“Press Play Poem” is a paper presented at the Pacific Rim Conference for Literature and Multimodality March 2012. You can watch this video below, listen to the audio-only version or read the paper on this page or download and read the paper (PDF).

Press Play Poem – a history and theory of video poetry

The Last Time We Were Here

Just over 500 years ago something happened that, depending upon who you ask, was either the beginning of the end for poetry, or it provided a new way to experience poetry. This something was the confluence of the technologies that allowed the easy replication of written texts and literacy. As texts became more available, more people engaged with written language and learned how to read, learned how to write, and learned how to be literate within their contemporary societies.

Poetry originated as an oral art form and evolved to include the modality of written language as well as spoken language. To hear poems read at live performances or as recordings continue to provide a compelling experience of poetry. We also read poems as written language on the page, screen, or other physical surfaces. The production and distribution of these texts are a collaborative process among craftworkers and artists who take a text and, through design and production, make books that employ specific typography, colors, textures, and sometimes illustrations. It was the ability to easily replicate written texts and literacy that not only influenced the manner we experience poetry, but also it influenced the manner in which poems are created allowing poetry to evolve. In other words, the emergent technologies of a given time should free poets to consider in new ways what makes a poem relevant for readers in its time.

So, how do we experience poetry? Language provides two semiotic modes: written language and spoken language. But, what if we combine poetry with images or illustrations? This experience could be described or defined as multimodal. We experience the poetry through the modality of language and the images through the modality of the visible. And what if we combine poems with music? Again, this creates for us, the listener, a multimodal experience. What if we combine all of these modalities into one media as a way to present the poem? The experience will be multimodal. Where then, is poetry realized? What I’m fascinated by is, will the experience inspire imagery in the listener/viewer/reader’s imagination so that he or she will describe the experience as poetry or literature?

It seems we are again at a confluence of technologies. These technologies that are becoming ubiquitous for our contemporary society provide a multimodal experience within a particular media, allows for the easy replication and distribution of this particular media, and there is a rising literacy and adoption rate for this media.

Convergence

What happens if we apply these technologies to the making and distribution of poems? What would we call this genre, these poems, that promise the possibility of a multimodal experience of poetry, that somehow remains literary, and is distributed and experienced via one medium? It’s called video poetry, or videopoetry, or video poem, or videopoem, film poem, motion poem, moving poem, film-poem, film poetry, cinepoems, visible verse, and other names. So the confusion of naming must come from the emergent nature of the genre? Not really.

Most people agree that the practice of presenting poems via film or video in the United States began in 1912 with the poetry film titled “Manhatta (youtube).” This poetry film, as it was called by its creators, was based on the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman and was directed and produced by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand and is about 10 minutes in length. The poetry film presents the text of the poem on the screen interspersed with images of Manhattan, New York. The film images of New York do not “illustrate” the narrative of the poem so much as provide a visual support layer for the text. The text of the poem was presented on the screen due to the technological constraint that films were silent then, synchronous sound hadn’t yet been invented.

About the same time in Paris, in 1928, Man Ray directed what he called a cinepoem titled “L’Étoile de mer (youtube)” based on a poem by Robert Desnos. Similar to “Manhatta,” “L’Étoile de mer” presented the text of the poem on the screen though relied on the action in the film to provide a narrative juxtaposition with the text of the poem not unlike the experience of reading an illustrated Dr. Seuss book.

The contemporary practice of making videopoems is generally attributed to Tom Konyves who, in 1978 along with Endre Farkas and Ken Norris (all of them members of the avant guard Vehicule Poets), produced what he called a videopoem (all one word) titled “Sympathies of War.” In his essay, “Videopoetry: A Manifesto (PDF),” Konyves defines videopoetry as:

Videopoetry is a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of images with text and sound. In the measured blending of these three elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience. Presented as a multimedia object of a fixed duration, the principal function of a videopoem is to demonstrate the process of thought and the simultaneity of experience, expressed in words – visible and/or audible – whose meaning is blended with, but not illustrated by, the images and the soundtrack.

Like Roland Barthes presents in his essay, “The Death of the Author (PDF),” Konyves tests videopoetry against the reader’s, or viewer’s, experience rather than the supremacy or intention of the author.

Heather Haley, a curator for the Visible Verse videopoetry festival describes videopoems as, “a wedding of word and image. Unlike a music video—the inevitable and ubiquitous comparison—a videopoem stars the poem rather than the poet, the voice seen as well as heard.”

And Kurt Heintz of e-poets.net, explains that, “Our extension of poetry into video seems only to ratify a deeper understanding, as poets and performers, that poetry rests in a continuous spectrum of expanded genres. Even in its most essential form, it demolishes the old assumption that page and poem are one.”

In Multimodal Discourse: the Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication, Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen describe four practices of multimodal representation that I have found helpful in my examination of videopoems. These are: discourse, design, production, and distribution. I want to quickly apply Kress and Van Leeuwen’s model to the process of making a videopoem.

The first phase, discourse, is simply the idea phase where the poet finds a line or image that inspires her imagination and she begins writing and revising the poem.

The design phase is where the poem begins to reveal itself and the poet begins to consider how she might best engage the reader/listener/viewer’s senses. Kress and Van Leeuwen describe designs as the use of semiotic resources. The design phase is when a poet will begin making decisions about how, as Konyves says, to blend images and soundtrack with the text in a measured way—whether to present text on the screen or as narration, what music might support the text, what images or video might support the text, and how these will interact and blend with one another.

I want to pause briefly here to describe the most common modes of videopoems because understanding these forms during the design phase will be helpful to the poet’s decision-making process. These are: kinetic typography or kinetic text, recording of live performance (documentation), poem slideshows, motion-illustrated poems, and videopoems.

The production phase is, “the organization of the expression to the actual material articulation of the semiotic event or artifact.” In other words, this is where the poem will be made physical as the poet implements her design using various technologies for capturing and recording audio and video and editing these together.

Authorship of videopoems, in the way many consider literary authorship, becomes muddied during this phase of making a multimodal videopoem. Why? Because very often, a poet will not have the necessary technical skills to shoot and/or edit video but will provide the design inspiration to someone else who does have this expertise. In order for the poem to be presented as a videopoem, poets often collaborate with other artists and musicians. In this respect, making a videopoem is similar to writing, directing, and launching a theatrical work or cinema.

Conversely, there are people who seem to have no end of creative talent who can write a poem and then fully realize and produce the poem as a videopoem without the technical assistance of others. These are called multiskilled artists.

The pianist and recording artist Glenn Gould gets at this very idea of both collaborative authorship and the emergent multiskilled artist in his 1966 essay titled, “The Prospects of Recording (PDF).” With respect to the relationship between a composer and a recording engineer, he writes, “It may well be that the effect of editorial afterthought upon performance (decisions made by a recording engineer in this case) will breed a new type of technician-cum-performer whose realizations of the diagrammatic intention will be just as essential to the reputation of a composer as was the devotion of the itinerant virtuoso in earlier times. ‘Autocracy,’ then, as a description of the composing process in the electronic age, may simply suggest the possibility that the composer will become involved in some portion of each procedure through which his intention is made explicit in sound.” And this is part of that convergence of technologies we’re experiencing today. With a laptop and very inexpensive software, a relative novice technician has the ability to record, create, and edit audio and video.

The final step in realizing a videopoem is distribution. Kress and Van Leeuwen separate distribution from production because the distribution method of a multimodal artifact does not change or influence its meaning. For example, a video is a video whether it is streamed via the Web to a computer or played in a DVD on a television screen. Of course, this is contrary to the Blue-Ray ads at the beginning of rented movies.

I think this model allows us to view the possibility of videopoems as an emergent literary experience. It also provides poets a clear workflow process of how to take a poem from the page to a multimodal literary experience called a videopoem.

Expect Poetry

So where exactly can one find videopoems? You can discover videopoems poking around on video-sharing websites like youtube and vimeo, but these are difficult to find in search. For curated videopoetry experiences, I recommend the following websites.

Dave Bonta is a guy who really digs videopoems and he curates the movingpoems.com website. He culls through videos on youtube and vimeo and publishes on his website videopoems that inspire him. If you have a videopoem you’d like to have published, movingpoems.com is a possible venue for you. Dave only publishes poems that are publicly available on video-sharing websites.

Poet and UAA MFA graduate Todd Boss and video animator Angella Kassube founded the motionpoems.com website in 2008. The videopoems found here are all professionally designed and produced. They do not take submissions. They’re mission is to connect literary presses with digital video animators in order to create videopoems of the highest production quality possible.

The Continental Review publishes videopoems along with other topics in poetry in video format only. Their website states that, “The Continental Review aims to be: a forum for video readings of new poetry, a forum for diverse poetic/cinematic/multi-media experiences, and a forum for video interviews and filmed discussions on poetics.”

The Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin is the premier videopoetry festival in the world.

I would like to suggest that the more we find ourselves at computer screens and tethered to mobile devices, the more we should expect to find poetry in these environments. You’ll find that they fit nicely in so many places, like at your computer in your office in the seven minutes before a department meeting. Or, on your smartphone while waiting for the bus. Expect poetry when you’re at your computer and press play poem.