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on starting out in poetry video:
a call for advice

filed 30 May 2004 | Chicago
from Ryn Shane-Armstrong 
on Thursday, April 15, 2004 at 13:04:51

> I am an aspiring video poet from Tucson, Arizona.  I have been
> working with a socially-progressive video collective, Pan Left
> Productions (  Normally we only work in short
> documentary and are now growing more and more interested in
> narrative form, especially video poetry.  But we don't know
> where to start.
> Do you have any suggestions?  Any advice for an up-start video
> poetry group?
> Thanks for your help.
> Sincerely,
> Ryn

Hello, Ryn -

Before I swing my whole self into a sizeable reply, I want to say how honored I feel that someone like Pan Left would ask me about this matter of poetry video. You seem to be quite authoritative in your work, and I appreciate the subjects you've chosen to engage in your documentaries. I can see genuine zeal for your work in the descriptions of your videos.

I've been pondering this reply for a while. Apologies for the delay in responding, but the advice you seek is not easily rendered. And while you may be asking about setting forth in a tech art, the solutions you're seeking seem to be more about managing people and ideas.

... hybrid arts and partnerships: the non-essentialist nature of poetry video...
Inevitably, poetry video leads to collaborations. That's because so few people are self-contained poetry video artists. In almost all circumstances, there is someone making the text and, possibly, performing it, while someone else makes the film or video. To extend your situation from the personal to the organizational, I'm thinking that a collaborative relationship might help you jump-start such a project. There are a couple ways to approach this, as I see it.

One would be to build liaisons with other progressive media arts organizations, and invite them to consider poetry video as a vehicle for their projects. But since you are already empowered in media, that might be redundant. The other approach is to invite similarly-minded literary organizations to collaborate with you as the writers. From there, I'd leave it open to negotiation on a project-by-project basis as to who would actually represent the poetry on screen, whether that be an actor, the given poet, a voiceover, or the essential text. (This dialogue alone can instigate quite an active and creative debate.)

Here in Chicago, we have two organizations, both involved with youth arts programs, that would be candidates for your kind of projects... if only they resided in the Southwest. Video Machete teaches media skills to kids, while Young Chicago Authors (YCA) does the same but for writing. In December, I was a guest artist for a poetry video workshop at YCA, so they seem to be taking a more active interest in new media, too, even though they lack the means to do much more than surf the web and view VHS tapes.

However, your case seems more individual than institutional, Ryn, because you seem to be saying that your collective's interests are drifting away from documentary toward, as you call it, narrative. That's ironic to me. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I undertook poetry video (in part) as a reaction against the preponderance of documentary video that I perceived as suffocating the creativity in contemporary video art. So many people talking... so many facts and opinions... so little inspiration. Video art had gone dead from documentary, and a lack of visual thinking. Those artists who once ravished the eye with generative systems and video synthesis had largely packed up their work for tenured university positions, leaving the landscape populated mostly by indie field production crews... 3/4" PortaPaks, mics, and the men who carried them. There were some inspired exceptions among such production ensembles... TVTV particularly comes to mind for its guerilla media approach, and they were an inspiration. But they had done the bulk of their work by the early 1970s.

Back in the day, narrative was often more opinion than fact, and narrative was so often blurred with documentary that the two were often undistinguished in contemporary criticism and creative output. As it was, both felt like a cure for insomnia.

... distinguishing poetry video as a genre apart from mainstream narrative...
So I went out on a limb to make a poetry video. Poets didn't care about video art since it had little apparent bearing on their writing. And video artists could be quite dismissive about the poetry, because poems were not necessarily as engaged as their more philosophically- and critically-weighed ideas. Not to gloat, but how wrong they were, eh? The irony of the situation and the ennui of the established artists both worked in my favor, because where both camps abandoned agency over a potential new genre, my colleagues and I were ready to take it up.

Because I was just a little marginalized at one time, and my peers and I were the only people willing to teach us (invent? define?) what poetry video was supposed to be, I consider poetry video to be a distinct genre. Some critics may categorize it under the umbrella term "narrative," but it certainly steps out from under that term and achieve things that narratives, in the main, do not. This consideration is proper, in as much as we do not qualify all poetry as narrative when we're just talking about the text. We do not consider audio art as a narrative, and yet it can be perfectly at home as the soundtrack for a poetry video. Image processing and other video imaging and editing techniques that depart from verité are also common in poetry video. So no matter the channel where you approach the genre, whether it is text, sound, or image, there can be something in it that functions outside the common definitions of narrative.

So, prepare for some possible departures from your typical thinking as a video producer. This ride will be intense.

The discussion continues between Ryn Shane Armstrong and Kurt Heintz.

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