When We Get Lonely, It Will Be Together by Melissa Studdard and Kelli Russell Agodon

“Meet the Queens of Quarantine Poetry” is Houston Public Media‘s only slightly clickbaity title for this seamless blend of interview and videopoem. From the YouTube description:

In this time of quarantine and self-isolation, two friends have been co-writing a series of poems inspired by the coronavirus pandemic.

Houston poet Melissa Studdard and Seattle poet Kelli Russell Agodon connect across the miles through Zoom to read their poem “When We Get Lonely, It Will Be Together” and to describe what it means to create art during a pandemic.

Dave McDermand and Joe Brueggeman handled the recording and editing, and Catherine Lu did the interviews. Lu tweeted that it was “Possibly [the] coolest project I’ve done for @HoustonPubMedia.”

I follow both poets on social media and have been reading their collaboratively written quarantine poems with great interest, so it was wonderful to get some background on how the project evolved: out of their pre-existing habit of writing together in a virtual shared study space, using video conferencing software and reading each other’s drafts on Google docs. It’s great that they’re letting the rest of us read over their shoulders, as it were, especially given the pressure from literary journals to hide all one’s poetry away in order to keep it eligible for submission. I advise following Kelli and Melissa on Twitter, where they post the drafts as jpegs. Here are links to some of the more recent ones, posted on April 21, April 22, April 25, April 27, May 5two on that day, and May 8.

Twenty Times by Caroline Rumley

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This deservedly won the Audience Award at the 2020 REELpoetry/Houston TX festival in January, where I first saw it and was moved by the juxtaposition of disturbing imagery — either actual police body camera footage, or a very good simulacrum of it — with the speaker’s sedate description of her own backyard: a powerful indictment of the racism and class divisions permeating American society, where Black men risk death by police or vigilante shooting every time they go out the door, even into their own grandmother’s backyard. Rest in peace, Stephon Clark. I wish this videopoem didn’t still feel so necessary and relevant.

Twenty Times was runner-up in the Atticus Review 2019 Videopoem Contest. Marc Neys, the contest judge, wrote:

“Twenty Times” is a powerful political and poetic video. The use of ‘lo-fi’ imagery adds to the suspense and darkness of the video. The contrast with the every day life described in the poem sets the perfect base for the message.

Click through for a bio of Rumley, and visit her website for links to all her films.

Přehlídka / A Parade by Jaromír Typlt

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A new videopoem by Marc Neys in response to a text and reading by Czech poet Jaromír Typlt, translated for the English subtitles by David Vichnar. The footage is from Jan Eerala, and the music is Neys’ own. He quotes Typlt in the Vimeo description:

The central image of the poem is the “postcard rack”, but the second meaning is now also the meaning of corona-restrictions of the international movements: I wrote the poem in my Paris isolation (confinement).

Typlt added this in a blog post (adapted from a Google translation):

There are two dangers to “filmed poems”: either they illustrate the text too literally with a picture, or they are so loose that they are interchangeable with anything else. And that is why for me SWOON (Marc Neys), a video artist from Belgium, is such a remarkable phenomenon: he can open a space free enough for the text, and at the same time close-fitting. […] The film A Parade is our third collaboration after In the Sign (2013) and Instincteia (2014). This time the voice recording was not made in the studio, but in makeshift conditions at the same window in Paris where the whole strange vision was born on April 10, 2020…

Consensus trance by Janet Lees

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A new video from artist and poet Janet Lees, who calls it

A film poem for the end times
Words & imaging by Janet Lees, with thanks to Richard Heinberg for the title. Image taken on the last Thursday in April 2020.
Music, ‘On a Thursday in April’ by Crysalide Shoegaze

Becoming the Other Becoming by Laura Mullen

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Perhaps I’m a bit too logocentric, but seeing the word “social” torn in half hit me like a punch to the gut.

There’s a “with poem” version of this (above) and a “without poem” version, the difference being the presence or absence of a voiceover. Laura Mullen is one of the more widely published American poets to also make videopoems. Shockingly, this is only the third video of hers I’ve shared here. Do browse her work on Vimeo.

as the breath is… by Endre Farkas

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A “Videopoem created together in isolation during the COVID-19 Pandemic” by Montreal-based poet Endre Farkas (text, vocals), Martin Reisch (video and editing), Carolyn Marie Souaid (accompanying vocals), and Gregory Fitzgerald (sound engineering). Farkas and Souaid previously collaborated on Blood is Blood, which won the ZEBRA International Poetry Film Festival’s “Best Film for Tolerance” in 2012.

Sometimes the best videopoems arise from a simple idea flawlessly executed, and this is I think an example of that. All of the lockdown’s pent-up frustration and anxieties (about breathing, among other things) find visceral expression as the text is breathed, stretched and seemingly stitched into the very fabric of the biosphere. On the front page of his website, Farkas describes how it came to be made in a short essay which is worth quoting in full:

This poem has been around the block a few times. Sitting in a bar in Trois Rivières in the 1980s, during its annual poetry festival, a few poets, including me, were asked to compose a brief poem on a handmade paper coaster and then read it to the audience.

I had always been interested in line lengths in poems, usually referred to as beats, feet or breath. I always liked the measure of breath. Breath is best. It made sense that the measure of a line of a poem (an oral form) be measured in breaths not feet. I had also been working with dancers to whom breath was a concern. People take breath for granted. It’s an automatic function. The dancers made me conscious of its actuality and necessity. So breath was floating in my brain. And after a few glasses of wine or beer, not sure, I came up with the first draft of the poem.

When it came to reading it, I decided to “breathe” the poem. This is how and when the poem “as the breath is…” first had life breathed into it.

I had performed it a couple of times over the years before I met Carolyn Marie Souaid, another poet. I don’t remember why or when exactly she agreed to do it with me, but I remember how much richer the poem became. The texture, the meshing, the lyrical, the cacophony, was enriched because of her participation.

Recently, BV (Before Virus), Carolyn & I went into Studio Sophronik to record some poems. “as the breath…” was one of them. The sound engineer, Greg Fitzgerald, who was used to recording music, didn’t know what to make of the poem. But he liked it. He asked if I would allow him to play with it. I have always liked collaborations, so I said, “of course.” A few days later he sent me an mp3 of it. I was blown away. The reverb, echo took it to another level. I listened to it a couple of times and filed it away, feeling that I would like to be able to perform this live.

Then came the plague. I knew that performing it live was not going to be possible. The option was online. For that I needed visuals. I had a bunch of photoshopped images that seemed to fit the bill. However, it would require the animation of stills. My go-to videographer, Martin Reisch, thought it might be too complicated to do in these isolation conditions. He suggested that he go through his archives and find appropriate clips to collage together and synch it to the audio. Again, the collaborative sensibility kicked in and I agreed.

​So, to make a short poem long, the videopoem, “as the breath is…”, (a day in the life and death of breath) is a collaboration in isolation brought to fruition by the plague. “as the breath is…” is an artifact of this time.

Pregnant with the Dead by Susan Rich

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Director Tova Beck-Friedman calls this “A cine-poem about the space between suffering and life lived. It’s also about survival and the unforgotten pain.” Dancer Juliet Neidish’s interpretation of the poem, choreographed by Beck-Friedman, is juxtaposed with archival footage for maximum emotional effect.

Susan Rich is the poet, and I was stunned to read an open letter on her blog detailing how the film was commissioned by the Visible Poetry Project and then censored at the very last moment, apparently for being insufficiently pious about the Holocaust! An astonishing and outrageous decision. All the more reason to share it here, then, of course (though I’d intended to anyway, before I’d read Rich’s post). I’ve been happy to see it getting well-deserved attention on social media, as well. As Rich notes in her open letter,

If there were ever a time to support each other, that time is now. The best art pushes and challenges us to the point of discomfort.