Posts in Category: Musical settings

Blood Constellations by Malika Ndlovu

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Blood Constellations is a beautifully made example of a poetry dance film, a genre showcased many times over the years at Moving Poems.

Boldly directed by Jim Demuth, based in London and China, the film is part of a broader, multi-disciplinary arts collaboration called Singing My Mother’s Song, which explores family and lineage. The overall director of the project is Bristol-based Rebecca Tantony.

The poet is Durban-born Malika Ndlovu, whose rich and passionate voice rings out in word and song on the soundtrack. It is compellingly danced by Nyaniso Dzedze, also in South Africa.

I was lucky enough to see the film in Athens earlier in December, where it screened at the International Video Poetry Festival.

Cuerpos de Agua (Water Bodies) by Lilián Pallares

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Half videopoem, half music video, this new film from antenablue — director Charles Olsen and poet Lilián Pallares — features Pallares acting and supplying the voiceover together with a musical arrangement of her poem by Nestor Paz and Manuel Madrid from Poesía Necesaria. Be sure to click the closed captioning (CC) icon to access Olsen’s English translation.

The Shrouding of the Duchess of Malfi by John Webster

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Filmmaker Devansh Agarwal and singer-songwriter Sonali Argade collaborated on a music video-like poetry film of John Webster’s 17th-century poem for the Visible Poetry Project. Argade is also the actress. Her musical interpretation appears to be a cover of the 1924 Peter Warlock composition, from his 3 Dirges of Webster, now in the public domain. Here’s a more standard performance by the Baccholian Singers of London:

Khonsay: Poem of Many Tongues by Bob Holman

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I’ve seen a number of innovative poetry films made with the words of multiple poets, but none with as many contributors (48), and few as profound and urgent in their message as this cento compiled and directed by the legendary Bob Holman, with folklorist Steve Zeitlin as producer, editor Lee Eaton and composer Saul Simon Macwilliams. In the Boro language of India, Khonsay (खोनसाइ) means “to pick up something with care as it is scarce or rare,” according to the film’s website.

There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary, but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.
Earl Shorris

Poetry, then, is precisely what is least translatable about a language – it is the ineffable, the things that only a set of words in a particular language can say. Translated into English from many languages, “Khonsay” is an act of audacious and unabashed imagination. It imagines the ecology of languages through a world poem. It seeks to capture the luminous originals in refracted light. The voices of the indigenous speakers draw us in, even if non-speakers do not understand what is being said. Yet what cannot be translated, what we cannot do justice to, is a measure of what is being lost as so many languages disappear.

Though definitions differ, poetry exists in every culture: the crystallization of experience into words, word into art, the engaging patter of consciousness itself. “Khonsay” is a tribute and call to action to support the diversity of the world’s languages. The poem is a “cento,” a collage poem; the name in Latin means “stitched together,” like a quilt — each line of the poem is drawn from a different language, appearing in that language’s alphabet or transliterated from the spoken word, followed by an English translation.

There’s a lot going on in this film, visually and linguistically, and you may find yourself hitting the pause button a lot, but there’s really no need: the website includes both the text of the poem in an easy-to-read format and a line-by-line commentary with information about all the languages and performers. According to the website, Khonsay premiered in New York City at the 2015 Margaret Mead Film Festival and was featured in the biannual Sadho Poetry Film Festival in New Delhi, India, where it won the Viewer’s Choice Award. In February, it was shared by the Button Poetry YouTube channel.

Incidentally, Holman’s documentary about endangered languages, Language Matters, is still streaming for free on PBS (though I imagine only for U.S.-based ISPs). Holman has a long-standing involvement with poetry film, including another public television production, the five-part United States of Poetry series directed by Mark Pellington, which aired in 1996.

New Orleans by Matt Dennison

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This is Have Made It, a 2013 film by Michael Dickes using a text by Matt Dennison. It’s kind of a videopoem-music video hybrid, with Dickes’ music taking central stage half-way through.

Have Made It appears in the most recent issue of Gnarled Oak, an online literary magazine distinguished by, among other things, its willingness to include previously published/uploaded poetry videos. Their next issue is open for submissions through March 31.

Song for Koko by Tommy Becker

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A poetic music video or a musical videopoem? Tommy Becker‘s videos for his Tape Number One project are hard to categorize, which is why I haven’t featured them here as often as I should. They blend “the artist’s poetics, songwriting, performance, costuming with found footage and computer design,” according to the statement on his website.

“Song for Koko” is from 2015. The accompanying text on Vimeo reads:

An elephant escapes from the circus and begins a rampage down a city street. His trunk tosses aside everything in his path. We cheer for him. Why? A man sits on an alligator and attempts to tie his mouth shut. The alligator contorts his body, throwing the man off before turning to bite. We are unsympathetic. Why? We take our children to the zoo to look at the monkeys. The children complain about their inactivity and we feel a sense of betrayal as we admit to ourselves that our observations are a fraud. What’s important in these situations of conflict and captivity is that we are seeing animals as equals. They are no longer the lesser species. A life force is being held against its will or once again running wild through the streets. The moment the lion lunges at the tamer we understand his motives. We relate viscerally to his oppression as we connect to the soul of its being.

Subterranean Homesick Blues by Bob Dylan

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This clip from D. A. Pennebaker‘s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back remains an innovative, proto music video. Poetry-film expert Alice Lyons included it in her list of “Ten Films to Look at When You Want to Think About Poetry and Film.”