In her most recent Friday Video/Filmpoem post at Rubies in Crystal, featuring Glenn-emlyn Richards’ animation of a poem by Eleanor Rees called “Saltwater,” Brenda Clews describes a recent attempt to turn an audience on to videopoetry:
I treated a group to a series of video/film poems, only a few, because they tired very quickly — poetry is demanding enough on the page, let alone strung at you in a video where you can’t slow down, re-read, consider before moving on – but someone said, the one with the woman, the drawing, the ocean, that one was my favourite. In unison, they all agreed.
I commented that I was struck by her claim that video/filmpoems are actually more demanding than poems on the page. So many people make the opposite claim, especially about animated poems. Here, for example, is how the folks at Motion Poems promote their efforts to potential donors at Razoo.com:
Contemporary poetry is a mystery to most casual readers: they rarely read it, and would have a hard time discovering great new poetry on their own. We think that’s a shame! So…
MOTIONPOEMS subverts that paradigm by giving casual readers a new way to discover poetry … as short films! That way, they can be distributed virally and on YouTube, in social networks, in classrooms, and in broadcast and film media. [ellipses original]
In close to three years of sharing videos, animated and otherwise, at Moving Poems, I’ve seen steady traffic but nothing to suggest I’m reaching very far beyond the existing fan base for poetry. The most popular videos tend to be those for Latin American poets, in particular Vicente Huidobro and Julia de Burgos. This makes sense: poetry is actually fairly popular in the Spanish-speaking world.
Of course, I do suck at promotion. With the names of poets included in the post titles at Moving Poems, and a reasonably good PageRank, the site is practically guaranteed to land in the first page of Google results for most poets I include. So O.K., I’m drawing in people who are already interested in poetry. But since I don’t use tags to describe the contents of the poems — something I’m reluctant to do on the grounds that it reduces a poem to the sum of its ostensible subjects — it’s very unlikely that, for example, someone interested in the Liverpudlian waterfront would land on my post of “Saltwater” (or Brenda’s, or Glenn-emlyn’s original upload at Vimeo), unless they did some very creative Google video search.
So yeah, doing things like using more descriptive tags could bring more traffic… but would that really enlarge the audience for poetry, or just disappoint more people looking for, you know, information? The question remains: Is mere conversion to the film or video medium enough to overcome the general reluctance of English-language readers to challenge themselves?
On YouTube and Vimeo, the most popular poetry videos in English tend to be either those for poets who are already popular (relatively speaking), such as Billy Collins and Rumi, or for videos that make a simple point extremely well and go viral as a result, such as a kinetic text animation for a spoken-word piece by Taylor Mali about people’s reluctance to express firm opinions, or Tanya Davis and Andrea Dorfman’s powerful statement on “How to Be Alone.”
I do think there’s an extent to which online poems in whatever form are helping to create a larger audience for poetry among those who have always kind of liked poems and/or enjoy an intellectual challenge, but may not be in the habit of sitting down to read poetry books and journals. That’s been my experience over the years with a number of sites, most notably this one, where I think one key to success has been my pattern of interspersing poems with other, more popular kinds of content (photos, personal or nature essays, brief polemics, etc.). This is the kind of thing blogs are good at: People come for the other stuff, develop an interest in the author, and eventually start reading the poems, too.
But if I ever thought that making and posting videopoems would enlarge the fan base for poetry here, I lost that illusion a long time ago. My videopoems usually average around 100 views — one quarter of what a poem in text form gets. That’s not as skewed as it sounds, since Vimeo only logs views from people who watch all the way to the end, and I don’t of course have comparable statistics for people who read a poem all the way through. The actual number of thorough readers may not be much more than 100 per poem. But the evidence so far does not suggest that Via Negativa visitors are more likely to take in a poem just because I’ve envideoed it.
So while I fervently hope that the animators at Motion Poems and similar projects are successful in bringing new audiences to poetry, I do tend to agree with Brenda that more elliptical or experimental film/videopoets will have to work at least as hard as traditional page-poets to reach an audience in the Anglophone world.