I made this videopoem a few days ago as part of an on-going effort to explore how haiku might best be translated into film. In brief, though we think of a haiku as a three-line micropoem with 17 syllables, neither of these attributes is as fundamental as its asymmetrical, two-part structure: two related but often quite different images separated by a semantic break usually represented as a dash or colon in English. (I’m also of the school of thought that says that 17 syllables is too long compared to the amount of information that can be conveyed in 17 of the Japanese syllable-like sound units known as mora, but never mind that for now.) My insight in regards to videopoetry, helped along by a comment from Tom Konyves on an earlier post here, was that a brief shot could be substituted for one of the two parts — that the relationship between the two parts of a haiku is quite analogous to the relationship between text and imagery in a classic, Konyvesian videopoem. Experimenting with this approach, I made three videohaiku: flower with James Brush, court with Rachel Rawlins, and visitor.

The next step, I decided, was to make a proof-of-concept videorenga. Haiku, as we now call it, developed from a tradition of Japanese linked verse (renga), specifically haikai no renga or renku. These were multi-author, collaborative improvisions in which each two adjacent verses could be read as if they were two stanzas of a longer poem. Again displaying the Japanese aesthetic preference for asymmetry, verses of 17 mora alternate with verses of 14 mora. Native land attempts to do something vaguely similar, stitching together videohaiku of unequal lengths, with lines in intertitles completing a verse (videopoetic unit) begun with the preceding shot. But each line or couplet could also be read as the first part of a verse concluding with the shot that followed it. Realizing that this ambiguous connectivity might easily be lost on a first-time viewer, I decided to make two versions of the sequence, cleverly titled “obverse” and “reverse.”

Native land deviates from Japanese linked verse tradition in two significant ways: it doesn’t have multiple authors, and it’s too thematically unified. The second deviation might be a direct consequence of the first, actually. Had it been made by two or more people, it would be less likely to bear the stamp of a single poet’s didactic concerns. I would argue that it does contain a strong element of multi-authorship, though, inasmuch as I sourced the video footage from six different anonymous home movies in the Prelinger Archives, presumably shot by (at least) six different people. I also decided to make the invitation to remix implicit in my usual “copyleft”-style Creative Commons licence a bit more explicit, so that native land might become part of a larger exchange among videopoets. And much to my delight, the Australian multimedia artist Marie Craven took me up on it:

Her native land remix preserves and extends the reversibility of the videorenga in a novel way I find compelling. Instead of intertitles, she moved the text to subtitles below a split screen, in the process changing the juxtapositioning of text and imagery in a creative and thought-provoking way. The text feels a bit more fragmentary, but also liberated in a sense. She explained some of her thinking in an email:

My approach was similar to electronic music remixes I’ve been involved with, in which there are no rules or guidelines as to how the original be treated.

On viewing and reviewing your video many times over during the process of remixing, it became apparent how elegant the structure of your video is, with the linkages between the ‘verses’ being provided by following images. I like how it works like this in reverse too. I missed this on the first viewing but I think it may depend on knowing your intentions to ‘get’ this aspect of the video. I’m often thinking about general audiences in this way when making videos these days (most of mine seem very obscure to a lot of my net friends even still). My ideal is to strike a happy balance between accessibility and exploration.

And in native land remix, that last line about smallpox-infected blankets truly comes last and hits like a hammer. As a meditation on dispossession and genocide/ecocide, I told her I found her film more more powerful than my own. She responded,

The themes of the video are your own but I relate to them. As you would know, Australia has a terrible history of dispossession and genocide (including instances of poisoned blankets). It’s a frighteningly racist place to be right now too, especially seen in the horrendous treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat and general hostility to Muslim people in the community.

So where to next? There are still logistical concerns to be worked out, but I’m thinking that videorenga co-authors might usefully imitate the old surrealist game of exquisite corpse, where each participant sees only the shot or line(s) contributed by the previous participant, except possibly for an over-all project coordinator or instigator. Stay tuned.

This is one of my favorite gifts of the season: a new poetry film by the one and only Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, that uses five of my erasure haiku derived from the online Diary of Samuel Pepys. (Be sure to hit HD and expand it to full screen.) Marc blogged some process notes:

The visual idea came from a prompt Jutta Pryor left at the ‘Pool’ FB group:

Is anyone interested in a 5-7-5 challenge? Based on the format of a HAIKU, but keeping it fun and experimental, let’s be all-inclusive.
5-7-5 syllable Word sequence or 5-7-5 second Sound sequence or 5-7-5 second Video sequence.

These short poems or haiku Dave created were the perfect match for 5-7-5 second video sequences.
I decided to create 5 short film compositions with the text on screen, applying that 5-7-5 rule.

First I picked out and re-edited a soundscape I made earlier.
After that I started searching for, filming and selecting suitable visuals to combine with the soundtrack and the poems.
Then came the fun part. Combining each line from the poems with suitable footage using that 5-7-5 rule.
Creating a relationship between image, sound, and text. Blending all ingredients in one cut.

I had fun with this one and am very pleased with how these 5 short visual haiku work.

(Read the rest.)

It’s interesting that Marc picked these poems to work with, since they do not follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern (for reasons I’ll get into below). The idea of video haiku as films that in some way imitate or evoke the three-line pattern of most English-language haiku has roots in the mid-20th century experimental poetry films of Maya Deren and others, where the idea was for the film to become a poem, or at least be poem-like — to take lyrical poetry rather narrative fiction or nonfiction as its model. I first became aware of the text-free, 5-second/7-second/5-second sort of video haiku in 2011, when it was the focus of one of Vimeo’s weekend challenges. (They’ve had at least two more since.) And the French videopoets Katia Viscogliosi and Francis M., A.K.A. the Derviches Associés, whom I follow on Vimeo, have recently been making a number of wordless video haiku:

Seeking for poetry with eyes, these are haïkaï written with a camera, made of 3 shots : their length is always a multiple of 5, 7, 5. All you need is a loving eye…

Videohaiku merits a special mention in Tom Konyves’ Videopoetry: A Manifesto, where he defines it as follows:

The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images.

In the acknowledgements, Konyves credits Eric Cassar for its invention.

Jutta Pryor’s challenge to the POOL group, which galvanized Marc, leaves it open to the maker which materials to use—words, sound, or video. As she admited in a comment,

I’m not very knowledgeable about this form at all. I know there are strict parameters with HAIKU. Let’s keep it malleable so that we can explore and have fun.

Which is precisely the right approach to making any kind of art, I think, and sometimes the less one “knows,” the better. I failed to respond to Pryor’s invitation to comment because I am not terribly interested in perpetuating the idea that English haiku should follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. For one thing, 17 syllables are a bit too many most of the time; experts say it should be closer to 11. For another, syllable counting in English does not have the power of counting sounds (not quite what we think of as syllables) in Japanese, which is pitch accented. See Imaoka Keiko’s essay “Forms in English Haiku” and the National Haiku Writing Month post “Why ‘No 5-7-5’?” (which also has some links for further reading).

As Imaoka says, though,

5-7-5 English haiku as a derivative of Japanese haiku has its place in the world of poetry, just as 5-7-5 Chinese haiku is another such derivative, seemingly containing about three times as much information as a Japanese haiku.

It’s not what I’m personally interested in writing, but a hell of a lot of great things have been written in this form, even if it is ultimately based on folklore.

I do feel that the custom of arranging English-language haiku into three lines is pretty key to their effect on the reader. An equally important element, all too often neglected by beginners, is the division into two semantic elements of unequal length, usually corresponding to two different images or ideas, which for maximum effect should have some relationship but not too immediately obvious a one. That relationship may rise almost to the level of metaphor, but otherwise metaphor and simile should not be employed in haiku, I think. Traditional seasonal words (kigo) are not important to my practice, nor do I care if there’s any explicit mention of non-human nature; I do not see modern haiku as a wholly contained subset of nature poetry.

The interplay between the semantic division and the arrangement into three lines can have quite a powerful aesthetic effect — and has a lot to do with why I think Marc’s videopoeming of my erasure haiku works so well. The visual rewards of the haiku texts are mirrored and amplified by the tripartite footage, the stillness of the text counterpoised with the motion in each shot. In his essay, Imaoka calls special attention to the two-part division in written haiku:

A close observation of “free-form” English haiku reveals that they are composed of two major segments. The majority of them are divided after the first or the second line and the rest near the middle, and thus they are in accord with the underlying structures of the classic Japanese haiku.

In writing short English haiku, the decision as to where the division falls is based mainly on the dictates of English grammar and the poetic merits of given expressions. To limit short haiku to those that can be fitted into a rigid three-part structure is to severely limit the type of ideas that can be expressed in this style.

And in accordance with this last point, it’s worth noting another approach to videohaiku that I’ve favored in the past: one long shot, stationary or slowly moving, followed by the whole text. The idea with this style of presentation is to try to represent something of the stereotypical process of haiku composition, in which they arise full-blown from a kind of Zen-like, direct seeing. I’m not sure how often it actually happens this way, at least for writers in English, who have so many more grammatical constraints than Japanese haiku poets. But that’s the ideal.

Or one ideal, at any rate. As I’ve discovered with my Pepys erasure project, which has yielded more than 30 haiku so far, that “ah-ha moment” can arise just as easily from the contemplation of a text as from any other sort of meditative seeing. In fact, I find the additional constraints of this project actually help me compose what I’ve always thought of as a very difficult form to get right. (My constraints include such self-imposed rules as: the words of the erasure must be in the same order as in the source text, and words can’t combine letters from different words except in the case of a few, simple compound words such as into.) I am trying to get something poem-like from every single entry in the diary, which includes a number of one-sentence entries. This has really pushed me out of my comfort zone, to use a somewhat well-worn cliche, and has definitely helped me avoid the cardinal sins of beginner haiku: too much wordiness and overly obvious connections between the two parts.

The strange or unexpected word choices that often of necessity crop up in erasure poetry help greatly with defamiliarization, a fundamental attribute of poetic language in haiku as anywhere else. And the connections that happen between thoughts when we stop trying to impose our conscious designs are sometimes quite wonderful. Often in retrospect they seem like the most obvious choices, but it can take me hours to get there.

One of the basic challenges (and rewards) of erasure poetry is deriving something lyrical from something non-lyrical. The “ice” in Mr. Pepys’ office, for example, glitters in many of my erasure poems. For erasure haiku, in particular, it’s fun to work with a text and author so completely urban and way pre-Romantic, from a time when Japan had sealed itself off from the expanding European powers and was thus almost a complete unknown. Yet it was precisely this “world within walls,” as Donald Keene called it, that gave rise to haikai no renga and what we now call haiku. It was lighter in tone than the courtly renga and tanka verse that preceded it, and its primary audience and practitioners came from the newly burgeoning, urban merchant class.

The first haikujin were thus direct, if unknown, contemporaries of Samuel Pepys, came from a similar milieu, and enjoyed fairly equivalent levels of intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s easy to imagine Pepys hitting it off with someone like Ihara Saikaku. Instead of tea shops and geisha houses, Pepys hung out in coffee shops and pubs, but as the diary reveals, he was an assiduous student of the music of his day, playing a variety of instruments and singing art songs with friends. He obsessed over the theater, wrote critically of the different sermons he heard at church, and attended the first meetings of the Royal Society. I suppose it’s little more than a coincidence, but this parallel between the lifestyles and interests of Pepys and his Tokugawa contemporaries is something I enjoy thinking about. It makes the discovery/invention of haiku from the vivid language of his diary entries feel almost like a contribution to an alternate history: Pepys as a successor to Marco Polo, wandering the streets of 17th-century Edo.

UPDATE (28 December): Revisiting Cordite‘s “Haikunaut” issue from a few years back, I was struck by this passage in editor David Lanoue’s introduction:

Haiku is a posture, a way of seeing and being, a philosophy of life in which one dedicates one’s self to noticing, not ignoring; to being open, not closed; to discovering, not defining; to inviting meaning onto a page, never imposing it.

This sounds very similar to the posture of an erasure poet.

Happy/Merry Yule, Solstice, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year, and Epiphany to all our readers from Luisa and me. This videopoem is a joint production of Via Negativa and Moving Poems, my poetry-film site. Via Negativa just celebrated its 11th birthday last Wednesday, and this time of year “when nights are longest” has always seemed full of creative possibilities to me. I also found out yesterday that December 21 (or possibly 22) was the date when, in 1818, John Keats coined the term “negative capability”—”when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”—which I think is more or less the same as what Zen Buddhists call don’t-know mind or beginner’s mind.

So yesterday I found a mysterious, dark but light-filled home move at the Prelinger Archives, selected and arranged some of the images into a composition that made sense to me, emailed the link to Luisa and asked her if she thought she could find a poem in it. Indeed she could! After a little back-and-forth about the title and opening lines last night, she settled on a final form for the text this morning and sent me a terrific reading that she recorded with her mobile phone. I found a Creative Commons-licensed sound recording on SoundCloud through my usual method of clicking on random links and trusting in serendipity: it’s a field recording by Marc Weidenbaum of Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night” boombox procession passing a certain point in the streets of San Francisco on December 18, 2010.

Here’s the text of the poem.

When nights are longest

by Luisa A. Igloria

In the dark, it takes the eye
a moment to adjust,

but we won’t even feel
the pull of gravity

that slows us down,
nor the drift of the moon

just slightly more
out of reach.

And there is nothing
to do, really, but trim

the flourishes from the roof,
gather the scraps,

burn them to make
more fire. There is

no point asking
if the garden still

needs weeding, if the flowers
will come back, or if the fish

will flash their dangerous
golden charms again

through ice. Come share
a shard of bread: we’ll set

the pot to boil and skim
the fat off the stew.

We’ll feed each other
with no need to speak,

watching our thoughts ignite
like fireflies into their afterlife.

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).

Watch on Vimeo

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.

Watch on Vimeo.

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

Watch on YouTube

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

Watch on YouTube

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

Watch on YouTube

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!