Film Poetry: Deforming the Surface pt.3

Following is the third and final installment of my essay on film poetry.

Read the first part here:

And the second part here:


At first this definition film poetry might seem too self-serving or too far reaching because of a narrow focus on surfaces, what about film poets that want to plumb the depths? I’ll try to create a wider definition to satisfy everyone, but first I want to address my problems with the concept of “depth” in poetry and film. Physically it’s clear enough that poems and films are media intimate with thin surfaces, namely paper and film. It’s equally problematic, though, to talk about the meaning of the final product in terms of metaphorical depth. Typically the platitude “that’s deep” stops any real engagement with the work. Just as often what is analyzed as depth, like a thorough examination of a very specific thing, is really just an exploration of a manifold surface. The idea that a poet is uncovering something that can’t be seen, rather than adding light to something that hasn’t been sufficiently illuminated, is a dangerous one that very often leads to poetry completely disconnected from the audience. I would contend that the best work a poet can hope to do is creatively interfere and obscure what is already there, i.e. the “something burning in the projector” or a certain literary tradition. While new territories are very occasionally opened up almost all poetic work is inscribing the surface one’s own little part of that territory, as John Gallaher put it to me in an interview earlier this semester. Poetry that tries to conceive of itself otherwise, as if it has a grand mission of plumbing the unexplored depths, is overheated and disconnected. Practicing film poetry, turning over and over thought of words as a surface, words as film, creatively destroys the illusion of depth.

A slight modulation of Stein’s definition might make it a more widely agreeable one. If we talk about the tension between plot and rhythm, rather than subordination, the definition works just as well for Brakhage (think surface tension of water) as it does for poets working more concretely or more closely with narrative. This tension is present in every film poem because perfect translation doesn’t exist: words and images, even if they are very explicitly trying to represent the same thing, will always be at odds with one another, and it would be boring otherwise. All of the best film poems I’ve seen take advantage of this tension, making it into something creative by throwing it into greater relief. Drew Milne speaks to this when he writes of Olson’s work as “preferring disjunctions between media over any kind of harmony.” This may seem like too simple of a point to be worth mentioning, but acknowledging this basic, immutable distance is a humbling and important practice to undertake before developing the kinship.

With my first few film poems, which I screened at the Rochester Fringe Festival in October alongside the work of fellow Geneseo film poets Evan Goldstein and Margot Hughes, I was concerned with mitigating this tension for the sake of creating a “unified whole.” I wanted to create a chimera, a new entity very much itself, but with distinct components. The concept was somewhat misguided. After the two iterations of the project it was clear the components, or fragments, can never quite occupy the same body, and even repulse each other sometimes. The first was montage visuals with the poem spoken over it, which came off too much like an overlay for me. My last ditch attempt at the chimera was to delete the audio from the video and insert the text of the poem into the video, about one line for each image, in an attempt to give the images some sort of agency or advantage over the text, which I felt at the moment was overpowering the images because I had written the poems before I had even thought about the video project. However, the text was plain yellow for the sake of readability and never left the bottom third of the screen; I never let the images guide the placement of the text. Instead of a subordination the text actually effaced the images.

The problem was working against the tension instead of working with it, in addition to getting nervous about “which came first? The film or the poem?” It would be off the mark to say that a film poet should always create the film and poem simultaneously, or even that one medium will necessarily have more sway in the final product because it was conceived first. The question is ultimately useless because the pursuit of harmony in film poetry does very little for it when almost every aspect of the process is defined by abrasion, burning, obscuring, shooting and fragmentation. Film poetry is the abrasion and manipulation of surfaces, the examination of the new spaces created as film surface and text surface deform each other.

Film Poetry: Deforming the Surface pt. 2

Following is the second installment of my essay on film poetry. Read the first part here:

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.”(, “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.

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.

The poems contained in this children’s poetry portfolio are not made for children.

Lemony Snicket properly starts the introduction to his poetry portfolio All Good Slides are Slippery with what I consider to be the golden rule of good children’s literature, and the reason I hesitated to agree with the quotation Lytton put on the board last class (someone help me out with the details of it, please).

Here’s the portfolio as it appeared in Poetry magazine (with awesome illustrations from Chris Raschka):

The “plain poetry” that was suggested as a tool to teach American children the meaning of the sentence would probably have the unfortunate tone that Lemony Snicket describes as “the high pitched voice of an irritating simpleton.” While it might be effective in teaching children about the sentence it certainly wouldn’t be fun, and would probably estrange children to poetry even more than what most schools achieve today.

I’ve greatly enjoyed these sort of collections(another example being Harold Bloom’s wonderful, but stupidly named, collection Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages), and remember being annoyed by Y.A. stuff in middle school, so I’m beginning to think that children’s literature is at its best when it’s enfranchised through a collector like Snicket or Bloom rather than through the intent of the author. So why would we teach our children with plain poetry? and why would we bore them with middling Y.A. stuff?


Introductions to Poetry, Old Friends and Daydreams

While I was hanging out with my friends Saturday morning (read: 2:30 pm) one of them kept mentioning that she really wanted to eat eggs. This naturally reminded of my friend Robin’s poem “Egg.” Its one of his older poems, so I had to scroll a bunch to find it, and while quickly seeing all the poems he has shared with me, and few new ones, I decided to read a bunch later.

After I read “Daydream” ( I was so excited, because I finally had a good excuse to share Robin’s poetry on the blog. The poem takes place in a Lowe’s parking lot! I remember having a conversation with him before he wrote this poem about how strange parking lot lighting is, particularly the sunsets and twilights. If only I had done this the weekend before I could have asked Erika how she felt about Lowe’s. Her answer might have been similar to something Robin told me about how the facades of them look in front of the sun.

I began thinking about how Robin really introduced me to poetry, and how lucky I am to have a friend writing such cool stuff (and a little sad because he’s not writing much anymore). If I keep at this poetry thing like I plan to do, Robin could be the most influential person in my life behind my parents, so I was wondering if all of you have anyone like that in your lives? And if not, how did you come to poetry?

Poem Playlist

I made a playlist for my poems:

I tried to strike a balance between songs that have actually inspired poems with their lyrics and songs that had a more intuitive, aesthetic connection to my poems. Enjoy!

A love song for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

With Prufrock getting a fair amount of attention in class I wanted to post a recording of Eliot reading the poem in the hopes that you all will have some line of it repeating in your heads on the way to class. By some great/awful circumstance the first book of poems I ever seriously read (aside from Where the Sidewalk Ends) was Eliot’s collected poems, and by some great circumstance my local record store had a record that included Eliot reading Prufrock. I was generally confused by Eliot (why is he talking about Michelangelo?  What’s up with these claws? Lazarus?) until I listened to the recording. It didn’t suddenly make sense like Eliot’s voice was imbued with some secret timbre that gave me great powers of literary criticism; all that happened was that lines began to echo through my head, and they still do today. In fact, just this weekend I was biking home across campus while reciting it to myself, probably looking like some schizoid character.

As an amateur poet it wasn’t great to have Eliot in my head; I wrote a bunch of very mannered poems.  I would get comments back on workshop poems like “Is the speaker in this a grandpa?” Now that I’m a little more knowledgeable its wonderful to have the lines repeat in my head. I can think about their meanings instead of thinking “man, how can I write a poem that sounds like that.”

Anyway, here’s the recording: (I tried to make this a cool hyperlink, but I guess you’ll have to copy paste.)

What are the lines that might be repeating in your head?

For me, the line “almost, at times, the Fool.” at the end of the “attendant lord stanza” has been repeating recently.

[Insert Poet’s Name Here] Poems

As I finished writing my comment on Katie’s post about the “Geneseo School” I was comparing the different types of writing going on in our class by referring to it by the writer’s name (see my title) and I realized it’s an empty and inaccurate, though convenient, way to describe a body of work. Its not only detrimental to thinking constructively about a poet’s work, but insulting to the poet. We re-enforce the idea that poetry is somehow purer in reflecting the soul or essence of the writer when we say this; an idea that I know I’m outspokenly against. Its as if we’ve nailed down some aspect of the poet’s personality by noticing patterns across their poems.

I think the fix is simple. To use an example from class, instead of calling Savannah’s most recent workshop poem a “Savannah Poem” why not call it a “Nesting Poem” or an “Inside poem.” Obviously these quick references fail to capture the complexity of a poem, but its a step in the right direction.

Any suggestions?

Giving Robert Frost Another Chance On Friday Night

Like any other wild friday night my roommate and I were listening to some poetry recordings. I put on “An Album of Modern Poetry Vol.1” that I had bought for the Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot on it. First up, however, was Robert Frost; that “two roads” guy who I associated with all of those horrible token poetry days in middle school. I might have skipped forward if I wasn’t tired, and a generally lazy person. By the time he was reading a third poem, “Directive”, I was falling asleep because I wasn’t paying an attention. “Directive” demanded it.

I can’t find a recording of it online, which is a shame because Frost’s gravelly voice really adds to the experience, and the poem is a little long to copy paste entirely, so here are the first four lines. And <a href=>here’s</a> the poem for reading at your leisure.

Back out of all this now too much for us,
Back in a time made simple by the loss
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off
Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,

The 4th line literally pulled me out of quasi-sleep. If it wasn’t for our quick lesson on meter I probably would have attributed this to the hard sounds of that beautiful cluster “graveyard marble sculpture”, which is certainly part of it, but more than that I think its how highly stressed the line is, how it breaks you out of the lulling first three lines with their slant rhyme. I had never really thought about meter before, so I had never really thought about it can be used to emphasize lines where I might have been trying to achieve the same effect with punctuation or italics. The idea of writing with meter is still daunting to me, but the more I find examples like this the more appealing it becomes to me.