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." 


  1. Hmm. My comment seems to have vanished. Testing...

  2. Thanks for the link and the useful perspectives on Konyves' and Cook's manifestos. Personally, I'm less interested in what contemporary masters of the genre think *should* exist than descriptions of what actually *does* exist. The varying terminology in use reflects different cultures' and communities' histories of interaction with these media. For example, as I think I probably say on the Moving Poems About page, one's choice of the term "video" or "film" for digital moving images seems largely dependent on whether one is from North America or the UK. Another example: the term "cinepoetry" (or "cin(e)poetry") is current mainly in North American academic circles — English departments as opposed to film departments — reflecting, I believe, the reach of George Aguilar and the American Poetry Film Festival with their movable feast of VHS cassettes in the 1990s and digital films in the aughts. See

    At any rate, I'd love to see someone attempt some sort of survey of the various kinds of poetry films/videos on YouTube and Vimeo, combined perhaps with surveys of viewers to see how people interact with various kinds of poetry videos. (I'm not saying you should do it. I keep meaning to attempt it myself...) One thing neither of the manifestos dwells on is the difference between watching a film in a theater, watching it in a gallery as part of a loop, and watching it online. The last of these experiences is now primary, it seems to me, at least in terms of the sheer number of people who are exposed to poetry videos that way, and yet both Konyves and Cook still seem to be thinking of screening events as the default or ideal mechanism by which audiences are exposed to the genre(s). Watching videos on the web is especially interesting to me because it is largely a solitary experience, just as book-reading was. As with a book, we can pause and go back, re-"read" the same (video-)poem as often as we like. That's huge in terms of ordinary readers/viewers being able to "get" the more allusive or recherche videopoetry. Then there's the whole social media aspect...

    Well, enough of my rambling. Thanks so much for your thoughtful blogging. Keep it up!