an Instructor from the American Studies Dpt.,Dortmund University, Germany conducted a seminar on Poetry and Technology for highly gifted and highly motivated students.
1) What comes first? The idea for a video clip, the poem, the music, etc. and how do you then proceed?
It varies. Sometimes I’ll come across a poem and suddenly have the desire to develop imagery to go along with it. Other times, I might have an image in my mind that needs to be expressed and the words follows. Right now, I’m very much into being inspired by different painting styles. Most recently, I have been intrigued by the ancient Chinese brush style and looked at many paintings in museums (and even while eating in Chinese restaurants!) and learned how many of those paintings were of flowers, mountains, birds, animals and pagodas. The style seemed whimsical to me as well as a wonderful aesthetic challenge to see if I could make a video reminiscent of that style. Then I’ll think about how to proceed. Do I draw images in a graphics program or begin creating a 3D scene? In this case, I first created a 3D scene of mountains and a river around a small island with slow moving mists. Then I “repainted” the scene using another program that allowed for me to place various brush style elements on to the 3D scene. This was exciting for me because it was the first time I had taken this approach to making a cinepoem.
It was only after creating the scene using 3D models, animation and video-drawing techniques, that I did research on ancient Chinese poetry and learned about how the Chinese viewed poetry and the subtle yet powerful way they conveyed stories. The result was MIGHTY MOUNTAIN TINY FLOWER a new work currently highlighted on my site.
Mostly, I like to keep myself open to all the muses and try not to get locked in to one particular way of making cinepoems. Places, people, art and poetry is what I look for for inspiration.
2) Are your clips your personal interpretation of poems? Do you want to give your audience new aspects and ways of interpretation and if so, don’t you think that the audience might lose space for his/her own interpretation of the poem?
Of course anything anybody creates is a personal interpretation of something whether they say so or not. No artist can be “objective” about a subject matter they are creating on their own. So yes, my works are personal interpretations or a hodge-podge of interpretations involving me and any collaborators. My works are not easy to digest nor have one single thing to say because I want the audience to be drawn from the ‘experience’ and then apply their own interpretation based on what kinds of thoughts and feelings they are bringing when watching a piece. I certainly can’t stand watching a video or film that doesn’t allow the imagination to take over. So I very much try to stoke the imagination and thoughts of the viewer in my works.
3) What differences do you see between your video clips and music videos that one can see on MTV every day? Both are fusions of lyric texts, tunes and images shown on screen.
Yes, there are no structural differences between MTV and my work in Cin(E)-Poetry.
Certainly, MTV has had a great influence on me growing up and it did show me that very different media elements can be combined to create something interesting and exciting. Where MTV and Cin(E)-Poetry differs is on the emphasis. MTV emphasizes and glorifies music, particularly pop, rock, rap etc. Cin(E)-Poetry emphasizes and glories poetry and the spoken and written word. There probably have been great lyric-poems presented on MTV but they’re drowned out amid the music and the visuals.
In really good cinepoems, there clearly is a distinction between the meaning and delivery of the poem. What's paramount are the visuals and music used to support that. I only use music if it helps set a particular mood or rhythm.
I should add that music is not always used in my work. For reference, see BLACKBIRDS, AN AGELESS CERTAINTY, MEANING in the Cin(E)-Poetry Archive. I wonder if any of these would actually appear on MTV.
4) Would you like the author of the poem to be involved in your project if possible? (like in “An Ageless Certainty”/ “The Haven” by Guy Johnson) And if he/she does not (or cannot) collaborate with you, are you occasionally afraid of misinterpreting his/her poem (or certain aspects of it)? In how far is the original author of the poem still the author?
First, here is a quick literary breakdown of the 21 Cin(E)-Poems I’ve made thus far:
Apparently I enjoy collaborating with poets on these films! What a surprise to me! Yes, I would rather collaborate with a poet in the creation of these films because they bring so much to the visual-making process. Because I used to run the National Poetry Association, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by poets and poetry. My life’s path has always seem to take me to a poet and writer who is curious about the idea of mixing cinema with words. Their artistic instincts (and desire to be heard) makes for a wonderful collaboration for me because they are so willing to have another person immersed in the ideas in their poetry. For me, poetry writing continues to be a struggle and having the collaborating poets around allows me to concentrate on experimenting with visual constructs that will add another layer of meaning, ultimately changing the poem (never improving it).
I’ll share with you a personal story regarding collaboration.
The Cin(E)-Poem ‘BLACKBIRDS’ was a collaboration with poet and teacher David Bengtson of Minnesota. We met for the first time while I was travelling in the area. I decided, as a present from me to him, to make a cinepoem based on one of his poems. I poured through several chapbooks and came upon the prose poem Blackbirds and thought that it would make for an interesting experiment. Here is the actual poem:
The other day a farmer told me,
"They'll wipe out a whole field
if you let them."
The field is ripe with sunflowers.
They swarm from
one field to
by the same thread.
A blackbird on the bent stem
of each burned sunflower
bends to peck at the seeds.
The field now darker
Down by the lake,
In three waves the birds fly off.
The flowers slowly nod
as the birds fill
There is such
noise in those trees.
I crawl through the fence into
the field they have abandoned.
As I walk between the rows,
I can't resist touching
the fine white hair that
grows on each neck.
I can't see the birds.
Their bodies are hidde
among the bare branches
that surround this field.
But I hear them waiting
for me to leave.
At this final service
all heads are bowed.
The relatives have gathered.
They haven't spoken for years.
They argue about who will
get the large brooch.
There is such
noise in those trees.
- David Bengtson, copyright 2001
Visually, the piece intrigued me and as we talked about, learned about the time and place and the reasons he wrote this poem. All of that helped me come up with the cinematic approach to the piece. At the same time, I had it in my head that I wanted to try to do a piece with poetry and only sound effects and felt it could work here. While editing, I found that some of the lines of the poetry were giving me problems. The line ‘There is such noise in those trees’, just didn’t seem to fit along with the other text. I asked David if it would be allright if I could replace that text with an actual sound of noisy birds coming from a tree. He agreed that the point of the line was to convey sound and realized that for me to add screeching bird sounds could work better.
He and I were both very happy with the final results and the piece went on to win a few awards here and there. We both consider BLACKBIRDS the cinepoem to be a collective authorship.
As for working with Dead Poets; this is ALWAYS the hardest for me because, unlike above, I cannot bounce ideas off the dead nor get their okay on changes. The main reason I created Agitated Beauty was to expose Syvlia Plath’s actual voice to a wider audience. It was stunning to me to hear her voice on tape and I felt that putting it to film would be a great way for others to experience it to. In this piece, she is actually reading it and I do not make any changes or omissions and I sought to include imagery that would be captivating to people but wouldn’t interfere with what she was trying to convey. The film is simply a woman going for a swim at night with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the background. I wanted the audience to fall easy into the ‘spell’ of the scene so their ears would pay closer attention to Plath.
In ee cummings’ ‘somewhere I have never travelled’, I was actually a little concerned with misinterpreting his poem but then I thought about what “interpretation” actually means. I spoke to a few people who also knew the poem and they really didn’t experience this poem in the same way beyond its obvious elements. It seemed that they loved the poem on the page for different reasons either for its radical use of text in a book to how the poem helped them “get through high school”. I realized that nobody has (or should) have the same interpretation of a work of art. Who has the same experience when viewing the Mona Lisa for the first time? Who has the exact same relationship to a favorite song? Some of the best works of art have many different layers of meaning and should, at the very least, point the viewer to engage in it in their own personal way. That is mostly what I try to do with my work and I’m always amazed ( and glad) when someone shares some new insights about my work because it brings me something new as well! So now usually I just tell people that ‘somewhere I have never travelled’ is indeed MY interpretation of the ee cummings poem, nothing less nor more.
5) How do you finance your projects? Do you receive any grants?
I mostly finance my projects with personal funds. I purchased my laptop and camera for a grand total of $3,500 in savings and scammed free editing software from friends. After that, the only out of pocket expenses are miniDV tapes (about $12 per) and VHS or Beta duplication copies of finished works to send to festivals. I’ve actually stopped sending my works to festivals now so I can eliminate that cost.
In reality, I have everything I need to make high-quality cinepoems and no longer need to wonder if grant money will come in to pay for anything. Time is all I need now to create these works and since I’ve been able to enhance my skills through the creation of cinepoetry, I’ve been making good money as a contractor hired to create digital film works for museums and artists around the world. The ability to make your own high-quality film from scratch has never been cheaper or easier and I preach this ethos to all my students and anyone who will listen.
6) Would you define yourself exclusively as a new media poet or have you considered publishing in traditional print formats, such as in books or magazines?
A very good question. I suppose I define myself as a digital artist. Everything I create is manufactured in the digital realm which allows me to easily explore, deconstruct and experiment with different mediums including poetry. I don’t really see myself as a poet since I don’t like to write and write perhaps two poems a year at most. I really don’t know what “new media” is and tend to think that it’s just a collision of several old mediums. The Internet being the newest medium that is changing the way we perceive and experience ideas.
Also, I do not endeavor to separate the poetry from my videos or vice versa because, to me, each one would then only exist as a shadow of its former self. My films and videos are published in the form they are in and would be very different if its elements were separated.
Having said all that, I do create art in some very traditional ways. For instance, I create large size digital prints from photos that have been made to look like a watercolor or impressionist painting. I enjoy making digital prints because sometimes you just want to be able to look at something on your wall that looks good and evokes some feeling. Sometimes I just don’t want to have to pop in a DVD or turn on my computer to enjoy something I’ve created. I do write a poem now and then for a publication. This can be excruciatingly painful because I try to write something that I think would never work as a cinepoem!!??!! Would you believe that!
Where do you see the direct advantages of the new media?
The connection I have with you and your university is a result of the advantages of new media. Somehow, a teacher found my website with my videos and was able to show them to students to help broaden their educational horizons half way across the world. New Media is inexpensive and allows artists from all over the world to make their work available to anyone. For me as an artist and teacher, I get to show and discuss my work with anyone with a computer and that is always the most exciting. This wasn’t possible even a few years ago. Since my work has been online, I’ve been invited to museums and universities around the world to speak about Cin(E)-Poetry and videopoetry.
Also, I have a media rich online portfolio that employers can quickly examine and decide if my style is something they want for a particular job. I get jobs like this quite frequently.
More importantly, as an artist, I can create artwork that can incorporate high-quality sound, music, graphics, video and animation into a fused work that is of equal technical quality to any professional studio. The cost is minimal and I can create whatever I want without having to think too much about how I am going to “pay for it”.
7) Do you personally prefer reading poems or do you prefer watching them? Why?
Depends on my mood and which medium I want to examine and study. If I feel like sitting down and being away from the technology, I will read poems or listen to others read their poetry. When I read poetry, I read it with the intention of understanding the poem at my own pace, often times rereading it over and over again. Now that I’ve worked with poets, heard their voice and understand the importance of “emphasis”, I will always feel I’m not reading a new poem the way the poet intended. The poems I enjoy on the page take advantage of punctuation marks and spaces to help the reader read the poem as intended.
If I want to see some new video techniques of videopoets then I will watch them mostly to study and observe. I think if I am watching a movie or video, not expecting any poetry to come from it, and it suddenly appears in the story line for a few minutes, I am thrilled and delighted because I was surprised by its beauty and artfulness. The trouble that I have with many films and videos with poetry in them is it is not easy to ‘reread’ the poem because you are at the whim of the pacing of the film. It comes and goes and you cannot just sit with it and think about for long stretches. This is one of the reasons I like putting my films on the Internet and on the Digital Canvas device. People can browse the cinepoems and review any single piece because they are short. Also, you can still ‘read’ a poem on a videoscreen. My hope is that in the near future, we will have electronic books that will have the look and feel of books but have moving electronic type and images.
8) How did you get to know about the fairly new concept of video poetry? When did you first use the Internet as a means publishing your poems?
I first became exposed to video poetry when I worked as a volunteer at the National Poetry Association NPA in San Francisco back in 1991. That group started in 1975 as the Poetry Film Workshop showing films made by poets. Since that time, they had amassed a nice archive of poetry films spanning 15 years and I offered to clean up the archive which was a mess of unlabled film cans. Soon after watching these films I became very excited that I was watching something very different and very exciting for me as a filmmaker. Later I became director of the Poetry Film Festival and worked to get entries from around the world to show to the public in SF. During the next 5 years I met many poetry film/video poet makers and watched over 1000 good (and bad) films. I soon learned what it took to make a good videopoem and began to write a few articles defining the genre and tried to put the films and videos on TV.
Around 1994, the NPA got its first computer and we had access to the Internet early because we had someone on the board that worked for a lab that helped created the Internet. Even though I was “browsing” the Internet before there were browsers, I could see there was a potential for getting poetry out to people in a new and inexpensive way. I taught myself how to create a webpage and built the NPA’s first page in 1995 which included various poems.
Because it was difficult and expensive to put anything on TV here in the U.S., I soon began to experiment with finding ways to put our collection of videopoems online for people to see. The result was an early media endeavor called NETVIDEO which worked well enough but the only people who could watch videos on the Internet then were people who had impossibly powerful computers and had to still wait hours for a 2 minute clip to be downloaded. In 1996, I renamed the Poetry Film festival to the Cin(E)-Poetry Festival to better reflect the coming changes in the types of mediums that were eventually going to deliver poetry through digital technology.
I waited a few more years until the ease and price of web building and video editing software became cheap enough for me to buy my own domain name, web space, computer and digital video camera. In 2000, I launched my website, which had only a few short videos, and had planned to create and distribute my work via the Internet with the belief that more people, schools and business would gain access to faster dial up speeds.
Thanks for taking your time to answer these questions!
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