No one straddles the line between music and poetry better than British spoken-word superstar Kate Tempest (website, Wikipedia page). Here’s a live performance in the studios of Seattle’s KEXP radio station of the closing tracks from Tempest’s 2016 album Let Them Eat Chaos. The video was edited by Justin Wilmore for KEXP’s popular YouTube channel.
Tempest’s band members are Kwake Bass on drums, Dan Carey on synths and Clare Uchima on keyboards. I wanted to contrast her extremely passionate and intense performance style, which is more than enough to carry a video, with the following film interpretation of “Tunnel Vision” on Tempest’s own channel:
London-based director Akinola Davies Jr (bio here) told mxdwn Music that it was “an honour to collaborate with an artist like Kate and be entrusted to make visuals that we both think best reflect and fit with the body of work she has created. She is an exceptional artist and the positivity of her team has been inspiring.” For the full credits (which are extensive: a reminder that professional music videos are typically made on a much higher budget than poetry films!) see the YouTube description. The video also appears on Davies’ Vimeo page.
This is from a new YouTube channel of poetry videos from something called The Adrian Brinkerhoff Poetry Foundation, which “aims to expand access to poetry and educational poetry materials, gathering outstanding poems from across places, eras, and traditions for audiences worldwide to enjoy.” Thompson has directed all of the films so far, and they all feature either the poet or other readers reciting and, as it were, inhabiting the poems. The films were produced in association with the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center and Poet in the City, London, so there’s a good, transatlantic mix of poets.
I imagine the project was already planned before the pandemic hit, but it’s a great model for others who want to produce these kind of performance videos, especially for poetry that isn’t necessarily performance poetry, and therefore may be more writerly and difficult to convey in one reading. I’ve watched almost all the videos in their “Read by” series, which are exclusively voiced by the authors themselves, and didn’t see any that were marred by the sort of boring recitations or “poetry voice” that are often the norm in live readings — and mar all too many poetry channels of this kind. I don’t know how much of that is down to the care that producers have taken in choosing whom to film, or whether poets may have received coaching from voice actors. (I can tell you from long experience of mostly unsatisfactory performances myself that reciting poetry well is not easy!)
The channel also includes a shorter series, Words We Share, “a limited series for spring 2020, in which poets and actors at home share poems of solace and resilience and thoughts on creative practice during unprecedented times.” Here’s Camille Rankine’s contribution to that series:
The poetry film garden was made during April 2020 which was the beginning of the Corona virus lockdown in the UK. This meant that the production process was a bit different to how I would expect to work in normal times.
Caleb and I had discussed making a film towards the end of March and when lockdown happened, we suddenly had time to start a project. Using the internet we were able to work remotely and to collaborate using email, Zoom and the telephone.
As the poem is set in a garden we did not need to go out to get footage, so we could work and maintain the lockdown rules.
For me the main challenges were learning to use my DSLR camera to shoot movie footage and finding visual equivalences to the images in the poem. Household objects, from feather dusters, plastic tubing and dental floss, were pressed into service.
In discussions with Caleb the blurring of boundaries between the human body and nature became a theme that influenced how I approached the edit. Layering of images, keying and masks are central to the look of this film.
Hard to believe this is Marius’ first poetry film! But he’s worked in TV postproduction for decades, and says this was “a bit of a kid in a sweet shop experience.” Go read the rest of his remarks — and check out more of Poetry Film Live while you’re there.
“The Dream” was featured on PBS NewsHour in 2016, and Doshi talked about how she came to write the text.
In 2008 she was commissioned to write a series of poems about migration and movement. One of them, “The Dream,” is directly based on her impressions when she first moved to North Carolina.
“I loved that there were all these houses that had front porches and there were no gates. The houses themselves seemed so welcoming. Unlike India, there were no gates around the American houses— they were all just so open. In India there is a boundary around everything.”
But the poem is also about what immigrants do to create a sense of home in a new place.
“You want to hold onto something old, but you want to create something new. You want to make the new place feel like home, even though you’re not in your home. There’s a constant tension between the past and the present.”
While this background is certainly interesting, I wish they’d acknowledged in the discussion how the film suggests other interpretations as well. (And it’s a tribute to the poet that her text has this quality of openness.) I’m not sure why I didn’t share the film back when it first came out, but to me it really speaks to our present moment of pandemic gardening and surveillance-state oppression. As someone who dabbles in ecopoetry myself, I’m fascinated by what might be called postmodern pastoralism, which is totally not a phrase I just made up (thanks, Google!) so this week that’s what we’ll be looking at: how videopoets and poetry filmmakers imagine nature and the pastoral in a world of accelerating ecological impoverishment and deprivation.
Marie Craven’s most recent poetry film is a collaboration with the Spanish director Eduardo Yagüe and the London-based poet and translator Jean Morris. I’d been waiting to share it until Marie blogged process notes, which incorporate comments from Jean and Eduardo. The resulting post is too long to quote in full, but here’s a bit of it:
I was immediately drawn to the poem of Metamorphosis when it came up on one of my social media news-feeds, where I regularly read contemporary poetry from around the world. UK writer and translator, Jean Morris, was its author. The piece was inspired by a famous woodcut print by M.C. Escher, Metamorphosis II (1939-40). Jean’s viewing of the art work seemed to have suggested in her a vision of someone who might be similar to Escher himself, a character who perhaps the poet could relate to personally, as could I. The piece sketches a solitary character fascinated by life’s multiple and varying repetitions, of shapes and spaces, movement and time. It has a mirror structure, which I felt apt as a reference to the highly distinctive geometries that appear in Escher’s art.
In another part of the virtual globe, I had been in contact for several years with Spanish film director, Eduardo Yagüe. We had previously talked about a possible collaboration between us. So in 2019 I contacted Eduardo with Jean’s poem and asked if he might be interested in co-directing a film of it. We then contacted Jean, who agreed to a film of her poem. I suggested Rachel Rawlins as a possible voice artist and we were all pleased when she said yes to joining the project as well. […]
Jean Morris (writer):
I’ve always been a loner and not so great at working with others, so having my words become part of this rich collaborative work is a new and rewarding experience. An earlier version of my “mirror poem”, which tried to reflect the morphing mirror structure of Escher’s artwork, appeared on the Via Negativa poetry blog, long established as a beacon of the Creative Commons ethos, which I support, so I was happy to say yes to Marie’s proposal and keen to leave it to her and to Eduardo to make of the poem whatever they wanted. I’d long admired both their, very different, work in poetry film and trusted they’d make something beautiful, technically sophisticated and interesting. It also made me happy that the actor, Pedro, was someone I knew as a poet and the voice, Rachel’s, one long known in real life here in London. What a lovely, complex, international thing in sad and claustrophobic times.
Eduardo Yagüe (direction, videography):
When I was thinking on locations for filming, nothing seemed to me more ‘escherian’ than the Colegio de la Inmaculada in Gijón, my hometown in Northern Spain and where I am currently living. Belonging to the Jesuits, the building owns a long history including some dramatic episodes during the Spanish Civil War. I studied there from age 6 to 18.
Then, when I was thinking for potential actors for the video, I decided, looking at Escher’s portrait, that Pedro Luis Menéndez would be a perfect choice. Pedro was my Literature teacher and my first theater director when I was a teenager student at the Colegio, and now he’s become one of my favorite Spanish poets. One year before recording Metamorphosis I made a video called La vida menguante (Waning Life) based on several of the poems from Pedro’s book of the same title. I also recorded some footage of the streets and buildings of Gijón, a city sometimes aesthetically annoying but very ‘escherian’ too. […]
I hope this week’s focus on Marie Craven has brought into sharper relief the variety of tools and approaches available to contemporary videopoets and poetry filmmakers. As a much more impatient and slap-dash video maker, I admire Marie’s perfectionism, to say nothing of her artist’s eye and musician’s ear and her openness to collaborations of all kinds.
We may do other week-long features on filmmakers or poets in the coming months. It’s always especially helpful when people take the time to write in detail about the making of their films, as Marie does. Though most projects aren’t as wildly collaborative as Metamorphosis, even the loners among us stand to benefit from a culture of sharing tips and insights, especially with a growing community as full of artistic ferment as the international videopoetry scene.
This is the final film version of The Love of the Sun, from five poems out of Matt Hetherington’s poetry collection of the same name. The video had its first presentation as a live audiovisual performance at the Ó Bhéal Winter Warmer Poetry Festival in Cork, Ireland in late November 2019. Thanks to festival director, Paul Casey, and the Arts Council of Ireland, I was able to be there in person. I traveled from Australia with Adelaide actor, Claudia La Rose-Bell, also a guest of the festival. Claudia gave a live reading of three of Matt’s poems in rhythm with the images on the screen, and with a pre-recorded music soundtrack by Steve Kelly (aka Douglas Deep, Manfred Hamil). This included Matt’s voice speaking two of his poems. After the brilliant festival in Cork, Claudia and I then traveled to other places in Europe. We presented The Love of the Sun live again, at the video poetry festival in Athens. Directing live audiovisual performance was a first for me. Happily, it went smoothly and was well received.
We can’t plan a party for the apocalypse
because friends of the apocalypse know
the apocalypse always shows up
uninvited and with a bag of half-eaten chips.
A film Marie Craven made for a poem by Seattle-based poet Kelli Russell Agodon for the 2019 series of Visible Poetry Project films. Glass journal, where the text originally appeared, included a process note from Kelli:
This poem was written on a poetry date with Susan Rich. I’m not sure what prompted the poem, but I was thinking about loss and death (as one normally does on a Friday) and this poem came from that moment. As someone who carries not only a saint in her pocket, but also anxiety too, I’ve found one of the easiest ways to lose my midnight fears is by knowing sometimes I just need to stand outside on my deck at 2 in the morning to feel secure.
And here are Marie’s process notes from her blog:
In 2017, I followed a series of videos appearing during the month of April, also known as National Poetry Month in the USA, a celebration that is global in various forms as well. These interesting pieces were being published daily by the Visible Poetry Project, based in New York. In mid-2018, I happened to see a call for film-maker submissions for the 2019 VPP series. I sent my application that same night. A few months later, I was delighted to have been selected as one of 30 film-makers from around the world to participate in this year’s series. The process firstly involved reading a series of poems from 60 writers, and returning a shortlist of three poets I might like to work with. VPP soon announced that I was to collaborate with my top choice, the well-known US poet, Kelli Russell Agodon. Kelli and I then started communicating directly, and she sent me a larger collection of poems, three of which I felt drawn to adapt to the screen. I vacillated between two of them for a little while, until Kelli suggested I ‘go with my gut’. At this point I knew the poem of choice would be I Don’t Own Anxiety, But I Borrow it Regularly (eventually shortened to I Don’t Own Anxiety for the film adaptation). I straight-away knew who I would most like to ask to voice the poem, and so I contacted poet and film-maker, Cindy St. Onge, with whom I’ve been fortunate to have prior collaborations. Cindy’s readings of the poem were recorded by Eric Sorenson, both of them in Portland, Oregon. Eric had quickly responded to my call-out on social media for a technician in that city to assist with recording Cindy’s voice. As always, Cindy’s readings of the poem were sensitive, articulate and well-modulated – a joy to receive and work with them. VPP allocated a producer to our project, Alina Sodano, who monitored progress through a series of rolling deadlines leading towards the film’s release date in April 2019. Alina was instrumental in securing the music I most wished for our film, a piece entitled Blames and Revelations, by Matt Howes & Dan Slatter, licensed for our project via Premium Beat. Footage for the film was sourced from royalty-free subscription site, Videoblocks, including work from their contributors, Vadim Key (Belarus), WeAre (Ukraine), ProStock (Slovenia), Oles Ishchuk (Ukraine), glowonconcept (Thailand), and Sergey Gribanov (Russia). Editing is my primary area of interest and pleasure in film-making, which accounts in large measure for my easy embrace of ‘found media’, such as may be sourced on licences like royalty-free, creative commons, copyleft, and public domain. Sourcing media in this way gives me legal permission to adapt, remix and re-create it in my non-commercial videos, each fragment given new life in the new contexts I create. As with Half Measures, written up earlier in this blog piece, the editing challenge for I Don’t Own Anxiety was bringing together the diverse written, vocal, musical and visual elements, to create a film that, in its final form, felt organic and whole. Our film was released on 28 April and will continue to be distributed now with the other films in the 2019 series by the Visible Poetry Project.