This is not the first time that Nic Sebastian—known for her great reading voice—has made a videopoem with text-on-screen rather than voiceover, but it may be her most satisfying example of that sort of videopoem to date. The text, by New Orleans-based poet Charlotte Hamrick, comes from The Poetry Storehouse, and the soundtrack is by Matt Samolis.
The last of the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest runner-up poems was written in response to the very same footage by Lori H. Ersolmaz that prompted the winning poem by Amy Miller. This time, the poet is Michael Biegner:
This ocean is a gray tidal yank,
That speaks with a blurred accent
of wild greens and blue – the yellow
skin, the sad-eyed light,
these make up the neurons of dark storms.
This frame is a blight of opaque water and dying
movement: go on and be brave.
Sea birds carry word of a drowning in the canals,
To all the lost faces,
To the pink buildings. Helium
lifts the mylar thinking. Salt drops are alive everywhere.
Slog on, unfocused – to the place
where breathing cannot be felt,
where it is not the kind of music we can play by ear.
The resulting film is, I think, quite different from Backward Like a Ghost — which suggests just how central the poem is to our experience of a poetry film. Peter Danbury is the reader.
Biegner described his writing process as follows:
Writing is a generative process for me. I chose Lori’s film because it was rich in composite images. I quickly realized that I could view her work as one views an abstract painting. I found a cozy corner in my favorite coffee shop one afternoon and played the video over and over, each time writing feelings, emotions, suggestive links that came to me as I watched the video and took in the soundtrack. I did not worry about line breaks (I tend to write for voice anyway, so most breaks occur during natural breath points).
After developing the mass of the poem, I began to whittle it away, almost like a sculptor chiseling away flecks of marble. I wanted the end piece to be stark, because the sound track made me feel a barrenness; its repetitiveness paints a great dearth.
The recurring theme of water in Lori’s work also finds its way into this poem. I start with the ocean tugging, suggesting muscle, gravity, a primal force. The drowning is an invented conceit implying the inherent dangers of water. It highlights the struggle of making one’s way (slogging) through primal forces that surround us.
The looseness of the focus of many of the shots connects me to memory: its fragility, its subjectivity. The flashing lightning reminded me of firing neurons of a brain. So when I was done, I had a poem that dealt with these two diametrically opposed aspects of humanity: the physicality of existence, and the realm of memory where we seem to dwell.
Muscle memory, of course, is the way the human body is able to repeat movements with little or no input from the brain. Lori’s video evoked in me the contrast of what we plan versus what we do; what we contemplate in action versus what we allow ourselves to do from some other parts of us.
Lori Ersolmaz has already written at length about the making of her first film from the contest, but had this to add about Muscle Memory:
I am honored to have been able to work with not one, but two wonderful poems from the Poetry Storehouse 2014 Anniversary Contest.
When I received Michael’s poem I re-read it numerous times and felt that it was important to let it breathe. The poem gave me the room to spread it out from beginning to end. I find it incredibly interesting that visuals can help stoke emotions across mediums in subtle, varied, yet common ways—vice versa! Michael’s poem provided a wonderful screenplay that in many ways touched upon my own emotions when I first created the film. For instance, at the beginning, “Yellow skin, sad-eyed light, these make-up the neurons of dark storms…” is a concept about capitalism that I often grapple with and captured my feelings perfectly. I wanted to allow that idea to merge with the imagery from the very beginning and is why there’s such a long break until we hear a voice again. Peter Danbury’s narrative arrived the night before I started editing and his inflection and annunciation of Michael’s poem clicked with me immediately and influenced my use of space within the three-minute film.
I am grateful for everyone who I had the opportunity to collaborate with on the Poetry Storehouse Anniversary Contest, but in hindsight I wish I had more time to actually spend conversing with the poets before I finished the composed pieces. I feel in the future I can gain additional perspective if I connect with them in advance of the final cut. Nonetheless, the process I experienced while working with and viewing all the poems and remixes for the contest will stay with me for some time.
Thanks again to all the poets and filmmakers who took part in this challenging and, I think, ground-breaking contest. We’re all the richer for it.
A wonderful little animated poem about suicide. The author’s own recitation is in the soundtrack, along with music by Liam D. Brooks. Tim Bentley is the director and animator. Here’s his description at Vimeo:
Resumé is a dark, macabre little tale about life and the dangers of leaving it too soon. The film is based on the poem ‘Resumé’, written in 1928 by Dorothy Parker, the legendary critic, writer and drinker of 1920s New York.
Without the help of many public domain archives it would never have been completed. Below is a list of all those that helped and to whom I’m very grateful:
Audio recording courtesy of the Dorothy Parker Society:
I’m tethering my life
so the storm doesn’t escape me.
costs the unthinkable.
A series of gnomic pronouncements, as if in response to an unseen interrogator, accompany shots of the poet’s visible traces: his identity papers, fingerprints, and typewritten words. Ángel Guinda stars in this gem of a book trailer, the work of Charles Olsen, a New Zealander currently residing in Spain, and the production company Antena Blue. (Be sure to click the CC icon on the lower right to read the subtitles—a very good English translation.)
This was one of two Olsen/Antena Blue films selected for screening at ZEBRA this year. Olsen wrote about his experience at ZEBRA for the big idea/te aria nui.
The second film poem, included in the section “Wracking Your Brains” – our preoccupations with the past, doubts and spiritual unrest – was a piece we made for the Spanish poet Ángel Guinda, “Libro de Huellas” (The Book of Traces) where, in a series of striking aphorisms, he reflects on memory, religion, and power.
I began making film poems using my own poetry and that of my wife, the Colombian writer Lilián Pallares, with whom I direct the production company Antena Blue, “The observed word”. There is a great freedom to explore all the aspects of the image, sound, text, words, narrative, pace, and as a poet-filmmaker it is not necessarily the poem that has to come first. It may be an image or a personal story that lends itself to a poetic treatment later inspiring the text or a filmmaker may piece together fragments of dialogues, sounds and images to create a collage of words and images.
Marc Neys, A.K.A. Swoon, probably needs no introduction here. Nor was this the first time he’s ever worked with a poem by Luisa A. Igloria, though this may be my favorite of their collaborations to date. And their usual working order was reversed, because Luisa’s poem was written in response to a “first draft” of the video, one of the three prompts in the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. Poetry judge Jessica Piazza selected Luisa’s poem as a runner-up:
In that future which pressed
ever closer toward us, time was a room
whose shape we could no longer determine.
In every city, men stood on platforms
gesticulating and making pronouncements.
Armored tanks rolled into the last
encampments, leaving tracks in the river’s
boiled mud. We knew when to flee,
what to gather up, what to leave behind.
We walked deeper into blind forests,
climbed as high as our feet allowed
up the thinned hair of trees. They let us
cocoon there, they let us make hammocks.
At night, we watched as distant flares
limned the unnavigable horizon.
At night, some of us told stories,
making shadows with our hands
to mimic the movement of wings.
Marc explained how he put together the video used in the contest:
I had footage of several Psychic TV performances by Allan Chumak. Once, I re-edited a bunch of them for a collab with another poet, but that didn’t happen. The cuts were not wasted and waited on the shelves for another occasion.
Around the time of the Poetry Storehouse contest proposals, I thought it might be a good idea to put those two pieces of footage together. For the purpose of viewing quality I added an extra layer of light and colour to the Ephemeral Rift recordings. Not really a match, but an interesting pairing.
I created a track and edited the different pieces loosely to the music, hoping it would give some writers an idea.
Luisa told us:
My writing process in response to Marc’s video, which resulted in the poem “Foretold,” was to open two screens on my computer: on the left side, Marc’s video, and on the right, the first page of a new (blank) Word document. I decided that I was going to compose—start immediately to write—as soon as the video started. Almost all of the poem’s lines were generated exactly in this manner, with very slight revisions afterwards (mostly having to do with lineation and spacing, tightening some of my word choices). In Marc’s film, the images—and their strategic juxtaposition—were immediately striking, as was his choice to strip them of sound and instead use music and ambient sound. Though I realized they may not have had anything specifically to do with each other, their pairing in the film’s sequences began to suggest an underlying narrative to me, filled with foreboding and portent. The occurrences of repetition in the film suggested that. The closeups of hands and mouths spoke to me of something both very intimate and very distant, and in some instances those mouths looked as if they could very well be on the verge of varying emotions: rage, for instance; or pleasure, or fear.
Once I got Luisa’s poem, it all came together perfectly. Suddenly these images and their pairing become very political. Nic Sebastian provided a very suitable reading for the track. It all needed a bit of re-editing (in length and pace), but the main visual idea is still the same, but much more powerful because of Luisa’s fantastic poem.
Spanish director Eduardo Yagüe’s film for the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest runner-up poem by Amy Miller. As mentioned in the contest results, poetry judge Jessica Piazza actually selected two of Miller’s poems: one as the first-place winner (see “Backward Like a Ghost“) and the other as one of three runners-up. Here’s that second poem, Miller’s response to Yagüe’s contest footage:
I Was Grass
Under the city, I grew
What did I have to drink
but cracks of sun
and the sometimes slash
of paint? Or was that
song? I heard it too. Bachata,
an imagined circle step.
You don’t think
grass can dance?
blade and its shadow.
No, watch. Can you see me?
The stem, the glint,
Yagüe had this to say about the making of the film:
Nic Sebastian suggested I make a video as inspiration for poets writing for The Poetry Storehouse’s first anniversary contest. I am always very honored to collaborate with TPS, so I told Nic that I would be delighted to make the video.
I spent September and October in Stockholm, Sweden. I recorded footage for Marc Neys (Deze zachte witte kamer, poems by Runa Svetlikova). I also directed a videoclip called La viuda, for Spanish singer Pablo Werner, and started several personal projects (such as the Storehouse remix Broken Figure, by Kathleen Kirk). I also took a lot of pictures of the beautiful Swedish capital and its magical light.
Close to Kungsholmen, the district where I live when I go to Stockholm, there is a place that one might find in every big city (it could be New York, Paris or Madrid) and that’s the set I used for the video. A rough stage full of graffiti, concrete and passing trains contrasting with the fragility and tenderness of the great little actress Emma Sjöstrand (10 years old). The general idea was to capture claustrophobic urban images of this place and contrast them with a few shots in a park (Kronobergsparken) with a very different light, air and colors. The only idea I was sure about was the girl snapping her fingers, staring at the camera and disappearing.
I chose for editing some very beautiful music by Kosta T. But my idea was to ask for an original musical score for the final cut from Four Hands Project — the great, imaginative film and TV composers Alberto Ayuso and David Gómez. They composed an exclusive score for what I consider a very special video.
I am quite sure Amy Miller recorded her poem while she was watching the video. When Nic sent me the audio I hardly touched anything, just added a shot or two and revised the rhythm of some images. Amy’s poem was perfect for the images and the music fit incredibly well with both images and words.
I hope you like the final result. I am very happy to have been a collaborator in this amazing project of TPS. Congratulations to Amy Miller and the other winners and participants in this year’s contest, and very special congratulations to Nic Sebastian for her great and generous work of spreading poetry and connecting artists all over the world.
We asked Miller about her writing process. She wrote,
I was moved to write a poem for Eduardo Yagüe’s video—of course—because of that girl. That beautiful, innocent, wily girl. She owns that alley. She is that alley. But she’s something else, too: a spirit of defiance.
The video opens and ends with grass. And I couldn’t help thinking of what that city will look like long after humans are gone, that apocalyptic vision of the vines engulfing the concrete, the wilderness taking over again. And the Carl Sandburg echo is no accident; his grass covered the battlefields, but this girl’s grass uproots the city, grows up—as she does—right through it. She is the blackberry, the kudzu, the bindweed that splits apart the pavement of every civilization and imparts her wildness into it. I think there’s a youthful hope to that, a reminder that every kid has dreams that reach far beyond the walls of where she’s growing up. Every kid is capable of bringing down the old city, of changing the drab old ways—just watch out.
I wanted the girl to ask questions, to get in the reader’s face: “You don’t think grass can dance?” And I wanted her to talk about an actual dance. In the theatre festival where I work, we’re doing a play next year that features Puerto Rican Jíbaro folk music, and it’s been on my mind a lot. I started looking on the internet for a dance that Latina girls in New York might aspire to do, and I found Bachata, which originated in the Dominican Republic. I chose it for the sound of the word and its popularity in clubs. But when I realized I was going to have to record the poem, I had to go back online and listen to recordings of people saying the word because I’d never heard it spoken. (I’m in Southern Oregon; Bachata, along with many other cool things, has not reached us yet.) I had practice the word over and over before recording the poem. Probably still didn’t nail it.
Is Eduardo Yagüe wonderful, or what? Such lyric beauty in this film. What a privilege it was to work with it.
This is the film made for the prizewinning poem from the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. Lori H. Ersolmaz is the filmmaker (see the recent Poetry Storehouse interview with her), and as announced on Monday, Amy Miller’s poem was selected by Jessica Piazza along with three runners-up in the Poetry category of the contest. In each case, the poems were written ekphrastically, in response to one of three, brief clips — which can still be viewed in the contest guidelines. Here’s what Miller wrote after watching Ersolmaz’s clip:
Backward Like a Ghost
They came so far to see this.
Then up close, the hollering and arrows,
the flash of something they should know
but can’t quite understand. The lonely
talk of everyone. Together
we make a city, close
and warm but blinding
in its multitudes. Night,
then open glass. Backward
like a ghost, they move against
what comes. If they find
the solace of sunlight
in a shallow field,
we’ll know them
by the dark birds
of their eyes, the home
only they can conjure.
the clearing and the day.
They’ll step out into our city.
We won’t see them after that,
their parties and rising,
their dust that settles
just like ours.
When Ersolmaz read the poem, she decided to call on not one, but two readers to lend their voices to the soundtrack: Nic Sebastian and Robert Peake. She told us:
Amy’s poem feels embedded with the imagery in an esoteric way. Amazing how she was able to do that. I now completely see the piece the way she’s written the poem. I knew what I wanted to do with your voices and they fit so beautifully together too! I am so pleased you asked me to participate and honored that the winning poem was with my piece.
UPDATE (15 Nov.): Read Ersolmaz’ short essay “The making of ‘Backward Like a Ghost’” at Moving Poems Magazine.
We asked Miller what it was like to write in this way.
It was so much fun to write poems for the videos in the Poetry Storehouse First Anniversary Contest. I’ve always liked writing ekphrastic poems based on photos, paintings, and musical pieces. But a video is a different animal, with the visual and aural elements already working together to form something more complex than their parts alone. And writing specifically to pair a poem with a video, there’s the added element of time: The video has its own rhythms, and it only goes on for a finite time. Coming up with a poem for that that feels a bit like songwriting—fitting an idea and voice to a structure imposed by something outside of the text.
To start the process, I watched Lori’s video over and over. To me, the predominate images are the arrival by sea at the start (a hint of Liberty Island), the blurred people and cityscapes in the middle (including that backward ghost, reflected in a bus window, maybe?), and that clear shot at the end of the tall buildings on a canal, a place that felt like Amsterdam. All of this, in my mind, added up to a story of immigrants, and specifically, refugees. It’s the “after” image of what happens to refugees after the part of the story that we usually hear—the displacement and the journey—ends. They reach the shores of their new home—and then what? That blurry, confusing middle part of the video is a picture of alienation, of culture shock and skirting the scene without quite being able to understand what it’s about. There’s also a deep, world-ending loneliness in the images of water and sky. And the hazy shots of people speaking—so close, right at hand, yet indistinct—evoke the blurriness and dimming of communication when you know a little of a language and then are bombarded with it full strength, all day.
Originally I wrote the poem in first person plural—“we,” from the viewpoint of the immigrants. But that began to feel too precious and disingenuous, the appropriation of someone else’s story. I have never been an immigrant. But I’ve lived in cities where there are lots of immigrants, and I’ve heard and seen the attendant bigotry all too often. So I chose the POV of a collective “we,” of the city itself, a polyglot community built on the waves of immigrants who came before. I wanted to evoke a collective compassion for the newcomers and the stories and realities they come from.
Congratulations again to Amy, and a huge thanks to her and Lori for this wonderful film. In my opinion, the ekphrastic approach is a great way for writers and filmmakers to collaborate, and I hope these contest results encourage more of it. (We’ll be sharing the other three films from the contest here and on Vimeo in the coming days.)