When I saw this videopoem by the Spanish director Juan Bullón the other week, I immediately knew I had to include it in a screening I was curating for REELpoetry/Houston TX called Poesía sin fronteras / Poetry Without Borders. Though otherwise focused on Latin American poetry, the theme of the program was “translation, otherness, identity and death in cinepoetry from across the Americas”, and it made sense to close with a gringo poet’s take, especially given how well Bullón’s choice of mirrored images echoed some of the other films in the program. Also, it was good to end on a slightly lighter note than some of the more melancholy, slow-moving films. I’m happy to report that the audience loved it.
As part of the extensive notes in the online version of this program, I asked directors to share any thoughts they might have on translation and/or poetry filmmaking. Here’s what Juan told me:
I’m a Spanish film maker and writer. I write with creative, narrative or poetic intention for about twelve years. I come from the audiovisual world (television and advertising mostly). In recent years I have attended several creative writing workshops. Now, far from audiovisual as a profession, I dedicate myself to writing and coordinate a creative writing workshop in Seville. It is a workshop to experience the fact of creating and feeling literature. We try to go beyond writing or correct narrative, poetic, autobiographical or reflective texts, beyond knowing techniques and writing tricks. Creativity is the goal without end. We give great importance to reading aloud as a way to recognize and work the literary voice of each one, and also, we experiment with the audiovisual format as another way of learning to know how to interpret our texts, to voiceover them, and act on them. Video-poems are another part of the creative process and the recognition of each as an author, it is another way of creative knowledge. The essential is to pose, think and act, and in our case, create from writing to let go and leave our point of view, and be able to share it. And this ability to narrate and tell should be transferable to another means of expression, as another complement, as another revelation of our creative capacity.
Transferring our texts (or those of other authors) to an audiovisual format, relying on the image and music to create these video-poems is a challenge where the fundamental is the literary burden of the text. We do not consider it as a struggle between the greater or lesser relevance of the image, music or text. The written is the important, it’s essential, then, the interpretation and performance of these texts with a suggestive audiovisual dress. The direction and production of these video-poems must be guided by the simplicity and speed of creation in the event that they are self-produced or by taking advantage of what the internet offers with the royalty-free images and music that can be used and shared, with that democratization of the media. In turn, the video-poems we make are posted on the internet for anyone’s free enjoyment, helping to fill in that great library of Babel.
Moving the texts to an audiovisual format is a part of the creative process, a moment of enjoyment and self-knowledge. The important thing is to act, to be and to write it.
Visit Juan Bullón’s YouTube channel to see more of his and his students’ work.
This 2016 film co-directed by Stephan Bookas and Tristan Dawes moved me to tears. That’s how effective, and affecting, I found this juxtaposition of W. H. Auden’s poem (text here) about Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany—read by a man identified only as Noah, a refugee and former child soldier from Uganda—with excellent documentary footage of contemporary refugees. Here’s the official synopsis from Bookas’ website:
Set to the verses of W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, the multi-award winning “Refugee Blues” charts a day in ‘the jungle’, the refugee camp outside Calais. More intimate and unlike much of what has been seen in the mass media, this documentary poem counterpoints the camp’s harsh reality of frequent clashes with the French riot police with its inhabitants’ longing for a better future.
On Vimeo, Bookas includes a mini essay about the making of the film, which I found illuminating in its suggestion of how documentary poetry can differ from journalism. This was something I’d been thinking about because I recently attended a reading and slideshow from another documentary poetry project, which was a collaboration between a poet and a photojournalist: Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin’s Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields. Technically, Auden’s poem by itself would not be considered an example of documentary poetry, but as a filmpoem Refugee Blues certainly would qualify, in my opinion. Anyway, I hope Mr. Bookas won’t mind my quoting a sizable chunk of his post:
We didn’t set out to make a film at first – that idea came later – we just packed a car full of blankets, clothes, food and other items and went, not fully knowing what to expect. But of course, being filmmakers, we also brought along our cameras – to see if we might have the opportunity to document, to capture, to find the human story in all the chaos that was so ubiquitous in the media at the time.
Soon after our arrival, we found the people living at the refugee camp to be very warm and welcoming, as long as we assured them we weren’t news-gathering journalists.
We didn’t film anything to begin with and just walked around, introduced ourselves as documentary filmmakers and listened to people and their stories. Every single one of them was unique and heartbreaking.
Following these discussions, we asked if it would be alright to take out our cameras and start filming. For the most part the answer was a resounding yes.
We spent the following days exploring the camp and talking to people, discussing the situation and the political climate and spending time with them, being invited for coffee and food and allowed to film elements of their daily lives. This turned out to be the calm before the storm, as things culminated in a clash between the camp’s inhabitants and the French riot police on the road leading to the ferry terminal, symbolic for the plight of the refugees and their struggle against institutional powers they are unable to defend themselves against. […]
Of course, our film can’t possibly even begin to try and unravel all the lives and personal fates entangled within this crisis. But in some small way, and for us especially, it has given this tragedy a face that’s less abstract, more relatable, more human.
In 2014, Belgian film-maker, Marc Neys (aka Swoon), made a video of Bill Yarrow‘s poem, Bees in the Eaves. Five years later, Marc has just released a new video for the same poem, with new images and music.
Watching the two very different treatments of the same text suggests the changes in sensibility an artist may undergo over time. Even the voice performance, from the same recording by Nic S., has a distinctly varied aural quality, pace and mood in this new version.
The disturbing images in the 2014 video display a directly metaphorical relation to ideas in the poem. In a way akin to the horror genre, the earlier film evokes a strongly emotional response.
In this latest video, the connection between image and word is much more oblique, creating a more contemplative, yet still dynamic, meaning of the poem. While both videos employ repetition to great effect, the 2019 version is more graceful in its approach to film form.
Marc’s striking approach to editing, and his surprising rhythms, remain evident in both videos. This new video is further testament to his unique and masterful work in video poetry.
No Good Deed Goes Umpunished features a performance of the poem of the same name by John Giorno, who died, aged 82, on Friday 11 October 2019. He passed away in New York, the city where he was also born. This video of him is a piece complete in itself, and additionally forms part of a longer film of Giorno’s performances from 2007, titled Nine Poems in Basilicata, from Italian film-maker, Antonello Faretta.
Giorno was part of an illustrious community of American artists in the 1960s, including the major figures of Pop Art, such as Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. One of Warhol’s first experiments in film was Sleep, from 1963, which focused a camera for five hours and 20 minutes on a young Giorno asleep.
The influence of Pop Art on Giorno’s poetry included incorporating found text and imagery in his work. On at least one occasion a found text formed the entirety of one of his poems. In other poems, he employed cut-up and montage techniques. Later he abandoned these approaches for a poetic style that has been described as experimental realism.
In 1965 Giorno founded the non-profit organisation, Giorno Poetry Systems. The aims included connecting poetry with audiovisual media. One of its notable projects, inspired by a conversation with his collaborator, William S. Burroughs, was Dial-A-Poem, in which pre-recorded poems with radical political content were played to anyone calling in. Collaborators on this included John Ashbery, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski and Laurie Anderson.
Giorno was open and political about his queer sexuality. During the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, he founded the AIDS Treatment Project. The charity has since distributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to sufferers.
Many thanks to the highly esteemed film-maker, Mark Rappaport, for drawing our attention to the obituary in the New York Times, and to Giorno’s substantial contribution to the development of poetry in performance and audiovisual media. More poetry performances can be seen at the website of Antonello Faretta.
Giorno’s life and creativity was rich and generous. Enduring is the vitality of his spirit.
This has got to be one of the best student animations I’ve ever seen. Jake Mansbridge animates a poem from American poet Claudia Rankine‘s Forward Prize-winning collection Citizen: An American Lyric as part of an exciting new initiative from the Forward Arts Foundation, which sponsors both the Forward Prizes and UK’s National Poetry Day. Here’s how their director, Susannah Herbert, described it in an email:
National Poetry Day UK, which falls on the first Thursday in October, is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Effectively, this is a huge mass participation cultural festival that gives everyone in the nation an excuse to share a favourite poem, or line of poetry – through readings, displays, performances and, increasingly, through social media. The theme this year is Truth.
A friend who ran the MA course in Animation at the University of Hertfordshire invited us to give her students a “brief” that they could work to as part of their degree course. We gave them 100 Prized Poems, an anthology of poems drawn from the shortlists of the Forward Prizes over the years… plus a few other poems, all loosely connected to the theme of Truth, and suggested they each create an animation that would bring the poems they chose – and National Poetry Day – to new audiences.
This stunning Jake Mansbridge animation of a poem from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen is just one of the films that came out of the process… and the best are being shown next month at London’s Southbank Centre.
That 20 October screening at the Southbank Centre is part of a six-day festival, Poetry International. If you can’t make the screening, all of the videos are being uploaded to a playlist on the National Poetry Day YouTube channel.
Rankine is no stranger to poetry film. She collaborated with her husband, filmmaker John Lucas, on a series of video essays, a few of which I’ve shared here, and Citizen included both stills and transcripts from those videos. So I was happy when Citizen became so celebrated and widely read on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s also one of those books that every clueless white person should read.
Liz Waldner voices her poem in this newly uploaded video from Denise Newman. Newman, whose experimental work I’ve shared here twice before after encountering it randomly on Vimeo, is a published poet, translator, and multimedia artist who teaches at the California College of the Arts. Liz Waldner is an even more widely published poet with many honors and awards to her name. According to the Poetry Foundation,
Waldner’s work is known for its formal experimentation, reliance on quotation and pastiche, and often playful rhyme schemes. Using long titles, made-up words, and expansive proselike sentences that change topic quickly and constantly, Waldner’s verse, according to poet-critic Stephen Burt, “pays constant homage to the delights of the senses; beside her, most similarly difficult present-day poets seem arid, theoretical, no fun.”
Newman told me in an email that they made I thought I had a very nice time five years ago, and are collaborating on a second video now, which is what prompted her to dig out and share their earlier piece.