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.
Amid racial tensions in communities such as Ferguson, Missouri, and following the unwarranted deaths of young black men like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, two slam poets confront what it means to be black men in America and in their communities. Theo Wilson, once a victim of police brutality, delves into his internal struggle of dealing with the past encounter, remembering how powerless he felt in the face of his oppressor, and his ensuing resolve to change the rules of the game. Beneath the smoldering anger and aftermath of police violence is a growing disquietude toward the future of race relations. Jovan Mays, the poet laureate of Aurora, Colorado, uses his spoken word to express the turmoil of emotions and experiences inherently attached to growing up a black boy in America.
These two related poetry films are by Mary I. Stevens, an associate producer of digital video at CNBC. They deserve to be seen widely in the wake of yet another grotesque miscarriage of justice in the racist police state that the United States has become. Those of us who have the luxury of merely wallowing in outrage and not fearing for our lives (yet), simply because we happen to have been born with white skin, need to hear the testimony of the victims of police violence and humiliation, and ask ourselves whether our anxious calls for peaceful protest aren’t motivated more out of a desire to sweep unpleasant realities under the rug rather than to actually confront the glaring inequities in our society.
Jovan Mays and Theo E. J. Wilson, A.K.A. Lucifury, are members of the Slam Nuba team, who won the National Poetry Slam in 2011. The first film, an artful blend of interview and poetry, contains a few excerpts from the performance of “Burning House” featured in the second film, but devotes much more space to a poem recited by Mays, “To the Black Boys.” The song “Look Down Lord,” included in both films, is performed by Dee Galloway.
To mark the passing of legendary Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Shepilov Barry, Jr.—a unique figure in the American political landscape, to say the least—here’s a terrific performance poem by Kenneth Carroll, mixed with the drumming of a street musician named Vinzee. It’s from the “eclectic documentary series” The Angle Show from Park Triangle Productions and director Gemal Woods. (They do quite a bit of poetry, which is really refreshing for a documentary series.) The video was posted back in December 2011, and the accompanying text notes:
We wanted to have fun especially with this great piece by Kenneth Carroll. I think we did. He is a genius.
Vinzee…just met him traveling. He was gracious to share with us.
Kenneth Carroll doesn’t appear to have a website, but here’s his page at the Poetry Foundation.
(Hat-tip: Sandra Beasley on Facebook)
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:
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.