Heralds: the making of a video poem

Los Heraldos Negros (The Black Heralds) from Dave Bonta on Vimeo.

I was idly poking around YouTube today, looking for more material for Moving Poems, when it occurred to me to see what might be out there for César Vallejo, generally regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. I couldn’t find anything other than a few boring videos of people reading his poems, so I decided to try and make a video myself. This will go up on Moving Poems eventually, but I thought I’d share it here first, by way of pointing out a few things I’ve learned about what I’m calling videoetry.

Process notes

I do think the above video is a significant improvement over my first attempt to make a videoem for someone else’s work — that one for the poem by Pedro Salinas using the snake orgy footage. This time I started with a strong reading, “borrowed” from one of the aforementioned YouTube videos, took some random footage of trains and turkey vultures I shot last week and filled in around it with a few clips from the open-source video section of the Internet Archive. Although “Los Heraldos Negros” isn’t an explicitly political poem, Vallejo was an ardent anti-imperialist, so I think he would’ve appreciated the shots of protestors at the School of the Americas, where so many paramilitary thugs have been trained over the decades. And the Peruvian religious procession seemed appropriate too; Vallejo always had a more nuanced attitude toward religion than his friend Neruda and most other left-wing intellectuals of his generation.

Once I had a rough match between images and spoken-word soundtrack, I went hunting for some music, also on the Internet Archive. I was delighted to find a piece by a contemporary composer, Andrew Bissett, in the style of Bela Bartok — one of my favorite composers, and also a contemporary of Vallejo’s. I’m not good at describing music, but somehow this piece seemed to have just the right dissonances and jagged edges for “Los Heraldos Negros.”

The final step was making the English subtitles. I’ll admit I got lazy there, and instead of using my own translation, which languishes in the back of a file drawer somewhere, I stole one I found online, changing just a couple of words. (I was a little rushed.) The other major thing I did wrong here was relying on the video editing software (Adobe Premiere Elements) to set the audio levels: the music was supposed to be a bit quieter than the way it came out, so it would underlie rather than compete with the reading. In the future, I’ll have to remember to set the volumes in the audio recording and editing program I use (Adobe Audition) before importing the soundtrack into Premiere.

I am also planning to redo the snake video at some point to try and improve the match between images and audio. I agreed with some of the commenters on that post that the inclusion of both languages in the soundtrack was a mistake. In doing so, I didn’t really have the best interests of the poem at heart. Instead, I wanted to make something as long as possible so I could use as much of the cool snake footage as possible. However, had I not decided to keep the video music-free, lengthy, distracting silences wouldn’t have been an issue. I could’ve easily parceled the Spanish reading into widely separated sections and kept most of the footage, I think.

Starting points

I’ve been fooling around with various kinds of video-poem combinations since last June (browse the Videoetry category to see them all), and not surprisingly, my experiments have been shaped as much by the tools at my disposal as by my own aesthetic inclinations. Until this past Christmas, when my family gifted me with a camcorder, the only way I could make videos was with the video setting on my regular digital camera, which imposes severe restrictions on length and other limitations. For video editing, I used the program I have on my PC — Windows Movie Maker — after checking to see whether there was any easy-to-use free software that had significantly more features. If there is, I didn’t find it. And Windows Movie Maker is actually pretty good at one thing: adding titles in a variety of fonts, sizes, and special effects. So that’s where my videoetry experimentation began.

If I were a Mac user, I could’ve taken advantage of Apple’s superior, free video-editing software iMovie. Given my initial inclination toward postcard-style, text-on-image videos, I might’ve ended up making videos rather like these by poet Susan Culver, who just got started on videoetry the other week. Mac users can also create soundtracks in GarageBand, which is I gather a very good audio editing program. Windows has nothing comparable. The best free option for Windows users is Audacity — a decent enough program, and certainly good enough for editing spoken word tracks.

Creating echos

One thing I think I did right with the snake video was avoid making too literal a match between images and text. I did revisit a favorite poem about mating garter snakes by Stanley Kunitz to see if it might fit the bill, but it only described a single mating pair; there was no orgy. Plus it was set in autumn (when some garter snakes do mate also) rather than in the spring. When I found that Salinas poem, I had an immediate sense of rightness about the match.

The trick is finding just enough semantic overlap, but not too much. I guess I’d liken the video accompanying a poem to an echo chamber rather than a mirror. I’m not saying that all successful video poems have to take this approach; it just happens to be the one I’m most interested in right now. My breakthrough in that regard was “The Good Question,” from early this past February. It was also my first to include the poem as part of the soundtrack rather than as text superimposed on the video, and I don’t think that’s irrelevant.

Unlike my previous efforts, where I had crafted poems essentially at the same time I edited the video footage, I didn’t intend “The Good Question” to be a video poem at first — it was just going to be blog-fodder. Only after I started working on a second draft did I get the bright idea of trying to blend it with a video I’d shot five days earlier of my friend Chris’s partner Seung throwing snowballs. Substituting a recording of the poem for the original soundtrack (which consisted mainly of wisecracks and laughter) tied the whole thing together rather well, I thought.

Writing poetry, for me, involves placing superficially dissimilar things in close conjunction and seeing what happens. Making videos is a fun way to extend the process of exploration into additional media. The end product does happen be something with considerably more mass appeal than a poem on a page, but that’s not so much the point for me. The more layers you can give a work of art, the more suggestive it tends to become.

High tech?

In addition to greatly democratizing the production of complex artwork, the modern digital revolution has made something very old seem new again. I don’t think poetry should ever have become as thoroughly bookish and separated from the aural and kinetic arts as it has in modern times. I can’t tell you how delighted I am to have the time and the tools to translate poems into HTML and MP3s to share on the web — and then take it a step further and attempt video-poem remixes. Remix is at the heart of culture, is it not? But something like Italian opera or Japanese Noh drama has always been closer to my ideal of poetic presentation than a printed text in any case. Assuming, of course, that there’s electronic captioning above the stage.

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