Sunday May 26

Erica Goss This month’s column features interviews with Dave Bonta, who runs Moving Poems and is a poet and editor of the online journal qarrtsiluni.   And poet Todd Boss, who, with animator Angella Kassube, created Motionpoems. I spoke to Dave and Todd in early August via Skype and phone, respectively.

After discovering Moving Poems, I start my day watching a video poem. Dave Bonta, who started the site in 2009, posts a new video poem five days a week, every week of the year.  “I don’t ask for submissions,” Dave says. “I look around, do informal inquiries, and review what people send me.” Moving Poems contains hundreds of video poems, as well as documentaries, interviews, and several other categories. It’s an addictive site, and includes helpful navigation links to other video poem sites, as well as the names of the poets whose work appears most often in videos, lists of poets and filmmakers, whose nationalities range from Afghan to Welsh.

“The Itch,” by U.K. poet Mark Gwynne Jones and animated by Andy Lawrence, is the first video poem I watched on Moving Poems (and still one of my favorites).

“Moving Poems is poet-oriented rather than filmmaker-oriented,” Dave says. “It’s a place to collect video poems, and help bring a larger audience to poetry.” Dave uses the following criteria: “I prefer videos that don’t look overly produced. I also want videos that do something more than just show exactly what’s going on in the poem.”

Since the site focuses on poets and poetry, the videos Dave shows must include the poem’s text, whether spoken or as a visual element. This is a site for DIY, creative types, and therefore Dave features many poet-made videos. (Poets are well-known for self-publishing; Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass at his own expense, and gave away more copies than he sold.)

Poetry videos are “inside the remix culture,” Dave says. “What I do with Moving Poems is different from most poetry journal editors, who usually want fresh material. Video poems encourage people to use sound, images and poetry that already exist. There is an enormous amount of public domain film footage at the Prelinger archive, and poem videos can and do make use of it.” Here is a video poem by J. Hope Stein that makes use of archival footage from Thomas Edison.

While video poems are still looking for a larger audience – “it’s a hot new trend, but only a small group is aware of it,” Dave says – the art form’s creative possibilities are virtually limitless. Poet Todd Boss, author of Yellow Rocket (2008) and Pitch (2012), both from W.W. Norton, became aware of video poems a few years ago, and the result was Motionpoems.

Todd, who created Motionpoems with animator Angella Kassube, first noticed video poetry through the New Zealand Book Council’s video based on Maurice Gee’s novel Going West. (The video won the Museum’s Choice award at the 2010 “Moving Paper,” a cut-paper animation film festival sponsored by the New York Museum of Arts and Design. You can watch it here.)

Todd and Angella met at Nina’s Café in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Todd frequently reads his poems. When they met, they had an epiphany. Ever since he saw the Going West video, Todd had wanted to have his poems animated; Angella had always wanted to animate poetry. Angella created an animated video for Todd’s poem “Constellations,” and thus Motionpoems was born.

Motionpoems features one new animated poem per month. Poets include Bob Hicok, Jane Hirshfield, Richard Wilbur, David Wagoner, Mark Strand, and others; video artists include Joanna Kohler, Scott Olson, Jeff Saunders, Faith Eskola, Adam Tow, and many other talented animators. In last month’s column, I mentioned Erin Belieu’s “When at a Certain Party in NYC,” animated by Amy Schmitt, as one of my favorites; I also found the August/2012 video, based on “Having Intended to Merely Pick on an Oil Company, the Poem Goes Awry” by Bob Hicok and filmed by Joanna Kohler, particularly compelling.

“We want to connect poets with animators,” Todd says. “Animators don’t get to do creative work like this very often.” Todd and Angella started with their own networks of poets and animators, but as word spread about Motion Poems, they created a formal process. “We are now aligned with publishers: Best American Poems, Copper Canyon, and Ecco Press. We choose poems from their publications and send them to our animators, who choose the poems they want to make videos of. A poem is a perfect script.”

“We don’t do this for profit, but for artistic satisfaction.” Like Dave, Todd and Angella’s goal is to expand the audience for poetry. “We are not trying to ‘improve’ poetry. It’s more like a sampling service, the way radio was in the 50s and 60s. People could listen to songs in a way that wasn’t possible before. They could get an idea of what an artist was like before they bought the album.” In a similar vein, readers can view the selections featured on Motion Poems and absorb a wide variety of contemporary poems, with the added visual element.

Todd hears from high school and college teachers who use Motionpoems in their classes. They share their enthusiasm with comments like, “Our students are fired up about this!” Future plans for Motionpoems include educational outreach, entering major film festivals (i.e., Sundance), and continuing to grow awareness about video poetry.

“It’s not clear yet whether this is a real movement or a fad,” Todd says. “It’s hard to say where it will be in a few years.” It seems to be on the upswing right now, with more and more people making their own video poems. “The ease of tools and the internet probably have a lot to do with that,” Todd says.

Video poems are one of the newest ways to experience poetry. Many others exist, going back to our pre-literate times when poetry was passed on through memory and recitation. Poetry set to music – songs – reaches a far wider audience than poems in a book on a shelf. Spoken word, slams, and rap all move the poem from the page to an audience. Dave compares video poems to opera, which combines theater with poetry and music.

“To see your poem through the lens of film is to learn a new language about your poem,” Todd says. “What could be more instructive than that?”

Next month: video poems as memes, video poetry festivals, and more conversation with video poetry pioneers.