I’m guilty of a lot of oversights and memory failures, but it’s hard to believe I never got around to posting this visually stunning film featuring the exiled Cambodian American spoken-word poet Kosal Khiev. Directed by Masahiro Sugano, it was released in 2011 by Cambodia-based Studio Revolt and was screened at the 2012 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, where it won a prize for Best Poem Performance on Film.
In the Vimeo description for Why I Write, Sugano shared a lengthy essay about how he came to meet and work with Khiev. I particularly liked this bit:
The truth is. I don’t really understand poems. It’s mostly the language issue. English is my second language. I don’t really hear lyrics in songs. Forget rappers. Poetry usually passes over my head as well. So what he was giving, I did not really get. Those rhymes confuse my immigrant ears. But I got what he was telling. It wasn’t the word. This guy knew what it was all about. He was making it real. He captivated me despite my limitation on poetic appreciation. It was very clear to me from the very first line. It wasn’t the poetry. It was him. He was showing and revealing himself, his emotions, through the vehicle of words called poetry. I had this incomprehensible chills in my spine throughout his performance. This is called transcendence. There are few people in the world who can move you beyond category or background. He was one of them. He was transcending his genre of spoken word poetry. His poetry did not call for comprehension. It only engaged and revealed, for which you do not need knowledge. That’s where he was playing. And it was kicking my ass.
He performed another piece for me. I learned soon afterwards spoken word artists use the word “kick” to mean perform. So instead of perform or share a piece of poetry, you “kick” a piece. I’m not a very cool person so I would make you blush if I said something like, “Can you kick a piece?” So I am not using that term, but I think it’s like the official term. Anyhow, the dude “kicked” another piece for me. And we said good-bye.
I can’t believe I’d never run across this terrific poetry-dance film before today, when a Google video search for Gwendolyn Brooks’ most famous poem turned it up. The YouTube description reads:
National Dance Institute’s Celebration Team performs “We Real Cool” in an NDI original movie short. Scenery by Red Grooms. Poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. Choreography by Amy Lehman. (movie contains full credits)
There’s a more populist aesthetic at work here than in most of the dance videos I’ve shared, and it’s also a proper film, not merely a documentary video of a dance performance. And no wonder: it was the work of Emile Ardolino, “a dance-film maker of exceptional sensitivity” according to his 1993 obituary in the New York Times. He was best known as the director of Dirty Dancing and Sister Act. The obituary continued: “He had an eye and an imagination that seemed to understand intuitively how to lend the immediacy of film to an art that often requires the distance and framing of a stage.”
The overhead shot of the kids imitating a pool game was my favorite part, but the device of having them emerge from a painting was brilliant, too. You might be wondering, as I was, how Ardolino and these celebratory dancers are going to deal with the poem’s morbid last line without resorting to melodrama. I think they pulled it off.
National Dance Institute (NDI) is
a non-profit arts education organization founded in 1976 by ballet star Jacques d’Amboise.
Through in-school partnerships, workshops, and public performances, NDI uses dance as a catalyst to engage children and motivate them towards excellence.
It sounds as if the NDI had a lot to do with Ardolino’s subsequent box-office success, judging from the Times obituary.
It was Jacques d’Amboise, a principal dancer with the City Ballet, who set Mr. Ardolino on his Hollywood career with an invitation to direct “He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’.” An account of Mr. d’Amboise’s work with children, which won Mr. Ardolino the 1983 Academy Award for best documentary feature, two Emmys, a Peabody Award and other honors.
We Real Cool was made the very same year as Dirty Dancing, according to a timeline on the NDI site.
- A Celebration of Literature unites important American writers, composers, visual artists and choreographers to create short, theatrical ballets for children. “We Real Cool” is created from the poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, and is filmed in a vacant lot in New York City’s Lower East side, with a backdrop mural designed by Red Grooms.
The poet and reader here, Kallie Falandays, runs Tell Tell Poetry, a site dedicated to “making poetry fun again,” and true to form, this is a fun piece — and a bit of a departure for Swoon (Marc Neys), both in the high-energy style of the reading and the way it’s incorporated into the film. As he says in a recent blog post,
I found the poem at The Poetry Storehouse, but it was Kallie Falandays’ jagged reading that made me pick this up.
I first created a soundtrack where her reading could be the spiky centerpiece. [Listen on SoundCloud.]
The visuals for this one came fairly easy. A string of footage (found and filmed) was edited close to the rhythm and pace of the soundscape. I wanted everyday objects (almost still life) juxtaposed with images of the everyday rat race. For some reason that works well and results in an overall strange atmosphere.
I was prompted to post a second Swoon videopoem this week by the realization that I have missed quite a few good ones this year. I think that’s excusable, though, given that he’s released 70 poetry films in 2014 (so far), collaborating with poets both famous and obscure from all over the world. Considering how many of his films have appeared in festivals and exhibitions, not to mention on this and other websites, it’s fair to say that Neys is doing more to bring poetry to the screen than any filmmaker alive — all on a shoestring budget.
This is the most recent of three short videopoems by Ruben Quesada based on texts from Dan O’Brien‘s new poetry collection Scarsdale. (The other two are “Greenwich / Isle of Dogs” and “Breaking the Ice.”) Scarsdale was published last month in London by CB Editions, but an American edition is due out next year from Measure Press, according to the description on Vimeo.
It’s great to see a poet and editor of Quesada’s stature getting into videopoetry. He’s been at it for at least six months, judging from his output on Vimeo, and as this video demonstrates, he already has a pretty deft touch.
An exemplary use of collage in this videopoem by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, incorporating the Eric Garner footage along with other shots of police brutality and newspaper-headline-style snippets of text. The description at Vimeo:
My name is Rachel Eliza Griffiths. I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.
“Incident” by Amiri Baraka read by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Visual Text include references & lines from
Allen Ginsberg’s “America”
Carrie Mae Weems “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried”
Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
The inclusion of multiple voices in a videopoem is something that doesn’t happen very often, for some reason, but I think it’s very effective here. Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and photographer whose “literary and visual work has been widely published in journals, magazines, anthologies, and periodicals including Callaloo, The New York Times, Poets & Writers, The Writer’s Chronicle, Crab Orchard Review, Mosaic, RATTLE,” and many others. See her website for more.
As I was preparing this post, I noticed that the video has also just been featured at Cultural Front.
The poem and confluence of words, still images, and disturbing video footage come to us quickly within the span of 141 seconds. Multiple viewings are necessary to grasp all that Griffiths presents here. She really stretches the boundaries of poetry, video, and artistic protest. Her contribution is a really distinguishing moment in the production of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and beyond.
It’s encouraging to see the prominent role of poets and poetry in what is increasingly looking like a new American civil rights movement. Since I wrote about #BlackPoetsSpeakOut at Moving Poems Magazine the other week, videos with that hashtag have continued to appear online and number in the hundreds now. And there was an excellent article by Matt Petronzio in Mashable, of all places: “Refusing silence: Black poets protest and mourn in verse.”
As Black Poets Speak Out grows, more and more poets are reading their original work. But most people so far have read the work of famous poets, such as Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, as well as renowned contemporary poets, including Evie Shockley and Cornelius Eady.
“I think most people are doing other people’s work initially, because that work is there and still, unfortunately, relevant. And that’s the thing about poetry — when it was used in the Black Arts Movement as protest poetry, it was because it was an immediate response. It was something to do quickly,” [Jonterri] Gadson says.
Perhaps that’s why so many people, even outside Black Poets Speak Out, are turning to poetry, after their own words fail them. In the wake of tragedy, it can help make sense of the senseless; iconic black poets’ words are painfully timeless.
While purely documentary videos of poetry readings can be wonderful, I’ll remain on the lookout for those that incorporate video remix and other elements of true videopoetry to share here. Any and all tips are appreciated. I’d also encourage poets who might be interested in following Griffiths’ example to check out our list of online resources for videopoem makers.