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.

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