Assistant editor David Ingle on Georgia Review contributor Todd Boss’s Motionpoems project, and other ventures in turning poetry into film.
“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet.”—Orson Welles
In 2008, when poet Todd Boss and animator/producer Angella Kassube first came up with idea that would, over time, develop into the Motionpoems project they oversee, I’m sure they were well aware of the numerous and varied efforts to wed word and image that others had undertaken before them. The history of art—literary, painterly, sculptural, cinematic, photographic—offers many examples of such cross-genre, mixed-media productions. Two of my personal favorites, both from the early to mid-twentieth century, are the word-and-image “picture poems” of Kenneth Patchen, exemplified by Hallelujah Anyway (1966), But Even So (1968), and other books, and La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France (1913), a collaboration between writer Blaise Cendrars and visual artist Sonia Delaunay: their finished product of was a series of four sheets glued together in an accordion-style binding, measuring over seventy-eight inches tall unfolded; when stacked end to end, the height of all 150 copies Cendrars and Delaunay intended to print—though only sixty were actually produced—would have equaled the height of the Eiffel Tower.
However, these efforts and many others have been, for all their innovative brilliance, confined to ink and paint on paper. What about combinations of words and moving images, more specifically poetry and film/video? The earliest attempt to create a “poetry film” seems to have been “Manhatta” (1921), a nine-and-a-half minute long silent movie directed by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand. As its title suggests, “Manhatta” is composed of several dozen shots of that city’s buildings, scenery, and street life, with lines from Walt Whitman used as intertitles.
More recent projects that blend the written word with film or video include poet Billy Collins’ “Action Poetry” series, produced in 2007, in which eleven of his poems are interpreted by animators, with Collins providing the voice-over reading of the text;—Moving Poems, curated by David Bonta, which collects poetry films and videos from far and wide to make them available on a single website; and Filmpoem, a venture “dedicated to the filming of words” that was founded by filmmaker and photographer Alastair Cook in Scotland in 2009. (In addition to its website, Filmpoem sponsors an annual festival.)
Motionpoems presents filmmakers and videographers with a catalog of eligible poems that have been assembled in cooperation with partnering publishers, among them Copper Canyon Press, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, and the annual Best American Poetry anthology. The film artists choose the poem with which they wish to work, and subsequent creative control rests with those artists, ensuring a wide aesthetic range in the finished products. Some poems are read by the poets themselves, others by speakers of a particular director’s choice. As Todd Boss says, “Even when poets are excellent readers of their own work, filmmakers are often listening with a different set of ears: Is the voice enunciative enough that every word can be understood by a layperson on first hearing? Does it convey the mood or style that the film is aiming for? Is it weighty enough to carry above music and sound design? Does it have color and distinction enough to invite a second and third and fourth listen?”
Because Boss and Kassube function as facilitators for the creative process rather than as hands-on managers, the more than two dozen works comprising the Motionpoems catalog to date are impressively diverse in approach and effect. Some utilize live actors (see for instance Joanna Kohler’s treatment of Bob Hicok’s “Having Intended to Merely Pick on an Oil Company, the Poem Goes Awry”) but most are animated, utilizing a wide array of techniques including cutout and silhouette animation, manipulated photographs, moving “paintings” that resemble watercolors, line drawings put into graceful action, and more.
One of the fully animated motion poems I find most impressive is Amy Schmitt’s inspired take on Erin Belieu’s “When at a Certain Party in NYC.” Then there’s video artist Faith Eskola’s adaptation of Richard Wilbur’s “Ecclesiastes 11:1,” in which she uses her iPhone as the camera and the voice we hear reading is that of Eskola’s five-year-old child. Freya Manfred’s “Swimming into Winter” and “Swimming in the Rain” are cleverly filmed by Greg Winter, who uses an underwater camera to record “the gray place/where lake and sky meet.” In some motion poems words float, dance, scroll, or leap across the frame, but in others there’s no text on screen, only the reader’s voice complementing the non-textual visuals. In terms of narrative approach, the films in the Motionpoems archive run the gamut from the more or less linear and straightforward to the decidedly experimental—as do the poems on which the films are based.
As viewers click through from one video to the next (and the next), they will very likely find themselves surprised by what they’ve just seen and curious about what’s yet to come, their interest consistently piqued by the very inconsistency, one to the next, of the motion poems in the roster.