Talking Points: Terms of Service, Illustration, Performance
by Tom Konyves
The less conventional forms of expression are, the more scope they allow for interpretation.
– Umberto Eco
Terms of service
If you, like me, are engaged passionately in this (relatively) new art form/genre deemed more or less a micro-practice by society at large, “What is a poetry film?” or, alternately, as it has been mostly presented to me, “What is a videopoem?” is a question you probably have been asked and, likely, will be asked. So, here’s one possible answer: A poetry film is a visual treatment of a pre-existing poem; a videopoem is a visual treatment of any text that results in a poetic experience. It is always interesting to note which artists – filmmakers or poets? – identify with one or the other term. It appears that the majority of artists, writers and organizations (dedicated websites, festivals, sponsors, academia) prefer “poetry film”, especially in the UK and Germany.
In 1999, writing for the “Film Poem” touring series of screenings organized by Peter Todd and LUX, London, William C. Wees, the go-to-guru for writers on film poems, provided a most useful definition: “the distinction between poetry film and film poems lies mainly in the former’s incorporation of a poetic text on the sound track or presented directly on the screen.” (A new term, “motionpoems” – best described by the organization’s animator/producer, Motionpoems’ Angella Kassube: “to me, the highest artistic version of words is a poem… to be able to use that… as a script, basically…” – sidesteps the film/video distinction but its poem-as-script method clearly refers to the poetry film.) Essentially, poetry films introduced filmic treatments of pre-existing poems while film poems continued to be associated with what Wees called “short, non-narrative films composed of impressionistic or semi-abstract imagery carefully edited for rhythmic effects, complex formal relationships, and metaphorical or symbolic significance.” (Note the relevant absence of ‘a poetic text’ here.) Aside from some significant explorations of word-image relationships (think structural film), film poems deliberately avoided using words; the emphasis was always to remain with the medium, its self-reflexive subject and materiality. In fact, film poems could be considered a brief but necessary phase in the century-long history of avant-garde film, a phase relinquished without much ado by the ’80s. By then, the legitimacy of film as an art form was no longer a fundamental question; calling a particular film a “poem” lacked the paradoxical resonance it had in an earlier time, a time when self-justification demanded the rhetorical flourish, “This film is not just a film; it’s a poem!” (I would say it became a categorical imperative.)
When a ‘poetic text’ does appear in a film, Wees tells us, the genre or classification should be referred to as a poetry film, not a film poem. But within two decades, technology shifts from film to video to the web (e-poetry), along with the exponential progression in the production of “content”. Today, our poem-on-the-page finds itself more than ever in demand by a voracious generation dedicated to “embellishing” poems with images.
And here is where I come in. For some time now, I’ve been proposing a third term with which to approach certain word and image juxtapositions, namely the “videopoem”. Unlike film poems and poetry films today, I envisioned a post-film term – post 1980 – that does not privilege the pre-existing poem as the “untouchable”, unchanging, unalterable text element of the work.
Filmmakers must interpret, or convey a poem which must be present in its entirety.
–2018 Ó Bhéal International Poetry Film Competition
Instead, the text in a videopoem could be drawn from any source, print or otherwise, found as a visible object in the environment, a fragment, words overheard in a conversation, texted, excerpted, in the process of erasure, hand-written, out of the mouth of sound artists, out of the mouth of babes, etc.
“What is the very essence of poetry if it is not this marking
of the before-unapprehended relations of things?”
– Owen Barfield
There are, in my view, certain univocal pre-existing poems that should be avoided; for if the significant function of the juxtaposed image, in my view, is to enable a radical, subversive “before-unapprehended” re-interpretation of the presented text, consider to what lengths must such a poem go, what descriptive restrictions or unambiguous observations it must contain to remain autonomous, to resist any recontextualization, any interpretation – other than conventional illustration?
Illustration and the function of the image
A key to appreciating the art, or aesthetic value, in a poetry film or a videopoem could be found in the first “establishing shot”, commonly referred to as the setting; it is through this “conceptual lens” that the viewer is made to grasp whether the text that follows is to be experienced literally or metaphorically. Currently, there is no consensus that either approach has proved itself right (appropriate to the genre) or superior (admired, reviewed, and discussed). Dave Bonta suggests another term, the “atmospheric” visual treatment of text, which I presume is intended to set a particular mood or sequence of moods, purposefully disconnected from the text, neither literal nor metaphorical, similar to a light and laser show accompanying the music at a live concert. The effect is stunning. In both senses of the word. Describing a different methodology, Sarah Tremlett integrates “metronomic time” to create a “contemplative surface”, wherein the “very foundations of verse, metre and rhythm, are also said to have a spiritual base.”
To convey a clear, unambiguous meaning of a pre-existing poem, the most effective visual approach an artist can take is a literal interpretation. While it presents a coherent relationship between word and image, any content on the image-track that is a direct representation of key words in the poem is bound to alert the viewer to a world view that values order, harmony and singular meanings.
Interviewed for BBC’s Sunday Feature: Crossing the Border – Poetry and Film, Alastair Cook commented on his 2013 filmpoem, “Lifted“, based on the poet Jo Bell’s experience at Lock 30 of the Trent & Mersey Canal, one of a series of canal-themed poems commissioned by the Canal & River Trust: “There is a literalness in this… I am visually illustrating what she is talking about,” which he then qualifies with “but very quietly, very much in the background.” In the background of the work, we can hear Jo Bell’s voice reciting the poem. It is accompanied by a series of (well-composed) shots at Lock 30: the canal, the water, the lock gates closing, close-up of the water, back to the lock gate, back to the water, extreme close-up of the lock gate, back to water, an extreme close-up tilt on the gate, back to water, back to the canal… This series of “establishing” shots does indeed convey the background to Bell’s poem. The shots say simply, quietly, Here. Here is where the poet gathered her observations and subsequently wrote the poem. Without ambiguity, the images connect the viewer with the spatial references in the poem. Jo Bell’s poem comes through unchanged, loud and clear. You have only to listen.
On the other hand, the world view revealed through a “metaphorical lens” cannot accept a coherent, orderly universe. Its approach takes for its subject the critique of conventional word-image associations, organizing its elements – in this genre by enlisting the image-track as the “dominant” element – to make associations surprising and “strange”, to be open to multiple interpretations of these associations and, most importantly, to use the unstable nature of language (the ambiguities in the text) to help us experience a videopoem in a new, playful, indirect way.
But the difficulty of inventing successful associations should be stressed. In 2003, German filmmaker Ralf Schmerberg released a feature film, “Poem“, comprised of visual treatments for 19 German poems. Of the 19, there are only four examples of the “metaphorical lens”: Ernst Jandl’s “Belief and Confession”(at 15:32), Heiner Muller’s “I Can’t Lay the World at Your Feet” (at 21:04); Ingeborg Bachmann’s “After Grey Days” (at 34:59) and Kurt Tucholsky’s “Out!” (at 40:14).
Other works of note that refuse the “obvious” meaning of the text could include Peter Rose’s “Secondary Currents”, W. Mark Sutherland’s “Poem in Memory of Jack Donovan Foley”, Sarah Tremlett’s “Some Everybodies”, Azucena Losana’s “LoCo Paparazzi III”, Susanne Wiegner’s “one moment passes”, Hubert Sielecki’s “Unequal Brothers”, Janet Lees’ “The Hours of Darkness”, Pierre Alferi’s “Tante Elizabeth”, Federico Federici’s “The Inverted Exorcism” and Natalia Federova’s “Snow Queen”.
Performance and the function of the poet’s body on screen
No performance! No one reading the poem. Not even a little bit.
– 2017 Rabbit Heart Poetry Film Festival’s call for submissions.
Considering all the available representable “content” present in the field of human vision to the experimental 20th century avant-garde filmmaker, all the available “subjects” of human activity upon which a filmmaker could construct an entire artistic work, it’s not difficult to see their lack of interest in a poet facing a camera to recite or perform a poem. (My first videopoem was a critique of filming poets reading their poems.) That is, until Henry Hills’ 1981 groundbreaking b&w film, “Kino Da!“. The resulting work proved to be a fortuitous convergence of two experimental modes: Henry Hills’ structural film approach was applied to Jack Hirschman’s equally complex, non-sense reading of a series of “zaum” lines (a type of transrational language invented by the Russian Futurists which focuses attention upon the sensory character of words). Hills described the film as a portrait of the poet and friend, Jack Hirschman. Like the young Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude Stein that led to cubism, “Kino Da!” (Hills’ first film using sync sound) critiqued the convention of synchronized sound with a montage of rapid-fire “jump cuts”, in effect modifying the viewer’s perspective like a “cubist” lens on the event of a poet simply reading. Similarly, Matt Mullins’ jump-cuts in “Our Bodies signal to the viewer that the work is self-reflexive, “laying bare” the technical device that “re-invents” the content of the text.
Of the five categories differentiating the use of text in a videopoem, Performance – by which I mean the on-screen presence of the poet delivering the text – is a device that shares the frame but not the function of the image, namely, to provide a found or modified spatial context whereby the original meanings in the text are redirected toward new interpretations. After viewing the ending of Reverend Pedro Pietri’s “Telephone Booth Number 905 1/2”, it is self-evident that the “poetic experience” – what makes this a work of art – is contingent on just a such a device. In other words, even if the outward appearance, dramatic intonation or idiosyncratic gestures of the poet can augment the delivery (and reception) of the text, the artistic value of the videopoem demands a thought-provoking, atypical visual context. As Arthur Rimbaud declared, “Je est un autre.”
A short list of notable performance works that provide ‘found or modified spatial contexts’ include John Giorno’s “Just Say No To Family Values”, Javier Robledo’s “P-O-E-S-I-A”, Chris Stewart’s “The Full English: A Blason Populaire” and Rich Ferguson’s “Human Condition”.
If you’re still wondering whether text is an essential element of a poetry film or not, check out the 46 comments to Jutta Prior’s “research question” here.