Like last week’s video for Nicanor Parra’s “El hombre imaginario,” this is a Moving Poems production in homage to a great, recently deceased Latin American poet. A post by poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbot first alerted me to Claribel Alegría‘s death on January 25, drawing attention to the poem “Soy Espejo”:
In the 1990’s I taught that poem to classes that included very few Hispanic students. Then I moved to South Florida and taught that poem to people who had fled the Central American civil wars that Alegria wrote about. The poem worked well across a wide variety of boundaries.
I used a new translation by my friend Jean Morris. Rather than try to depict the horrors described in the poem directly, I wanted to focus on the speaker or speakers who’d witnessed them, so went looking for footage from asylums and the like. I found what I needed in the Prelinger Archives: a 1938 documentary about mental illness, for which patients were made to wear crude masks to protect their privacy. Shots of a woman repeatedly touching her face, other women standing or sitting frozen, and one, afflicted with echopraxia, mirroring the gestures of an interlocutor, provided points of connection with the text. I used some noise music by Stabbed Empath, the project of another friend, for the soundtrack.
To me, Alegría’s poem isn’t about war but trauma, and that’s where I tried to put the emphasis. I realize that the result may not make for pleasant viewing; it’s basically the complete opposite of the famous sequence from Good Morning, Vietnam where footage of the horrors of war is juxtaposed with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” As great as that scene is, it doesn’t challenge the dominant conception of war as a tragic, horrific, but ultimately somehow inevitable, larger-than-life spectacle, nor does it really explore other perspectives than those of the soldiers. It’s part of a whole genre of “anti-war” filmmaking that focuses on the cost in terms of soldiers and veterans but rarely acknowledges, or actively downplays, the usually much greater cost in civilian casualties and wounds of all kinds. And as long as voters in the U.S. and other aggressor nations continue to ignore these impacts, the news media will be allowed to continue in their role as cheerleaders for the military-industrial complex, depicting war as a regrettable cost of doing business, from Afghanistan and Syria to Yemen and now, once again, Central America.
It was midnight in Melbourne when I wrote Nailing Remembrance after feeling a cold fire burning in me. I had just finished reading about the journey of a girl from my valley in Afghanistan in the late 1800s. A princess turned into a slave, she was elegant and in-love, layered and lonely, resilient and secretive. Besides the brutal political context of the time and her painful destiny, this poem is capturing her layers of inner feelings, sense of loss, vibrant and violent moments of the time and the strength in her struggle. Nailing Remembrance is a window into the museum of a forcefully forgotten self.
Words and voice are by Lucy English; film, grading, editing and music by Marc Neys AKA Swoon — his most recent contribution to The Book of Hours project. It features orphaned home movie footage from IICADOM (The International Institute for the Conservation, Archiving and Distribution of Other People’s Memories).
The great Chilean poet Nicanor Parra died on January 23 at the age of 103, so I wanted to make a video for one of his poems as a tribute, especially since there didn’t seem to be any real videopoems or poetry films of his work on the web. I asked some fellow fans of Latin American poetry on Facebook for suggestions of poems, and “El hombre imaginario” came up. It had been translated before—by Edith Grossman, no less—but we all found her decision to depart from the plain meaning of the text in order to imitate the word order of Spanish odd and unfortunate. The Spanish poetry-filmmaker Eduardo Yagüe is a member of the group, and agreed to read the poem for the soundtrack when I mentioned I had an idea for a videopoem. I found the music—an accordion track by the composer Steven O’Brien—on Soundcloud, and the footage was something I’d downloaded from the one-person stock video channel Beachfront B-Roll a while ago.
Two different appreciations of Parra have appeared in major North American literary magazines in recent days: “Nicanor Parra, the Alpha-Male Poet” by David Unger in The Paris Review blog, and “Remembering Nicanor Parra, the Almost Immortal Chilean Poet” by Alejandro Zambra in The New Yorker.
The essays in this video suite ask us to consider what lies at the bottom of uncanny experiences. Why do some things feel both foreign and familiar to us?
“Space tempts me,” admits the dancer in “Territory” as she moves across a landscape made precisely for her image. Next, the word “space” begins to roll down her face and neck. “Territory” is a project by choreographer Kathleen Kelley and poet Sarah Rose Nordgren. The pair, known as “Smart Snow,” began collaborating when they were teenagers. Their first poetry video began as a diorama built with materials intended for miniature war reenactments and later expanded into an installation featuring live dancers and interactive digital texts. Through several feats of engineering, Nordgren and Kelley projected shrunken text and footage of a dancer into their diorama and filmed the two elements moving together. Across this poetry video we notice that the dancer is at once confined by, but also growing out of, this landscape, the way a child might feel inside a fenced yard, or a refrigerator box with holes cut for windows. “Territory” asks us to think about the everyday places where digital and analog rub up against one another, and can produce a type of confinement. It shows us how compressed spaces, like miniatures, ask us to consider their life-sized counterparts more carefully.
Click through for bios of Kelley and Nordgren.
The late, great Etheridge Knight recites his poem in this “archival remix” by Daniel Cantagallo, whose work I stumbled across on Vimeo the other night. Here’s the informative description:
It is hard to make a poem in prison, but Etheridge Knight fashioned many, and grateful he did. Born in Corinth, Mississippi, Knight was a Korean War vet who became a drug addict. Eventually put away for armed robbery, he renounced anger and committed his life to poetry while behind bars. His first volume of “Poems from Prison”, cemented his status in the Black Arts movement, and coincided with his release in 1968.
Reading is from Etheridge Knight and footage from 1966 CBS Report, “Men In Cages.”
The link goes to a lecture on Knight by Terrance Hayes.
I was fortunate enough to attend a reading by Etheridge Knight many years ago in the intimate setting of Penn State’s Rare Books Room, which had an impressive collection of books and chapbooks from the Black Arts Movement. Knight’s reading and commentary was a crash course in the dirty dozens and the African American oral poems known as toasts, and dovetailed with my then-intense interest in the blues. Which is a long-winded way of saying I had a lot of aha moments that afternoon.