Catching a Cranefly: linked verses

Catching a Cranefly still

Watch on Vimeo.

just one drink
catching a cranefly
in mid-air

how many months now
since I’ve held someone

missing you
the morning after
a hard frost

breath measured out
in small white clouds

buzzing
what the rattlesnake sees
in infrared

ah just to touch
that velvety skin

floating leaves
the fetal curl that makes
a good craft

trapped in transit with
whatever’s going ’round

migrants
a Japanese barberry
trembling with sparrows

will the circle in fact
be unbroken

mountain path
I step aside to let
a caterpillar pass

in the trail register box
an empty bottle

just one drink…

*

Process notes

This began as three tanka jotted down in the Notes app while I sat out in the woods, and snowballed from there. While haiku-writing culture prizes Zen-like objectivity, tanka are traditionally more open to the overt or side-long expression of deep emotion. This persisted even as I broke the tanka apart into a short linked-verse sequence, which I’d call a renku except that it wasn’t composed by a small group, just me. But as in renku, each pair of adjacent stanzas may be read as one verse.

I thought of ways to underline those linkages by repeating verses throughout the film, but the footage I ended up using — all shot on my phone over the course of the month — was so pretty, I thought it had to take center stage. And quite early in the process of editing I decided to make the bluesiness explicit with the choice of music. Fortunately, there are some seriously good blues musicians and remixers on ccMixter. After playing for a while with a more traditional, BB King-style guitar instrumental, I went with something more drone-y and experimental, which was a better fit for my slow presentation of text and images.

I also experimented with mixing music with spoken word, but couldn’t make it work. At that point it just sounded like a failed blues song. But I have long felt that the way traditional blues singers improvise songs, by adding or modifying verses from their repertoire to a stable melody+verse core, bears a more than passing resemblance to the way Japanese linked verse sequences are made. So I was glad for the opportunity to create a sort of hybrid of the two.

I hope the flying-in animation effect for the couplets doesn’t become too annoying. I recently bought a souped-up version of my video-editing software to help with client work (Need a poetry video or a clean-up job on a reading documentary? I’m your man!) so yes, I let myself be seduced by this new, not-at-all-cheesy effect. I find the contrast between slow-moving footage and nervously excited text aesthetically interesting. Your mileage may vary.

Also, yes, a timber rattlesnake! Sadly not here in Plummer’s Hollow, but in a nearby state forest. Ditto with the woolly bear. As for the trail register with the empty whiskey bottle, I shared a photo of it on Instagram (with my first draft of the haiku about the caterpillar).

Native land

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I made this videopoem a few days ago as part of an on-going effort to explore how haiku might best be translated into film. In brief, though we think of a haiku as a three-line micropoem with 17 syllables, neither of these attributes is as fundamental as its asymmetrical, two-part structure: two related but often quite different images separated by a semantic break usually represented as a dash or colon in English. (I’m also of the school of thought that says that 17 syllables is too long compared to the amount of information that can be conveyed in 17 of the Japanese syllable-like sound units known as mora, but never mind that for now.) My insight in regards to videopoetry, helped along by a comment from Tom Konyves on an earlier post here, was that a brief shot could be substituted for one of the two parts — that the relationship between the two parts of a haiku is quite analogous to the relationship between text and imagery in a classic, Konyvesian videopoem. Experimenting with this approach, I made three videohaiku: flower with James Brush, court with Rachel Rawlins, and visitor.

The next step, I decided, was to make a proof-of-concept videorenga. Haiku, as we now call it, developed from a tradition of Japanese linked verse (renga), specifically haikai no renga or renku. These were multi-author, collaborative improvisions in which each two adjacent verses could be read as if they were two stanzas of a longer poem. Again displaying the Japanese aesthetic preference for asymmetry, verses of 17 mora alternate with verses of 14 mora. Native land attempts to do something vaguely similar, stitching together videohaiku of unequal lengths, with lines in intertitles completing a verse (videopoetic unit) begun with the preceding shot. But each line or couplet could also be read as the first part of a verse concluding with the shot that followed it. Realizing that this ambiguous connectivity might easily be lost on a first-time viewer, I decided to make two versions of the sequence, cleverly titled “obverse” and “reverse.”

Native land deviates from Japanese linked verse tradition in two significant ways: it doesn’t have multiple authors, and it’s too thematically unified. The second deviation might be a direct consequence of the first, actually. Had it been made by two or more people, it would be less likely to bear the stamp of a single poet’s didactic concerns. I would argue that it does contain a strong element of multi-authorship, though, inasmuch as I sourced the video footage from six different anonymous home movies in the Prelinger Archives, presumably shot by (at least) six different people. I also decided to make the invitation to remix implicit in my usual “copyleft”-style Creative Commons licence a bit more explicit, so that native land might become part of a larger exchange among videopoets. And much to my delight, the Australian multimedia artist Marie Craven took me up on it:

Her native land remix preserves and extends the reversibility of the videorenga in a novel way I find compelling. Instead of intertitles, she moved the text to subtitles below a split screen, in the process changing the juxtapositioning of text and imagery in a creative and thought-provoking way. The text feels a bit more fragmentary, but also liberated in a sense. She explained some of her thinking in an email:

My approach was similar to electronic music remixes I’ve been involved with, in which there are no rules or guidelines as to how the original be treated.

On viewing and reviewing your video many times over during the process of remixing, it became apparent how elegant the structure of your video is, with the linkages between the ‘verses’ being provided by following images. I like how it works like this in reverse too. I missed this on the first viewing but I think it may depend on knowing your intentions to ‘get’ this aspect of the video. I’m often thinking about general audiences in this way when making videos these days (most of mine seem very obscure to a lot of my net friends even still). My ideal is to strike a happy balance between accessibility and exploration.

And in native land remix, that last line about smallpox-infected blankets truly comes last and hits like a hammer. As a meditation on dispossession and genocide/ecocide, I told her I found her film more more powerful than my own. She responded,

The themes of the video are your own but I relate to them. As you would know, Australia has a terrible history of dispossession and genocide (including instances of poisoned blankets). It’s a frighteningly racist place to be right now too, especially seen in the horrendous treatment of asylum seekers arriving by boat and general hostility to Muslim people in the community.

So where to next? There are still logistical concerns to be worked out, but I’m thinking that videorenga co-authors might usefully imitate the old surrealist game of exquisite corpse, where each participant sees only the shot or line(s) contributed by the previous participant, except possibly for an over-all project coordinator or instigator. Stay tuned.

Provision

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Fresh snow—
the child fills the trailer
of her toy truck.

*

Packaging the cold ground meat,
my hand turns numb.

*

Netted tight & stacked
by the American Legion,
the unsold firs.

*

A barn cat by the compost
hisses in defense of eggshells.

*

The creek at dusk:
doves crowd in to drink
from the dark water.

*

Christmas Eve, & sleep’s in short supply
as sleet ticks on the windows.

New Year round

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

This is a short renga: each adjacent pair of stanzas can be read as a stand-alone poem.

first sunrise of the year
the orange bellies of the clouds
are blurry with snow

a gray squirrel in estrus trailed
by two slow-motion suitors

in the wind
above the ridge a raven
croaks & somersaults

my first piss of the New Year
I’m especially careful

distant rumble
of a military jet
it’s still the same world

windows rattle with the snoring
of a late-night reveler

I clear the cookies
from my hard drive
avatar’s a question mark now

the grimy washing machine
rocks with a load of laundry

first sunrise of the year
the orange bellies of the clouds
are blurry with snow
__________

See also the New Year Haiku Collaborative Poem Dance at Watermark.