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The Way Words Move Us
By The Editors
We love videopoems here at Quail Bell and have published a lot of them in the past. That's why we're fascinated with other artists who are using this unique medium to communicate their art. We spoke with Dave Bonta of Moving Poems Weekly Digest to hear more about the unorthodox way videopoetry is changing the way we experience the classic art form:
What first attracted you to video poems and poetry films?
The original attraction for me was the challenge of making poetry in video form that would be as compelling as page poetry. I came to it back around 2006 as a poetry blogger, as someone excited by Web 2.0, user-generated content, and the incredible ferment around streaming video. Whenever a new, free tool for digital content creation came along, my first impulse was to try and use it to make and/or share poems, so when one of my blog's readers sent me a used digital camera, I immediately started trying to make poetry videos, without even knowing yet whether that was a thing. By 2009, I was sufficiently excited by what I was discovering on YouTube and Vimeo to start blogging about it, and Moving Poems was born. Ten years on, I still haven't lost that initial sense of excitement.
What do you think defines a "successful" video poem or poetry film?
Pretty much the same things that define a successful poem on the page: Original insights, a fresh approach, a rich vocabulary (visual in this case) that avoids cliche, etc. Most of all, in the same way that a poem can't be reduced to prose, a successful videopoem can't be reduced to the sum of its parts. You shouldn't be left thinking, "That was nice, but actually I could've just read the poem and dispensed with the video."
For any more specific rule that one might propose — for example, avoiding literal illustration — I can think of exceptions that still somehow work. Unlike with "proper" film, a more amateurish approach isn't necessarily disqualifying where videopoetry is concerned, as long as the concept is really strong. And by the same token, quite often I lose interest in a poetry film that may be all slick and polished, but is fundamentally unimaginative in the interplay of images, text, and sound.
How do you think the democratization of new media technologies has affected the world of video poems?
It revolutionized it. Or you could say it took an already ongoing revolution begun by the introduction of videocassettes and spread it to every corner of the earth. I mean, for someone like me, living way below the poverty line, a hand-me-down digital camera and Windows Movie Maker on my creaky old PC were gateway drugs into a whole new world of poetic experimentation. Streaming video platforms freed videopoets and poetry filmmakers from literary or film-world gatekeepers, and gave many more people a chance to share their work. Over the years, as I've sought out new videos to share on Moving Poems, I've run across so many other people who, like me, were not film school graduates and have no particular background in avant-garde film or video art (the two biggest influences on this genre), they just enjoy messing about with poems and pictures and kind of invent videopoetry on their own, because the tools are there.
How would you define the relationship video poems have with the Internet? What about social media specifically?
Certainly videopoetry predated the web, as noted above, and poetry films in one form or another go back to the dawn of cinema. And there are still plenty of poetry filmmakers whose first focus is getting into film festivals, and at various times and places television has been an important medium, as well. To say nothing of galleries and museums. But all these venues put together are a drop in the bucket compared with the Internet, especially since the advent of streaming video platforms. YouTube is of course the biggest player, and there are a number of troubling things about its monetization structure and algorithmic behavior, but at least it's not as bad as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, each of which seeks to keep people off the open web altogether if they possibly can. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see what people are able to do in these more restrictive environments: poetry GIFs, for example, or one-minute videopoems on Instagram that work well if played in a loop.
Like most web content these days, videopoetry really benefits from social media sharing. And because it can be hard to get people to click on a link, natively hosted video will get the most views. (In Instagram, it's the only option.) But serious film- and video-makers should be wary of entrusting their content solely to platforms where they are the product rather than the customer. So I advise anyone who can afford it to get a paying account on Vimeo and establish a home base there. You can not only edit and replace videos with ease on Vimeo — and every poet knows how important it is to be able to revise — but you can also push them out to other, less professional platforms once you connect your accounts: Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. For those who live in places with slow internet connections, like me in rural Pennsylvania, this is a huge time-saver—I only have to upload once (or twice if I also want to share on Instagram).
How do you curate video poems for Moving Poems?
I try to keep things varied above all else, though sometimes I do also pursue themes for a week or two. So generally speaking I try to maintain a healthy mix of styles and poets, and not completely neglect schools of poetry which don't personally interest me. I will occasionally share simple, single-camera videos of poetry readings, if for example the reading is exceptionally powerful, or it's a favorite poet for whom no better video exists. But my primary focus is on videos that are interesting both as videos/films and as poems. And though I do include the poet's name in the post titles — largely, I admit, for SEO reasons — I'm just as likely to share something from a completely unknown poet as I am to share the latest release from Motionpoems.
Have you made any video poems of your own? (If so, could you send links? If not, could you explain why? Do you produce any form of poetry or new media work?)
Oh yes. I have videos I've made for other people's poetry, largely so I can share their work on Moving Poems: http://movingpoems.com/filmmaker/dave-bonta/
I don't share videos using my own texts on Moving Poems — that's more self-promotional than I want to be, and besides, I have a literary blog (ViaNegativa.us) and an author website (davebonta.com) for that. But as a result of doing Moving Poems for so many years, I've become friends with a number of brilliant filmmakers and video artists, some of whom have been kind enough to make films out of my poems. So I've created a channel on Vimeo for all those videos, Plummer's Hollow Poet, https://vimeo.com/channels/davebonta in addition to my main page there,https://vimeo.com/davebonta .
As for my other poetry, there's a definitely a new-media aspect to that, as well. I have a poetry photoblog for ekphrastic short poems and a blog called the Morning Porch for daily prose micropoetry written with Twitter's original 140-character limit as a creative restriction, and at Via Negativa I make daily erasure poems using only HTML.
Do you think video poetry has gotten more political during the Trump administration?
I think so, but then I've also become more perceptually vigilant for political work. Regardless, I'm really pleased that political poetry in general has finally been allowed out of the ghetto that American literary gatekeepers and taste-makers had kept it in for so long. That's been a trend all this decade, well preceding the 2016 election. I think VIDA gets a great deal of credit for that: there's simply no doubt that white, male poets are the least likely group to be politically engaged. Bringing a greater variety of voices to the podium has made all the difference.
What do you think is the future of video poetry?
I don't know. Unless and until more online literary magazines start featuring it, it will probably remain a fairly obscure genre. I think videos will be increasingly used to share poetry — look at the success of the Button Poetry YouTube channel, for example. But what percentage of those videos will actually be videopoems or poetry films? Poets are still overwhelmingly wedded to the page or the stage. And strange as it seems, I don't know that there are any MFA programs that require their writers to learn how to create digital media. The American poetry business model, such as it is, foregrounds single-author print publications to the virtual exclusion of anything else. When Beyonce's Lemonade came out, I sort of thought that maybe some prominent poets or poetry publishers would think about releasing video albums, too, but so far that hasn't happened. But that's the kind of future I'd like to see: one in which poets feel free to (self-)publish in any and all media, depending on the needs of the product, and one in which poets, filmmakers and musicians regularly get together to collaborate. We might or might not reach larger audiences that way. But I'm here to tell you, it's a hell of lot less lonely than the poet-in-a-garret model. And it's so much fun!
Check out these Moving Poems features on past Quail Bell poetry films.