Two recent haiku videos and an expanded essay on videohaiku

I made this first video to test out the iMovie app for my iPhone. It’s the first time I’ve made a videopoem entirely on the phone. It was dead simple to learn, but the text-on-screen choices and effects options were… limited.

That was in preparation for my keynote presentation at last weekend’s REELpoetry/Houston TX festival, where I needed to pretend to be some sort of expert on how to make videopoetry. In fact, of course, I just picked the brains of some people who are experts and incorporated their recommendations into my talk. One of those experts was fellow presenter Mary McDonald, a media artist with an encyclopedic knowledge of software and hardware, who recommended as the best free solution for on-phone or tablet video editing a two-year-old app for iOS or Android called Videoleap. (I played with it for a bit and was impressed, but to be be honest I’m not very adept at doing things on my phone, so I don’t know how often I’ll use it.)

Another expert, who helped me out with some great recommendations for tutorial sites (which I’ve incorporated into Moving Poems’ page of resources for videopoem makers), was my fellow film judge and host for the weekend, Randee Ramsey, who must be one of the relatively few people qualified to teach both poetry and film to university students. I shot a quick video on her back patio and paired it with a haiku based on her pointing out the Enron buildings to me in downtown Houston:

One of the two screenings I presented at the festival was of my own videohaiku, including a half-hour selection from my four seasonal videohaiku sequences which I called Crossing the Pond and the two-minute supplement Sea Levels. As part of that presentation, I expanded my recent essay at Atticus Review to include some general remarks on what haiku actually is, since there seems to be so much confusion about that in the non-haiku poetry world, let alone the general public:

What the hell is videohaiku? And for that matter, what the hell is haiku?

Throughout 2019 I produced haiku videopoems—AKA video haiga or videohaiku—on an almost industrial scale, churning out 80 short videos in seasonal chunks rooted in one or the other of my two homes in Pennsylvania and the UK: Winter Trees, Pennsylvania Spring, Summer in the UK, and Autumn Metropolis. All four can be viewed at the Videopoetry section of my website, I’m calling the whole series Crossing the Pond: A Transatlantic Haiku Year, and today we’ll see a half-hour-long selection with a roughly equal number from each season.

A few words about modern haiku, a genre that’s widely misunderstood even by MFA-trained poets: Modern haiku practitioners generally agree that syllable counting is at best too generous at 17 syllables, and should generally strive for something shorter, or at worst that it’s a complete misunderstanding of how sound-units and meaning interact in Japanese.

Also, Japanese haiku are traditionally written in a single line, though I and many others prefer to stick with two or three lines, recognizing that a line break can help emphasize perhaps the most essential feature of haiku: the semantic break dividing the haiku into two, asymmetrical parts, in which two thoughts or images are juxtaposed in a way that hopefully evokes some kind of “a-ha” moment in the reader.

Haiku poets tend to prize double meanings, so in English, creative arrangements of text and avoidance of most punctuation can accentuate that quality. Presentation of text in a video through simple animation or sequential appearance can play with these possible multiple meanings.

In addition to that, similes are completely eschewed and metaphorical dimensions are left implied rather than spelled out. Objectivity and direct observation by the poet are highly valued, though all the traditional masters wrote haiku of pure imagination as well.

Modern haiku writers do not agree on whether it’s important to continue to focus on natural imagery and seasonal words. I personally feel that the relationship of humans to their environment is a key element of haiku awareness, even if that happens to mean a highly urban environment. It’s important to remember that the Sino-Japanese word for nature, shizen, does not mean something apart from or in opposition to humanity, but the world as it functions in and of itself. A literal translation of the two characters would be something like “of/in itself thus.” So spontaneity is seen as integral to naturalness. It’s no coincidence that spontaneity is also the (highly elusive) goal of most haiku writers.

Skills learned in crafting modern haiku can be readily transferred to videopoetry and vice versa. Both succeed when they merely suggest connections rather than stating them outright. Both rely heavily on juxtaposition. Further, masters of both modern haiku and videopoetry have stressed the importance of a kind of openness or incompleteness. Ogiwara Seisensui characterized haiku as a circle, with one half to be completed by the poet, the other half by the reader. Tom Konyves, who invented the term videopoetry, stresses the collaborative or synergistic properties of individual elements (text, visuals, audio) in a videopoem. “This collaborative property implies an incompleteness, indicating the presence of accommodating spaces in each of the elements,” he notes.

A further argument for marrying haiku and videopoetry is the long history of combining images and haiku: haiga, a genre which has been exported to the West as well. But most important, to me, is the way that the video/film medium can give haiku what they often lack on the page: necessary time and space. It’s not unusual for printed collections to isolate just one or two haiku on a page, surrounding them with white space in an effort to slow the reader down. It’s been said that haiku are the perfect form of poetry for our distracted, sound-bite-dominated society, but actually I feel the opposite is true. Even when I am away from all digital distractions, I still often have to keep admonishing myself to read more slowly. How slowly? Maybe something like half a minute to a minute per haiku… about the length of a short video.

I gather material for videohaiku in the same way people tend to gather material for regular haiku, walking slowly and keeping an eye out for small, odd things. My phone camera is always in my pocket, and I usually carry a notebook as well, because often while I walk I’m composing haiku in my head in response to footage shot on previous walks. So the writing flow and the perceptual flow often merge. The most common form my videohaiku take is similarly slow and contemplative, inviting viewers to enter the flow from which the text eventually emerges. I’m more about the process than the product in general, but especially with videohaiku, where spontaneity, as mentioned above, and the connection to a particular time and place strike me as more essential than producing flawless work.

[Watch Crossing the Pond on Google Drive]

The other thing we’re going to watch today is Sea Levels, a two-minute, stand-alone haiku sequence (renku) shot on a section of the Welsh coastline especially vulnerable to climate change, where recent storms have uncovered the remains of a forest flooded by earlier sea level rise during the late Bronze Age. That earlier event was of course not anthropogenic, but the way it’s been remembered in Welsh folklore to this day is fascinating. Since I’m not Welsh, however, I brought my own associations, including the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft and the Book of Revelation. In contrast to the other videohaiku I’ve shown today, I’m afraid this all goes by pretty fast.

It’s worth mentioning that the traveler’s perspective has traditionally been given pride of place in many haiku and haibun sequences.

[Watch Sea Levels]


I should add that I was deeply honored by the invitation and gratified by the audience’s enthusiastic response, which was beyond anything I’d imagined, and does suggest I’m on the right path here. I’m painfully aware of the limitations of my film-making and my haiku, which I’ve come to realize are just about the hardest kind of poem to write. Reassuring as it’s been to land acceptances from a range of haiku journals over the past two years, this response from poets and filmmakers outside the haiku ghetto is just as reassuring, because the last thing I want is to become proficient at something too arcane for ordinary readers (and viewers) to grasp.

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