Nationality: Jamaica

Music is Made Out of Smoke by Tanya Shirley

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Iranian-British filmmaker Roxana Vilk with a poem by Jamaican poet Tanya Shirley. It’s described on the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival website as a “tribute to Jamaican reggae artist Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and an elegy to the sultry fields of the American South.” The Vimeo description notes that it was “Commissioned for Commonwealth Games 2014 by Scottish Poetry Library, British Council and Creative Scotland and executive produced by Scottish Poetry Library & United Creations Collective.” According to Vilk’s website, it was one of eight short films she directed and produced for her Composing the Commonwealth series in 2014 featuring four different poets, the camera work of Ian Dodds, sound and music by Peter Vilk, and editing by Ling Lee and Maryam Ghorbankarimi. Go watch.

Situation 7 by Claudia Rankine

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Published online at TriQuarterly a year ago, this is the most recent of the Situation videos produced by Claudia Rankine with her husband, documentary photographer John Lucas, and included in text form in her award-winning collection of prose poetry Citizen.

Situation 6 (Stop And Frisk) by Claudia Rankine

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One of a series of “Situation” videos created by Jamaican-American poet Claudia Rankine in collaboration with her husband, the photographer John Lucas, using texts from her award-winning, genre-bending poetry collection Citizen: An American Lyric (2014). This one employs a technique I find very effective in maintaining viewer interest during longer videopoems: interweaving separate stories in the footage and voiceover to create a kind of dialectical tension. What doesn’t happen, or might happen, becomes as important as what does.

Thanks to PBS NewsHour for this upload. For more on Rankine’s collaboration with Lucas, see the interview at BOMB Magazine that I quoted from last September when I posted “Situation 5.” All six Situation videos may be viewed on Rankine’s website (Flash required).

Situation 5 by Claudia Rankine

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One of a series of “Situation” videos created by Jamaican-American poet Claudia Rankine in collaboration with her husband, the photographer John Lucas, for Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric (2014).

Note that Rankine refers to the Situation series as “video essays” on her website. But as she said in a 2009 interview at Poets.org, she thinks

less in terms of genre and just in terms of writing in general. My background, my education, has been in poetry, so I feel that many of the layers in whatever I’m doing are coming out of a world of allusions that are located in poets. So, no matter what I’m working on, I like to call it poetic in some way, because the poets that I’ve read and that I love, their work tends to infuse it.

In a more recent conversation with Lauren Berlant at BOMB Magazine, Rankine discusses her collaboration with Lucas on the Situation videos.

The scripts in chapter six seemed necessary to Citizen because one of the questions I often hear is “How did that happen?” as it relates to mind-numbing moments of injustice—the aftermath of Katrina, for example, or juries letting supremacists off with a slap on the wrist for killing black men. It seems obvious, but I don’t think we connect micro-aggressions that indicate the lack of recognition of the black body as a body to the creation and enforcement of laws. Everyone is cool with seeing micro-aggressions as misunderstandings until the same misunderstood person ends up on a jury or running national response teams after a hurricane.

The decision to exist within the events of the “Situation videos” came about because the use of video manipulation by John Lucas allowed me to slow down and enter the event, in moments, as if I were there in real time rather than as a spectator considering it in retrospect. As a writer working with someone with a different skill set, I was given access to a kind of seeing that is highly developed in the visual artist, and that I don’t rely on as intuitively. My search for meaning—“What do you think that means?”—is often countered with a “Did you see that?” from John. That kind of close looking, the ability to freeze the frame, challenges the language of the script to meet the moment literally second by second—in the Zidane World Cup piece, for example—to know as the moment knows, and not from outside. The indwelling of those Situation pieces becomes a performance of switching your body out with the body in the frame and moving methodically through pathways of thought and positionings.

The photographer Jeff Wall writes about moving into moments of eroding freedoms. He describes racism as “determined by social totality” that “has to come out of an individual body.” In his photographs he brings his lens to existing “unfreedoms.” I am interested in his decision to reenact, to stage moments that happen too fast for the camera to capture. On some level he can’t let what he saw go: “Did you see that?”

The difficult thing about this “immanence” or indwelling is that it holds and prolongs the violence of supremacist spectacle in a body and shuts it down in other participatory ways. The reality, moment, narrative, or photo locks down its players and gets read as a single gesture.

Read the rest.

To Do Wid Me (trailer) by Benjamin Zephaniah

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As a fan primarily of mainstream, “page” poetry I don’t necessarily seek out spoken-word poetry, but I am enlivened and inspired by poets like Benjamin Zephaniah — not that there are too many other poets like him. Just as certain avant-garde poets challenge us to take language more seriously and to invent a new universe for every poem, brilliant performance poets like Zephaniah remind us that poetry is first and foremost an oral, embodied medium. Zephaniah’s example challenges us to take living more seriously, and to question whether our words and actions and politics are truly aligned as they should be. And needless to say, for a type of poetry that so emphasizes the physicality of language, film/video is the ideal medium.

Bloodaxe Books were kind enough to send me a review copy of the DVD-book for which this is the trailer, and I loved it. I’d already known from watching her films on Vimeo that Pamela Robertson-Pearce is a good director who knows how to get out of the way and let the poems and the poet speak for themselves, and this talent is very much on display here. I watched the DVD in two long sittings and was entranced. The readings and interviews are artfully blended, with earlier sequences anticipating later explanations by the poet. For example, a series of delightful readings for, and exchanges with, schoolchildren were filmed in what turns out to be the Keats House next to Hampstead Heath, which prepares the viewer not only to hear about the poet’s own childhood and difficult time at school, but also eventually to hear how and why he came to love Keats, Shelley and Byron despite his original aversion to dead white male poets. And footage of Zephaniah in a track suit practicing taiqi in his yard is first used as a backdrop for several segments, arousing one’s curiosity — eventually satisfied — about his exercise and martial arts regime and its influence on him as a performance poet and musician.

The footage of various readings before live audiences varies in quality (the sound is slightly muffled in a couple of them), but one thing I really appreciated was that the director did not attempt to jazz things up by jumping frenetically between two or more different perspectives, as so many slick poetry filmmakers like to do. I generally find that distracting, and with a performer as expressive as Zephaniah, there’s no need to add any more kinesis!

The film is playful and serious by turns, just as Zephaniah’s poems are, and gave me a lot to think about, especially on the role of performance in poetry, the social responsibility of artists, and the various ways in which oral and literary traditions intersect. My favorite interview sections were actually those with the poet’s mother, Valerie Wright, clearly the single biggest influence on his life, who sat beside him on a couch and helped answer questions about his upbringing and the family traits and customs that helped to produce a poet. I should add that all the poems are presented in full, and the film also incorporates a highly entertaining music video by his rap-reggae group, The Beta Brothers (with four more videos included as bonus tracks). Neil Astley’s Foreword in the book offers a more comprehensive biography than any I’ve seen online, and people who already own some or all of Zephaniah’s earlier books with Bloodaxe and Penguin will want this one, too, since it includes different versions of many poems, updated to reflect how they have evolved as he continues to perform them on stage.

The DVD is in PAL format, which means it won’t play on most North American DVD players, but should play just fine on most computers (as it did on my laptop). As the note about this on the last page of the book says, “In an ideal world we’d produce our DVD-book with DVDs in either format and give overseas readers the choice, but unfortunately that would be much too costly.” Check out the publisher’s detailed description at Vimeo or on the Bloodaxe website. Let me close with Zephaniah’s own description at his blog:

Yes, that’s right, I’ve got a new DVD and book out. It’s a kind of Zephaniah on the road jam, and it features my mum and my nephew, Zayn. He’s a good boy, but he can’t play football as good as me. The DVD has live performances of some previously published and unpublished poems, with interviews and lots of messing around by me. What I really love about it is the mix of my children’s poetry, my work for adults, and my music, which most publishers usually like to keep separate. Publisher, writer, and all round good guy Neil Astley has written an introduction for it, and Pamela Robertson-Pearce did the filming. We’ve tried to do something which stands up as both entertaining and educational, so it could be used in schools and other funky places. I’m pleased with it.

Ganthier by Kwame Dawes

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Another in the Voices from Haiti series produced by the Pulitzer Center, exploring life after the earthquake and focusing on the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS, with poetry by Kwame Dawes, images by photographer Andre Lambertson, editing by Robin Bell and music by Kevin Simmonds. See YouTube for the text.

Precious Are The Feet of Those… by Kwame Dawes

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Another in the Voices from Haiti series produced by the Pulitzer Center, exploring life after the earthquake and focusing on the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS, with poetry by Kwame Dawes, images by photographer Andre Lambertson, editing by Robin Bell and music by Kevin Simmonds. See YouTube for the text.

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