Straw Raincoat and Other Poems of the Basho School (Princeton, 1981), I gave it my best shot. Kikaku was arguably Basho’s greatest disciple.


we’re poetry vendors
life’s too short to worry about money
let’s drink the year out

Takarai Kikaku (1661-1707)

Miner says that Kikaku was alluding to a verse from the famous Chinese poet Du Fu:

I leave debts for drink wherever I go
Since few in any age live to be seventy.

So let us pay homage to the ancient masters who, just like us, longed to live in the moment but worried about money, and diverted themselves with poetry and alcohol as best they could. The footage is from Berlin, but what could be more Japanese than a vending machine or a solar-powered animatronic toy?

Yesterday’s poem was sparked by the footage included here, of a true katydid on the side of my house about a week ago. The music by Peder Norrby (rymdenmusic on Soundcloud) is licensed Attribution-Only under the Creative Commons. I’m experimenting with delivering a poem via text rather than voiceover in a videopoem, but I think I have a ways to go.

I’ll leave it to readers/viewers to decide what the poem means — I’m not really sure myself how best to interpret the last lines. But I will say that I was thinking about idol-worship, or what the Buddhists call upādāna (attachment, clinging, grasping).

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Just up at Swoon’s website and Moving Poems: Trauermantel, the third of three videopoems Marc Neys (Swoon) has made with texts and readings by Via Negativa’s daily poetry blogger extraordinaire, Luisa A. Igloria. He writes:

People who have been following my works a bit, know I have a thing with artworks in a triptych.
When Luisa approached me to make a video for one of the poems in her book “The Saints of Streets“, I was not thinking triptych.
Yet Luisa sent me several recordings and as it happens I liked her poems (and her readings for that matter) a lot. So in the end I made three videopoems (Mortal Ghazal and Oir) and because of her voice and her style these do belong together. To me anyway.

The trauermantel is the same species of butterfly known as mourning cloak in North American and Camberwell beauty in Britain. Luisa’s poem originally appeared here on May 28, 2011, sparked by a post at The Morning Porch:

A mourning cloak butterfly circles the porch and yard three times, going behind my chair, including me in whatever it means to outline.

Marc goes on to say:

I wanted light, colours and an abstract spirit like feel for this one.
Only at the end of the video (after the poem) I come up with a concrete image.
These images are also my first attempt to create something of an animated sequence. The image of the butterfly was made by Katrijn Clemer using the outlines of a real Trauermantel and one of the faces of the video for Oir.

You can watch all the videopoems that have been made with Luisa’s poetry so far at her page on Moving Poems.

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I made a videopoem this afternoon for Moving Poems based on a text at The Poetry Storehouse, a new site offering “great contemporary poems for creative remix”: in this case, “Giacometti’s Pears” by Donna Vorreyer — one of my favorite poets. I’ve been involved with the Storehouse as an adviser, but I’m as interested as anyone in taking advantage of the remix potential of the works there.

Vorreyer’s own reading, available for download at the Storehouse, struck me as more than adequate, and I combined it with a snippet from a soundscape I found on from someone called Deneb al Giedi, who describes it as “one very long deconstructed recording of a string quartet with metallic stereo and echo effects.” For footage, I had the idea of searching the Prelinger Archives for videos of canyons in the American southwest, thinking I might find some sensuous curves to complement the imagery in the poem. Imagine my delight when I found an old home movie that combines wind-sculpted rock with hard angles: Glen Canyon Bridge, from 1958.

This is the tenth videopoem for a text at The Poetry Storehouse. You can watch them all at the group page on Vimeo.

This entry is part 1 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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A semi-narrative videopoem using footage and music from the documentary And So They Live (1940) by John Ferno and Julian Roffman and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. I first tried to make a banjo videopoem with footage from this documentary three years ago, but chose the wrong poem (“Banjo Proverbs”) — it didn’t work. Even for this one, I felt compelled to minimize the amount of screen time devoted to the banjo player, Richard Berry, in part because the banjo he’s playing is not the kind of homemade catskin banjo described in the text. But I wanted to use the film somehow for at least one of the Breakdown videos. Its subjects deserve better than the treatment they got with the original narration, which stresses their supposedly extreme ignorance, poverty, malnutrition and disease. One suspects the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, named after the founder of General Motors, of ulterior motives in seeking to cast subsistence economies not dependent upon the automobile as the essence of deprivation. It does, however, show that the use of the banjo as a marker for hillbilly backwardness long predates the 1972 movie Deliverance.

I am indebted to the graphic artist and collector of American roots music R. Crumb for identifying the banjoist in the film. Also, it’s worth noting that my friend Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, independently discovered And So They Live in the Prelinger Archives, and has used snippets of it in two of his videopoems: Odds and Ends, featuring a text by Joseph Harker, and The Pioneer Wife Speaks in Tongues, featuring a text by the wonderful Donna Vorreyer. As Marc put it, the documentary contains “some great looking shots but a typical and very patronizing narration.”

This entry is part 2 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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The second poem from my collection Breakdown: Banjo Poems is the 11th to get the videopoetry treatment — not because I don’t care for the text, but because it was damn hard to figure out how to do it. I hope I got it right. (The title in the collection is actually “Medicine Show (1).”)

Video footage is courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center. I still think the International Space Station is a colossal waste of money, hardly justified by the few science experiments they conduct. But it sure is a great source of imagery of the earth, and all in the public domain! I downloaded many more videos than I needed, then looked for those that were shot in the same or similar ways. Since the space station orbits in the opposite direction from the rotation of the earth, the direction of travel in those that cross the Americas or the Atlantic is back toward Africa, though I don’t expect that point to be immediately obvious to viewers. Mostly, I was looking for images of calabash- or banjo-type things, epic voyages, the suggestion of sails or oars, the suggestion of dancing, a certain whiff of the hereafter…

“Down to the Valley to Pray” is played clawhammer-style by Tim Hosgood on SoundCloud, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. He’s kind of self-deprecating about his playing, but the track was just what this needed, I thought. The heartbeat recording is from user GrimmjowJ, who released it into the public domain. My first draft of the video used a recording of my own heartbeat that I’d made on a sudden whim just before recording my first take of the reading, but the H2 digital recorder was not the best instrument for that, and I realized I had to find something more recognizable. I did numerous takes of the voice recording, trying to keep from sounding too melodramatic and to speak from the diaphragm. I also experimented with increasing the volume of my intakes of breath during the reading, but ultimately felt that was a bit too much. I wanted to make the soundtrack feel as embodied as possible so as not to reinforce the footage’s ethereal spaciness.

As an American writer, I feel that the Middle Passage is a part of our history we absolutely must grapple with — especially if we’re white (and in my case, the descendent of slaveholders). I’m not entirely satisfied with the way Breakdown: Banjo Poems deals with slavery and racism, but all the more reason to keep working on it with some of these videos. I hope also to make a video for the poem “Dueling Banjo,” which quotes a former slave’s recollection of how banjos were used to take revenge on especially cruel masters.

This entry is part 3 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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My tenth banjo videopoem is for one of my favorite texts from the collection. It was prompted by a story on the BBC (which also, incidentally, spawned an effort to manufacture replicas of Shackleton’s banjo for sale in the UK).

The footage is from a silent, color documentary of Admiral Byrd’s 1939-1941 expedition to Antarctica, filmed by unspecified cameramen for the National Archives and Records Administration. There was a great deal of footage that could’ve worked with this poem: seal hunts on the ice, lots of shots of icebergs and other maritime and Antarctic scenery, even scruffy guys clowning around in close quarters. But after much agonizing I decided to stick with penguins, because penguins and banjos just seem like complementary concepts.

For the soundtrack, I blended an atmospheric, experimental piece called “Arctic core samples” by someone who goes by the name of admiral bellybutton on SoundCloud with a digitally altered version of my brother Steve playing “Shady Grove” on clawhammer banjo. Usually finding the right music is the most time-consuming part of making a videopoem, but this time I found it immediately with “arctic” as my only search term on SoundCloud. “Arctic core samples” was made in response to a weekly prompt for the experimental music group Disquiet Junto. The instructions were simple: “Please record the sound of an ice cube rattling in a glass, and make something of it.” Admiral bellybutton says:

For some unknown reason, my brain thought of scientists taking core samples from glaciers and ice shelves. So, I sampled ice in four different glasses to create the bed. Then I took discrete samples from ice in a wine glass as it melted (a longitudinal study?).

The samples for the bed were processed through paul stretch. The longitudinal samples were put in chronological order (meltiest to most frozen) and then routed through Guitar Rig’s Ice reverb. All mixed in Reaper.

I then thought of making a time-lapse video of icicles melting on my roof.


In a comment on my last videopoem, British poet Dick Jones writes, “I have yet to venture into video poetry. Could you point me in the right direction?” My response: I guess my list of free online resources would be the best place to start. I’ve been doing these banjo videopoems exclusively with found footage, and also using the quite primitive video editing software on my machine, Windows Movie Maker, which I believe is slightly less advanced than iMovie if you have a Mac, or Quicktime. I use Audacity, which is free to download, for audio mixing. I have a somewhat pricey microphone, a Zoom H2, for recording my readings, though the first three were done just with the microphone on a Logitech webcam, and I thought they were adequate, if not terrific. (I’ll re-record them eventually.)

I don’t think these videos actually sell many books; that’s not the point, for me. The point is they represent a new form of creative endeavor involving poetry, and they’re a blast to make!

This entry is part 4 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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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,

she replied.

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.

This entry is part 5 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems

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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.