This is “Proem,” the famous introduction to Hart Crane’s book-length poem The Bridge. The poem has been a favorite of mine since I was a kid, committed to memory before I even knew what half of the words meant. What great nostalgic pleasure, then, to watch this animated version by Suzie Hanna with a reading by Tennessee Williams in the soundtrack! I think this is an excellent example of how animators can get away with something that directors of live-action poetry films usually cannot: direct illustration of a text. Well, in part that’s because there’s rarely anything “direct” about good animation, which is almost by definition an order of magnitude more abstract than a live-action illustration would be. In addition, poems like this one, where the language is intensely rich and far from the vernacular, can really benefit from a visual connection to the narrative thread (to the extent that there is one). Not every casual consumer of poetry is as comfortable with bafflement as are those lucky few of us that grew up with difficult poems, and so I think a good animation can get people to lower their guard.
At any rate, here’s what that the folks from Liberated Words posted at Vimeo about the animator:
Professor Suzie Hanna has been teaching in Higher Education for over two decades, specialising in the subject areas of animation and sound design. During this time she has developed international academic and industry networks, as well as maintaining her own creative practice. She engages in diverse collaborations with other artists, performers and academics to create original films.
Her current research includes the creation of animation from documentary material, and the study of parallels in animation, poetry and sound design. Suzie also designs and animates commissioned innovative theatrical and site specific animation ranging in scale from puppet theatre to architectural projection. She presents papers at international symposia and industry seminars as well as contributing to academic journals and other publications.
The soundtrack is by Tom Simmons, and led to the film taking 1st Prize for Best Music/Sound at Liberated Words III, judged by Rich Ferguson and Mark Wilkinson. It also won 2nd Prize for Best Editing. In a post at a closed group on Facebook, Sarah Tremlett quotes Ferguson and Wilkinson:
We found the visual treatment in Proem to be arresting and original; clear in its intentions and unified in its design as it evolved visually throughout the piece. A balanced and elegant pairing of spoken words and moving pictures.
Hanna’s description from her own upload of the film to Vimeo is also worth quoting:
Suzie Hanna animated the film using hand cut stencils imitating some graphic aspects of contemporaneous 1920s New York artists who were in Hart Crane’s coterie, such as Joseph Stella and Marsden Hartley. She also referenced Vorticism to capture vertiginous aspects of the verse. The voice of Tennessee Williams, who was an ardent admirer of Crane, is taken from a 1960 recording. Tom Simmons has built this into a resonant dramatic soundscape which interprets the materiality of the bridge, the surrounding land and waterscape and the ‘prayerful’ qualities of the Proem. He embeds sonic references to Hart Crane’s ‘shamanic process’ in which the poet played records on his Victrola, including Ravel’s ‘Bolero’, loudly and repeatedly, whilst drinking heavily and typing phrases in manic bursts.
Hanna, Simmons, and producer Sally Bayley all teach at British universities, Hanna at Norwich University of the Arts, which features the film on its website and adds some information in a news story:
The work is part of an ongoing collaboration with Dr Sally Bayley of the University of Oxford and Tom Simmons of the Royal College of Art researching into representation of poetic metaphor. [...]
Proem has been selected for screenings at the Laugharne Castle Poetry and Film Festival Wales, the Filmpoem Festival in Antwerp, Belgium and the Liberated Words Poetry Film Festival and conference in Bristol. In March Professor Hanna and Dr Bayley gave a masterclass titled ‘Poetry in the Making’ at the Oxford Literary Festival.
An article on ‘Thinking Metaphorically and Allegorically: A Conversation between the fields of Poetry, Animation and Sound’ by Professor Hanna, Tom Simmons and Dr Bayley was published in 2013 in the Journal of American Studies, and a further installment has been commissioned for publication in 2014.
The film is also due to be screened at Visible Verse in Vancouver next month.
This was a lot of fun, and it was a delight to finally collaborate on something with Marie. After an email volley, I started the soundtrack before seeing the rough cut. I was very taken with the images in the timeline as the edit evolved, and they most definitely influenced definition of touch points in the composition, and the final mix was done to picture. So, half free-form, half score. Anyway, indeed, lots of fun. Looking forward to the next one.
And Craven responded:
It was a highly collaborative process, this one, with very regular emails back and forth between Australia and USA, and various drafts of sound and video. Deon is fantastic and I feel honoured to have been invited to participate. I too am hoping for more collaborations together in future.
She added in an email that they had known each other online and appreciated each other’s electronic music projects for a couple of years.
I asked Craven about her experience adding the closed captioning. She initially tried Amara at my recommendation, but found it somewhat tricky to work with and switched to the other subtitling service Vimeo mentions in their FAQs, Dotsub. “I mainly found it easier to work with in regard to timings of subtitles,” she said. She also made the decision to remove most punctuation and capitalization for easier reading, which strikes me as the right approach for any poem following the old-fashioned convention of capitalizing the first word of each line. In general, I think it’s interesting to compare the decisions made in captioning or subtitling a videopoem which has the poem in the soundtrack, as this one does, with what happens in videopoems that rely solely on text on the screen to convey the poem. With captions or subtitles, ease of comprehension tends to take center stage, whereas when the poem is a graphic element it’s OK — perhaps even essential — to make the viewer work a bit harder to take it in. In either case, it’s a good bet that the filmmaker gains a unique perspective on the poetic text from working so hard to translate it into another medium. “I always love hearing the words over and over so many times while editing,” Craven said.
The footage here was sourced from a public-domain film at the Prelinger Archives, RFD Greenwich Village (1969 circa) — a clothing advertiser’s view of a tamed Bohemia that makes a particularly good fit with Shelley’s poem, I think:
Lift not the painted veil which those who live
Call Life: though unreal shapes be pictured there,
And it but mimic all we would believe
With colours idly spread…
Finally, Marie tells me that the poem has been selected to screen at the Athens International Film Poetry Festival in December, so congratulations to her and Deon for a successful collaboration that breathes new life into a 19th-century classic.
To me, this is gorgeous, though possibly also “a blinding punch to the eyelids,” as the first line of the source text by Dustin Luke Nelson says. Swoon (Marc Neys) discovered the poem at the Poetry Storehouse, and describes his process in a blog post.
The idea for the visuals came fairly easy… I saw failed pictures, heard white noise, thought of a stream of incomprehensible and random images (randomly plucked from the net, as if some kind of collective memory) against clean cut footage of high office buildings. Once I collected the images I wanted, I edited and alternated to the pace and rhythm of the soundtrack.
Nelson also blogged about the video.
The wonderful Marc Neys, aka Swoon, has posted a new videopoem that uses, as text, a poem of mine that was originally published in Opium titled “Today I will be a compensated spokesperson.”
I really like what he did with it. It’s a beautiful collage and soundscape that makes me think about the poem a little differently.
That’s the scary thing about posting work to the Poetry Storehouse (see below) for anyone to remix. You don’t know what will emerge from their work. It’s out of your hands. You hope that it goes well, but passing off something you care about makes you (read: me) instinctively believe that things will go terribly awry. This piece, for me, represents one of the great potentials that exists in that Not-Knowing: it might produces new associations, new juxtapositions to tease something different out of the text than how it existed on the page/screen. You might find something unexpected in your own work.
My poem was taken from The Poetry Storehouse, a platform for multi-media artists to find poems for raw material and remixing. I have done a couple videos with other poets’ work from there as well. It’s a good place with good poems and good videos.
A new Moving Poems production. I was browsing recent clips at the Beachfront B-Roll blog and was taken by a plume of rising smoke, which struck me as just the right sort of image for a poem I’d just read at the Poetry Storehouse that features a small forest of white birches. The author is Massachusetts-based poet Jennifer Martelli. After searching SoundCloud and the Free Music Archive in vain, I finally found a track on ccMixter that seemed to fit. I was going for a Tom Waits kind of vibe, and I’m delighted to report that Martelli (with whom I’d never previously communicated) liked the video, and said some kind things about my reading as well. It really does take a leap of faith to submit one’s poems to the Poetry Storehouse and let random strangers mess around with them.
A few technical process notes: I’m now using MAGIX Movie Edit Pro, following a recommendation by Marc Neys, and am finding it to be a better fit for my needs and abilities as an amateur filmmaker than what I’d been using before, Adobe Premiere Elements. After uploading the finished video to Vimeo, I decided to add closed captioning, inputting the poem line-by-line as it appears in the published text so that even people with normal hearing can still benefit from turning on the captions (CC button, lower right) and seeing how the poet chose to arrange her words. I also discovered that the WebVTT file generated by Amara can be subsequently tweaked in a simple text editor (I used Notepad) to correct typos or finesse start and stop times before uploading it to Vimeo. While I like the results, this is a poem with a lot of enjambment, so I’m not sure whether my desire to display original line breaks should have trumped the need of viewers for a potentially smoother read. I welcome feedback on that point.
The story of the city is simple.
It eats secrets of people.
It digests whispers and
turns them into leaves, birds, fish.
Serbian filmmaker Dragana Nikolic made this arresting spoken word/videopoem hybrid in 2011 with performance poet Aljoša Dražović playing the part of a slightly crazed tour guide, extemporizing in English. (Apparently he is fluent in both English and Serbian. Here’s a video of him performing work in Serbian.) Nikolic says this about this about the film on Vimeo:
Night walk. Unusual tour guide. Improvisation. Free-style poetry.
Talking with the ghosts of the city, the shadows, the fog…
This city is full of secrets. Secret passageways, stairways. Just hidden for you to find…
Festivals: Balkan Beyond Borders, Bucharest, Romania; CologneOFF – Cologne International Videoart Festival; Timishort Romania; Clermont-Ferrand IFF France; Signes de Nuit International Festival, Paris, France; Belgrade Documentary and Short FF; Exit Festival, “Trgni se! Poezija!” Poetry an Book Festival, Alternative Film / Video Festival, Belgrade.
Nikolic also has a bilingual blog focusing on her graphic design work.
A film by Lori H. Ersolmaz, incorporating Nic Sebastian’s reading of a poem by Sally Bliumis-Dunn at The Poetry Storehouse. Two other video remixers have also tried their hand at this poem, Paul Broderick and Nic Sebastian herself, but Ersolmaz’s film is in a class by itself.
The visuals took me some time to figure out.
Different approaches, different ideas resulted in at least three completely different videos.
None of them were what I thought was needed.
Number four hit all the right notes:
Sunlight, straight lines, bright colours, slightly experimental and a strange overall atmosphere…
Happy with this one.