POETRY VIDEO COMES OF AGE, by Dwight Okita
Hot August Night
August 1, 1991. At the Hot House in Wicker Park, the folding chairs are grouped around three glowing TV sets. From a distance, it looks like three living rooms with the walls removed. In fact, sitting there you start to FEEL like you're sitting in someone's living room. Is this some perverse new experiment for the Nielsen ratings? A global village? An urban Stonehedge? Nah. It's Chicago's first poetry video festival, brought to you by the Guild Complex.
First up on the monitors is a segment from the MacNeil / Lerhner News Hour. Eddie Two Rivers and Marvin Tate can be seen reading their poems to an animated Green Mill crowd. Not really a poetry video in the truest sense, but an appealing entry point to an evening of poetry video adventures. Lisa Buscani's poetry video, "Sex Talk," shot by Kurt Heintz, features poet Buscani standing in the ironic, unromantic setting of a laundromat as she delivers her poem. It's a brassy, brazen discourse on men: "She say, 'Honey, I'm Cosmo's 90%, the clitorally orgasmic woman.' He says, 'Honey, that will have to change." This video, driven more by performance than by high-tech intervention, is simple and engaging. All in all, a democratic poetry video.
Belle Kerman's video "W(h)uman" is a whirling, windswept video celebrating womanhood and other words starting with the letter "w." The dominant image is of Kerman spinning in a field of snow, her image manipulated into a series of frames that freeze, then seem to fall like dominos across the screen. This is one of the more technically ambitious video of the night, marked by image processing, split-screens, and frenetic pacing. Dwight Okita's (this Writer's) poetry video "Crossing with the Light," directed by Marsha V. Morgan, appears on-screen. Grainy black and white stills of the streetcorner at Clark and Diversey give way to live action color shots of pedestrians and cars on a summer night, as the poet does a voice-over of his ode to urban love; "And scientists would stand in white coats and talk / amongst themselves about the Doppler Effect: / how love takes longer to arrive than to depart, / a car approaching in the oncoming lane."
Loofah Method's video "The Night I Married My TV Set," shot by Kurt Heintz, features the onscreen presence and poetry of Cindy Salach. A mysterious blue light pulses as if through Venetian blinds across Salach's white wedding gown, giving the video a lush, surprisingly cinemaic feel. We see the bride / poet standing at a church altar speaking about her desire to bond with her boob tube. It's a stylish piece built around a strong poem--a poem which could almost be an anthem to poetry video, to the marriage between the poet's art and video technology.
The evening ends with an "open VCR" where people who have brought their own poetry videos can get a screening over the monitors. And though this part of the evening runs on too long, people seem to leave the festival feeling stimulated, empowered.
An Overview Of Poetry Video
What is a poetry video anyway? A loose description might be: a video with a poem at its center. Think of a music video, but with a poem on the soundtrack instead of a song. The words can be voiced-over, spoken on camera, or graphically represented. Sometimes music plays underneath. Ideally the poetic image and video image do not simply mirror each other, but rather they resonate and deepen each other's meaning.
Unlike performance poetry, poetry video is a collaborative art form. At the very least, two people are required to make one: a director, sound and light people, extras, and a video editor. It's like making a little movie, starring your poem. But this also means working with creative people with ideas of their own. Be open to them. And choose people to work with whose visions complement yours.
Why go to all this trouble? What's wrong with going to an opn mike at a bar? Nothing's wrong with the club scene. Poetry video is not meant as a replacement for live poetry, or printed poetry for that matter--it's an alternative to them. It's one more way to express yourself. As for the question of why should one go to all this trouble, that's up to you. Poetry video is not for everyone. But for those who are drawn to the artistic possibilities and control of the form--it's worth the extra work. Another advantage to poetry video is the possibility of reaching a more diverse audience, the chance for the work generated by Chicago's thriving poetry scene to be exported throughout the country and impact the national consciousness. In an ideal world, we could all do this through books, but anyone who's tried to publish a book of poetry knows how hard it is.
Where did poetry video begin? That's hard to say. But it's a fair guess that the idea occurred rather simultaneously in different parts of the country, perhaps because it was an idea whose time had come. To be fair, in recounting the emergence of the art form, one must acknowledge th emergence of the music video in the early 80s. A strange animal to be sure, when first sighted the music video must have seemed an unholy cross between a Boadway musical and a commercial. But ten years later, MTV is still going strong and music videos have gone onto influence advertising, television and cinema.
A brief history lesson on the emergence of poetry video might go something like this:
1983--Chicago artist Arturo Cubacub makes a poetry video called "Ah Luv Ya Like." In the piece, a dancer moves across the screen as a poem is rhythmically intoned off-screen. Michelle Fitzsimmons performs in the video. Cubacub follows up this video with one called "Orbit" which wins awards at film festivals in places as far away as Athens and Portugal, as well as at the Chicago Film Festival.
1985--The Manhattan Poetry Video Project produces three poetry videos featuring Bob Holman, Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg. New York's Limelight Club sends out flashy invitations bearing the phrase: "I think that I shall never see a poetry video on TV" and throws a big bash for the premiere showing of these works. Curiously, in all three videos the poems are sung: Holman raps; Waldman punks; Ginsberg gets folky. Call me old-fashioned, but for my money when the words in a poetry video are sung, it becomes a music video. Quibbles aside, the Manhattan Poetry Video Project generates lots of welcome media attention.
Circa 1987--San Francisco initiates an annual Poetry Video and Film Festival, drawing hundreds of entries from around the country.
1988--the Chicago-made poetry video "Crossing with the Light" is produced for cable through the graces of Chicago Access Corporation. It proceeds to make its public television debut on "Image Union." Fox TV shows a clip from the piece on the evening news and National Public Radio broadcasts a segment in which the video is discussed and debated.
1988--The New York Center for visual History spends an astounding $7 million on an innovative new series called "Voices & Visions." Instead of focusing on the lives of the poets (Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson among them), the shows focus on their poems by creating poetry videos. Unfortuantely, no living poets are included.
1991--PBS's "Alive From Off Center" series, which showcases cutting edge art, opens it's '91 season with "Words in Your Face." It's an MTV-like smorgasbord of contemporary poetry videos by twenty very live poets, including poetry video pioneer Bob Holman. It's a handsomely produced show punctuated with dark humor and feisty poetic performances. Former Chicago poets Carl Watson and Sharon Mesmer are among the New York talent featured. Curiously, nowwhere in the show is the term "poetry video" ever mentioned.
1991--Chicago throws its first poetry video festival at the Guild Complex at the Hot House in Wicker Park.
What People Are Saying
Mike Warr, coordinator of guild Complex, which has recently formed a poetry video sub-committee to plan poetry video events at the Hot House: "I think what's exciting is the discovery nature of poetry video . . . that poets can see the possibilities in video. We've all seen videos of poets reading poems on a stage--but by combining poems with music, dance, and other art forms--you're really producing a poetry mini-movie."
Galway Kinnell who was featured in "Poetry Breaks," an experiment on Boston public television in which poets read their poems between TV shows, said in a recent interview: "Poetry has become much more a part of the cultural life of this country, and that it has come to television, to some degree, is just a further sign of its reintegration into our culture."
Kurt Heintz, poetry video maker and member of Loofah Method has these recommendations for poets who want to get involved in poetry video: "1) Be literate, go out and see things, have something to say 2) Think in visual terms. Go to movies, watch them aggresively. 3) Go to events at Facets Multimedia, Experimental Film Coalition and Center for New Television."
Effie Mihopoulos, editor of Ommation Press: "I think poetry videos are the wave of the future. People will watch videos and listen to performance poetry. The same is true for "poetry plays" at theaters--they'll sit through them and watch them gladly, but they won't sit through a poetry reading. And I think especially with videos you can get a younger crowd more interested too 'cause it's a hipper medium."
But perhaps it's best to let the medium of poetry video speak for itself. What follows is an excerpt from Loofah Method's new poetry video "The Night I Married My TV Set" written by Cindy Salach:
It was the blue light running
.....through my veins
that started my heart again. The
of an emotional script that made me
forget my blue promise.
It was the tunnel of electricity
that shot me forward
into you, into tomorrow . . .
How To Make a Poetry Video
Though there are no hard and fast rules about making a poetry video, there are some helpful rules of thumb.
1) Start with a poem that has some inherent drama to it, some passion, and lends itself to visual exploration.
2) Close your eyes and dream. Picture the way your poetry video might look on a movie screen. Then take a blank sheet of paper and make what's called a story board. On the left side put your visual ideas (stick figures are fine), On the right side put the lines of your poem.
3) Hook up with video people. Chicago Access Corporation, the School of the Art Institute, Columbia College, and Center for New Television might be some good places to start. Check out their bulletin boards, volunteer to work on someone else's project, post up notices describing your own project.
4) Shoot the rough footage. If you've done your homework--scouting locations to shoot, storyboarding, late night meetings in coffeeshops with your director--you should be able to shoot everything in a matter of hours, certainly in less than a day.
5) Edit your material. First, you'll need to log in what's on your rough footage tapes. That way, you'll know where to find the shots you want to use. Lay the audio track. This consists of reading your poem into a micropphone, along with any background music you might want to use. Now with the help of an editor, you can begin creating the master tape by matching up bits of selected rough footage with the audio track.
6) Show the world. Once you've finished creating your masterpiece, share it with people. Hold private screenings, send it out to film and video fests, try to get your poetry video on TV programs that feature video work. And when you've done all of that--start working on your next one!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF THIS ARTICLE
Dwight Okita's latest project is a book-length manuscript titled Serotonin City, a memoir of three years of moodswings. His screenplay "My Last Week on Earth" was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab Competition. And his poetry book Crossing with the Light, was published by Tia Chucha Press. (Information excerpted from Power Lines, Tia Chucha Press, 1999; photo by Jenifer Girard)
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