Essay, Magazin

The Discovery of Fire: One Poet’s Journey into Poetry-Film

In the long history of art and literature, poetry films are very new, and videopoems and their web derivatives are even newer. So why does their appeal seem so timeless?

I got into videopoetry by the usual route for web-active poets, I think. Someone had given me a digital camera with video capability, and I’d started shooting random footage of cool things to share on my blog: a fawn taking its first steps, a mating ball of snakes, an October snowfall. While messing around with Windows Movie Maker on my desktop PC, I discovered how easy it was to add animated text. Since I had long ago abandoned paper, preferring to draft poems directly in a word processor or online text editor, it was no great stretch to compose new poems as part of the video-editing process.

My first results weren’t terribly sophisticated, but making them was such an exciting challenge, I started looking around YouTube – then just one year old – to see what else might be out there. I soon discovered there were three main approaches to making poetry films/videos: documentary shoots of poets reading their work; illustrations of poems, in which live action or animation literally interprets the text; and works that were themselves somehow poems, translated into the film/video medium.

This last category was the one that drew my interest as a poet and a lover of poetry, even before I encountered the various terms that have been coined to describe it: poetry-film, videopoetry, cinepoetry, filmpoetry. To me, it was a logical and necessary extension of something that modern lyric poetry already specializes in: suggesting connections between dissimilar things through imaginative leaps and unexpected conjunctions. And my own taste runs toward oblique, apothegmic or surreal poems, which seem particularly well suited to multimedia interpretation. Narrative poems present a bit more of a challenge to the videopoet, at least initially.

I’ve come to believe that making or collaborating on poetry films gives the poet an opportunity to reconnect with the roots of his or her craft: to experience poetry not just as a fixed, received text, but as an expression of poiesis, a transformative bringing-forth made possible by the cultivation of a broader, synaesthetic awareness. Consider an analogy with modern music. From an historical and anthropological perspective, those of us who are only able to appreciate music if it possesses melody, harmony and/or regular rhythm render ourselves deaf to the vast majority of music as humans have traditionally understood it – things like birdsong, the wind in the pines, the laughter of children, the crashing of surf, or any of a myriad other uncomposed sounds and soundscapes. It has been the great gift of 20th-century composers such as Schoenberg, Messiaen and Cage to re-open our ears to the wider universe.

In the same fashion, poetry-film, despite its recent arrival, returns us to some of the ways in which poetry has been seen and heard since the very inception of symbolic language, through drama, ritual and other performative contexts. The poet mishears one word for another and a new universe blinks into being. The filmmaker follows an exterior shot with an interior shot and the space-time continuum warps – we are in two places at once. This is the legerdemain of healers as well as hucksters. The earliest humans stared into the dancing flames of a wildfire and saw their destiny as creator-destroyers of landscapes. The campfire became a site not just for the transformation of food but for the recitation of visions and the improvisation of songs. This may be why it feels so natural to watch the flickering images on a screen intertwined with lines of verse. To watch a videopoem or poetry film is to see a poem transformed from static text into text act, from the raw ingredients for poetry into a living poem: something altogether more digestible, transformed by heat and time.

 About the Author

Dave Bonta is a poet and web publisher from Pennsylvania who since 2009 has been finding and sharing the best poetry videos on the web at Moving Poems. He has authored several short collections of poetry, and has supplied texts for videopoems by Swoon (Marc Neys), Nic Sebastian, Marie Craven, and Donna Vorreyer. His own videopoems have been screened at the International Film Poetry Festival in Athens, the Poetry, Places & Soundscapes exhibition in Leicester, and VideoBardo in Buenos Aires. He’s currently on year three of a ten-year project to create erasure poems from every entry of the 17th-century Diary of Samuel Pepys at Via Negativa.

See also Dave’s review of Tom Konyves’ “Redefining poetry in the age of the screen”