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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Thinking about how the entirely preventable tragedies of the so-called War on Terror unfolded after September 11, 2001, and agonizing about what we might’ve done to stop it, language breaks down. From poet Andrea Assaf and the Art2Action theater group, including video artist Pramila Vasudevan, “Eleven Reflections on September” is
a poetry/spoken word, multimedia performance on Arab American experience, Wars on/of Terror, and “the constant, quiet rain of death amidst beauty” that each autumn brings in a post-9/11 world. This production is based on the series of poems Andrea Assaf has been writing since 2001, spanning the fall of the towers, the on-going wars, and the current revolutions and conflicts sweeping through the Arab world. Aesthetically, the poems explore the disintegration of language in the face of violence, prejudice, and unspeakable horror; as such, they progress from lyrical to abstract and broken. The annual witnessing of autumn leaves becomes a metaphor for the fallen–soldiers and civilians … This multi-disciplinary project includes performances with interactive media design and live music; community dialogues; visual arts exhibits; open mics, panels and opportunities for action through partnerships with Iraq Veterans Against the War and other peace organizations.
The Vimeo description for this video reads:
An excerpt from “Eleven Reflections on September” by Andrea Assaf
Poem # 11: Judgment
Post-script 1: Traveling
Video Art by Pramila Vasudevan.
Sound Design for “Judgment” by Owen Henry & Keegan Fraley.
Choreographic Assignment: Raise me from the dead. From the metaphorical underworld to the heavens. Once you have lifted my body-spirit from the ground, help me travel to the afterlife. Travel with me, and send me on my way.
Cue: After the poem “Judgment” ends (repeating “just stop” 3x), the Daf pulses three times, followed by a chapreez — and the ritual to raise the dead begins. It will continue through the end of “Traveling”.
Movement during the re-mixed/voiceover section of “Judgment”: I am responding to the fragmented, falling, exploding words with my body — torso, arms and head only, while kneeling on the ground. This section is my descent into the underworld, so to speak — or simply my disintegration, from which you will raise/remake me…
A note on “Traveling” — This poem is an English translation of Mohamed Bouazi’s suicide note to his mother, posted on his Facebook page. Tarek al-Tayyib Muhammad ibn Bouazizi, a 26-year old Tunisian fruit vendor who quit high school to work and support his mother and sisters, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, after his wares were confiscated … A fire that sparked the revolution now known as “The Arab Spring”. His last note is pure poetry, his final act pure protest. The poem, by Andrea Assaf, was published by Mizna in the Spring 2012 issue on “Literature in Revolution.”
Visit the Eleven Reflections on September channel on Vimeo to watch other excerpts from the piece, including live performance videos.
This is the fourth of a five-part audiovisual composition by Ecuadorian musician, composer and poet Paola Proaño for an MMus thesis at the Berklee College of Music, “An Audiovisual Approach to sollozo por pedro jara (1978) by Efraín Jara Idrovo.” Watch all five parts in order on her website, which also includes background on the poem and her composition:
Efraín Jara Idrovo (Cuenca, EC, 1926) finished this work in 1978. He wrote it for his son Pedro Jara after his suicide in 1974 at age 16. This is one of the most expressive poems I discovered thanks to an admired professor in April 2014.
Jara Idrovo’s approach to structure, rhythm and sound in this piece is unique. This work is divided into five series and each series consists of three parts. Inspired by its musicality/resemblance to musical compositional approaches, I started working in November 2015 on an audiovisual frame for this piece as part of my M.Mus. thesis. The project consisted, initially, in writing music inspired on the emotional content and avant-garde structure of this elegy and trying to find creative approaches to translate or adapt this poetic work into a composition for electric guitar. This is the “musical” element of the frame I wanted to provide for this poetry.
More information about the compositional process is available here.
In the end, these five resulting pieces are now part of five audiovisuals, which include the recitation of the poem, audio and footage editing that supports the emotional environment and English subtitles based on a translation by Dr. Cecilia Mafla Bustamante.
The purpose of my project is to make this elegy available in other “formats” and, therefore, hopefully, reach a broader audience for this beautiful poem.
For anybody interested in this elegy, I would like to share the following documents, which are available online. This is a compilation from sources cited below:
Purpose and reading instructions stated by the author (in Spanish) (screenshots of El mundo de las evidencias (1984) by Efraín Jara Idrovo available for partial preview in Google Books): Propósitos e instrucciones
Poem (in Spanish) (corrections made on online versions): sollozo por pedro jara – estructuras para una elegía
English translation by Dr. Cecilia Mafla Bustamante: Weeping for Pedro Jara – Structures for an Elegy
Proaño’s essay on her composition process is also well worth checking out. She doesn’t say anything about her process for choosing the film images, which I find generally successful, erring more on the side of arbitrariness than literal illustration. I am especially impressed by the scope and ambition of this project and the music-first approach to poetry filmmaking. At any rate, do go watch all five parts, and if the Wix site doesn’t display properly in your browser, watch them on Vimeo.