Essay, Magazin
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Poetry Films: Cultural Resistance and Creative Reinvention

Poetry films resist clear-cut categorizations and challenge preconceived notions about what poetry is or should be, while providing numerous answers as to why poetry continues to matter today. In fact, they have become one of the most thriving and imaginative forces within the creative realm of 20th and 21st centuries’ media technologies, teaching us how to circulate poetic voices and powerful visions in a globalized world.

To name but a few recent examples (the list here would be endless), Why I Write, Standard Oil Co., The Dice Player, 1700% Mistaken for Muslim, or I Can’t Breathe call for a larger debate as to what role poets and filmmakers – or a transformative combination of both – have taken upon themselves on this planet, pursuing their creative passions that is fueled by experimenting with the intermedia relationship of music, voice, sounds, written text, visuals (of all kinds), performance, dance etc.

For intermedia artist Dick Higgins these experimental media transgressions implied cultural resistance against the institutionalization, isolation, and hierarchization of the arts. Driven by a desire »to fuse two or more existing media,« artists strive to come up with something new that »falls between media,« as stated in Higgins’ article published by Something Else Press in 1966.* With the digital age, the Internet and the World Wide Web, as well as a rising number of film festivals and practitioners in many parts of the world, poetry films continue to push these boundaries when remediating and reinventing poetry in a new cultural era.

Over the past decade, poetry films have, if only slowly, begun to reinvigorate universities from within. They have provided me with captivating new ways of teaching poetry within the realm of American Studies and they have brought me into contact with highly interesting and remarkable artists.

My own fascination with poetry film goes back 15 years when doing research in upstate New York, where I came across the poetry film mini-series The United States of Poetry, produced by Mark Pellington, Joshua Blum, and Bob Holman.** I included Amiri Baraka’s The X is Black, Allen Ginsberg’s Personals Ads, and Wanda Colman’s Cash in my seminar »Plug it in! Poetry is on. The E-merging of Poetry and Technology,« which not only I, but also my students greatly enjoyed. These clips, which went beyond filming a poet’s performance at a live venue, initiated discussions as to how to best analyze poetry as an integral component of multi-layered media environments, a task that continues to be a complex (and oftentimes fun) endeavor.

In 2004 I attended the 2nd ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, which opened my eyes to the sheer diversity of poetry films as well as their international scope. I have attended the biannual festival ever since and have engaged in stimulating conversations with poets and filmmakers, who generously shared their DVDs with me for my research and teaching. As I was working on a PhD thesis on 20th and 21st centuries U.S.-American poetry from a cultural studies and media studies perspective, I also seized the opportunity to visit George Aguilar, who coined the term Cin(E-)Poetry, in San Francisco, and with whom I was in touch for interviews on his work via email. He introduced me to his vast archive-collection of the SF Poetry Film Festival and further fueled my interest in this lively art form.

More recently, my students have taken on the task of creating poetry films themselves with inspiring results. What I continue to find fascinating about poetry films which are based on poems by well-established poets is that they go beyond keeping the legacy of writers alive over decades, if not centuries, by entering into a dialogue with a poem and incorporating it into a new mediascape.

Yet, there is no need to consider print publications of poetry fully obsolete. In fact, I am tempted to predict a highly innovative poetry book revival soon (including new ways of printing and binding) that is characterized by new stylistic forms on the page as a critical response to the screen-world we live in. As for now, the great flood-gates of the wonder-world of poetry film have begun to swing wide open.

* See Higgins, Dick: Intermedia. In: Something Else Newsletter 1, No. 1. (Something Else, Press, 1966).
** See Mark Pellington, Joshua Blum, and Bob Holman: The United States of Poetry (1996).

About the Author

Martina Pfeiler teaches American literature, culture, and media at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany. She is the author of Poetry Goes Intermedia: U.S.-amerikanische Lyrik des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts aus kultur- und medienwissenschaftlicher Perspektive (Francke 2010), Sounds of Poetry. Contemporary American Performance Poets (Narr 2003), as well as co-editor of Pott Meets Poetry: Die erste illustrierte Slam-Anthologie des Ruhrgebiets (Lektora 2014). In 2007 she was invited to Brazil to teach a workshop on “Poetry and New Media: from U.S.-American Performance Poetry to Cin(E-) Poetry to Mash-Ups on the Internet” at UNESP, Araraquara. She is currently finishing a new book project (Habilitation) titled Ahab in Love: The Creative Reception of Moby-Dick in Popular Culture. She has also taught in the U.S.A. and in the Netherlands.

1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Beat Vision – Poetryfilmkanal

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