Net Work

A new videopoem. I’m grateful to Marc Neys for composing the original soundtrack (in response to a draft form of the video).

The poem is presented as text-on-screen, in a kind of call-and-response fashion, and was inspired by the footage, which I shot on my aging iPhone this summer. So I hesitate to extract it from that context, but here it is nevertheless for the benefit of those with impaired vision:

Net Work

for Rachel

It is still light where I sit
reading the lines you are touch-
typing in the dark.

The planet’s curves
are always coming between us
her ceaseless spinning
her magnetic field
her core of molten rock.

But it’s the state that says stop
behind arbitrary lines
the border force that says stand still
for security screening
and if you’re poor, stay out.

The earth is always knitting
us together. Her forces
are centripetal and convergent.
Even now she works to mend
each fraying thread.

Book Trailer by Swoon (Marc Neys): The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis

Swoon (aka Marc Neys) is a Belgian video-artist and soundcreator who is, in the words of Dave Bonta, one of the most “prolific and (obviously) fast-moving, …one of the most inventive and interesting artists working in the medium” today. I have so much respect for his work, and also the great good fortune of having Swoon produce a book trailer for my new collection out this week from Phoenicia Publishing, The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-Life Crisis.

I am also eternally grateful to Via Negativa founder and co-blogger Dave Bonta for making possible the connection to Swoon and a host of other creatives all over the world. It’s going on the eighth year of my daily poetry writing practice at Via Negativa— let me just say that when I started, I couldn’t even imagine how many full length collections and chapbooks would come out of it.

Swoon and I have collaborated before on at least 5 other video poems, which are viewable at Moving Poems— including “Foretold,” a poem I wrote in response to a “first draft” of Swoon’s video used as a prompt in the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest; and “Trauermantel” (which he turned into a triptych of video poems to include my 2 other poems “Mortal Ghazal” and “Oir.” 

This is the book trailer that Swoon (Marc Neys) produced. I hope you enjoy it, and that you will follow more of his work and visit his blog. Please also visit Phoenicia Publishing for information on how to order the book.

Ice Mountain now available in music form

It started as a series of poems here on Via Negativa, was turned into a book by my artist-friend Beth Adams at Phoenicia Publishing, and now has been turned into an album by another brilliant artist-friend, Marc Neys. If you’ve been wondering when the summer heat will abate, the answer is: the moment you put on headphones and start listening to Ice Mountain. And if you’ve already purchased a copy of the book, send Marc a photo of yourself holding the book and he’ll email you the download for free.

I’ve posted a mini review on my author site, but I should perhaps emphasize that one of the best things about this, as a poetry + music collection, is that you don’t just have to listen to my voice. Marc also worked in readings by both my parents, Bruce and Marcia Bonta, as well as the young daughter of some friends, and she kind of stole the show in my opinion. So there’s this great multi-vocal, multi-generational dimension.

Speaking of reviews, by the way, the online art and poetry journal Escape Into Life published a wonderful review of Ice Mountain (the book) a few weeks back. Reviewer Kathleen Kirk concluded:

As we laze or doze during the dog days of summer, it’s good to recall that “huge natural refrigerator” [the Allegheny Front] and let it remind us to do what we can do to counter global warming, lest all our windmills become flowers for the dead.

Ice Mountain: the videopoem

Belgian artist and musician Marc Neys A.K.A. Swoon is one of the most original makers of videopoetry (AKA poetry film) in the world, and when he offered to make a book trailer for Ice Mountain, I was thrilled. However, I think you’ll agree that the video he produced is much more than a mere trailer — it’s an original creation in its own right. I supplied most of the footage, but the choice of what to use and how to mix it was all his. He asked me to record a montage of lines and stanzas from the book, which he let me pick, then chose additional lines to display as text-on-screen. The music, which he composed first (and asked me to comment on before finalizing) guided the composition of the video.

Ice Mountain: An Elegy is due out on January 25. If you missed my earlier post, here’s the back-story. And if you’d like a further sample of the contents, I’ve posted a section at (I still feel faintly ridiculous typing that URL!)

The Grave Dug by Beasts: a new videopoem by Swoon

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude


Watch on Vimeo.

The other videopoem that my friend Marc Neys AKA Swoon surprised me with at my birthday party (see yesterday’s post) was this interpretation of a poem I’d written in response to a painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, one of a series of ekphrastic poems I wrote in response to his series of paintings The Temptations of Solitude. (These poems were later collected along with the work of five other poets in a beautiful little anthology called The Book of Ystwyth: Six Poets on the Art of Clive Hicks-Jenkins, and you can watch the videos of our group reading at the 2011 book launch.)

I made my own videopoem with this text back in 2012, and while I wouldn’t call it a failure, I do think it rather pales in comparison to Marc’s. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating how the creative spark originally struck by Clive continues to give rise to new works of art. As Clive himself commented when I shared the video on Facebook last month: “I love the way art begets art begets art begets art. This is hauntingly beautiful.”

Sadly, this is among the last videopoems that Marc plans to make for a while. He told me he’s taking a year off from filmmaking to concentrate on other things—especially his music. Here’s hoping that when he does go back to making poetry films, it will be with new energy and fresh perspectives on the genre. His influence over the international videopoem and poetry film scene so far has been enormous.

For what it’s worth, I’ve added this and the videos I shared yesterday to the Plummer’s Hollow Poet channel on Vimeo, which is probably the best place to browse videos made with my own poems (since I don’t share those at my site Moving Poems).

The conversation continues: two videopoems

This entry is part 29 of 29 in the series Conversari


Back in 2011 and 2012, Rachel Rawlins and I had a public dialogue in poems and photos between this blog and hers. Usually I would write a poem, and she would respond with a photo that commented on the text in some way. We called it Conversari. Recently two new videopoems have extended this exercise in ekphrastic call-and-response.

Back on February 27, the Saturday after my 50th birthday, Rachel and a bunch of other friends surprised me with a videopoetry-themed party in the upstairs room of a nearby pub in London. Our friends Marc Neys and Katrijn Clemer came over from Belgium for the weekend, and Marc—AKA Swoon—acted as VJ at the party with a whole program of videopoems by different masters of the art, including two new ones of his own using texts I’d written. One of them adapted the poem “Hit the Lights” from the Conversari series, with a voiceover contributed by Rachel, which significantly changed how I heard the poem. (I didn’t even recognize it as my own at first, which is always a pleasure.) Marc incorporated some great footage of brown bears, a choice which gains in significance as the film proceeds. It was a terrific videopoem all around, I thought:

Watch on Vimeo.

On my birthday itself, we had gone to the old resort town of Southwold on the East Anglian coast, and were blessed with unseasonably warm and mild weather. We stayed in a grand old hotel associated with Adnams brewery, one of my favorite British brewers. I’ve shared some of my still photos from that trip, but I also shot some video footage, including a couple of great, unscripted moments from Rachel, one in our hotel room and one on the beach. The other day I finally thought of a way to use it, tweaking another poem from the Conversari series (mainly adding a couple of lines to make a better fit with the imagery). Here’s the result:

Watch on Vimeo.

Videohaiku, erasure haiku, and Samuel Pepys

This is one of my favorite gifts of the season: a new poetry film by the one and only Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, that uses five of my erasure haiku derived from the online Diary of Samuel Pepys. (Be sure to hit HD and expand it to full screen.) Marc blogged some process notes:

The visual idea came from a prompt Jutta Pryor left at the ‘Pool’ FB group:

Is anyone interested in a 5-7-5 challenge? Based on the format of a HAIKU, but keeping it fun and experimental, let’s be all-inclusive.
5-7-5 syllable Word sequence or 5-7-5 second Sound sequence or 5-7-5 second Video sequence.

These short poems or haiku Dave created were the perfect match for 5-7-5 second video sequences.
I decided to create 5 short film compositions with the text on screen, applying that 5-7-5 rule.

First I picked out and re-edited a soundscape I made earlier.
After that I started searching for, filming and selecting suitable visuals to combine with the soundtrack and the poems.
Then came the fun part. Combining each line from the poems with suitable footage using that 5-7-5 rule.
Creating a relationship between image, sound, and text. Blending all ingredients in one cut.

I had fun with this one and am very pleased with how these 5 short visual haiku work.

(Read the rest.)

It’s interesting that Marc picked these poems to work with, since they do not follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern (for reasons I’ll get into below). The idea of video haiku as films that in some way imitate or evoke the three-line pattern of most English-language haiku has roots in the mid-20th century experimental poetry films of Maya Deren and others, where the idea was for the film to become a poem, or at least be poem-like — to take lyrical poetry rather narrative fiction or nonfiction as its model. I first became aware of the text-free, 5-second/7-second/5-second sort of video haiku in 2011, when it was the focus of one of Vimeo’s weekend challenges. (They’ve had at least two more since.) And the French videopoets Katia Viscogliosi and Francis M., A.K.A. the Derviches Associés, whom I follow on Vimeo, have recently been making a number of wordless video haiku:

Seeking for poetry with eyes, these are haïkaï written with a camera, made of 3 shots : their length is always a multiple of 5, 7, 5. All you need is a loving eye…

Videohaiku merits a special mention in Tom Konyves’ Videopoetry: A Manifesto, where he defines it as follows:

The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images.

In the acknowledgements, Konyves credits Eric Cassar for its invention.

Jutta Pryor’s challenge to the POOL group, which galvanized Marc, leaves it open to the maker which materials to use—words, sound, or video. As she admited in a comment,

I’m not very knowledgeable about this form at all. I know there are strict parameters with HAIKU. Let’s keep it malleable so that we can explore and have fun.

Which is precisely the right approach to making any kind of art, I think, and sometimes the less one “knows,” the better. I failed to respond to Pryor’s invitation to comment because I am not terribly interested in perpetuating the idea that English haiku should follow a 5-7-5 syllable pattern. For one thing, 17 syllables are a bit too many most of the time; experts say it should be closer to 11. For another, syllable counting in English does not have the power of counting sounds (not quite what we think of as syllables) in Japanese, which is pitch accented. See Imaoka Keiko’s essay “Forms in English Haiku” and the National Haiku Writing Month post “Why ‘No 5-7-5’?” (which also has some links for further reading).

As Imaoka says, though,

5-7-5 English haiku as a derivative of Japanese haiku has its place in the world of poetry, just as 5-7-5 Chinese haiku is another such derivative, seemingly containing about three times as much information as a Japanese haiku.

It’s not what I’m personally interested in writing, but a hell of a lot of great things have been written in this form, even if it is ultimately based on folklore.

I do feel that the custom of arranging English-language haiku into three lines is pretty key to their effect on the reader. An equally important element, all too often neglected by beginners, is the division into two semantic elements of unequal length, usually corresponding to two different images or ideas, which for maximum effect should have some relationship but not too immediately obvious a one. That relationship may rise almost to the level of metaphor, but otherwise metaphor and simile should not be employed in haiku, I think. Traditional seasonal words (kigo) are not important to my practice, nor do I care if there’s any explicit mention of non-human nature; I do not see modern haiku as a wholly contained subset of nature poetry.

The interplay between the semantic division and the arrangement into three lines can have quite a powerful aesthetic effect — and has a lot to do with why I think Marc’s videopoeming of my erasure haiku works so well. The visual rewards of the haiku texts are mirrored and amplified by the tripartite footage, the stillness of the text counterpoised with the motion in each shot. In his essay, Imaoka calls special attention to the two-part division in written haiku:

A close observation of “free-form” English haiku reveals that they are composed of two major segments. The majority of them are divided after the first or the second line and the rest near the middle, and thus they are in accord with the underlying structures of the classic Japanese haiku.

In writing short English haiku, the decision as to where the division falls is based mainly on the dictates of English grammar and the poetic merits of given expressions. To limit short haiku to those that can be fitted into a rigid three-part structure is to severely limit the type of ideas that can be expressed in this style.

And in accordance with this last point, it’s worth noting another approach to videohaiku that I’ve favored in the past: one long shot, stationary or slowly moving, followed by the whole text. The idea with this style of presentation is to try to represent something of the stereotypical process of haiku composition, in which they arise full-blown from a kind of Zen-like, direct seeing. I’m not sure how often it actually happens this way, at least for writers in English, who have so many more grammatical constraints than Japanese haiku poets. But that’s the ideal.

Or one ideal, at any rate. As I’ve discovered with my Pepys erasure project, which has yielded more than 30 haiku so far, that “ah-ha moment” can arise just as easily from the contemplation of a text as from any other sort of meditative seeing. In fact, I find the additional constraints of this project actually help me compose what I’ve always thought of as a very difficult form to get right. (My constraints include such self-imposed rules as: the words of the erasure must be in the same order as in the source text, and words can’t combine letters from different words except in the case of a few, simple compound words such as into.) I am trying to get something poem-like from every single entry in the diary, which includes a number of one-sentence entries. This has really pushed me out of my comfort zone, to use a somewhat well-worn cliche, and has definitely helped me avoid the cardinal sins of beginner haiku: too much wordiness and overly obvious connections between the two parts.

The strange or unexpected word choices that often of necessity crop up in erasure poetry help greatly with defamiliarization, a fundamental attribute of poetic language in haiku as anywhere else. And the connections that happen between thoughts when we stop trying to impose our conscious designs are sometimes quite wonderful. Often in retrospect they seem like the most obvious choices, but it can take me hours to get there.

One of the basic challenges (and rewards) of erasure poetry is deriving something lyrical from something non-lyrical. The “ice” in Mr. Pepys’ office, for example, glitters in many of my erasure poems. For erasure haiku, in particular, it’s fun to work with a text and author so completely urban and way pre-Romantic, from a time when Japan had sealed itself off from the expanding European powers and was thus almost a complete unknown. Yet it was precisely this “world within walls,” as Donald Keene called it, that gave rise to haikai no renga and what we now call haiku. It was lighter in tone than the courtly renga and tanka verse that preceded it, and its primary audience and practitioners came from the newly burgeoning, urban merchant class.

The first haikujin were thus direct, if unknown, contemporaries of Samuel Pepys, came from a similar milieu, and enjoyed fairly equivalent levels of intellectual and aesthetic engagement. It’s easy to imagine Pepys hitting it off with someone like Ihara Saikaku. Instead of tea shops and geisha houses, Pepys hung out in coffee shops and pubs, but as the diary reveals, he was an assiduous student of the music of his day, playing a variety of instruments and singing art songs with friends. He obsessed over the theater, wrote critically of the different sermons he heard at church, and attended the first meetings of the Royal Society. I suppose it’s little more than a coincidence, but this parallel between the lifestyles and interests of Pepys and his Tokugawa contemporaries is something I enjoy thinking about. It makes the discovery/invention of haiku from the vivid language of his diary entries feel almost like a contribution to an alternate history: Pepys as a successor to Marco Polo, wandering the streets of 17th-century Edo.

UPDATE (28 December): Revisiting Cordite‘s “Haikunaut” issue from a few years back, I was struck by this passage in editor David Lanoue’s introduction:

Haiku is a posture, a way of seeing and being, a philosophy of life in which one dedicates one’s self to noticing, not ignoring; to being open, not closed; to discovering, not defining; to inviting meaning onto a page, never imposing it.

This sounds very similar to the posture of an erasure poet.

Filming the filmmaker

Those who enjoyed my photo-essay on Belgium from last summer might be interested in another by-product of that visit which I’ve just gotten around to finishing. Google says it’s not a good idea to re-blog full posts, so I’ll send you to the Moving Poems Forum: “Marc Neys in front of the camera: The Swoon interviews.” Despite my dodgy video and audio recording techniques, I think you’ll be inspired by Marc’s creative ethos. He’s the film-making embodiment of Ezra Pound’s dictum, “Make it new!”

With “Trauermantel,” Swoon completes Luisa Igloria videopoem triptych

Watch on Vimeo

Just up at Swoon’s website and Moving Poems: Trauermantel, the third of three videopoems Marc Neys (Swoon) has made with texts and readings by Via Negativa’s daily poetry blogger extraordinaire, Luisa A. Igloria. He writes:

People who have been following my works a bit, know I have a thing with artworks in a triptych.
When Luisa approached me to make a video for one of the poems in her book “The Saints of Streets“, I was not thinking triptych.
Yet Luisa sent me several recordings and as it happens I liked her poems (and her readings for that matter) a lot. So in the end I made three videopoems (Mortal Ghazal and Oir) and because of her voice and her style these do belong together. To me anyway.

The trauermantel is the same species of butterfly known as mourning cloak in North American and Camberwell beauty in Britain. Luisa’s poem originally appeared here on May 28, 2011, sparked by a post at The Morning Porch:

A mourning cloak butterfly circles the porch and yard three times, going behind my chair, including me in whatever it means to outline.

Marc goes on to say:

I wanted light, colours and an abstract spirit like feel for this one.
Only at the end of the video (after the poem) I come up with a concrete image.
These images are also my first attempt to create something of an animated sequence. The image of the butterfly was made by Katrijn Clemer using the outlines of a real Trauermantel and one of the faces of the video for Oir.

You can watch all the videopoems that have been made with Luisa’s poetry so far at her page on Moving Poems.