Nic Sebastian

Rachel Barenblat has a great piece about poetry collaboration and remix up at The Best American Poetry blog. Although I also have some quotes in the post (thanks, Rachel!) I particularly liked this quote from Nic Sebastian:

There is so much that technology has brought to the poetry equation – not just by connecting people & poetry and poets & artists who weren’t connected to each other before, but by changing both the face and the delivery of poetry itself. Poems locked up in hard-copy print editions only available for sale are struggling in new and more serious ways, while poems delivered in multiple creative ways online have new leases on life and are reaching an ever-widening audience.

“Locked up” indeed. We shouldn’t ignore traditional media altogether, of course. Appearances in newspapers and general-interest magazines, on television, and on the radio can also reach new audiences. But it’s largely thanks to online culture that artistic collaborations are beginning to take center stage. As Rachel puts it,

Something interesting happens when we see ourselves and our work as part of an interconnected matrix of creativity. Instead of “The Poet” on her pedestal and the adoring readers clustered at her feet (ha!), the new paradigm — it’s a bit web 2.0, or a bit fannish, honestly; everyone is a creator, not just a consumer — gives us the possibility of one person making art, and another person responding in kind.

Read the rest.

What a wonderful surprise from Nic Sebastian and Marc Neys (who periodically ducks into a phone booth and emerges as artist and filmmaker Swoon). I am gobsmacked. And I’m very glad I placed a Creative Commons license on the collection that explicitly permits derivative works. (Not that Nic and Swoon couldn’t have just contacted me for permission — but that would’ve spoiled the surprise!) I love the fact that listeners to the poems now have the option of hearing them in a voice other than the poet’s, and — especially interesting for love poems — in a female voice. I tried to include enough particulars to make the people in the poems (Rachel and I) seem real, but not too many to prevent identification from readers who don’t know us. This video hugely advances that. And by deploying images that complement the images in the texts without attempting to merely illustrate them, the film preserves and extends the poem’s allusiveness and essential freedom rather than leaving it tightly bound to the writer’s original vision and voice.

Marc posted some process notes to his blog. Here’s a snippet:

Nic send me the audiofiles of her readings. Very good readings.
I wanted a track with a simple melody that pops up a few times against the backdrop of atmospheric disturbance. I went for this one;

and added a stream of atmospheric noises, clicks and crackles.

For images I went for a combination of simple images of nature, birds, the ocean, movement and structures. Most of it I filmed myself and I added a few pieces of footage by Matthew August, H.Hattori, Swee Sin Eng.
In the editing proces I chose to let slowed down footage of in and out of focus images (with a small touch of ‘zen’) go into battle with a sometimes frantic and nervous way of editing against the reading and the background noises.

And back on March 23, Nic was kind enough to blog about Twelve Simple Songs as an example of multi-format poetry publishing, something she’s been championing for several years. Nic also happens to be one of my favorite poets, so I’m pleased and humbled that she thought enough of my work to record it in her own voice and talk Marc into making a video. Now I just need to finish tweaking the PDF for the printer and order a second proof. If all goes well, a dead-tree version of the collection should be available to purchase at cost by the middle of the month.

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One of my favorite Jean Follain poems, with the W.S. Merwin translation in the subtitles. The reading is by Nic Sebastian, from her audiopoetry site pizzicati of hosanna.

I captured the footage of a half-grown bunny this evening, right outside my house. The eastern cottontail rabbits seem to be at a peak of population these days, which, somewhat counter-intuitively, may be due to the proliferation of predators such as coyotes, fishers and owls, which we think is the reason why there are no more feral housecats around. The cats predate heavily on baby bunnies. If true, this would be an example of what ecologists call a trophic cascade. Anyway, some of these bunnies are so accustomed to me now, I can walk right by them. It’s a cuteness overload almost every time I step outside the door.

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My first NSFW videopoem. If you are for some reason offended by the sight of naked human beings, there are lots of cat videos on YouTube that you should probably be watching instead.

Rather than spend another whole day working to re-build my ramshackle blog network, I dove into a project that’s been tempting me for days, ever since I listened to Nic Sebastian’s reading of “Orchard” by H.D. at Pizzicati of Hosanna. Sometime in the midst of the chaos, I got the idea of trying to work a female nude into this video. When I ran across filmmaker Laurel Nakadake’s video of porn actresses reading poems by Dora Malech, and I saw how poetry conferred a sort of dignity on those women, it strengthened my resolve to try and incorporate natural-looking, non-exploitative footage of a nude into a true videopoem. What I found is unattributed, and evidently uploaded by its creator at archive.org’s Community Video section, which I’m pretty sure means it’s public domain. I found the Creative Commons-licensed music on SoundCloud, which is by a fellow in Kiev named Tim Six, by searching for anything with the word “ritual” in its description.

I’ve never been a huge fan of H.D., but Nic’s reading made me see this poem, at least, in a new light. The volunteer Keiffer pear tree behind my house, which is still loaded with fruit even as its leaves turn color and snowflakes swirl around it, was another inspiration. It was tempting to do the obvious and incorporate shots of the tree into the video, but I managed to resist that loveliness.

Since it’s out-of-copyright, I might as well share the text of the poem:

Orchard

by H.D. (Hilda Doolittle)

I saw the first pear
As it fell—
The honey-seeking, golden-banded,
The yellow swarm
Was not more fleet than I,
(Spare us from loveliness)
And I fell prostrate
Crying:
You have flayed us
With your blossoms,
Spare us the beauty
Of fruit-trees.

The honey-seeking
Paused not,
The air thundered their song,
And I alone was prostrate.

O rough-hewn
God of the orchard,
I bring you an offering—
Do you, alone unbeautiful,
Son of the god,
Spare us from loveliness:

These fallen hazel-nuts,
Stripped late of their green sheaths,
Grapes, red-purple,
Their berries
Dripping with wine,
Pomegranates already broken,
And shrunken figs
And quinces untouched,
I bring you as offering.


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I made this videopoem sort of by accident, which was good because it led me to break some of my own rules and branch out in a new direction. This is the opening poem to Nic Sebastian’s nanopress collection Forever Will End On Thursday, and “condense[s] seemingly out of nowhere,” as Amy King has characterized Nic’s approach to storytelling. It’s a great poem, even if it isn’t what I originally had in mind.

Process notes

I spent all morning and half the afternoon under the impression that I was going to make a video haiku today, which for me typically means about 45 seconds of footage followed by the haiku in text form. I was going to use this great footage of a tiger swallowtail I’d shot around 9:00, and I even wrote the first draft of the haiku. But when I finally went to look at the footage on my computer, I discovered it wasn’t there, and the two clips I’d uploaded earlier consisted mainly of blurry, accidental shots of the ground. Clearly I had pressed the record button when I shouldn’t have, and what’s worse, had failed to press it when I should have. So there went that idea.

I’d already spent an hour locating some music I liked, though: a couple pieces from a series of electronically deconstructed studies of various instruments by a guy named César Alvarez, who uses the handle musicisfreenow on SoundCloud. I had been searching for Creative Commons-licensed clarinet tracks, but I liked what Alvarez did with the banjo even better. Then I noticed that a section of my blurry driveway footage was visually kind of compelling, and on impulse started typing the text for the second stanza of Nic’s poem overtop it. I applied a simple animation effect to each line and found I liked the result, even though I often find text-only videopoems tiresome to watch, and text-plus-voice videopoems annoyingly redundant.

I figured I’d work out the inconsistencies in my approach later, though, and concentrated on finding other clips from video I’ve shot over the past few months. Footage of a juvenile indigo bunting shot through a screen door seemed to work well for portions of the poem. I remembered a video of a London street performer, and found a four-second clip from that which seemed like a particularly good match both for the choppy music and for the edgy content of the poem. It didn’t take a whole lot more poking around to find two more clips that kind of made oblique reference to the imagery in the poem. I did the text animations and cut the video to fit.

Finally, the most laborious part: chopping up Nic’s reading to fit the video, which itself was modeled after her arrangement of lines on the page. Since her line-breaks don’t normally track with her pauses for breath, I knew this would be a challenge, but again, the choppiness of the music seemed to license it. At some point it also occurred to me that, since the text would appear on-screen, I could leave the music at normal volume, something I’ve never been able to do for a videopoem with spoken word before. The result: a strange hybrid of poem-as-text and poem-as-voice, a bit of a hippogryph.

My usual procedure, of course, is quite the opposite: I make the soundtrack first and cut the video clips to fit. I like to tell myself that this is the best way to go, and perhaps it is, but it also happens to be far easier and less time-consuming than the approach I took with this video. It doesn’t hurt to do things the hard way sometimes.

In defense of my method here, I would note that, to the silent reader, the line-breaks in unpunctuated poems like Nic’s do help create a kind of uncertainty or anxiety about meaning which is a fruitful part of the reading experience — and which a naturalistic out-loud reading does away with. Why not try and preserve some of that semantic uncertainty in the video? If I ever re-do it, though, I think I may use a more legible and somewhat smaller, narrower font. Having to break the two longest lines in the middle damaged the integrity of Nic’s poem-as-text, and rendered this experiment a little less successful than it might otherwise have been, I think.

UPDATE (August 11): Nic made me a fresh recording with ample pauses between the lines to avoid some of the abrupt cuts in the original, so I’ve re-done the soundtrack. I took the opportunity to re-do the title and credits with a more legible (filled in) version of the Courier font, but decided not to mess with the font otherwise. I think this is a keeper now.


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I made another video with one of Nic Sebastian’s readings, this time for a poem by Nicelle Davis, “Cuba and Coltrane,” from her Whale Sound audio chapbook, Studies in Monogamy. I may not have any personal familiarity with marital discord, but who can’t identify with a relationship built on a shared longing to be elsewhere and otherwise than we are?

Process notes

As is almost always the case, this started with me noticing that something looked cool and needed to be filmed: in this case, the cattails blowing in the clear morning light with my new pink flamingo garden ornament slightly out-of-focus in the foreground. So I set up the camera on Saturday morning, knowing too that at some point someone would drive up the road and pass between cattails and flamingo. Once I had the footage, I began looking through Nic’s Whale Sound material for something appropriate, and “Cuba and Coltrane” immediately struck me as the best fit. Cuba, after all, actually hosts a breeding population of flamingos, unlike — say — Florida. And the blowing cattails were nothing if not jazzy.

I contacted the author for permission before I got too far along in the editing, gave her a rough outline of what I wanted to do, and linked to my videopoetry album on Vimeo. When she wrote back, she mentioned that she and her 3 1/2-year-old son had watched all of my videos, which was astonishing, and added that her son actually requested more of them this morning in preference to cartoons! High praise indeed. I remember just how addictive cartoons were when I was that age.

Maybe it was the mention of cartoons, but I got the idea of putting in some clips from slapstick comedies of the silent film era to illustrate the domestic conflict a bit more graphically. This may be a bit of overkill, I’m not sure. But it gave me a good excuse to browse through the online Edison Motion Pictures collection on the Library of Congress website.

I also thought it important to include some Coltrane in the soundtrack, and one way to do that without breaking copyright laws was to find a cover of a Coltrane tune licensed for remix/reuse under the Creative Commons. I decided to try SoundCloud this time, and hit paydirt right away with a great cover of “Naima” by a group called The VIG Quartet. SoundCloud has advanced search capability within Creative Commons-licensed material, so searching for tracks with the word “Coltrane” in the title, description or tags was quick and painless. I duly added SoundCloud to my page of web resources for videopoem makers at Moving Poems.


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A small, volunteer sunflower growing alongside the footpath between my house and my folks’ house has attracted a huge following, from mordelid beetles to flea beetles to some kind of plant bug that lurk on the back side. Add to that the small wasps and bees coming in for shorter visits, and it’s quite a happening little scene.

That’s what tempted me to stand out in the sun for ten minutes yesterday evening videoing it. But when I brought up the clips on my desktop monitor, it was the sun-struck footage rather than the footage focused more on the insects that seemed the most striking. I hadn’t had anything specific in mind when I shot it, but I picked up my copy of Nic Sebastian‘s book Forever Will End On Thursday and quickly found a nearly perfect fit: the poem “homesteader,” which begins:

I step into the heat
as into a dress

the sun fits me, it is
my size

and the heat is
face-shaped…

Every time I make a videopoem, even one as simple as this, I feel I learn something new. This time, I discovered that the natural sound from the video itself made a perfectly satisfactory soundtrack, as long as I was careful, in my couple of splices, not to cut off the field sparrow in mid-song. I’m also refining my technique for massaging the poetry reading. In general, I find it necessary to lengthen the spaces between phrases when adapting a sound recording for use in a videopoem, in order to counteract the distraction-effect of the video images and give the words time to sink in. Nic’s readings lend themselves especially well to this kind of spacing, since her readings are already slower and more clearly articulated than most other people’s. On the other hand, there’s nothing that says a viewer or listener has to catch every word on the first listen. We certainly don’t have that expectation with music!

This is my third video so far for a poem by Nic Sebastian. In case you missed them, the other two were “on being constantly civil towards death” and “the wanderers’ blessing.” Two other videos used Nic’s readings (originally recorded for Whale Sound): “hollow” (text by Peter Stephens — possibly my best videopoem to date) and “A Bigfoot Poem,” Nic’s rendering of one of my own pieces.


Watch on Vimeo.

Yesterday, my dad spotted a cecropia moth — newly eclosed, from the looks of it — on the side of one of the black walnut trees in the yard. This is the largest moth in North America, and it’s in the same Saturniidae family as polyphemus and luna moths (which have appeared on this same tree or its immediate neighbor two years in a row, in early August). I shot some video footage of it right away, but figured it wouldn’t be flying until after dark, so I went back at dusk with a flashlight to shoot some more footage.

This morning, it occurred to me that the nighttime footage might make a good fit with one of Nic Sebastian’s poems from her recent nanopress chapbook, Dark And Like a Web: Brief Notes On and To the Divine, edited by Beth Adams. Nic had given me “blanket permission to use any and all of my stuff out there, any time” in a comment on my post about the new videopoetry album, so I didn’t have to worry about the fact that she’s off on vacation somewhere and probably not reading emails. The poem I had in mind, “on being constantly civil towards death,” is very short, but I’ve made at least half a dozen videos for haiku poems, and this is twice the length of a haiku. Would the text and the footage make a good pair? Maybe. It would depend on what I did with the soundtrack.

I downloaded the MP3 link off the chapbook’s website and listened to it a few more times. Due to the poem’s brevity, each line does a lot of work, so the first order of business was to make sure they didn’t go by so quickly that they wouldn’t register with a viewer. I could have slowed down Nic’s reading — my audio software has a function that lets you change the speed of a track without altering its pitch — but unlike many poets, Nic already seems to read at just about the right speed. So instead I lengthened almost every pause, a strategy that seemed to work well with the first poem of hers I did a video for, “the wanderers’ blessing.” This made the poem half again longer, though it was still pretty brief.

After listening to a bunch of Creative Commons-licensed pieces of music at Jamendo.com and ccmixter.org, I decided not to use any background music this time — it just didn’t seem to fit a poem dominated by a “great black stillness.” But from one death-metal track with a telephone ring in it, I got the idea of turning the poem into a phone call. It seemed appropriate for the overall theme of Nic’s chapbook — attempting to commune with a perhaps unreachable Other. This was good, because I conceive of the video not just as Moving Poems material, but also as something akin to a trailer for the book. (It helps that, as a paying customer of Vimeo, I now have the ability to conclude embedded videos with a clickable link.)

But yes, I did briefly consider using death metal in the soundtrack. Which is why you should probably be very careful about giving someone like me blanket permission to monkey with your work.


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More footage from the algae exhibit at the Kew Gardens. The garden eels were fascinating to watch: shy creatures, but more or less habituated to the steady stream of humans on the other side of the glass. Rooted as they were, they were clearly very far from home indeed. I somehow got the idea of pairing them with a poem by Nic Sebastian from her collection Forever Will End on Thursday, which I read and wrote about in April. Fortunately, Nic saw the logic in my seemingly bizarre choice, as she wrote in an email and subsequently blogged:

I would never have thought of pairing the footage and the poem, but the footage speaks to the themes in the poem — solidarity yet separateness; deep wariness and alertness to the environment; the need for camouflage and the longing for connection — all things that characterize the ‘order of strangers and interlopers.’ The music resonates as well – made me think of yearning and unfinishedness. It’s an unexpected connection you made, but I think it works.

This is the third videopoem I’ve made with a Nic Sebastian reading in the soundtrack, but the first for one of her own poems. If you only know her as the editor and main reader for the audiopoetry magazine Whale Sound, you’re missing a real treat: her own poems are wonderful, too. I hope this video helps win her a few more fans.

Forever Will End On ThursdayReading a book of poetry a day gets easier the longer I do it. It’s writing about it that’s a challenge — like dancing about architecture, as somebody or another said about the closely related task of reviewing music. This is especially true of poetry as musical, enigmatic and utterly captivating as Nic Sebastian’s. It doesn’t help that my lit-crit vocabulary is woefully impoverished. And it’s especially embarrassing to be reduced to near-incoherence in my admiration for the poetry of someone I actually know pretty well online. Surely I owe it to Nic, who’s given so much to the online poetry community over the past few years, to write something. Especially since I can’t dance.

Reading the book was an absorbing experience. I listened to the audio-book version read by Nic and followed along in the print version, which worked pretty well, except for the fact that Nic went too fast — I had to pause the recording after almost every poem for five to ten seconds to let it sink in. Perhaps I would’ve done better just to read the poems one by one on the website and click the individual audio players for each, but I find light text on a dark background too much of an eye-strain.

So why do I like these poems so much? For one thing, because I don’t understand them fully, in the same way I don’t expect to understand a folktale from another culture, but can appreciate its authenticity and utter originality. Nic’s poems are every bit as spacious and surreal as Howie Good’s, but are less dark — or at least their darknesses are more Rilkean. And whereas yesterday’s book — The Doors of the Body by Mary Alexandra Agner — re-worked traditional and sacred tales from a modern perspective, Nic’s project here is almost the opposite: making new myths in the ancient mold, or the beginnings of myths. There’s a soil maiden, a charcoal man, a baobab girl, and a man who marries a great cat. There are “places of happiness” on five continents where the land acts as matchmaker. Naming plays a central role in many of the poems; words have genuine power here, whether to invoke, bless or curse, which is what makes the absence of obvious interpretations for many of the poems so tolerable, at least for me. I am of course aware that for many readers of a more postmodern bent, poems of enchantment are automatically suspect, and Nic seems to anticipate that reaction, too, in poems such as “we have no need of prophets” and “poem for mother’s day“:

you ask why
I write of budding
spring and rising

sap would you rather I wrote
of razor wire and cold
scrubland

mother
the chiseled ivory of your sleeping
face your paper eyelids gliding

shut like
bricks in the wall
of your sleeping

face mother the deep miles
of night sky with no moon

One poem seems to describe some sort of political activist. As with most of the poems in the book, the language keeps luring me back to re-read it until I think I have a pretty firm idea of what it’s about, but who’d want to be sure? See what you think:

underlie

what is it like living with your body
splayed your whole body
spread tense up to the thin wires
of your brown hair the all of you threaded
through the squirming loam
the itching seas of this
planet

a stick figure with pigtails and
squeaky voice runs back and forth
across your muscle across all your pitched
nerve calling in from Zinguinchor from
Dili blogging from Cali from
Baghdad exploding in chipmunk
outrage in small burning
agony

and you
keep the position taken swaying
like the first like the only
hammock

A thoroughly modern subject there, perhaps, but what I find especially attractive are the animistic elements: that squirming loam, those itching seas, even the thin wires and animated stick figure in which I recognize a bit of myself. This is the kind of book that makes me want to seek deeper and more meaningful connections to the earth. It may seem strange to say about a book whose availability in multiple electronic formats is one of its selling points, but after reading Forever Will End on Thursday, I wanted nothing more than to leave the computer and go for a walk in the rain-drenched woods. And so I did.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.