Film Poetry: Deforming the Surface pt. 2

Following is the second installment of my essay on film poetry. Read the first part here: http://cpoem.sunygeneseoenglish.org/2016/04/05/film-poetry-deforming-the-surface/

Even poetry that doesn’t heavily focus on the visual has to acknowledge the presence or absence of white space on the page. To be more specific poems have to deal with the dissonance created by the white space after a line break—this , in poetry at least, is the “subordination of plot to rhythm” that Stein is talking about, though I would submit that film/video has to deal with the same problems. These problems manifest themselves as synchronizing the CRT scan or editing (breaking, assembling, abrading) footage from different shoots to create the illusion of a seamless flow of time. Especially as a poet it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that poetry in general handles the break in a way that is less illusory than, say, a Hollywood movie—we love discussing the myriad ways a line break can perform its duty. However, this duty is often exactly the same as a CRTs sync pulse, to “signal the beginning of each new video line.”(Ni.com, “Analog Video 101”). In a similar way editing for continuity (i.e. cigarettes don’t unburn themselves as a scene progresses) aims to create a smooth jump from one fragment to the next. Although the break/fragmentation is in the background operation of CRTs and moving images in general they also add force to Stein’s contentions about rhythm. In turn, filmmakers, poets and film poets alike are challenged to own up to the subordination and abrasion implicit in their work that might be more comfortable to forget. This process could easily be facilitated by comparison between film and poetry. For example, how could a jump cut emulate a poetic line that is gesturing back in towards itself?

In Film Poems Olsen shows there are other ways to “articulate the fragility of film’s performance” as Drew Milne writes in his introduction to the book. Milne describes this move as a historical one—reaching back to a time before Kodak, exploring what film meant then, subsequently breaking down cellulose’s rule and turning over fresh the area between film and poetry. This creates new possibilities in the same way that thinking through the mechanisms of film and poetry with a finger on the idea of film as surface does. Really, this line of thinking is just a focusing and slight modulation of Olsen’s. Rather than a historical question it’s a physical one: how far can we expand the definition of film until it begins to tear, and what does the tearing reveal? In her essay “To Quill at Film” (2013) Olsen puts a considerable amount of pressure on the definition and our minds: “Words are the film between what was said and seen and also the means of seeing that something is burning in the projector called language.” Although it seems like Milne was talking about the fragility of film as moving image Olson is talking about that and film as text. By thinking of words as film it reveals the troubles of language that might have otherwise gone unnoticed: something is burning. This quote is hard to decipher, but it valuably “articulates the fragility film’s [as text] performance” by reducing words to a means of seeing rather than the sight itself. The sight is what is burning, which to our eyes might be incoherent, but maybe it is the job of film poetry to align the incoherent destruction inside both mediums into something creative, though not necessarily harmonious.

Film and poetry are particularly suited to each other for this sort of creative destruction because they both are marked by a tension between progression and break. This came to light in the previous discussion of CRTs, but it also appears in Stein’s broad definition of montage, which brings us closer to the original French meaning of the word, assembly, rather than our default definition of a film device used to compress time i.e. the karate kid advancing in the tournament. In film poetry we have to come to terms with the fact that in either genre everything from plotless abstraction to the most straightforward narratives are assembled, not spun. Poetry being assembled from broken lines and film from cut pieces of cellulose. This definition of montage is useful to film poets because it pulls us away from the comfortable line break and its film analogs. It doesn’t imply two pieces that need bridging, but a large number of fragments that abrade/obscure/illuminate one another without the precondition of being next to each other in sequence.

A great metaphor for this action of film poetic assembly is experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s “Mothlight,” which seems to be a film poem without words. By applying semi-transparent objects between two transparent layers of film Brakhage created a film without ever touching a camera. This very loudly champions the projector over the camera, and in doing so calls attention to the action of the film surface being pulled in front of the projector and obscuring the white light of the bulb. In other words, it calls attention to the fact that something (a filament) is burning the project) In addition, his method of applying objects to a surface mirrors the arrangement of words over a page—what possibilities can we imagine for poetry if every fragment had to be collected and possess the proper transparency? While we don’t actually have to use as painstaking in our assembly as Brakhage the way the layers of moth’s wings and leaves mute or allow the light through is a lesson in film poetic assembly. The difference being that creating a film poem calls for fragments with different properties, rather than the one property, translucency, that Brakhage is working with. Coming at it from a different angle, film poetry is like making something out of Legos and K’Nex that won’t completely fall apart. Given the lack of text in “Mothlight” it might be unfair to call it a film poem, but its intense focus on surface and arrangement certainly make it a lesson to film poetry, if not a unique definition.

Spotlight: Reginald Shepherd

In honor of National Poetry Month, I’d like to highlight one of the poets currently on my mind: Reginald Shepherd.

His poem “My Mother Was No White Dove” plays extensively with sound and images, which is probably the reason it drew me in. Immediately, the first line seems to be a statement continuing from the title: “no dove at all, coo-rooing through the dusk.” We begin with a very simple but captivating image, a contrast of colors –the white of the dove and the dark of dusk. Out of all the images, though, the one that I find most enthralling is at the start of the second stanza: “My mother was a murder of crows/ stilled, black plumage gleaming/among black branches.” These images imply a realistic view of the speaker’s mother, viewing her as a dimensional, imperfect human being rather than the saintly, pure perspective taken by a child looking up to their hero. The speaker even goes far enough to refer to her as an “obscure bruise across the sky.”

Not only does Shepherd use images to pull readers in, but also a mastery of assonance, consonance, rhyme, and alliteration –not in a sing-song way, though. The final stanza serves as a good example of a non-musical rhyme that is working very well: “was never snow, no kind/ of bird, pigeon or crow.” The second stanza repeats “b” sounds with two iterations of “black,” the second of which is immediately followed by “branches.” The third stanza sees alliteration in “flight of feathers,” along with the juxtaposition between two lines harboring the words “perch” and “purchase.” Shepherd, here, makes these techniques of sound feel natural, despite their musical qualities.

Reginald Shepherd

The majority of the poems written by Shepherd that I have read incorporate these techniques and create a style that I greatly enjoy. I hope that, by sharing it with you this month, I have led you to a poet you will enjoy as well. Happy April!

For Yet Another Semester, Nicole Talks About the Revision Process

As I sit here, hunched over my laptop and downing mugs of lemon ginger tea, I’m trying to procrastinate on revising my poem.  I’ve opened the poem multiple times, only to close the file and do other work.  My poems, this semester, have fallen into one of two categories: shit I’m cool with and I want to keep mostly intact until a later date, and shit I want to (metaphorically) burn and forget about.  Last poetry workshop, I was much more confused about where my poetry was going, less confident, and much less aware of my own poetics.  I think that I’ve had the time to grow with my poems, to accept them as flawed and subjective representations of my being in a much more temporal sense. If I’m being honest with myself, I’m not quite ready to revise any of this semester’s poems, and I was wondering if anyone else felt that same reluctance?  I find myself wanting to write more, new poems, and maybe that’s just because I’m always moving too fast to slow down, but I want to do each of my poems the honor of allowing them to speak to a “me” that came before.  Regardless, I will revise a poem for workshop, but I think that my poems are the one place that I allow myself the satisfaction of accepting my earlier selves.

Live Commentary Poetry Translation

I’d been thinking about  trying to translate poetry, so Lytton’s email a few weeks ago about translating work into English for Multicultural Night was a cool surprise. Spanish is my first language, so that’s what what I decided to work with on this one, and I assumed that the hardest part of translating poetry would be literally getting the words of the text into the desired language and that I’d therefore find this whole thing to be not very difficult. I’m very quickly realizing that I was wrong – not about the getting the words from Spanish into English, but in preserving the meaning and feel of the poem as I do that. Grammatically, Spanish is looser with verb placement than English is, so if I keep the word order as it is, some sentences won’t make sense. That shouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m generally trying to keep my translation as close to the source material as possible, so this is complicating that. There’s very little punctuation in this poem too, which works fine with the kind of language the author is using, which suggests stops via its structure and the conventions of Spanish writing, but doesn’t do the same thing at all in English.
I’m also realizing, especially after hearing a recording of the poet reading this piece, that the poem plays a lot with the use of speech sounds that imitate the wind, and it’s hard to move those sounds into English. The poem, a lot of which is focused on the sky, uses as one of the images a rook flying through the sky. In this line, the author has used a lot of vowels that sound especially wind-like when combined with the j’s and sibilant noises the line includes. In English, however, this sentence uses a lot more consonants and sounds pretty weight – a word like rook doesn’t remind me of flight. This airiness is something I think is really crucial to the success of the poem in its original language, and I don’t know that my translation will be faithful to the original piece in the effect on the reader if these sounds are entirely lost. On the other hand, I know I’m going to have to change the words around a lot if my criteria for choosing them is how they sound, and then I won’t  able to be entirely faithful to the original in content, so I’m hesitant about going either way. It seems almost as if I’m learning a lesson from this.

Mallary M’s “Birds & Bees”

As a poet, I’ve always been looking for new ways to steep myself in poetry, but sometimes it’s hard to fit poetry into my everyday.  The Button Poetry channel on YouTube makes it easy, because they post live readings of up-and-coming poets on a regular basis.  The most recent video is one by Mallary M., called “Birds & Bees,” which compares the talk a black father has to have with his children about police brutality to “the talk” that most white parents are worried about.

 

I love the way Mallary’s language flows into a solid stream, like he’s panicking and he wants his feelings expressed to someone else who maybe doesn’t understand what it’s like to be the parent of black children.  The bees are the police and the bees can sting, and the birds are black people in the US, maybe also elsewhere, who have to think about police brutality and racially motivated violence before sending their kids outside.  I love the way this poem takes something  that is usually used as a punchline, the parent’s inability to speak about a child’s sexual awakening, but turns it around so that it’s completely serious, and 100% scary.  It takes something that parents in general are afraid of, that is talking about sex with their kids, and reworks it so that the conversation is about life and death, vs. figurative life and death, embarrassment, and awkwardness.  Black parents can’t afford to feel ashamed of the way that police target their children, can’t talk awkwardly about how you can’t wear your hood up because sometimes some white men get confused and call your head a target.

If you’re ever looking for some powerful poetry, give Button Poetry a try!

ESL & Myung Mi Kim

Recently I read an article (here if you’re interested) about a poet named Ocean Vuong, who was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the USA with his family when he was two. In the article, he mentions that his family was illiterate, and that he didn’t learn to read until he was eleven, and says, “For an American who was born here, the mundane might be boring, but for me colloquial English was a destination.”

While I was reading this article, I was brought back to the conversation in class a few weeks ago about Myung Mi Kim’s poem, the one where each line is a sounds derived from Korean with the final line, “you speak English so well transcript”.  It’s really fascinating to me when poets (and all genres of writers, really) choose to go back and forth between their first language and a second language. I think there’s a certain expectation that comes with being a native-English speaker that writers cater to our understanding of the language, not the ways in which they, as ESL learners, understand the language. I’ve recently noticed this trend  among peers in creative writing workshops; a writer will insert non standardized forms of English in their work, or lines/phrases in another language, and others will be frustrated that it doesn’t make sense…to them. Of course this issue is a multi-layered one (here I go again, inserting politics into the workshop) but I do think it’s one worth pointing out, especially for those writers who didn’t grow up speaking English in the USA. I guess my biggest question would be should we take other languages into account when work shopping poetry? Do you think it’s a hindrance or beneficial or neither or something else entirely? I’m wondering what other people think about this.

On AWP, Genre-Crossing, and Flash Fiction

The Los Angeles Convention Center, next door to the Staples Center, is an expansive building that resembles an airport, high-ceilings, people running to and fro, minus the baggage and with a bit more comfort, in the form of carpeting and space.

At the 2016 Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles, genre was in the air and writers, professor, undergraduates, and graduates, and editors were all a buzz about distinctions, some defending the boundaries, others breaking them down. In my own experience, I found that fiction writers were most interested, and inclined to, break down boundaries, arguing for writing across genres and exploring the potential for cohesion of genres.

My primary interest quickly became Flash Fiction. One poet, Sholeh Wolpe, shared a flash fiction piece published in Flash Fiction International, and later claimed, “this is a poem as much as it is a flash fiction story.” I agreed. The sharp images, the context, the narrative, all lend themselves to poetry as much as fiction. So where does the difference lie? In the line breaks? What about a prose poem? I think there is great room for exploration between these forms and genres and writers should explore how the similar and different components can cross genres and enhance either type of writing.

Process

In the past few years, I’ve made a point of asking all of my writer friends the same question: what is your process like? Some of the poets I know work by mapping out their poetry, each stanza, with a definite intention and plan. Others, begin with an idea and allow it to develop as they write, sometimes altering in the process. Others use different kinds of prompts that allow for different processes. This could be, I suppose, a loaded question, but I wonder if the process used has any bearing on the kind of product?

Personally, I tend to start based on a feeling, an urge that is provided by a particular word or image. From there, it seems that the poem writes itself through me. Often, I don’t have any one intention in mind when I begin, just a general idea. Exercises in form, however, have forced me to think and plan ahead (a bit, at least more than usual). As a result, I tend to write a different style of poetry, a different style of language than the organic voice that seeps through when there are no restrictions. This offers up the question of “organic” voice. Does form force voice, like the very formal tone I notice in my writing when I produce a sonnet or sestina? Is this my individual reaction to the regulations of different forms?

Or is this just indicative of my continuing development of voice as a poet? I would suppose, although I don’t wish to be presumptuous, that our processes as writers influence our voice. Or vice versa. And by influencing our voice, influence our output.

So I extend the question: what is your process and how do you think it affects your writing?

Peace Poetry and Play

Last night I helped to judge the annual Genesee Valley Peace Poetry Contest. Children from elementary and middle schools in the area wrote poems on the topic of peace in their English classes, and Geneseo students determined which poets would be awarded the honor of reading their poem in Wadsworth Auditorium on Mothers’ Day. When I arrived to judge the contest, I was instructed to judge the poems on the basis of “literary merit.”

When I googled “children and poetry,” the first link was to an essay on poets.org, which began with the quote from W.H. Auden, “Play is what we want to do. Work is what we have to do.” The essay went on to argue that the childhood propensity for play makes children receptive to poetry. As I read the poems for the contest, many of the poems seemed trudged through; they were the product of work. These poems sat directly upon their teacher’s instructions, so that I could have told you how those teachers defined poetry from the content of the poems. There were lists of what peace meant, and acrostic poems, and lists of synonyms for peace that I assume were drawn directly from a thesaurus. The ones that caught my eye were the poems that carried the spirit of play: one boy’s poem was the story of convincing his father not to shoot a deer, another about peace as emanating from pork chops, another a list of onomatopoeias, one in which the words for different parts of a wrestling arena outlined the shape of that arena. These children had evidently committed to play, rather than to the drudgery of another assignment, rather than to some college student’s definition of literary merit, to create their poems.

I imagine that the children who wrote those playful, compelling poems were not the ones who, like I did at their age, agonized over following the rules perfectly. Those divergent poems reminded me that poetry’s strength appears when it is defiant, and self-possessed, and when its construction is enjoyed.

Film Poetry: Deforming the Surface

In honor of National Poetry Month I am serializing the essay I wrote during my directed study on poetry and the visual with Dr. Lytton Smith. The videos I made for the other half of the project with Dr. Melanie Blood will be on the film studies blog shortly. The first third of the essay follows:

 

The kindship between modern poetry and film … hinges upon the subordination of plot to rhythm, but also upon a montage aesthetics that privileges the fragment and its abrasion of other fragments.—Gertrude Stein

 

The area created by the collision of two mediums makes us question the definitions of both. For example, by colliding film and poetry Stein has made clearer how poetry and film assemble themselves by broadening our idea of montage. To use Stein’s wording in a broader sense, two mediums will abrade each other which leaves us with new, ragged surfaces. These might at first seem ugly compared to the smooth definitions we had, but the roughness creates new complexity, and gives us more traction when trying to direct the force of the medium as it comes into contact with our work. Redell Olsen’s book Filmpoems (2014), a collection of “film texts” she wrote to accompany audiovisual performances, echoes Stein in its focus on materiality and redoubles the force behind widening our concepts of what film and poetry are. Even the title of the book troubles our thought. It raises a number of questions: how does Olsen get away with calling bound paper a film? More practically, can we call ourselves film poets in the absence of film in our cameras, or without cameras at all? If we follow the logic of Stein and Olsen we find that film (in other words a thin surface) is present either literally or metaphorically in almost every aspect of film poetry. Thinking about the images we create in terms of film, either with magnetic tape or a digital image sensor, with a projector, on the page, with or without a camera, helps illuminate the mechanisms of film poetry.

By centering film as a material surface with many forms beyond cellulose between poetry and moving images it problematizes both as it brings them together, as Olsen does with Film Poems. Olsen makes this multidirectional move by interrogating materiality and making, from industrial lace to amateur ghillie suits (a type of camouflage that makes the wearer look like Swamp Thing).  She has done the lion’s share of the work of expanding the definition of film. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that Olsen’s work in Film Poems and her critical writing is the reason we can call ourselves film poets without film in our cameras. She shows us that film can protect, breathe, obscure/mask, seal, project, defaced and be defaced, which is to say much more than photochemically capture images.  At the very beginning of his introduction to the book Drew Milne is unsure whether Olsen entitled the collection “Film Poems” out of convenience or as a “conceptual manifesto.” No matter Olsen’s intentions her book has opened the door for video poets to begin working as film poets. This may seem like a trivial distinction to make, but again there is more at stake than a more venerable sounding title.

For example, by considering the screens of cathode ray tube televisions with film materiality as the center we can see what they have to tell us about film poetry. The screens are beautiful and inspired objects; they work against themselves materially because they obscure and project at the same time. As Chris Pirazzi explains in his extensive article “All About Video Fields” they are opaque on the inside because they are coated (or filmed) with a layer of phosphor, it obscures the mechanism of the TV. However, this opacity makes projection possible; the phosphors emit light as they are continually barraged by the electron gun housed in the back of the cabinet. The physical methods used to make this barrage into a coherent image can easily be mapped onto poetry. Electric impulses are sent into coils around the electron gun at a certain frequency (or, in Stein’s words, rhythm) that force it to scan the phosphor surface in lines from left to right, bottom to top. Where the metaphor of phosphor screen as page becomes inspiring, though, is the fact that any given scan only excites half of the screen. If there are 500 lines to be scanned (this is not standard) any pass of the electron will only hit 250 of those lines, with an empty line between each scanned one. This happens in part because the previous scan slightly persists in the “empty” lines of the TV and slightly in our visual system. CRTs remind poets that viewers will read white space subconsciously, if not consciously, and I say viewers because the way poems gesture towards their emptiness calls attention to another kinship between poetry and film. Namely, they are visual systems that call to be seen/scanned in specific ways, and understanding these methods in both mediums is vital to bringing them together.