Versogramas, the 2017 film directed by Belén Montero, is apparently the world’s first documentary about videopoetry, and as such, it’s likely that viewers may come to it with heightened expectations which will not be fulfilled. Taken on its own terms, however, I found it a delightful romp with a few glaring defects. It has great potential as a teaching aid in the poetry or film classroom—especially if, as I hope, its official web release is accompanied by links to all the videos and videopoets in the film. It’s also available as part of a bookDVD from Editorial Galaxia (which I have not seen).
I watched the English-language version, Verses&Frames, while it was still password-protected on Vimeo, having been granted access in order to write a review. However, I find myself quite incapable of being impartial here, in the first place because, much to my surprise, a video interpretation of one of my own poems is included among the dozens of excerpts, and also because I was one of the donors to the crowd-funding campaign that partially underwrote the production. So I’m definitely invested in the success of the film.
More than that, I must confess that I find myself uncomfortable with the role of movie critic. As editor/publisher of Moving Poems for the past nine and a half years, I’ve seen my role mainly as a promotor and enthusiast, passing over in silence what I don’t like. And as a poet and reader of poetry, I’ve never had much patience for the impulse many people seem to have to declare what poetry should and shouldn’t be. Which is a problem, because the narrative framing device deployed in Versogramas is a quest for a definition, or definitions, of videopoetry. I felt myself beginning to be irritated by this by twelve minutes in, and Versogramas is an hour and fifteen minutes long. After half an hour I was hollering at the screen, »Just quote Tom Konyves’ Manifesto and get on with it!«
Spoiler alert: They do quote Konyves … in the very last minute of the film. By that point, I had almost decided that the whole thing was meant in jest, and actually I’m still not quite sure that it isn’t, due to both the language gap and the cultural gap between my own sensibilities (as an American) and the director’s and producer’s (Spanish/Galician). The narrative framing is undeniably entertaining: an apparently sleepwalking, robed figure whose sandaled feet follow a spookily lit path from one magic box to another, each of which, when opened, turns out to contain videopoems, while a sententious female voice, sounding like a drugged robot crossed with the oracle of Delphi, declares that videopoetry is this or that in an over-the-top version of academese. After an hour of this, the voice declares as if in self-defense: »It is a problem for videopoetry not to have a formal definition to distinguish it from other forms of art.« Bollocks.
Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds if not thousands of poetry videos that have included clips of slowly walking feet, usually bare. It’s one of the most persistent videopoetry clichés. So I’d like to think that its use as part of a connective device in this film was a knowing wink at that. I should say that I loved the magic boxes without reservation: their variety, and the whole fantasy-movie atmosphere, was highly entertaining. It’s only the accompanying narration that irritated me. If it’s all intended to be parodic, then of course I wouldn’t have a problem with it, but on balance it seemed as if viewers were meant to take the jargon seriously, because the director also made a point of describing the academic pedigree of each interviewee with text on screen, which I found surprising and somewhat off-putting (but perhaps it’s a common pattern in European documentaries of this sort?).
This all worked to create the unfortunate impression that videopoetry is something difficult, abstruse, arcane—which isn’t helped by the fact that the documentary doesn’t include a single complete videopoem, just a series of short excerpts (often followed by interviews with their creators talking about what they were trying to do in that film, and then about videopoetry generally). I wish they had included at least one complete videopoem. Perhaps instead of the oracle of Delphi, they could have had a novice videopoetry maker narrate, and framed it as that person’s quest to discover their own way into the art. I think that might’ve made for a more popularly accessible documentary. I suppose the idea was to make it as lyrical and videopoem-like as possible, but if so, it foundered on the shoals of academese.
Be that as it may, the interviews are really the heart and soul of the film, and they’re why I remain so enthusiastic about Versogramas despite my reservations. Because let’s be fair: any film about film runs a very high risk of disappearing up its own arse. That Versogramas manages to escape that fate is testimony to its director’s wisdom in largely letting the videopoets speak for themselves. The interviews are creatively shot and well edited, and the interviewees all come across as fascinating people with uniquely unconventional approaches to making poetry and art. There wasn’t one of them whom I didn’t want to immediately track down on the web and watch every one of their videos, and I was pleased by how many of them were new to me, either because their work had never been translated into English, or because they just hadn’t happened to have crossed my radar.
This is testimony to the sheer breadth of the international videopoetry community, I think. It’s impressive that the producers can focus on just one part of the world—Spain, especially the Galician region—add a handful of filmmakers and videopoets from outside that region, and still end up with a highly varied, complete-feeling snapshot of the state of videopoetry in the 21st century. I say this because I’m sure a lot of viewers will be annoyed by the absence of their favorite filmmakers or the lack of representation from many influential videopoetry or poetry film communities (including the entire German-speaking world). But to me, this unique geographical focus is one of Versogramas’ main strengths; I don’t need yet another history of the genre focusing on North America, the UK, and Germany, with perhaps a nod to the influence of Russian futurists, much less some dry survey attempting to give fair representation to everyone. That’s for some other documentary team with a much bigger budget to undertake. I liked the rootedness of this approach, and I enjoyed getting a sense of how Spanish and Galician poets and artists have been working with videopoesía in recent years.
And for all its playing around with definitions, Versogramas does not end up providing some kind of unified field theory of videopoetry, thank God. (Though it does give Konyves the last word, as is fitting.) What it does, and does very well, is present us with a series of possibilities: this is what videopoetry might be (the narrative sections); this is what a bunch of actual practitioners have found it to be (the interviews). One thinks of Emily Dickinson’s famous lines:
I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
On second viewing, I hit the pause button a lot and wrote down everything that struck me, which filled up 14 pages in my pocket notebook. Here are a few of the things that caught my attention. (Apologies in advance to anyone whose words I may have slightly misconstrued or misheard.)
- Yolanda Castaño: Text is the »main engine« or root of her experiments with hybrid form, but she stresses that poetry goes on beyond written text. »Poetry is now doing what it has always been doing, that is: withdraw, strain, within the formats that every historical period has given to it.«
- Dionisio Cañas: The purpose of videopoetry, like poetry itself, is to draw one’s attention to something, to help us avoid going through life »simply as a foreigner.« He lets his poetry and his videopoetry follow separate paths, and says »Every image is language, at the end of the day.«
- Marc Neys (AKA Swoon): »Music is the mortar« of his videopoetry, and by music he means the whole soundscape. Making videopoetry helped him get through some dark periods in his life, but it also turned into an addiction. »At one point, I was making almost one videopoem a week!«
- Miriam Reyes: Writing is a form of investigation, and she gets that same feeling from making videos. »Even if I’m working with a poem that I have already written, I feel it as a new thing. … I’m expressing things there that I can’t express by means of a simple written word.«
- Elena Chiesa: Animation can help bring poetry across to an audience more comfortable with moving images than with text. She works instinctively, manipulating digital blobs of color initially, led not by storyboards but by her effort to uncover the images hidden in the text.
- Hernán Talavera: Places are the main characters in his videopoems; he sees them as »little universes.« »Solitude and emptiness are not negative concepts« for him, but provide relief from the suffering caused by our endless quest for stimulation. He frequently removes sound or color from his videos in a »compromise with austerity,« pointing out that »when you close your eyes you may begin to hear better.«
- Eduardo Yagüe: »For me, the actors are the poems.« Making videopoems is an exercise in humility, and intimacy is »the place where interesting things happen.«
- Melissa Diem: Despite a strong interest in how we use memory to construct narratives of the self, she is not interested in narrative movie-making. She originally began making videopoems because she doesn’t like reading her work to an audience — »I could show them my film instead!«
- Iria Pinheiro (AKA dandylady): Comes from a background in cabaret production. She loves the way a camera can be used to fix or capture things, in a game-like fashion. This creates emotional distance and opens up space for parody.
- Daniel Cuberta: Prefers to make films in stop-motion style on a table. »In fact, I try to get the same table to appear in all my films!« Time and rhythm are central to his film-making, and he takes child-like delight in the »freak-out« potential in clever stop-motion animation.
- Eugeni Bonet: It’s possible to find poetry through condensation, as he did when boiling down a 300-page novel into just 30 pages of text. He’s a pioneering video artist whose story lends historical depth to the documentary.
- Martha McCollough: Has a background as a painter, but because of the internet, feels that more people see her videopoems than ever get to see her paintings. She uses videopoetry to wrestle with existential and political questions, suggesting (to me, at least) that videopoetry can preserve space for uncertainty, something that’s all too rare in politics.
- Antón Reixa: »Images, in some way, are secondary. What I wanted to do was poetic and lyrical cinema, let’s say, and I wanted to illustrate my poems.« Like McCollough, he’s interested in the possibilities for social and civic engagement.
- Belén Gache: A strong believer in the importance of the internet for circumventing traditional publishing routes. She has made videopoems using Second Life and augmented reality. She’s fascinated by temporality, the unique and unrepeatable quality of every performance, while recognizing the irony of then preserving a video document of that performance.
I found this all enormously exciting and inspiring, to the point where I was eager to dive back into making videopoems of my own. Versogramas may not work as a stand-alone introduction to the genre, but if it’s able to provoke that kind of excited response from someone as jaded as me, I think one has to consider it a success.
VERSOGRAMAS (Engl. title »Verses&Frames«)
Spain 2017, 75 min
Director: Belén Montero
Co-director: Juan Lesta
Original idea and executive producer: Celia Parra
Producer: Esferobite S.C.