“We were tentative”: how to make a videopoem by accident

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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 S.’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.

16 Replies to ““We were tentative”: how to make a videopoem by accident”

  1. Well, forgive me, but this may very well be my favorite video poem. Ever. Or so far.

    Love the juggler, banjo. The sound/vision rhythms are eccentrically whole. The bunting ruffles and sighs just right. Or the lines break just right.

    It’s of a whole.


    And I have read Nic’s poem and loved it as a singular thing. But this.

    Something else. And a joy.

    1. Thanks so much, Deb! Nic and I may re-do this with a new reading tailor-made for the video, so some of the pauses don’t sound quite so abrupt, but I’ll try to change as little as possible of what makes it successful. If it ain’t broke…

    1. Well, I’m glad you think so. I’ve had to overcome some internal resistance to be able to post process notes, something I almost never do with a straight poem — my impulse is to let the poem, or video, or whatever, speak for itself. But with these videopoems, since I’m also posting them to MovingPoems.com, I have to write something extra here to justify the double posting. Plus, of course, I want to encourage others to try it, too!

    1. Holograms. Or landscape art-poems, maybe. (Not that I will, of course, ever master videopoetry. Shoot, I don’t even have decent video-editing software yet! There’s a ton of effects I have no idea how to achieve.)

  2. Please continue to share your process notes! Very helpful to someone like me who is still learning her way around iMovie. I’ve recently learned how to use picture-in-picture and find that creates the picture frame appearance that you have in this video. Is that what you use also? Also learning how to use transparencies. Hours of frustration and retries there! But as you say above, trying the hard thing can pay off.

    1. Glad these notes are useful to you, Diane. If you have iMovie you’re way ahead of me! I’m not sure Premiere Elements even does transparencies — it’s sub-optimal software in every way. This picture-frame effect is incidental, the result of the proportions of the video not being the same as those of the player. (It looks better expanded to full screen.)

  3. iMovie doesn’t make the transparencies. I use Preview to do that (comes with Mac)–using the instant alpha tool. Have also found some “pre-keyed footage” online–for free. These allow you to get some very cool effects, e.g., a swarm of flies flying across the clip.

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