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!”

My experiment with “videopoetry karaoke”

I have an essay up at Voice Alpha, “Reading poetry with video: some first impressions.” Inspired by a terrific live videopoetry performance I saw this past August at the Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar, Scotland, I wanted to try and do something similar: what I call, for lack of a better term, videopoem karaoke. I finally had a chance on Wednesday, and it seemed to go pretty well. Photos and a full report at the link.

Why poets need experimental filmmakers

Peter Wullen:

Poets are egotistical and selfish creatures. They don’t like others to play with their words. But in these videopoems the ego is finally abolished. The words stay visible and primary but somehow they disappear inside the videopoem. The viewer or reader has to look very carefully to find them. The meaning of the videopoem is the perfect integration of word, sound and image.

Do poetry videos reach larger audiences than poems on the page?

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

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.

Videopoem contest

In case you missed the announcement earlier in the week, Moving Poems is sponsoring a videopoem contest.

In order to showcase and celebrate diverse approaches to making videopoems and poetry-films, I thought it would be fun to have a contest where everyone would use the same poem in its entirety, either in the soundtrack or as text (or both). Please join us! Post the results to YouTube or Vimeo and either email me the link (bontasaurus[at]yahoo[dot]com) or put it in a comment below, no later than April 15. I’ll post the winners to the main site.

Stop by and check out the poem we’re using —“Fable,” by Howie Good — read the rest of the guidelines, and explore a new page of helpful links for videopoetry makers, including sources for free and Creative Commons-licensed film and video, spoken word, sounds and music. So even if you don’t own a video camera, you can still made videopoems (though they do have to be actual films/videos, not successions of still images with a soundtrack).

The good news is there’s no entry fee. The bad news is there’s no prize. But Also, Howie has volunteered to help judge the contest and give copies of his chapbooks to the winners. (See comments.) It’s probably worth noting that his scholarly books include include several studies of film and culture. I’ve revised the last paragraph of the announcement accordingly. It now reads:

You can enter as many times as you like. From all the entries, we’ll select an indeterminate number of finalists to feature on the main site. Howie has offered to give copies of his books Rumble Strip, Anomalies, and Disaster Mode to his top three favorites, with the first place winner getting all three, second place the first two, and third place getting the last. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

Do consider taking part. The deadline is April 15.

Link roundup: Tenrecs, monostiches, kale and other wonders

The New York Times:When Democracy Weakens
Bob Herbert wishes Americans would take a cue from the Egyptians.

NPR: “An Immigrant’s Quest For Identity In The ‘Open City’
I have been reading the glowing reviews for Teju Cole’s new novel with great pleasure, but it was especially fun to hear this interview come on the radio while I was kneading bread this morning. I was all like, “Hey, I know that guy! I’ve published his stuff at Via Negativa and qarrtsiluni!” So good to see a member of the old blog neighborhood make it big.

Grant Hackett: Monostich Poet blog
I don’t link Grant’s poems in the Smorgasblog because they’re too short to excerpt — a monostich is a one-line poem and he excels at them. I don’t know anyone who packs more mystery and suggestiveness into such a small space. He used to blog at Falling Off the Mountain, but took that site offline late last year. On the new site, he seems to post at the rate of about one or two poems a day.

Moving Poems forum: “What comes first, the video or the poem?
Check out the variety of responses to my question from videopoets at all skill levels. I am going to have to remember to throw out questions to the community like this more often.

Voice Alpha:To read or to recite? Dramatic versus Epic
Dick Jones — poet, musician and retired drama teacher — wades into the debate about how best to present one’s poems to a crowd. Surprisingly, perhaps, given his background, he comes down rather decisively on the side of reading.

Call for Submissions: Festival of the Trees 57 with Rebecca in the Woods
Rebecca is one of the best young naturalist-bloggers out there, so we are very lucky to have her as host of the next Festival of the Trees.

Linebreak: “To Failure:” by Christopher Ankney
My first reading for Linebreak, a magazine I admire. Don’t know the poet from Adam, but I know the subject all too well! It was fun to learn the poem this way, over a series of half a dozen takes, even if I was a bit too tired to give it as good a reading as it deserves.

BBC Earth News: “Madagascar’s elusive shell-squatting spider filmed
Speaking of failure, check out the first spider in this clip from the redoubtable David Attenborough & co. (a win for photography and evolution). Then there’s…
Bizarre mammals filmed calling using their quills
Tenrecs! Stridulating!

(Watch on YouTube)
In a rare trip off the mountain, a chance remark at the coffee shop led me to discover that I was surrounded by fellow kale afficionados, and one of them later sent me the link to this video. What used to be an obscure vegetable back when we started growing it in the garden in the early 70s has now apparently achieved cult status. Who’d have thunk it?