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poetry video:
on the genesis of the alchemy

a speech filed 17 September 2005 | Chicago
presented by Kurt Heintz at Illume: an alchemy of text and image
a poetry video screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago

In 2002, the Zebra Festival in Berlin featured literally hundreds of poetry videos, films, and short clips in digital media, and it honored Bob Holman as the father of poetry video. But in 1992, I invited Bob Holman to appear at the Poetry Video Festival that Quraysh Ali Lansana, Larry Winfield, Jean Howard and I were putting together. Holman was at work on "The United States of Poetry" and was scouting for talent and locations. Beyond that, he had already completed a program called "Words in Your Face," which featured New York poets in performance, filmed in creative situations. Two faces in "Words in Your Face" were familiar to Chicagoans who knew their underground poetry in the day, Sharon Mesmer and Carl Watson.

Pioneering as Bob Holman was, he arrived in a Chicago that was no stranger to poetry video as we understand it now. Performance poets had been bringing camcorders to readings for documentation, but a few were using video to creative ends, too. I was already artistically involved with Cin Salach and the Loofah Method, deploying video and computers in performance with her spoken word and Mark Messing's live music. But I knew there were people working well before me in Chicago. Narratives that would be regarded as performance poetry today were set to video by Mindy Faber in "Suburban Queen," and by Copper Giloth in her early ZGrass computer piece called "Skippy Peanut Butter Jars."

In the early 1980s, before I even moved to Chicago, I'd met Arturo Cubacub, then a student at UIC who was visualizing
... a Chicago that was no stranger to poetry video as we understand it now...
his poetry and narrative in works such as "La Ci Darem la Mano". Cubacub also collaborated with cabaret poet and erstwhile performance artist Michelle Fitzsimmons, as he worked through a Sandin Image Processor and ZGrass computer. (If this sounds like vintage technology to you, that's because it is. The Image Processor was a product of the 1970s. The ZGrass video graphics computers were not much newer, descended from Bally video arcade games, running Z-80 microprocessors which were the state of the art at that time.)

Also by the early 1980s, Jean Howard, one of the trio of poets who founded the poetry slam, had performed her poetry in a video called "The Argon" shown on WFLD-TV (channel 32, then independent, now Fox TV), and she was an artistic collaborator with filmmaker Bob Boldt. In curating the Poetry Video Festival after my tenure, Howard discovered a video of poet Chet Long produced in the 1960s through WMAQ-TV (channel 5, NBC), where Long performed with a jazz combo on an austere set.

Even if we ignore local precedents in and around Chicago, we must remember that the genre of poetry video is not as new as we sometimes like to think it is. This point should reinforce some humility among us on the program today, as we acknowledge the artists who have gone before us, and upon whose work we build. For example, the year before Holman came to Chicago, Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill released "Tongues Untied", a compilation of poems and narratives rendered as video art vignettes, that aired nationally on public television. "Tongues Untied" was a small spark of queer, African-American self-representation that, when fanned by conservatives, became a major fire in the Culture Wars.

But sexual renegades had their say in poetry video form long before Riggs and Hemphill. For example, did you know that Ana´s Nin wrote and narrated a short film that featured her poetry in the early 1950s? Or did you know that the French author and poet Jean Genet made a homoerotic film that derived from his imprisonment, based on his poem "Un Chant d'Amour"?

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