from Notes for an Introduction to an Anthology of Videopoems
by Tom Konyves
(Originally submitted to issue no. 47 - The Intersection of Film and Poetry - of Slope, the online magazine for poetry and poetics)
Where to begin. Perhaps Hilary Peach?
I had seen her video “Pennsylvania” a few years ago at Heather Haley’s See The Voice: Visible Verse Festival at the Pacific Cinémathèque, Vancouver’s “sustaining venue for the presentation of new and artistically significant poetry video and film”. Heather had been producing the festival since 1999, when it first appeared at the Video In, another “sustaining venue” for art videos. I participated in that first event with three videopoems, which garnered the unanticipated prize of a year’s subscription to the Capilano Review. I also became friends with Heather, who shared my vice for videopoetry, a term I first used in ‘78 to describe the video I produced with the help of a few artists and poets at the soon-to-be defunct Vehicule Art Gallery in Montreal. I liked Hilary Peach’s video. I liked her voice and her misty mountains, her quick dissolves, her barren landscapes. I liked her smoking factories. When I met up with her a few days later at the Rime Café on Commercial Drive, I could not wait to tell her. Heather pointed her out to me, and I approached her with my usual gushing self.
“Hilary, I have to tell you how much I enjoyed Pennsylvania.”
“Did you?” She almost blushed.
“Yes,” I nodded admiringly. I then heard myself blurt out, “but I don’t know if it’s a videopoem…”
Her reply was swift and severe.
“Who are YOU to say what a videopoem is?”
It was time to broaden my definition.
Thirty-five years before the prophetic lyrics of Johnny Tillotson’s 1961 song “Poetry in Motion” reached the ears of North America’s rockin and rollin teenagers, Marcel Duchamp painted concentric circles on cardboard, placed them on a phonograph to make them spin and recorded the spiraling effect on film. By alternating the drawings with card-mounted concentric lines of raised lettering, essentially rhyming puns, Duchamp’s Rotorelief, with its near-palindromic title, Anemic Cinema, introduced the first form of “poetry in motion”. (I must be sure to include this work in one of my five main categories of videopoetry, namely Kinetic Text, wherein the visual layer is composed of – and limited to – words, letters and signs. And Richard Kostelanetz, of course. His interminable Video Strings. E.M. de Melo e Castro would be great if I could ever get to see S.O.S. for myself. bp nichol’s First Screening is a must. Also Colin Morton’s Primiti Too Ta. To hear Schwitters again!)
Michael Snow’s 1982 So Is This was an important moment (if not poetry exactly). All the animations of the Concretists, especially Augusto de Campos’ Cordeiro. What else. Rui Silveira’s’ Concrete would be a good choice. Geof Huth’s one-hit-wonder, Out of Character. He chants. It’s a hypnotic mantra-like meditation which hovers like a spiritual shepherd over the scan of what seems to be an array of meaningful letters of type. The Argentinian girl, Victoria Messi’s floating letters in B'Prima (mention Mallarmé here). Maybe Gary Barwin.
Poems as scripts (in the form of intertitles) were used as early as 1908; D.W. Griffith based his 17-minute short film, After Many Years, on Tennyson’s Enoch Arden. The following year he produced Pippa Passes, using the text of Robert Browning’s poem. In 1921, painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand produced Manhatta, a portrait of New York, quoting excerpts from Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, again as intertitles to the film.
These early efforts were the result of filmmakers becoming inspired by certain poems to create evocative imagery which (in their eyes) ‘brought the poem to life’ and offered a novel way to experience a published, popular poem. These “poetry films” did not emerge from experimental, avant-garde filmmakers (they certainly did not emerge from poets – Duchamp, Man Ray and, later, LeMaitre were the exceptions); they were representative of cinematic technique applications to ‘tell the story’ in the poem. The poems in these films were narrative devices; the images to accompany the poem were illustrative. The objective was to create a framework of a short narrative film, using the poem as its script, often its narration as well.
(Mention how much I owe to Bart Testa’s paper on “Screen Text” here.)
Avant-garde or experimental poetry in the 20th century is a story of poets discovering the visual and sound potential of their words, the potential for translating the experience of reading a poem, or hearing a poem read, into an audiovisual experience of poetry. As this new hybrid form of art came into being so did a new hybrid form of artist: the poet/filmmaker, the soundpoet, the videopoet.
While the earliest examples of poetry films were adaptations of popular poems made by filmmakers, it was not until poets themselves began using film and video technology that a new, integrated form of text, image and sound became what we now know as a videopoem. (There will always be exceptions, of course. Canadian filmmaker, Rick Hancox, for example, did not simply illustrate Wallace Stevens’ enigmatic poem, A Clear Day And No Memories, in his 1982 film-poem, Waterworx. Hancox emphasized that it “incorporates both oral and written text into the image in a manner that does not simply explain the image but extends the dimension of the film in a further direction.”)
Alternately: Avant-garde poetry leaped into the 20th century with an assault on the visual: by the 1950’s concrete poetry had established itself as a valid form, and there was no doubt that film was the next medium for genuine creative possibilities.
The ability of film to juxtapose unrelated incongruous images appealed to poets and filmmakers alike, but as long as the tools of the art remained with filmmakers, the power of poetry barely made its presence felt.
Or: The progress of poetry in the 20th century is a story of fragmentation, democratization, diversions and unprecedented innovation, caused mostly by the development of new technologies.
Poetry turned both inward (the self-reflexive forms) and outward (the visual forms of concrete poetry, film/videopoems and digital/interactive poetry, as well as the unique expression of poetry through soundpoems and performance).
While filmmakers claimed to have produced “poems”, the fact is that more attention was given to the “poetic syntax” of cinematic juxtaposition –
Dick Higgins. In his 1987 introduction to Pattern Poetry, Dick Higgins spoke of the “ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses, to tie together the experience of these two areas into an aesthetic whole.”
I now define videopoetry as the poetic integration of text, image and sound. The poetic experience of a videopoem is in the magical interaction of these elements. To illustrate a poem with its text-related images is not videopoetry. Videopoetry is what results from the technique of editing: the poetic act of blending, a judicious and considered blending of its three elements, text, image and sound. The first generation of poets using the medium of projecting images onto a screen – and some are still with us, and will always be with us, in the way that Hallmark greeting cards will always represent poetry to the public – the first generation illustrated popular poems using the medium of film. I once referred to illustrated videopoems as rhyming poetry. The anthology should feature poetic works which have gone beyond rhyme; these are poets – although some are filmmakers who have seen the light – artists who have been inspired to create works which are not only radically different from conventional short films, but also different from art films, or video art. They are also aware of their predecessors, the concrete and visual poets who created a new art from their manipulation of text on the page.
Excerpt a few dialogues, e.g., with the British word-artist, Tamarin Norwood. (Beautiful name.)
I wrote to Tamarin, ‘Ever since I began considering what videopoetry is all about, the challenge for me has been the legitimization of the genre. At every step, I have been reconsidering/questioning my declarations, my terms. What I am most satisfied with is:
that the term videopoetry (literally I see + poetry) is a compound word (most pleasing to me, as opposed to poetry videos, film poems, poetry films, cyber-poetry, cine-poetry, visual poetry, kinetic poetry, digital poetry etc.) indicating the integrated form of the genre;
that the form is a true genre;
the definition, i.e. 'the poetic integration of text, image and sound';
that the quality of rhythm in a videopoem is a function of editing;
and that illustration of the text or the voice through its signified image is not videopoetry.’
Also: ‘In videopoetry, the video image, or camera view, tends to dominate the integration of text, image and sound, which is the reason many videopoets try to "minimize" the domination of the image by presenting images as complimentary - or at least, less distracting - juxtapositions to the text. When the camera view draws attention to itself, it loses its complimentary function. In other words, an unstable image is a constant reminder of not only the present moment, but also the operator behind the camera, and every possible accident of the moment becomes magnified until the moment witnessed is no longer the symbol - which is the soul of a poem - but the moment itself, in all its unrelatedness to the work.’
William C. Wees. He edited "Words and Moving Images”, essays from a conference held in Montreal in ’83. He introduced me to Bruce Elder and Rick Hancox, David Foster’s thesis, Al Razutis and… so many others. We do disagree on illustration (and rhyme). I am grateful though for having found this: “The seemingly inappropriate juxtaposition of words and image can set off a dynamic, dialectical process in the spectator’s mind.”
For the longest time, I have wrestled with the definition and poetic was not a frivolous or facile use of the word. "Combination", "integration", "fusion", even "marriage" (Heather Haley's term) are the usual words employed to describe the presence of the three elements. What initially motivated my search for a better definition was the problem I had with the evaluation of how these 3 elements contributed to the experience one could call poetic. It was only my experience/practice of the form that suggested "juxtaposition" and later, "judicious blending" - as a measure of success (or failure). I often compare the practice to a form of "juggling" text, image and sound, whereby the artist/videopoet sustains the poetic experience.
The key to poetic resides in the use of the term text. At some point – (actually, it was a specific point, in response to visual poet Geof Huth’s question, “…Does it [videopoetry] have to display poetic text? or just any text?”) – I decided to separate text from poetry. For my purposes, text becomes, in addition to image and sound, one of the required “elements” or materials of a videopoem, implying a differentiation from the ‘poetic film’ which relies, almost exclusively, on the visual treatment – the composition and editing of the images – in contradistinction to its verbal treatment. Indeed, the text, whether displayed on the screen or heard on the soundtrack of a videopoem, need not be an appropriation of a previously published poem. In fact, I see the appropriation of a previously published poem (the adaptation of a poem) as the original “illustrative” direction of the form which can rightly be described as the poetry-film.’ (Not sufficiently emphatic.)
What differentiates videopoems from poetry-films today is the use of non-poetic texts to effect the experience of a poem – my interpretation of Maya Deren’s “verticality” – in which the text, when extracted and examined as an independent element, can not be identified as “poetry”. The poetry is the effect of the juxtaposed, blended use of text with imagery and sound.
The poetic juxtaposition of the elements implies an appreciation of the weight and reach of each element; the method is analogous to the poet’s process of selecting just-the-right word or phrase and positioning these in a concentrated “vertical” pattern.
I am suggesting a new direction which owes more to the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and the concrete/visual poets than to traditional versifiers. The poetry in these works is to be found more in the reader’s/viewer’s response than in the unexpected juxtapositions of text.
Or: My research points to a new generation of poets who – due to the accessibility of new consumer-level technologies for capturing and editing images and manipulating on-screen type - have developed their visual language skills to the degree that ideas are quickly realized as videos. Still no guarantees for success, but advancements in technology, including the dissemination of work via the Internet, have democratized the playing field. Poetry-films are no longer the exclusive domain of avant-garde filmmakers with a poetic “bent” or orientation.’ (Conclusion?)
When filmmaker Werner Herzog was asked “what made you want to pull such a monstrous ship hundreds of tons over a mountain in the jungle”, a seemingly impossible task which became the central image in the film Fitzcarraldo, he answered, “Because it’s a great metaphor.” For what, he couldn’t say. He did suggest that “it was an image dormant within us, within almost all of us, universally, and sometimes it needs a filmmaker or a poet to excavate it, to make it visible, to show it to the world, and make it a familiar item which belongs to our structure of visions.”
Tom Konyves produced his first videopoem, Sympathies of War, in 1978. He now teaches Visual Poetry, screenwriting, journalism and whatever else he can invent at the University of the Fraser Valley in Abbotsford, British Columbia, the main sponsor of his research project, From Page To Screen: The Emerging Phenomenon of Videopoetry.