Posts in Category: Interviews

Juan Felipe Herrera’s winding path to poetry + Five Directions to My House

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Following last week’s announcement that Juan Felipe Herrera would be the next U.S. Poet Laureate, PBS NewsHour sent their arts correspondent to Fresno and produced this pair of videos.

Juan Felipe Herrera is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, novels for young adults and collections for children, most recently “Portraits of Hispanic American Heroes.” He is the son of migrant workers from Mexico, and today he becomes the first Latino to serve as poet laureate of the United States. Jeffrey Brown travels to the poet’s home in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

In the Air by Kate Sweeney

A unique poetry film: a hand-drawn animation of poets’ hands from interview snippets that can also be seen as a remix videopoem. Kate Sweeney explains in the Vimeo description:

Created from short elliptical sequences taken from archived interviews with four Bloodaxe poets. I wanted to isolate the gestures used when explaining the poetic, the abstract thoughts they couldn’t express in words alone. Gesture is communication that is also a kind of drawing in the air.

C.K Williams, in his interview with Ahren Warner, muses that “In a sense the final version of any work of art pretends to be an improvisation; even a painting. First the painter puts down the ground on the canvas or the wood then he puts down another layer of something then he begins to put the blocks in and then the last layer, little brush strokes, that look like improvisation”. The archive offers a window through to all those described layers. It tracks the process of producing a poem, a book and in a way, a poet. Inspired by my research in the archive, the animation includes the smudges, rips, mistakes and corrections, of the paper it was drawn on, revealing and incorporating the process into the final version.

Burning House by Jovan Mays and Theo Wilson

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Amid racial tensions in communities such as Ferguson, Missouri, and following the unwarranted deaths of young black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, two slam poets confront what it means to be black men in America and in their communities. Theo Wilson, once a victim of police brutality, delves into his internal struggle of dealing with the past encounter, remembering how powerless he felt in the face of his oppressor, and his ensuing resolve to change the rules of the game. Beneath the smoldering anger and aftermath of police violence is a growing disquietude toward the future of race relations. Jovan Mays, the poet laureate of Aurora, Colorado, uses his spoken word to express the turmoil of emotions and experiences inherently attached to growing up a black boy in America.
(Vimeo description)

These two related poetry films are by Mary I. Stevens, an associate producer of digital video at CNBC. They deserve to be seen widely in the wake of yet another grotesque miscarriage of justice in the racist police state that the United States has become. Those of us who have the luxury of merely wallowing in outrage and not fearing for our lives (yet), simply because we happen to have been born with white skin, need to hear the testimony of the victims of police violence and humiliation, and ask ourselves whether our anxious calls for peaceful protest aren’t motivated more out of a desire to sweep unpleasant realities under the rug rather than to actually confront the glaring inequities in our society.

Jovan Mays and Theo E. J. Wilson, A.K.A. Lucifury, are members of the Slam Nuba team, who won the National Poetry Slam in 2011. The first film, an artful blend of interview and poetry, contains a few excerpts from the performance of “Burning House” featured in the second film, but devotes much more space to a poem recited by Mays, “To the Black Boys.” The song “Look Down Lord,” included in both films, is performed by Dee Galloway.

Meet John Ashbery

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John Ashbery probably needs no introduction to fans of contemporary American poetry — or does he? Has his very eminence led many to ignore him in favor of younger, more fashionable poets? Williams Cole and Lily Henderson of Open Road Integrated Media, Inc. made this brief, highly watchable film portrait to celebrate the release of 17 books of his poetry in ebook form. The New York Times took note.

When John Ashbery, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, first learned that the digital editions of his poetry looked nothing like the print version, he was stunned. There were no line breaks, and the stanzas had been jammed together into a block of text that looked like prose. The careful architecture of his poems had been leveled.

He complained to his publisher, Ecco, and those four e-books were immediately withdrawn.

That was three years ago, and digital publishing has evolved a lot since then. Publishers can now create e-books that better preserve a poet’s meticulous formatting. So when Open Road Media, a digital publishing company, approached Mr. Ashbery about creating electronic versions of his books, he decided to give it another chance.

Last week, Open Road published 17 digital collections of Mr. Ashbery’s work, the first time the bulk of his poetry will be available in e-book form. This time, he hasn’t asked for a recall.

“It’s very faithful to the original formatting,” said Mr. Ashbery, 87, who is widely recognized as one of the country’s greatest living poets.

The article goes on to examine the current state of poetry ebook publishing — in particular, how publishers are handling the formatting. This is, incidentally, something I’ve long been interested in myself. Basically, as the article says, two different approaches have evolved: stick to PDFs or other static files to preserve text arrangement (which of course forces people on mobile devices to do a lot of scrolling), or hand-code every line so they collapse into hanging indents on smaller screens, following the printers’ convention of displaying lines too long for a page. This latter approach, thankfully, was the one Open Road chose.

The poetry of Mr. Ashbery, who often writes in long, Walt Whitmanesque lines and uses complex indentations, was difficult to digitize. “Many of my poems have lines that are very long, and it’s important to me that they be accurately reproduced on the page,” he said. “The impact of a poem very often comes down to line breaks, which publishers of poetry often don’t seem to find as important as the people who write the poems.”

After his first misadventure, Mr. Ashbery was reluctant to sell his e-book rights again. But then two years ago, his literary agent met with Jane Friedman, Open Road’s chief executive, who was interested in publishing digital versions of Mr. Ashbery’s work. She assured Mr. Ashbery and his agent that the e-book formatting would preserve his lines.

After a courtship that stretched on for about a year, Mr. Ashbery agreed to sign over digital rights for 17 collections.

The e-books took several months to produce. First his poems were scanned, digitized and carefully proofread. Then Open Road sent the files to eBook Architects, an e-book development company in Austin, Tex. There, the text was hand-coded and marked up semantically, so that the formal elements were tagged as lines, stanzas or deliberate indentations. When a line runs over because the screen is too small or the font is too big, it is indented on the line below — a convention that’s been observed in print for centuries. The technology is still far from perfect. Mr. Ashbery’s poems retain their shape better on the larger screen of the iPad, and are squeezed, with more lines spilling over, on a Kindle or an iPhone.

Poetry scholars say such minor discrepancies are a small price to pay to ensure Mr. Ashbery’s legacy in the digital age.

“John Ashbery is our T. S. Eliot, our Gertrude Stein,” said Robert Polito, president of the Poetry Foundation. “It’s vital that his work be authoritatively available in as many different formats as possible.”

Line by Line, E-Books Turn Poet-Friendly” by Alexandra Alter

As for the filmmakers here, it’s worth noting that Lily Henderson was recently named one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” by Filmmaker Magazine.

Ode to Gray by Sherman Alexie

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A charming poem followed by a brief discussion with Bill Moyers from American public television. I post this not only because I like Sherman Alexie, but because I love the color gray.

To Do Wid Me (trailer) by Benjamin Zephaniah

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As a fan primarily of mainstream, “page” poetry I don’t necessarily seek out spoken-word poetry, but I am enlivened and inspired by poets like Benjamin Zephaniah — not that there are too many other poets like him. Just as certain avant-garde poets challenge us to take language more seriously and to invent a new universe for every poem, brilliant performance poets like Zephaniah remind us that poetry is first and foremost an oral, embodied medium. Zephaniah’s example challenges us to take living more seriously, and to question whether our words and actions and politics are truly aligned as they should be. And needless to say, for a type of poetry that so emphasizes the physicality of language, film/video is the ideal medium.

Bloodaxe Books were kind enough to send me a review copy of the DVD-book for which this is the trailer, and I loved it. I’d already known from watching her films on Vimeo that Pamela Robertson-Pearce is a good director who knows how to get out of the way and let the poems and the poet speak for themselves, and this talent is very much on display here. I watched the DVD in two long sittings and was entranced. The readings and interviews are artfully blended, with earlier sequences anticipating later explanations by the poet. For example, a series of delightful readings for, and exchanges with, schoolchildren were filmed in what turns out to be the Keats House next to Hampstead Heath, which prepares the viewer not only to hear about the poet’s own childhood and difficult time at school, but also eventually to hear how and why he came to love Keats, Shelley and Byron despite his original aversion to dead white male poets. And footage of Zephaniah in a track suit practicing taiqi in his yard is first used as a backdrop for several segments, arousing one’s curiosity — eventually satisfied — about his exercise and martial arts regime and its influence on him as a performance poet and musician.

The footage of various readings before live audiences varies in quality (the sound is slightly muffled in a couple of them), but one thing I really appreciated was that the director did not attempt to jazz things up by jumping frenetically between two or more different perspectives, as so many slick poetry filmmakers like to do. I generally find that distracting, and with a performer as expressive as Zephaniah, there’s no need to add any more kinesis!

The film is playful and serious by turns, just as Zephaniah’s poems are, and gave me a lot to think about, especially on the role of performance in poetry, the social responsibility of artists, and the various ways in which oral and literary traditions intersect. My favorite interview sections were actually those with the poet’s mother, Valerie Wright, clearly the single biggest influence on his life, who sat beside him on a couch and helped answer questions about his upbringing and the family traits and customs that helped to produce a poet. I should add that all the poems are presented in full, and the film also incorporates a highly entertaining music video by his rap-reggae group, The Beta Brothers (with four more videos included as bonus tracks). Neil Astley’s Foreword in the book offers a more comprehensive biography than any I’ve seen online, and people who already own some or all of Zephaniah’s earlier books with Bloodaxe and Penguin will want this one, too, since it includes different versions of many poems, updated to reflect how they have evolved as he continues to perform them on stage.

The DVD is in PAL format, which means it won’t play on most North American DVD players, but should play just fine on most computers (as it did on my laptop). As the note about this on the last page of the book says, “In an ideal world we’d produce our DVD-book with DVDs in either format and give overseas readers the choice, but unfortunately that would be much too costly.” Check out the publisher’s detailed description at Vimeo or on the Bloodaxe website. Let me close with Zephaniah’s own description at his blog:

Yes, that’s right, I’ve got a new DVD and book out. It’s a kind of Zephaniah on the road jam, and it features my mum and my nephew, Zayn. He’s a good boy, but he can’t play football as good as me. The DVD has live performances of some previously published and unpublished poems, with interviews and lots of messing around by me. What I really love about it is the mix of my children’s poetry, my work for adults, and my music, which most publishers usually like to keep separate. Publisher, writer, and all round good guy Neil Astley has written an introduction for it, and Pamela Robertson-Pearce did the filming. We’ve tried to do something which stands up as both entertaining and educational, so it could be used in schools and other funky places. I’m pleased with it.

The Confession: poetry and conversation with Yehia Jaber

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Lebanese poet Yehia Jaber discusses his beliefs about war and peace, God and poetry, and recites one example of his work in Arabic (with English in subtitles). The British/Iranian filmmaker Roxana Vilk got help from Maryam Ghorbankarimi (editing) and Pete Vilk (music and sound design).

Yehia Jaber is also a visual poet — see Everitte.org for a beautiful and easily comprehensible example of vispo/concrete poetry in Arabic calligraphy.