Why Poetry Videos?

Why poetry videos? They expand the reach of poetry by making it accessible to people across borders and backgrounds. There are many folks who are intimidated or confused by poetry. Maybe they had a bad experience in school with analyzing and dissecting a poem to death. They might not “get” a poem and turn away, thinking it’s too difficult or esoteric. They might not know where to find a good poem among the shelves of poetry available.

One issue is that many poems are meant to be read aloud. Poetry videos can allow a poem to be heard of course, but most importantly experienced through visual imagery, colour, pattern, sound effects, music, narration and more. Filmmakers might be inspired by a poem’s metaphors and distilled, compressed language, which might serve as a spine or screenplay for a sequenced collage of visuals and sound.

What’s very cool about poetry videos is that they can extend and deepen the meaning of the poem itself because of how the images, music, sound effects work in synergy with the spoken or written word. The visual images and sound design can tap into the unconscious, the unspoken, and universal, drawing upon the white space of the poem on the page. As many poetry video commentators have noted, the best poetry videos do much more than illustrate the poem: they create something new that can transcend the words. Some poetry videos actually might not even need any words at all–the images and sound effects themselves create a kind of “poem”–hence the term “videopoem.” Not all poetry videos are videopoems, and not all videopoems involve actual written or spoken poetry.

For those of you who are curious about poetry videos (or videopoems)–what they are, how to make them, what they look like–I’ve put together a list of resources that includes examples, websites and essays about them here. The page includes a link to an excellent essay by Moving Poem’s Dave Bonta, “Videopoetry: What is it, Who Makes it and Why?” 

Most importantly, don’t miss an amazing retrospective of 40 years of videopoetry curated by Tom Konyves, author of the highly influential Videopoetry Manifesto. The free exhibition is entitled Poets with a Video Camera at the Surrey Art Gallery, opening on September 17th and on view until December 11.

There will also be a free symposium entitled “Two or Three Things One Should Know about Videopoetry” on Saturday, November 5, from 12-6 pm at the gallery, featuring various speakers on the topic of video poetry, several from outside of Canada. (A free tour of this exhibit and another exhibit at the Surrey Art Gallery will also be offered by curator Jordan Strom on Saturday, November 26, 2-3:30 pm.) Come check out the diverse videos/films and the stimulating discussion!

If you’d like to hear a live reading of poems by several of the poetry-filmmakers attending the Symposium, please consider attending the reading on Sunday, November 6th at 7 pm at People’s Co-op Bookstore in Vancouver! Come hear poets from far afield, including Adeena Karasick, Valerie Leblanc, Daniel Dugas, Kurt Heintz, Matt Mullins and Sarah Tremlett, as well as locals Heather Haley, me and curator Tom Konvyes.

How I got involved with poetry videos

It all began in 2009. While sitting in the playground watching our kids run around, I asked a former high school classmate who was teaching documentary film to collaborate with me on making a poetry video to promote my new poetry collection. He agreed! With a miniscule budget, we worked on Chrysanthemum which was selected for screening at Vancouver’s poetry video festival, Visible Verse, curated and organized for years by local poet and performer, Heather Haley.

I never looked back! I learned a lot after that first poetry video. I’ve been extremely fortunate that my friend, Martin Rose, an animation instructor at Emily Carr University, recommended talented animation students from his classes for several other poetry videos: Omelet with Toni Zhang; Aquarium with Chelsea Ker; Drunken Laundry Day: A Poem by Henry Doyle with H. Kristen Campbell, Sitji Chou and Carolina Gonzales; Plasticnic with Tish deb Pillai. Sound designer Tinjun Niu recommended Art Institute grad, Nhat Truong to animate two of my plastic pollution-themed concrete/visual poems in Plasticpoems.

At the REELpoetry festival in Houston in 2019, I met Mary Macdonald who had made some beautiful poetry videos with Ontario poet, Penn Kemp. Mary and I ended up making Utility Pole together. I also met experienced US filmmakers Pamela Falkenberg and Jack Cochrane at REELpoetry. They consulted me in producing and directing two poetry videos based on my poems (Legacy and Neighbourhood) at their own expense. I was also commissioned to write a poem for Erin Trudell, a Montreal choreographer who had done a video of her movement/dance piece, Of the Sea.

This summer has been a busy one collaborating on two climate crisis-related poetry videos–the aforementioned live action one, Neighbourhood with Pam and Jack, and an animated one, Merry with Lara Renaud and Quinn Kelly, two keen young animators studying in Portland. It’s incredible how many hours let alone days (or weeks or months…) goes into making a minute or two of animation.

Each poetry video has intentionally had a different approach, look and style. I usually start the process with a good audio-recording. Then I will type up a chart with my vision of what words and phrases should go with what images and sound effects. I might also do a sketch or two to illustrate my ideas to communicate the overall concept. A UBC screenplay course taught by Peggy Thompson that I took while doing my MFA has helped me understand the interplay of words and visuals, as has my work with an illustrator on the children’s book, The Rainbow Rocket, as well as viewing poetry videos at festivals and online through Moving Poems.

I’ll watch the early versions several dozens of times over (if not more), replaying sections repeatedly, in order to give detailed input on pacing, flow, colour, sound effects and more. I also often source images (or take photographs myself) that I want incorporated into the body of the video or in the credits. There are usually a number of revisions and fine edits before the final version is ready to submit to festivals through FilmFreeway.

The best part of the process is the to and fro. Sometimes my initial ideas don’t work. Sometimes the co-directors’, animator’s or sound designer’s suggestions are much better. Other times, their ideas don’t fit my vision. Many times our discussions will inspire me to think of alternative approaches to address a problem. It’s a journey of discovery, and it’s exciting to see the end result come together.

Because I feel so very honoured, privileged and most of all lucky to have worked with such creative and talented people, I want to encourage other poets and filmmakers to make poetry videos too. Poetry film and poetry videos have long represented a legitimate form of cultural expression in Germany (the first. largest and longest running poetry film festival, the Zebra Poetry Film Festival began in 2002), as well as in France, England and the US. Canadian poets and poetry deserve the same support and coverage.