Saturday, March 22, 2014

on manifestos and the critical need

It should be noted that Moving Poems, a site devoted to the pursuit of poetry-film since 2009, or more specifically Dave Bonta, the curator of the site, has accumulated a considerably sizeable (given the relative “newness” of the subject) collection of articles, essays, and manifestos, etc. on the topic of poetry-film—which, as he points out, might otherwise be known as “cinepoetry” or “videopoetry.” (See the links section there.) At the time of Moving Poems’ conception, UBU Web had, of course, already been doing its thing of cataloguing every artistic performance and bit of digital ephemera it could get its hands on since 1996, but a number of other poetry-film sites were much more recent: Rabbit Light Movies, spearheaded by Joshua Marie Wilkinson (which evolved into The Volta: Medium in 2011), had been soliciting and making its own poetry films since 2007; and Motion Poems (2008) had just begun; while Film Poem, a poetry-film festival and hosting site headed by Alastair Cook, began in the same year (2008); Short of the Week, a site devoted more broadly to video “stories,” was still in its earliest stages (2007).

Two related documents that appear in the immensely instructive “About” page on Moving Poems, and that seem to be referred to commonly by a number of the proponents of the poetry-film “movement” that I have listed above are Alastair Cook’s self-described “manifesto” “The Filming of Poetry” and Tom Konyves’ "Manifesto," (2011). Konyves is a poet/video-poet currently teaching at the University of Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and purportedly one of the first to work in the genre of poetry-film He is also credited with coining the term “videopoetry” in 1982 to refer to his own work. (Although, as P. Adams Sitney points out in his book Eyes Upside Down, artists like Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and Marie Menken, among others, (some of whom I’ve tried to talk about on this blog) were approaching ideas about poetry and film much earlier. For instance, Mekas is quoted in the ‘60s by Sitney as saying of Menken that her work is among “the very best of our contemporary poetic cinema.”) However, since these two documents seem to serve as placeholders and items of reference for a number of internet-based poetry-film sites and festivals, I think they certainly merit a close reading here.

Konyves begins his Manifesto, intriguingly, by stating the presence of a distinction between terms that I might think of as interchangeable—some of these are “poetry film,” “film poetry,” “poemvideos,” and “poetry videos” (notice my most frequently used term “poetry-film,” with the hyphen, does not appear among these)—though, to my understanding, he does not provide grounds for this distinction in the manifesto, nor does he allude to a previous text which might illuminate his meaning. He defines “videopoetry” in relation to my own two unique “categories” of the genre (which I described in my second post on Laux d’Artifice as existing as two types: (1) those that may not possess textual elements (a poem, per se) but which nonetheless elicit a “poetic response” and (2) those in which the subject of the films seems to be a poem) as encompassing the latter type, by excluding any works that do not supply a text, audible or otherwise, from his definition of the term. Konyves also suggests that the juxtapositions of sound, to text, to image, should remain, as a rule, indirect—that a direct correlation/relationship between these would cause the film to fall into some other category and diminish the poetic quality of the work; he describes the effect of such an indirect relationship, much as I have in my former category, as a “poetic experience,” but does not permit that these types of films should be called “videopoems.”

Konyves also presents the useful term of “poetry haiku,” which he defines as a poetry-film of 30 seconds or less, presented in contrast with the “videopoem”—which, he says, should theoretically not extend past 300 seconds (5 minutes)—and outlines a precise five categories of videopoem, which are potentially overlapping and which are described in the following way:
  • kinetic text:  the animation of text over a neutral background (something perhaps like this “poemflow” by Bruce Covey or possibly the work of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries);
  • sound text: which “presents the text on a soundtrack” (or in which, it seems, the “text” is presented audibly, rather than visually, like in Steve Roggenbuck’s films);
  • visual text: in which text is superimposed over found or recorded images (Kate Greenstreet);
  • performance: the on-screen appearance of the poet, reading the poem (like this); and
  • cin(e)poetry: like the “visual text,” category, except that the visual elements appear to be computer-generated (like the films featured on Motion Poems).
Alastair Cook, as I said, is the founder of Film Poem, based out of Edinburg, Scotland, where he works, according to the bio provided in his “Manifesto,” predominantly with lens-based media. In his text, Cook quotes William Wees, Professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of a number of books on film, as providing a foundational text on the genre—which he refers to as “poetry-film” (with the hyphen)—with his 1984 essay “The Poetry Film.” Like Konyves, he provides some eloquent prose articulating the “poetic response” or experience of the poetry-film through Wees, who says that it is the juxtaposition of film and text that expands upon the specific denotations of words to provide new meanings and “directs our responses towards some concretely communicable experience.” Rather than focusing on providing functional set of parameters for the genre, Cook seems more concerned with describing the merits of creating such works, though he does provide a series of categories:
  • the use of graphic text of a poem, in part or in whole, without any visual movement or film; the literal filming of a text
  • the simple use of the graphic text of the poem, in part or whole, under-laid with visual movement, either animation o[r] natural filmic elements; a visual film of text and audio
  • performance
  • the unabridged reading of a poem by the poet, or another, over a film that attempts to combine the poem with visual and audio elements
While the last two categories unquestionably correlate with the last two of Konyves’, it is unclear whether his first category would encompass works that Konyves calls “kinetic,” since the idea of no visual movement in film is in itself somewhat problematic. Additionally, while Cook, in the course of his essay stresses the importance of the poem’s vocal presence, reminding one of the historic oral tradition of poetry, he does not seem, as Konyves does, to allow for a category that describes the presence of sound and visual elements without a visual representation.

Cook permits one other rather egregious assumption in his essay, namely that the poet and the filmmaker are not one and the same. While the ideas here may serve to address the artistic aims of his site (it seems it is likely his purpose), they do not do much to inform genre as a whole, which is comprised, I would dare to guess, mostly of poets who are also the authors of their films. At the same time, Cook is modest about his claims and points to other figures who are more outspoken about the genre, like Ron Silliman, whom Cook quotes as saying in regards to Billy Collins’ poetry-film The Dead that it is “neither poem nor cartoon threatening enough to break any new ground”—a sentiment the full weight of which seems to be a little lost on Cook.

Indeed Silliman’s blog (which Konyves also refers to in his Manifesto) seems to be a fine resource in regards to films that fall into the realm of the “poetic” (Chris Marker and Samuel Beckett are among these), poetry-related biopics, and some rather pleasantly severe opinions on these and other mediums. This post, from which Cook and Konyves derive their perspective quotes, identifies Konyves’ desire to create a formal set of parameters for the genre in question, and the impediment to this task as its simply overwhelming number of participants. With all these participants (and the number of sites devoted to them), one might think that there would be no shortage of critical analysis of the form. And, yet, here we are.

While Silliman’s criticisms of the works of poetry super-giants like Billy Collins and others are refreshing and entertaining, and while he does seem to acknowledge the legitimacy of a pursuit for the distinction of form, his assessment of the genre of poetry-film is somewhat lacking. For example, he cites Nico Vassilakis as being, for him, a pioneer in the genre, despite the fact that the (admittedly few) films of Vassilakis’ I watched on Youtube present no text at all—neither visual nor spoken. I suppose that since Silliman provides no specific example, we can’t be certain of his opinion of the merits of Vassilakis’ films as models of the genre. Many of them seem to resemble works like Brahkage’s more than any of the films I’ve discussed on my own blog; others seem less notable. Despite his own preference Silliman describes a need for the genre’s “Baudelaire” as he puts it—a poet to embody the form. I would argue that at this point (this post was authored in 2009) we have several—some of whom I have tried to acknowledge in my earlier posts. What we lack is that ongoing, up-to-date, analytical stance (with Konyves as an exception), which seeks to determine the parameters in an effort to uphold the form as a legitimate and distinctive pursuit.

As a bonus, here's a videopoem that serves the dual-purpose of serving as a trailer of my own poet-professor Lara Glenum's Maximum Gaga. "Is it absolutely necessary to make such abominations? It is absolutely necessary to make such abominations." 

Friday, March 7, 2014

DAKOTA, I lived among girls

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries
This week’s post is brought to you firstly by Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, a Seoul-based producer of a substantial collection of text-based poetry-films translated into a number of languages, comprised of the duo Young-Hae Chang and Marc Voge (and brought to my attention by the lovely Lara Glenum). The films on their site consist of the same basic elements: black and white Flash-animated text and music. The animation is not terribly advanced or extreme (the letters are not, for example, dancing off the page, or morphing into landscapes), the tall, bold, sans-serif (Monaco font) words simply appear and transition in time with the music—for the most part. In some of the films, the words might flash to grey, black, or white, or the text might appear in red or other colors, or inside of a box outline, but typically the principals  remain the same: technically nothing terribly advanced appears to be happening in these films; they don’t appear to require a great deal of skill. And yet, they are undeniably dynamic, gripping—their overall aesthetic is completely identifiable; however easily a similar video might be produced, it would unavoidably bear the trademark of YHCHI.

Chang and Voge are of course aware of the relative technical straightforwardness of their achievement, as pointed out in the conversational video “FIRST WORKSHOP EVER” (apparently an instructional video intended specifically for a class of students at Brown in 2008) they seem to challenge the perception that art must be “difficult” or labor-intensive, and stress the point that art (its process, the making of art) should be enjoyed. One might be tempted, as I am, to recall the fact that poetry primarily exists today in, technically, one of the most straightforward formats imaginable: ink on paper. Their work seems to hearken back to the truth that lies before us: the truth of the written word, the power of the word as image. So, why Flash? It would seem that the simplest answer is that it makes use of a new medium, brings the written word like an offering before the throne of the internet. The use of Flash in their videos also helps to determine the unique aesthetic of YHCHI’s work.  It also, as I have said, brings the text to life, makes it dynamic, in a sense “new.” It creates a sense of urgency to the work.

Usually you can’t pause a Flash film (you can never pause YHCHI’s films). You can’t rewind one either. If you’re unable to remain rapt enough in the text to not miss anything for the 4-8 minutes that the videos normally take, your only option is to rewatch the entire video. The strategy here, I suppose, is not to coerce the viewer into rewatching the text over and over (although, certainly I wouldn’t exclude that desire on the filmmakers’ parts). The benefit, I suspect, is the sense of urgency that is created out of the elusivity of the text: the words literally flash before your eyes—there one moment, gone the next—and as much as any text amounts to a narrative of any kind, or to a cohesive “whole,” each of its parts is essential. The tone of the musical score, of course, in conjunction with the speed and rhythm of the animation itself, primarily determine the intensity with which any of their films is watched, and yet, they all, despite these two factors (of music and rhythm) possess the same “ephemeral” quality—ephemeral, and yet, as in “Dakota” in particular, an ephemerality approached with the force of Thor’s hammer—not at all delicate, rather, somehow, in the “heaviness” (“Heavy Industries”) of its type, the matter-of-factness of its black-and-white, the simple largeness of the letters on the screen, definite, static. These films seem at once to introduce and undermind their quality of impermanence.

The “stories” or poems of the films seem to be primarily anecdotal in nature.  Despite being obviously highly choreographed, they seem (sort of like the “text” in Roggenbuck’s films) off-the-cuff, almost unrehearsed, or, as I said before, conversational. They are disseminated impersonal (as they say in their video/“interview” “THE ART OF SLEEP”) to a “ready-made” internet audience, and  yet, in their tone, feel extremely intimate—perhaps, at least in part, due to their collaborative nature. One could imagine, for example, the “text” existing initially in the form of a recorded dialogue between Chang and Voge, and then being transcribed into hypertext. However, as I argue is the case with Roggenbuck’s videos, the “spontanaity” of its tone does not, of course, detract from the artistic quality or merit of the content. In fact, as we see, YHCHI’s films, out of all the contemporary poetry-films I’ve looked at so far on this blog, have received the “highest” critical acclaim, having been shown, for example, in the TATE Modern. In their video “CREDITS” they seem to provide a list that attributes the scores of their various other works to the rightful musicians, but the text is original—in the case of “DAKOTA,” they'vesaid, based on Ezra Pound’s Cantos I and II. But, they also stated, (and this seems to be, for the duo, a particularly relevant point in the context of their apparently very complicated relationship to art) this relationship to a primary text is not essential in appreciating the work.

I lived among girls
Keith Newton

Another poetry-film I want to look at features the poem “I lived amongst girls” by Keith Newton and the song “I Wanna Know Girls” by Portastatic. It was recommended to me by Max Greestreet, who said of it the following: “I don’t mean by ‘placed onto’ that a video existed first, because the person who made this video got the poem from Keith and then shot footage and built it around the song, as a commission job for Merge Records (maybe they reissued a Portastatic record or the company was celebrating an anniversary or something — I was told the story of how this happened, but I’ve forgotten the details.”
This video-poem interests me because, like works of YHCHI above, it did not, it sounds like, necessarily set out to make itself into a poetry-film—it presents itself, probably, to most viewers, as a music video—and yet, I think we can rightly call it one. Two things strike me as being particularly lovely about this video: 1. the attention to space in the film, and 2. the overlap between the lyrics of the song and the words of the poem and how these two separate “texts” interact with one another.
By attention to space, I mean simply the way the film seems to have considered and accounted for, either during some stage or at all stages in its production, the problem of the space of the poem vs. the that of the images. The shot of the airline runway, while being appropriate to the content of the poem (its theme of “leaving” and “returning”), but also works to cut the screen horizontally and provide a sort of “empty” background, in which the poem can reside.  
My second point you get a feeling of by looking at the titles of the two works (the poem and the song): their similarities are obvious and their differences slight. We might say that the poem does some of the work of storytelling that lyrics usually don’t. People do not always agree, although I would argue, that song lyrics are not the same as the words of a poem (in most cases)—that poems and songs do different work. Where a poem relies completely upon itself for all the weight of the emotional pull, lyrics have the instrumental sound to rely upon. In the case of this video, in a way, the music (central to so many of the poetry-films we’ve looked at so far, in setting a tone for poetry works) seems to “carry” both the lyrics and the poem, with the lyrics and the music echoing and reinforcing the words and emotional force of the poem. It’s a balance that could easily have become a kind of unintelligible cacophony, but that instead presents two “texts” at the same time that are so dissimilar in such subtle and compatible ways that they seem to work together. (Another trick is in providing visual backdrops that are interesting without distracting from that interplay.) To demonstrate some of the force that a poem must elicit textually, notice how, while the song goes about its business of being a song (leading into a guitar solo) the poem marches on with lines providing a kind of emotional conclusion to the the deeper, more personal account it has constructed:
There are revolutions among us,
but no names for what’s been overturned.
After the familiar rooms are ransacked,
even the girls look at one another like strangers,
as if they were strangers who we lived among.
How will you know who anyone is
among those blurred figures on the stairs,
vanishing like thieves in the daylight.  

Here, coincidentally, is the blog post of another poet talking about this video.
And, curiously, another one. (This one reports that Phil Morrison made the video.)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Eventually you will be dead but today you are not, the giant

Eventually you will be dead but today you are not, (2013)
Steve Roggenbuck

In following up with the “second” of the two divisions articulated and defined in my last post—“second,” perhaps, because it is, historically, the most recent to develop as an intentional form—I would like to focus on two contemporary video-poem artists who seem to me to be of central importance to the genre. In regards to the “canonization” of poetical forms, I suggest that these two poets—Kate Greenstreet and Steve Roggenbuck—though they are drastically different in approach, have pioneered the genre, as we understand it, of contemporary poetry-film, and set important precedents with their work.
The first of these, Steve Roggenbuck, has also championed the movement alt-lit, which is defined in a number of a ways, stylistically and in terms of content, that I won’t attempt much to summarize here, but which has much to do with “online presence,” online publishing, and internet culture, and, in Roggenbuck’s case, and sometimes others, intentional misspelling, “posi-core,” branding, straight-edge, healthy lifestyles, and veganism. Perhaps to some degree like Greenstreet, he is also known for a kind of “grassroots” approach in cultivating a “poetry-lifestyle” and following: he has traveled extensively in the states by bus and other means, organizing poetry events and gatherings outside (mainly) the realm of academia, appealing primarily to similar young poets and performers.  He has also set a precedent in conducting Spreecast poetry readings for the online public.

This poetry-video, titled “Eventually you will be dead but today you are not,” is a good example of Roggenbuck’s poetry-film aesthetic: a handheld camera is pointed by the poet directly at himself in close-up, often off-centered, partially out-of-frame, walking outdoors, “in nature”; ambient music accompanies the entirety of the film; Roggenbuck speaks directly into the camera; and the film is heavily edited, with short, quick intervals between shots. The overall tone is high-energy, full of impact, intense. In the case of this particular film, shots of the poet speaking into the camera are interlaced with “found” (appropriated) images from popular films and videos (“Independence Day,” “Air Bud,” Rebecca Black’s viral video for “Friday,”) and audio clips of motivational speakers—these images coincide with the poet’s "textual" references to popular culture: “Carlos Mencia,” “The Rock,” “Will Smith,” “Bagel Bites,” etc.

Like most of Roggenbuck’s videos, this one raises a number of questions about its terms. Roggenbuck has published three books/e-books of poetry that themselves push the boundaries of ideas about poetry by making the same sort of moves that we see in this video: by making pop-culture references (Justin Bieber), by using “internet speech,” jokes, and witticisms, and an “internet-y” conversational tone. None of these factors are, alone, groundbreaking, but, together, as we see in the video, they form an end product that somehow breaks from our traditional (or even nontraditional) understanding of poetry. In his videos, the characteristics that define Roggenbuck’s written works are intensified by the fact that Roggenbuck seems to be improvising the lines of the “poems” that he speaks into the camera. Whether or not he does in fact improvise, I don’t know for sure. I suspect (from interviews, blog posts, and the quality of the content) that some time is spent rehearsing or planning the scenes he films. Regardless, the videos seem to challenge collective notions about poetry, as Roggenbuck himself seems to recognize—specifically in his video “am i even a poet anymore?” Explicitly here Roggenbuck seems to raise a number of questions about poetry and literature and to dismiss conventional means of disseminating literature as outdated. He advocates, instead, a broader view of literary activities.

Yet, he still refers to himself as a poet, and is a poet, in the most obvious sense of the word (having published volumes of poetry). Can the poet’s words in “Eventually you will be dead” be considered poetry? Does the film’s seeming spontaneity cause us to resist this terminology—paired with the poet’s own self-imposed, or self-recognized, issues with terms like “poet” and “poetry”? Should it be referred to as a poetry-film? Perhaps, as with Anger’s Eaux d’ Artifice,” we should leave it to the filmmaker to determine the categorization of his films, and respect his hesitancy or intentional decision not to assign labels to his work. Most importantly, with Roggenbuck, we have a poet who seems naturally to understand the extreme malleability of language: that the written and spoken word, that terms and definitions, are inherently fluid and subject to change—a poet who navigates the terrain of language with astonishing caprice.

the giant, (2010)
Kate Greenstreet

Kate Greestreet’s work, on the other hand, provides a much more comfortable entryway into the genre of poetry-film (in my opinion) in its most agreeable form. On her website, she displays these works straightforwardly and unproblematically under the clickable heading “video poems.” The earliest of these, “the giant,” was made in conjunction with her second full-length poetry collection “the last 4 things” and appeared on a DVD enclosed in the inside of its back cover. The film, like Roggenbuck’s films, demonstrates heavy editing techniques: numerous short, quick shots spliced continuously together. The overall effect of the editing, however, the video-poem’s tone, is completely different than that of Roggenbuck's: it is reserved, steady, rhythmic in pace. Unlike Roggenbuck’s film, the poetry is non-diegetic, and, in fact, Greenstreet does not appear visually at all in this film. The visual elements, like Roggenbuck’s, are meticulously arranged, highly aesthetic, and at times refer to their audio components (corn when “corn” is spoken, an image suggesting “windows,” a blown out image or a negative for “flash of light”), while at other times, they do not.

Like many of Greenstreet’s films, the images seem to be comprised of the poet's own amassed footage, and often focus on travel (here, the train, images shot from a moving vehicle), often abstracted through close-up, high contrast, repetition (grates and grids), comparison (split screens), or partial or distorted context (the genius of the toy ship, which at first might seem to be an actual ship, but then is lifted out of its rocky landscape). One can't help comparing many of these quailties to Jem Cohen’s Lost Book Found

It’s notable that in the context of the earliest of the poetry-films featured on The Volta: Medium (a heavily aesthetically-selective publisher of poetry-film), Greenstreet’s was one of the first to utilize a number of the techniques that I have pointed out in "the giant": one of the first to do more than simply portray the poet on-screen reading or reciting poems for the camera in the course of one single, continuous shot; to open up the field to experimentation and a focus on the possibilities of the genre; and, seemingly, one of the first to recognize the poetry-film as (like any other film) being comprised of separate and equal parts. (Of course, we must remember that I am referring to a particular kind of poetry-film here—the distinction between Greenstreet's kind and others—that of Jem Cohen, Kenneth Anger, and others—is made in my second post.) The audio, one may notice, is clear and of good quality—not at all muffled by ambient or diegetic interference. Even Greenstreet’s vocal tone seems attuned: clear, conversational, not loud or quiet, expressive, inflected, one feels, in appropriate places, yet rhythmic, and, in that sense, lyrical.

Contrast once more the overall effect of “the giant” with that of Roggenbuck’s film. Although one might certainly watch “Eventually you will be dead but today you are not” a number of times with enjoyment, its primary concern (arguably, I'm sure) does not seem to be to create a work of art that may be enjoyed purely for its aesthetic qualities. Here its detail and intricacy, rather, seem to serve a different purpose: to facilitate the experience of an initial watching, to envelope and surrender its audience by presenting itself as a positive and fulfilling experience. In Greenstreet’s film, the attentiveness apparent in the visual elements and the sheer curiosity of the spoken words, along with their careful delivery (the sound), create a kind of complexity for the viewer that might be described, at moments in the film, as a battle between sight and sound. The viewer wishes to hear, then to see, then to understand—switching between these active positions of listener, viewer, processor of information, throughout the duration of the almost two minute film. This is the type of video one wants to watch more than once, in order to extract discriminately from its rich and careful composition.

Both, certainly, may be called poetry films, both are highly constructed, both I think achieve their respective purposes, and, yet, as with all similarly attentive works, their effect could hardly be more dissimilar. This is why, to my thinking, these two poets occupy such an important place in the realm of poetry film. They understand the power of film and all its elements and address these issues separately and with their own unique aesthetics.