“If I knew what the picture was going to be like I wouldn’t make it. It was almost like it was made already… the challenge is more about trying to make what you can’t think of.” – Cindy Sherman
“The writer is entitled to his boomboom.” – Tristan Tzara
What follows is intended to distinguish videopoetry from poetry films, film poetry, poemvideos, poetry videos, cyber-poetry, cine-poetry, kinetic poetry, digital poetry, poetronica, filming of poetry and other unwieldy neologisms, which have been applied, at one time or another, to describe the treatment of poetry in film and video but which have also developed different and divergent meanings.
The democratization of the medium realized by the introduction of video technology has, in the last 25 years, only sharpened the initial art vs entertainment debate; in particular, the movement of poetry to the “big screen” has exposed two conflicting positions – one demystifying the poem by complementary “visuals”, the other augmenting the suggestive power of poetry by unexpected juxtapositions.
The underlying dichotomy opposes videopoetry – I envision the measured integration of narrative, non- narrative and anti-narrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound as resulting in a poetic experience – to works which publish poems (voiced or displayed on-screen) in video format. While the latter are to be commended for bringing a new audience to poetry, their use of imagery as embellishments to (if not direct illustrations of) the text, their preference to employ narrative over self-reflexive sequences, their rejection of contrast, fragmentation, the incongruous and the dissonant, prevent these works from being considered as models for a new genre of technology-assisted poetry.
“Transformations in expression and in modes of communication cannot exist without influencing the transformation of poetry itself.” – Jean-Marie Gleize
Of its definition.
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.
“Progress in any aspect is a movement through changes of terminology.” – Wallace Stevens
Of the term.
Videopoetry is one word; it is not separated or hyphenated. As one word, it indicates that a fusion of the visual, the verbal and the audible has occurred, resulting in a new, different form of poetic experience. As one word, it recognizes that a century of experiments with poetry in film and video – poems introduced to motion pictures as intertitles, then as kinetic texts, as images illustrating voiced texts (some excluding visual or voiced text entirely), poems performed in front of a camera, poems as text superimposed over images – is the narrative of a gradual movement from the tenuous, anxious relationship of image and text to their rare but perceptible synthesis, i.e., from poetry films to film poems to poetry videos to videopoetry.
As an amalgam of Latin (video) and Greek (poetry) origins, “videopoetry” combines the best of two classical traditions: making poetry with technological innovation.
As a closed compound noun, “video” not only functions to modify “poetry”, it alters its meaning. Therefore, videopoetry is more than a term of convenience; it asserts that a poem is being created without the linear story-telling style of many “poetry videos” (which are made primarily to promote poems in print, using images directly representing the descriptions and actions in the text and are assembled in the conventional narrative form of movie-making). While a videopoem is, in fact, a “movie”, its intention is to provide an alternative that is non-narrative, sometimes anti-narrative, even ante- narrative.
Of its constraints.
Text, displayed on-screen or voiced, is an essential element of the videopoem. A work which does not contain visible or audible text could be described as poetic, as an art film or video art, but not as a videopoem.
Imagery in a videopoem – including on-screen text – does not illustrate the voiced text.
“I tried constantly to find something which would not recall what had happened before.” – Marcel Duchamp
Videopoetry recognizes that narrative moments – whether presented as individual elements or a combination of text, image or sound – encourage the viewer’s engagement; to sustain the poetic experience, some narrativity is necessary as a structural device. (A non-narrative element juxtaposed with another non-narrative element for an extended period of time may result in distancing the viewer from the work.) From scene to scene, narrativity propels the work forward, providing context for the viewer during the process of the poetic experience. The distance traveled, the time elapsed, the voices heard, the images seen, are measured out with what best suits the poetic direction of a particular moment – the awareness that when the narrative moment has reached its usefulness, a deliberate disruption must occur, must appear, must sever the forward movement toward which the narrative will always conspire. The viewer’s expectations of eventfulness are, by turns, satisfied and subverted; meaning is eventually derived from the effect of the repeated movement from the narrative to the non- narrative elements of the work.
“Bringing together two things into a previously untried juxtaposition is the surest way of developing new vision.”– Andre Breton
Of poetic juxtaposition.
In the assembly (editing or “montage”) phase, syntactical decisions are made to render image-text-sound juxtapositions as a metaphor for simultaneous “meanings” which the viewer interprets as a poetic experience. These decisions are based on presenting the 3 elements as distant realities (often arrived at through chance operations) whose relationship strikes the viewer as surprising, as always new. It is imperative that the juxtapositions be consistently perceived as suggestive of indirect relationships – mysterious, oneiric.
The success of each syntactical decision is achieved when the distant realities – the ambiguous or enigmatic relationship of a particular image to a portion of text, for example – are not so distant as to cause disengagement with the work. The key to a successfully executed poetic juxtaposition is balance, the weighing of image-text relationships for their suggestive, rather than illustrative qualities, the determining of durations, the positioning and appearance of text, the treatment of colour, the layering of the soundtrack, the acceleration or deceleration of elements, etc. Balance, in this scheme, is the demonstration of control over the narrative impulse.
“In film, poetry is opposed to reality.”– LuisBunuel
Of the poetic experience.
Videopoetry recognizes the power of video for producing and communicating unprecedented and unlimited associations between image, text and sound.
The viewer is presented with non-illustrative juxtapositions of image, text and sound. As the work gradually unfolds, it is perceived that the visual (image and/or displayed text) and audible (sound and/or voiced text) elements are fragmented expressions of the artist’s imagination, suggestive of meaning, yet denying clarification of the purported meaning – a teasing, vertiginous exploration of desire.
When the introduction of these fragmented expressions causes an impediment to the narrative flow, the viewer will either surrender to the symmetry of the disruptions – and participate in the adventure – or disengage and “tune out”. Provided that the image-text-sound juxtapositions exhibit a pleasing balance between narrative and non-narrative moments – achieved through strategic, self-referential disruptions, a demonstration of awareness of the spatial and temporal relationships between elements, intentional repetitions, etc. – a viewer will experience their sense of time suspended or blurred.
Tension and repose, the “ebb and flow” of narrative and non-narrative moments, may also be interpreted by the viewer as simultaneity made manifest, while the complexity and significance of relationships between the presented elements – as in dreams, for instance – may have to wait to be resolved.
“Always the precious repetition for the joy of recognition.”– Oyvind Fahlström
The poetry in a videopoem is characterized by a discernible rhythm, but it is different from the traditional written or oral form of poetry: it’s not limited to an attribute of the text element.
Rhythm is the effect produced by the introduction and the subsequent duration of a new portion of image, text or sound in the process of assembling the work.
Videopoetry also exhibits internal rhythms; enveloped in each appearance of a series of images, on- screen text or sounds, the viewer discerns patterns specific to the element presented.
Repetition – as a visual or audible device – produces the most effective signalling of the presence of poetry. Its many functions include emphasis, self-reflection, division, regulation or suspension of time, even a hypnotic quality (especially when prolonged); it is most useful in sustaining the rhythmic structure and the poetic experience of a work.
“The purpose of art is to ask questions.”– Lawrence Weiner
To see an image as a representation of the audible text or to hear the words as they are displayed on the screen violates the premise that poetic juxtaposition is the presentation of distant realities; inevitably, the viewer is prevented from forming their own imaginative associations between the elements presented, resulting in the demystification of these associations, diminishing the poetic quality and experience of the work.
The videopoet is a poet, filmmaker and sound artist combined.
Videopoetry recognizes that production logistics sometimes require a team of individuals to cooperate during the creation of a work; the genre accommodates both individual and collaborative work, provided that the work exhibits a unified vision.
Whether composed of multiple scenes or one continuous shot, a videopoem longer than 300 seconds faces the challenge of sustaining the poetic experience of the viewer. The videohaiku (approx. 30 seconds) uses a few words of text attached to the shortest duration of images.
“Plotless film is poetic film.” –VictorShklovsky
Differentiated by their use of text, there are 5 major categories of videopoems:
KINETIC TEXT is the animation of text over a neutral background.
Continuing the ongoing experimentation with text as an aesthetic object, these works owe much to concrete and patterned poetry in their style – the use of different fonts, sizes and colours, strategic spatial positioning, self-referentiality – simultaneously presenting text as image.
By virtue of its equal acceptance of the semantic and non-semantic, as well as its ability to demonstrate the destruction, reconstruction and transformation of static words or letters into “characters” which move (in both senses of the word), the category represents the “prototype” of a videopoem.
SOUND TEXT presents the text on the soundtrack.
Juxtaposed with the video images on the screen, it is expressed through the human voice.
Of the five categories of videopoetry, this form (with or without music) – is the most popular, due to the facility of working within the traditional form of video/film, i.e., using the voice as the chief mode of text presentation and juxtaposition with images and other sounds (e.g., music, chant, sound effects, etc.) – without the additional difficulty presented by visual text.
VISUAL TEXT displays the text on-screen, superimposed over images captured or found.
Charged with leading the genre, this category presents the most significant challenge to videopoetry.
For the engaged viewer, the complex relationships and multiplicity of meanings suggested by juxtapositions of on-screen text with curious, non-illustrative images make extraordinary imaginative leaps not only possible, but automatic.
PERFORMANCE is the on-screen appearance of the poet, or designated poet (actor), speaking directly or indirectly into the camera. Of the five categories, it is the most problematic: the poet/performer is perceived as the intermediary between the viewer and the poem, possibly demystifying the process of presentation. (Excluding the form of sound poetry, there are many excellent, emotionally moving representations of “verbal art”, but they are only that – re-presentations of poems, not the poems.) In a videopoem, on-screen appearances only succeed by virtue of their visual expression (i.e., eccentric body language)and their juxtaposition – within the image frame – with a background suggesting a unique, unusual “setting” for the performance.
CIN(E)POETRY is the videopoem wherein the text is animated and/or superimposed over graphics, still or moving images that are “painted” or modified with the assistance of computer software, e.g., Photoshop, Flash or the 3D modelling and animation features in Second Life, the online virtual world. It closely resembles VISUAL TEXT, except the imagery has a computer-generated or modified appearance. The parenthesized “e” (electronic) was introduced by George Aguilar, who works most often in this form.
Individual works may overlap and exhibit combinations of categories.
Of image and the displayed (on-screen) text.
Videopoetry does not differentiate between camera-captured and found images (appropriated from another source or format); the genre accommodates both.
Videopoetry does not differentiate between concrete (representational) and abstract (non- representational) content in images; the genre accommodates both.
Abstract images – extreme close-ups of objects, details of hand-made or computer-generated paintings, out of focus or gel-covered lens shots – enable text elements to be placed almost anywhere on the screen; the more the text stands out in contrast to the image, the more it receives the viewer’s immediate attention, takes precedence over and assigns to the abstract image a supportive role, that of the background, moving or not. The more the text is blended with an abstract image, the more the viewer is required to consider a more subtle relationship between the two.
Concrete images require a different approach to displayed text: a still object in a motionless frame provides surfaces and edges, horizontal, vertical, oblique and curved lines as potential text-spaces; a moving object in a motionless frame restricts text-space to empty areas.
Of image and special effects.
Advancements in graphic design have refined image-text relationships to the degree that videopoetry, in terms of innovative juxtapositions, has followed the latest “cutting-edge” commercial/advertising methods with interest; while some effects, such as floating text or text crawl are still useful, other “high- end” flip-swoop-wrap-zoom-spin-shake dynamics so clearly refer to product promotion that they have acquired a secondary symbolic value: the commodification of society.
As alluded to above, videopoetry accommodates both modified and unmodified images; whether an image is to be modified or not will always depend on the effectiveness of its juxtaposition with text and sound.
Of the countless effects in post-production (the editing and assembling of the work), two transitions have proven invaluable: the dissolve and the fade. Both affect the viewer’s perception of time.
The (cross) dissolve – the superimposition of one image over another – presents two scenes (one ending, one beginning) simultaneously; as one of the most common transition effects, it is used primarily to indicate that a period of time has elapsed between the two scenes.
In videopoetry, when the superimposition is prolonged, it produces a sustained experience of time suspended while simultaneously signalling the uncontrolled state of dreaming. (Related to these, a freeze-frame can also be seen as a device that “stops” time, while the split-screen effect enables the viewer to follow two scenes on the screen simultaneously; yet both are of lesser poetic value than the dissolve or the fade.)
The fade (or fade-to-black) is used to indicate an end to a scene, usually followed by a fade-in to introduce the next scene; in videopoetry, we can interpret this effect as the blink of an eye or – when it’s prolonged – the shutting of the eyes, followed by “re-awakening” to a new “world” (or at least a new context/scene in the videopoem).
Of image and motion.
In the process of filming, the camera is either locked in position (the still shot), moving with a fluid, tracking motion or is hand-held. Of these three, the still and fluid-motion shot will not cause a disengagement with the work; the hand-held camera shot is more problematic.
The unstable image of the hand-held shot becomes a constant reminder of the operation (and operator) behind the camera; every possible accident of the moment becomes magnified, leaving the viewer unsure whether drawing attention to camera movement is an oversight or an intentional ‘self-referential disruption’. Of these accidents, it can be argued that an element of chance should be always brought into play, as it may produce the most unexpected trophies of “found” imagery. The final decision to include or exclude hand-held shots is determined by their function in the balance act of poetic juxtaposition. Accelerated motion is often associated with a comic scene; in a videopoem, depending on whether the action recorded is for atmospheric or illustrative use, the time-lapse effect can be more forgiving.
Slow motion appeals to videopoetry for a number of reasons: the effect suggests a gradual suspension of time; a dream-like state is evoked; action unfolds like a painting; a perception of reality is emphasized. In the structure of the videopoem, it functions as punctuation.
“Words would be redundant in film if they were used as a further projection from the image. However, if they were brought in on a different level, not issuing from the image, but as another dimension relating to it, then it is the two things together that make a poem.” – Maya Deren
Videopoetry recognizes that text has the unique capacity to deliver the signs of abstract objects (ideas) as well as concrete objects to the viewer; as such, it performs the most essential function in a videopoem – to provide the ideal counterpoint to the elements of image and sound.
Videopoetry recognizes that text – due to its capacity to be displayed on the screen (i.e. freed from its fixity on the page), found in a captured image or voiced on the soundtrack – is in the propitious position of enabling the viewer to experience poetry in a time-based visual form; it is the essential catalyst in the transformation of a work from “poetic” to poetry.
Typically, text is written for the videopoem; in some cases it is “found” and repurposed for the videopoem.
Used in a videopoem, a previously composed/published poem represents only one element of the videopoem, the text element. The “poetry” in videopoetry is the result of the judicious juxtaposition of text with image and sound.
When the text is borrowed from a previously composed/published poem, it must be that the artist has discovered a new function for the pre-existing text, based on its juxtaposition with certain imagery, or a certain soundtrack.
In its visual/displayed form, text is “looked at” before read.
The looked-at text applies the strategies derived from concrete poetry, typography, graphic design and motion graphics. Fonts, the characters of type, are selected for their clarity and suggestiveness, always in relation to the image presented on the screen. Positioning, motion, duration and method of appearance (positing by dissolve, pop or typewriter effect, for example) are similarly considered in relation to the image presented on the screen.
While the demonstration of the variety and versatility of text treatment is proof that new ways of seeing words performs a poetic function, effects are not prerequisites of videopoetry.
In the relentless manipulations of the appearance of text – from the textured to the malleable, from the casually handwritten to the finely-chiseled 3-D reflective surfaces – there is a tendency to be preoccupied with the materiality of the written word, sometimes at the expense of “meaning”.
Read or meaning-driven text, wherein the appearance of words is of lesser importance, narrows the context of the moment, favouring interior effects over superficial effects. It is the strategic balance of appearance and meaning – in addition to the ‘judicious juxtaposition’ with images and sound – that produces the “poetry” in a videopoem.
“Where you have music that doesn’t imitate what’s on the screen, but goes against it… is far more interesting than anything imitative.” – Alfred Hitchcock
Videopoetry recognizes that the use of a “soundtrack” significantly augments the sensory perception of the work; as such, it provides the ideal counterpoint to the elements of image and text in assisting the viewer to process the effect or meaning of juxtapositions.
The soundtrack is not a prerequisite of videopoetry (silence is an effect and a syntactical decision), but its presence contributes to a richness of effects and meanings.
The three “branches” of the auditory capacity of the soundtrack are: voiced text, music and sound effects. Videopoetry does not differentiate between voiced and displayed text; the genre accommodates both. Voiced text intensifies the videopoem with its range of expression: the “real” voice of the poet provides an authentic connection to the creator of the work; affected or natural, loud or soft, slurred or modulated, metallic or cloyingly sweet, passionate or dull, nasal or throaty, the voice of a nightingale or the filtered voice on the phone, the human voice colours the text with nuance.
On the sound track, the bridge between voiced text and music is occupied by what is commonly termed sound poetry. Of all the various “imports” or repurposed forms of poetry, these vocalizations emphasize more aural than semantic qualities and have proved most compatible with the non-narrative objectives of videopoetry: the declamations, the chants, the recitations of “nonsense words” provide a natural counterpoint when juxtaposed with abstract images.
Music is a considered, measured “device” in videopoetry; it can be used minimally or sporadically, overlapping or underlying selected segments. In certain cases, it can be assigned the more demanding task of delivering the entire soundtrack of the work, from beginning to end, in the form of a score.
Prior to, at the point of, or immediately after a juxtaposition (the introduction of a new element – image, text or voice), music’s primary function is to intensify, diminish or eliminate the emotional content of a particular “scene”, thereby altering the viewer’s interpretation of the meaning of the content.
Music which happens to be present during the shooting (diagetic music) serves to identify the content of a scene as narrative content.
Use of music segments exemplifying specific cultural associations provides cues for the viewer to identify supplemental meanings in the work.
While music tends to emphasize, accent and generally support narrative scenes, sound effects in videopoetry are more often than not isolated, disruptive gestures used to highlight incongruous image- text juxtapositions while contributing dissonance to the internal rhythm of the soundtrack.
Concept or conceptual videopoems focus on the materiality of language, exclude narrative and tend to hold little of intentional semantic value; “meaning” is attributed to the process of presentation, which follows a pre-conceived formula (the idea), often executed in a methodical technical manner.
The dominating element is text; its content is gathered from sourced information: found phrases, statements, lists, etc.
The text element in these works is strong on context but stripped of emotive value.
The viewer may not perceive development or change of perspective throughout the work, as heightening or diminishing effects are superseded by the intention to present an object of examination – the process of presentation – in a pure self-referential state.
Texts in videopoems should be provided in multiple languages; in DVD format, the viewer should be able to select the preferred language. SOUND TEXT videopoems should provide translation as subtitles, optimized for legibility: white, sans-serif font on a separate display below the screen or yellow with black outline at the bottom of the screen.
In the subtitling process, the accurate synchronization of audio and subtitle is essential.
VISUAL TEXT videopoems should provide translation on a separate display below the screen; if the visual text is one or two words, the subtitle should be positioned close to the side of the on-screen text. The subtitles should be synchronized to appear with the on-screen text.
In cases where the foreign language uses both SOUND TEXT and VISUAL TEXT, the subtitles of the VISUAL TEXT should be synchronized to appear with the on-screen text, using a colour different from the SOUND TEXT subtitles.
© 2011 Tom Konyves
Grateful thanks to all who made this possible.
In the spring of 1978, my friends Endre Farkas and Ken Norris, of our ‘group of 7’ – The Vehicule Poets – for their participation in my first videopoem, Sympathies of War. Herman Berlandt, Director of the San Francisco Poetry Film Workshop, who drew a line in the sand when he informed me that he wouldn’t look at Sympathies of War because ‘We don’t recognize video. We work only in film.’ Michael Konyves, aged 7, who performed as General Misunderstanding in Ubu’s Blues and held signs in See/Saw. Steve McCaffery. Stephen Morrissey, who published my essay on videopoetry in The Insecurities of Art, 1981. Heather Haley, Vancouver media artist, Visible Verse festival curator, faithful supporter for many years. Vancouver videopoet Susan Cormier, for her confidence in this work. Dean of Arts, Jacqueline Nolte, whose encouragement led to Word and Image, a course in visual creative writing at the University of the Fraser Valley. Brad Whittaker, Research Office, UFV. Kin spirit, George Aguilar, whose archive of video poems and cin(e)poetry in San Francisco was invaluable to my research. David Jhave Johnston, multimedia/digital poet of the exquisite short, for his funnybone and suggestions for order. Chicago video artist, e-poet and theoretician, Kurt Heintz, for the endless hours of inspired discussion. Richard Kostelanetz, for access to his home and his many works in and on this genre. Javier Robledo, organizer of the Videobardo Videopoetry Festival and Archive in Buenos Aires, for VIP hospitality and five days of screenings. William C. Wees, Professor Emeritus of English at McGill University in Montreal, editor of The Canadian Journal of Film Studies, for his generosity to discuss some aspects of this at length and introducing me to David Foster’s work on adapting poetry to film, Toronto filmmaker Richard Hancox’ Waterworx, Peter Todd, filmmaker and curator of the London Film Poems Series, and Arthur Lipsett’s Very Nice, Very Nice. Al Razutis for Visual Essays. Thomas Zandegiacomo Del Bel, for access to the vast archive at the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. The Hungarian connection, Tibor Papp, Paul Nagy and George Galantai’s amazing documentation and research centre, Artpool in Budapest. Eduard Escoffet, for his work in sonorous poetry in Barcelona. Lionel Kearns, a pioneer and friend, and Jim Andrews, vispo, for rescuing bp nichol’s First Screening. George Bowering, for his performance in Lost in the Library. Michael Snow, for So Is This. Toronto Intermedia artist, W. Mark Sutherland, for his encouragement from the start. Eric Cassar, for inventing the videohaiku. Visual poet and meta-blogger, Geof Huth, for asking all the right questions. Ron Silliman, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, critic, Poet Laureate of the Blogosphere, for the kick-start to this. Tony Trehy, for the Text Festival evening of videopoetry in Bury. UK artwriter extraordinaire, Tamarin Norwood, for her near-translations and in-sightful comments. Portuguese video artist, Rui Silveira, for translating Oyvind Fahlström into a one-sentence videopoem. Finnish videopoet, Jani Sipila, for spreading the word. Eduardo Kac, multimedia, communications and biological artist, for including E.M. de Melo e Castro’s essay on videopoetry in MEDIA POETRY, Poetic Innovation and New Technologies. Fil Ieropoulos and Chris Funkhauser for historical analysis. Chicago poet, Francesco Levato for works from the Split This Rock Festival. Linden Ontjes, Larissa Moore, for access to Reel to Real, Seattle. Bart Testa for feedback and guidance concerning issues related to screen text. Alex Konyves, for his continued technical assistance. Martin Borycki, for mind-bending distractions. Jack Velvet, CITR, for providing hypnotic musical support. Gary Hill, whose early experiments were most instructive. Mel Vapour, East Bay Media Center, Berkeley. Enzo Minarelli, 3ViTre Archivio di Polipoesia, Cento, Italy. Parisian poet, researcher, Jean Pierre Balpe, for La Poésie Vidéo ou Vidéo Poésie. Dave Bonta, for the Moving Poems forum. Sarah Tremlett, for her continued support. German filmmaker Ralf Schmerberg, who proved that 19 poems from the German literary canon can be brought to the big screen as a feature film, Poem. Nico Vassilakis. Jérôme Game. Manuel Portela. Juan F. Egea. John M Bennett/Nicolas Carras. Gary Sherwin. Gary Barwin. Joel Baird. Caterina Davinio. Hubert Sielecki. Victoria Messi. Eric Gamalinda. Nick Carbo.
Special thanks to my wife, Marlene, my terra firma.