‘Secrets’ – process notes for a video remix

‘Secrets,’ a poem from The Poetry Storehouse by Ruth Foley, turned out to be the second remix of an accidental triptych I completed on abusive situations (the first was brother carried the poppies by Theresa Senato Edwards, and the third You as tunnel by Rose Hunter).

The language of Secrets was slow and rather sensuous, and when I first read it, I took it as the description of a gradual process of discovery, an uncovering, a blooming of sorts. It was only on the second and subsequent reads that I took in the extent to which it was actually a slow process of flaying, and of destruction. Then it struck me as really incredibly violent, and all the more so for being presented in so meditative and lush a fashion.

My initial thought in seeking images for the remix was to follow that suggested by the poem and use fruit – which would end up peeled, denuded and rotting. Unfortunately (or fortunately) no-one seems to film peeled or rotting fruit for stock image purposes, so that idea dead-ended quickly.

I had a wider array of image metaphors available to me than usual, as I had just (finally..) purchased a subscription to Video Blocks, a stock media site which allows unlimited downloads. Exploring the site, I came across a whole category of clips called ‘Slo Mo Breaking Smashing’, which contained a rather wild collection of destruction footage (one can imagine the filming of these clips as basic small boy heaven – baseballs and hammers smashing glass, cheese balls and soda cans dropped into spinning blenders, a bowling ball smashing into a TV, etc).

‘Slo Mo Breaking Smashing’ seemed to me the perfect metaphor for Secrets, one that would complement, while adding to, the experience of the poem. I chose from it a series of clips for the remix, ending with the shock of the smashed light bulb to frame the devastating last line, ‘darkening in your hand.’

For the soundtrack, I used a track appropriately titled ‘A rotten fairytale’ by a Soundcloud member called Mustafank, whose work I had run across in a video elsewhere (wish I could remember where now). It starts with a toy piano solo and moves into an electric guitar solo, with a faux-innocent sinister feel that really makes you think Hansel & Gretel, sweet gingerbread house & related bad things.

Many thanks to Ruth Foley for sharing her poems at The Poetry Storehouse!

‘brother carried the poppies’ – process notes for a video remix

For this haunting poem on abuse by Theresa Senato Edwards, I used both film and still image elements – first time I have combined the two.

For the backdrop of the bleak disastrous relationship, I used darkened stock footage of what was originally a relatively cheerful sunshiney scene of an abandoned house in a field. Once darkened, it looked lonely and empty – a context in which forbidden activity could easily take place unchecked. To begin, end and punctuate the piece, I slowed down and darkened stock footage of a summer lightning storm to represent the abuser.

For the victim, I used a stock still image from StockVault which suggested muffling and suffocation to me. I used the image as a fade-in at three different places in the film, each time adding a different Ken Burns effect to it – panning away, towards, across. The hollow ‘alien drone’ soundtrack was by Speedenza, one of my freesound.org favorites.

Many thanks once more to Theresa for sharing this powerful piece at the Poetry Storehouse.

What happens when a poetry video gets 3,000 plays in 5 days?

The video-maker freaks out, is what happens. This will be the last post I write about viewer stats for still image remixes, but I did want to get this experience down, noting that what has been interesting for me is less the stats themselves than my reaction to them.

As previously recorded, I had already been unsettled by the relatively high numbers of viewers attracted by earlier still image remixes I had done for poems from The Poetry Storehouse (this one and this one in particular). But neither of those came anywhere close to numbers of viewers attracted by Items of Value to a Dying Man (shown above – poem by Kristin LaTour, art by Peter Gric), the response to which just blew me away. Peter Gric was wonderful to work with – open, generous and in no way inclined to control any part of my remix process – but either his terrific art has made him much more famous than I thought, in my near-total ignorance of the art world (I found him by clicking randomly through links and simply emailed him via his website) and/or he has – relative to online poetry networks – a pretty enormous online network.

The video got 1,050 plays on the first day, 1,650 on the second. My original FB posting of the video link got 554 shares after Peter shared it. The video exceeded 3,000 plays today. (As I said before, I am used to the most popular of my poetry videos capturing maybe 40 or 50 views on their first day. Over time – months, sometimes longer – a video may end up with 200 to 300 total views.)

I was delighted of course, but fell into angst at the same time. What did it mean that I had accidentally put together something that led to hundreds of people interacting with a poem they would almost certainly have had no interaction with otherwise? Was I burdened with some heavy new Responsibility to Poetry as a result?

I took my angst to (where else..?) Facebook. Is a poem that is read by and moves 10 people of more value to the world than a poem that is read by and moves 1 person? I posted as my FB status, not even sure if that was in fact the question I was struggling with. The question got traction quickly and, as is usual in the poetry community, thoughtful and helpful responses came quickly (see here for the exchange, although I don’t know if any or all of the conversation is viewable from the outside). It turned out that wasn’t at all the question I needed to ask, and the back and forth over a day or two was very helpful in clarifying my thinking.

I see now that what had been complicated for me by the experience was my sense of my role as showcaser, curator, remixer, presenter of poetry (at The Poetry Storehouse now, at Whale Sound previously). Was I now obliged to take these activities in some different, burdensome, non-fun direction?

What the Facebook exchange clarified for me was that poems are not like the toys in Toy Story. They don’t have a separate, secret life that springs into action whenever their owners are asleep or otherwise absent. A good poem can support a literally infinite number of interactions – living in interaction over and over again through aeons, each time as freshly as the first time. But a poem has no life outside its interaction with people. When they are not being interacted with, poems lie dead in the dark, where they are purposeless, and meaningless.

The role of the curator, remixer or publisher of poetry is to maximize the number of interactions each poem has with people. In the hands of the successful curator/publisher, the poem lives in interaction repeatedly and reaches a higher level of its interaction potential than poems in the custody of less successful handlers.

That’s the role of the curator/publisher in the scheme of things poetry. But it doesn’t have to be their motivation. This is where I got confused. If things go well, more people will interact with poems as a result of my remixing and curating. If things don’t, they won’t. But that’s not why I do what I do. I do what I do because I like voicing poems, I like exploring the technology of putting poems online in different ways, I like the challenge of combining poetry and digital imagery in video, and experimenting with sound.

The additional interactions that occur between poems and people are a happy by-product of my doing what I like to do. But I don’t do it in order to increase the number of those interactions.

And that made me feel so much more relaxed about those viewership stats. Some videos will get 3,000 plays in a few days. Most will be lucky to get 300 plays in a year. Should that influence what I do and how I do it? No.

As artist Kiki Smith said, in a quote I recently encountered via a Twitter feed: “Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn’t, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink.”

With warmest thanks to the Facebook friends who were so thoughtful and generous in their responses to my original and subsequent questions.

‘Postcards’ and ‘Orchids’ – process notes for still image remixes

These two go together in that they they both grew out of my engagement with the amazing art of Adam Martinakis. I found his art by randomly clicking from Facebook page to Facebook page within the still image online art community (which seems to be enormous – exponentially larger than the online poetry community). Some of the trails led frustratingly nowhere – an artist might post a single picture at a place like the Facebook group An Art a Day. You’d get all excited, go to their Facebook page and find… nothing. No website, no email address, no way to find out anything further about them.

With Adam, I was lucky. I loved his weird and wonderful images as soon as I saw them. His website pictures are downloadable (not everyone is so open, even though the files for online viewing are necessarily quite small), so I was able to download the ones I liked and privately get a good sense of how I might work with them before I asked Adam for permission. He gave it at once, and went so far as to say there was no need for me to clear the final version with him. (I did, though – things work better if you keep folks posted all the way, I find).

Because I upload all the Storehouse poems and also voice a few of them as I upload them, I have lots of them rattling around in my head at any one time. As I looked at Adam’s images, two came quickly to mind – Robert Peake’s Postcards from the War Hospital and Diane Lockward’s Orchids.

I very much liked the audio version Robert had sent along with his meditative poem and wanted to use it. Because so many of Adam’s images are of couples, some very romantic and quite tender, I got the idea of presenting Robert’s poem as a duet – weaving a story in my mind of a nurse and a soldier at the same war hospital perhaps, both deeply familiar with pain, meditating on their situation, perhaps even involved with each other. After I had made the ‘duet’ soundtrack, the images fell into place easily behind it, as did the soundscape – sort of big and hollow and space-ish behind the dialogue, for a mixture of wistfulness and resignation, but without bitterness. Adam’s dramatic ‘Love for Light‘ image was the perfect intro into this piece.

A subset of Adam’s images were more rawly sexual, almost predatory, and these came together in my mind as a great backdrop for Diane’s lush, voluptuous poem about orchids, but not about orchids. The poem is couched as a warning to the predator against obsessive pursuit of the object, and I thought I could present the corollary of that – the vulnerability to exploitation of the object, whether a woman or an orchid in the wild. Adam’s image of the falling girl in a fetal position wrapped in gold foil struck me as exquisitely vulnerable and a wonderful way to wrap up this ‘story’.

I was happy with both pieces and after running them by Adam, published them this weekend. And now here’s an interesting tale about the relative online size/reach of the still image art community as compared to the online poetry community:

I had had some experience of how wide-reaching the still image art community’s networks are the previous week, when I had published a still image remix featuring a poem by Traci Brimhall (‘The Blessing’) and wonderful artwork by the generous Steven DaLuz. I am used to the most popular of my poetry videos capturing maybe 40 or 50 views on their first day (and that is pretty rare). Over time – months, sometimes years – a video may end up with 200 to 300 total views, and continue picking up the odd additional view here and there over time.

After both Steven and Adam linked to their respective videos, however, views for both went through the roof. ‘The Blessing’ got 220 views on its first day, and ‘Postcards’ got 248. After two days, ‘Postcards’ is at 334 views and ‘The Blessing’, after a week, is at 320 views. In just a few days they have overtaken all of my other videos in terms of views, with the sole exception of the most-viewed favorite, William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is just to say‘. I uploaded that one a year ago and it now stands just barely ahead at 352 total views.

Make of all that what you will…

‘The Worlds Revolve’ – process notes for a still image remix

One often sees art or photography paired with poems in online and print journals, and it’s a beautiful practice. As with any creative process, it brings disparate elements together to create a third something – a tension, a dialogue, a new perspective. I have wondered on and off for a while how to bring this process to The Poetry Storehouse.

Browsing through online art collections over time, with this poem or that in mind, it became clear to me that any given poem of itself makes selections from a collection of images, if you already discern a broad relationship between the overall image ‘type’ and the poem. So that, looking at a collection with a specific poem in mind, one finds oneself easily selecting half-a-dozen to a dozen images that tell the story of the poem in what seems to you a ‘related’ fashion. For me, this closely resembles the way I select film footage to use in video remixes, with the added advantage that all the ‘footage’ is collected in one place for easy browsing.

Add to that a most nifty capability that ever-user-friendly iMovie provides – the Ken Burns effect, which allows you to change the cropping of a still image over time – starting focused on a small detail, then over several seconds ending up with the whole image visible, for example. There is an actual button labeled ‘Ken Burns’ in iMovie, and it’s quite magical to me. The directional and focal possibilities it offers are almost endless, while being able to control the specific length of time each individual image processes and the transitions between images makes for dynamic possibilities that go far beyond a standard ‘slide show.’

Another key advantage is that this showcasing process allows a radically different poetry to image ratio. In most journals that pair art images and poetry, the ratio is usually one image to one poem. With the still image remix process, however, the poem becomes a single central element around which 6-12 images orbit, each one touching, informing, enhancing an aspect of the language as it goes by. It’s all endlessly fascinating.

The process of deciding how the poem is voiced and selecting a soundtrack is pretty much the same as with regular video remixes.

For this particular remix, I have long been a fan of Peter Ciccariello’s extraordinary digital images, which are so lush and dense and detailed – each a full narration in itself. After a session getting steeped with Peter’s images, I went to the Storehouse to see what might match up and soon found Bernard Henrie’s edgy dystopian piece with its evocative T.S. Eliot quote title. I took it back to the images, and had soon culled nine images that I felt worked well with the poem. Thereafter, the whole thing assembled itself quickly, enabling me to get Peter’s ok to use the images. I started out with a conventional solo piano soundtrack, but got called out on that as a ‘too easy’ choice by a friendly critic I consulted. I changed it to a less facile choice and Bob was your uncle…

Warm thanks to Peter and Bernard for being part of this experience – I’ve learned a lot and look forward to more!

See all video and still image remixes based on poems from the Storehouse at the Poetry Storehouse Vimeo page.

‘Shift’ – process notes for a video remix

Funnily enough, I came across the terrific Black Widow film I used for this video at archive.org just after finishing the previous piece, Spiders. As I like to do with footage I think I may use at some point, I imported it into iMovie, detached the audio, edited it down to the bits I found the most striking, and saved it in my ‘wildlife’ clips folder. Even if I didn’t use it right away, I would have the basic edited footage ready to go on another occasion, I thought.

As it turned out, watching the movie without narration during the editing process infused me with a sharp sense of the slightly sinister cyclical primal urges that drive birth, metamorphosis and re-birth in all living things (bears, spiders, people – we are all shape-shifters ipso facto, are we not?). The feeling was so strong and clear that I went looking for a Storehouse poem on its basis, and lighted on Dave Bonta’s Shift. It was a simple matter then to edit the footage down a little further to fit the overall length of the poem. The soundtrack accompaniment was a little harder to find, but I selected the piano composition in the end because I liked its sense of urgency and quick industry, its almost mindless forward movement, as well as its ‘lightness’ – a sort of counterpart to the relatively more sinister forces at work in the video, I thought.

A friendly critic whose judgment I trust said they felt the poem-footage combination in this case is ‘too high concept’ and I understand what they mean – it is indeed quite a stretch. I’ve stayed with it as it is for the moment, though, thinking that I might at some point try another combination for both the poem and the film. That’s the fun of this process – endless possibilities for combination and recombination and reinvention at every turn.

Thanks to Dave for contributing his work to The Poetry Storehouse. As always, we warmly encourage other remixers to visit the Storehouse and get creative with its contents.

Visit the Poetry Storehouse Vimeo page to see all Storehouse-based video and still image remixes.