As an online literary journal with a penchant for anything outside the box, we’re intrigued by mediums that explore, stretch, and redefine what has traditionally been called “literature.” Cinepoetry in particular is an art form that has captured our imagination. And few people know cinepoetry–what it is, what it has been, and what it can be–better than George Aguilar. Aguilar has had his hand in archiving the largest collection of cinepoetry in the world, directing the oldest and longest film poetry festival in the world, and serving as president of the National Poetry Association, just to mention a few of the many hats he has worn. We couldn’t be more excited to share with you this exchange between this pioneer of cinepoetry and our own Mixed Media Editor, Matt Mullins. Enjoy.
Matt Mullins: The origin of your work with Cin(E)-Poetry (i.e., “videopoetry”) stems from your discovery in the early 1990s of a rather carelessly stored archive of “poetry-films” you found in a back room while touring The Fort Mason Center, an arts and cultural center created from a converted San Francisco area military base. What were those poetry-films like? Which of these films stand out in your memory? Who made them, how old were they, and how did they foreshadow the directions videopoetry has taken today?
George Aguilar: The collection of ¾” and VHS poetry videos and cans of 16mm films sat beside bottles of flammable film cleaner. In the middle of the table, was a hot-plate Herman Berlandt (Poetry Film Director) used to cook his lunch. Since I had just graduated from a media program at the University of California at San Diego, I fully realized the fire hazard before me. I offered to volunteer some of my time to clean this up and decided to thread a few of the films on a dusty 16mm projector. What I viewed seemed completely new to me, even though I had just finished studying a wide range of experimental films and videos. What I saw, for the first time in that old office, was this amazing mixture of poetry and moving images which Herman called ‘poetry films’. I watched about ten films that day and was instantly hooked. A few films that stood out for me were ‘Cold Cows’ by Franklin Miller (16mm, 2 minutes, 1977), ‘Assassination Raga’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti/Max Crosley (16mm, 18 minutes, 1972), ‘Up Behind You’ by unknown filmmaker (16mm, 2 minutes, date unknown), and ‘A Kite is a Victim’ by Elizabeth Lewis.
‘Cold Cows’ mixed text with film showing a herd of cows milling about in a field during a particularly miserable winter. This film was simultaneously hilarious and mournful, and strangely compelling.
‘Assassination Raga’ is one of the truly great poetry films of all time. Written and spoken by Ferlinghetti, ‘Raga’ artfully mixed black and white found footage with Ferlinghetti’s impassioned vocalization about the death of the Kennedys. I must have seen it thirty times and each time I derived something new from it. Lawrence is one of the few poets I knew at the time who embraced and supported poetry films.
‘Up Behind You’ was one of several films I watched that had no credits. Apparently, in order to keep screenings short, Herman thought it best to cut out film credits. This film was unique in that it was one of the only ones I ever saw where the poet actually ‘etched’ the words into the celluloid frame-by-frame, to convey a poetic dialogue between two unseen persons.
It took me about a year to piece together and repair these over-projected films and convert them and the ¾” tapes to VHS viewing copies. Herman typically kept the ten to fifteen best works from each Annual Poetry Film Festival, which began in 1975. In addition there were various long form poetry documentaries and simple recordings of poetry readings. The majority of these works were American with a substantial group from Canada and the rest from various parts around the world. Most were produced between 1970-1990. At that time, the entire collection numbered a few hundred titles, but I could already see how the mixing of poetry and cinema often led to dynamic, rich and enlightening works the public just had to see.
MM: You were and are something of an ambassador of the cinepoem. That is, before the trickle of the internet became a flood, you spent a great deal of time promoting videopoetry festivals and otherwise spreading the word about videopoetry, first as the Director of the National Poetry Association (NPA) and then traveling the country on your own. What changes have you seen in both the public’s awareness of videopoetry and in videopoetry itself now that audience access to the genre has become more widespread?
GA: When I first started as director of the festival in 1991, I had a very difficult time convincing people that this was a new, relevant way of experiencing poetry. The established literary field wanted nothing to do with these films and videos and it was a challenge to draw people to screenings because of preconceived notions about poetry in general. So I developed marketing materials that touted its educational benefits and reached out to schools offering English teachers VHS copies to help educate their students. In addition, “prosumer” video equipment became cheaper, more accessible and the web was at its very early stages, so I promoted ‘cinepoems’ as a genre that budding filmmakers and videomakers could cultivate. It was less expensive and more creative-expressive than traditional long-form genres. Around 1996, I placed several cinepoems on the web and was soon receiving international inquiries.
I later felt the need to hit the road with part of the NPA collection so I retired from the group and travelled around North America for several months in 2001. I brought with me DVDs from the archive and a new, multimedia laptop, which contained editing software, so I could make my own cinepoems. Between 2001-2008, I created over twenty new works and conducted a variety of workshops and screenings at any venue that would let me. Some of the more memorable presentations I made were at the National Council of Teachers of English Conference (NCTE) in Baltimore, The Reina Sofia Museum and Circulo Belles Artes in Madrid, and in various high schools and colleges around the U.S. There’s a complete list at my website. I also consulted on the creation of the Zebra Poetry Festival in Berlin, The International Videpoesia Festival in Argentina and the Sadho Festival in India.
Between 2008-2010, I started seeing more books and articles coming out of academia about cinepoetry and videopoetry. Prof. Martina Pfeiler from Dortmund TU wrote the book Poetry Goes Intermedia, poet laureate Kevin Stein wrote Poetry’s Afterlife, Jorge Luis Antonio wrote The Digital Poetry Genre and Dr. Denise Stuart wrote the article, ‘Cin(E)-Poetry: Engaging the Digital Generation in 21st-Century Response’. All these articles brought greater exposure to the genre. After 2008, I no longer felt I needed to be proactive in promotion and shifted to focus on my own creative work.
Today, there are about fifteen international poetry film/video festivals in operation. Youtube, Vimeo, and other video portals are streaming thousands of works that can be considered videopoetry or cinepoetry. The Cannes Film Festival recently awarded its highest honor to ‘Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,’ “..a realist short story translated into movie form; it’s an infinitely suggestive, rapturously composed and deeply moving piece of cine-poetry.” More schools are having students create poetry-based films and videos and there were two international conferences in 2012, the Zebra Poetry Festival Colloquium and The International Videpoesia Festival in Argentina. The dream of bringing cinepoems from a dusty old table in San Francisco to the entire world has become a reality.
MM: The visual and audio technologies needed to create videopoetry are now inexpensive and readily available. Basically, anyone with an interest can now make videopoetry with something as ubiquitous as a smartphone. As a result, more people are experimenting with the genre, and there is a wide range of work out there, from pieces that are very accomplished and professionally produced to things that are clearly DIY. But regardless of the quality of production, some pieces rise above the others. What’s at the core of a compelling videopoem for you?
GA: The core elements I find most compelling are works that are multi-layered both visually and poetically. They usually feel experimental yet are supported by an expert sense of editing, sound, timing and tone. These types of works draw me in deeply and often leave me wondering what I just saw but also wanting to see it again. Sometimes I don’t get the full meaning of the work until after I’ve watched it a few dozen times. Even then, I still might feel there is something else new to catch the next time I see it. Of course the viewing of it over and over again feels “joyous” even though it hasn’t changed. Isn’t that the essence of the poetic? I also enjoy works that exude a sense of passion and inspiration, whether it is dark or light-hearted.
What is lost when we are asked to replace the human voice with symbols on a page?
MM: The poem on the page has an ancient history and a serious pedigree. The very idea of it is at the heart of what we consider to be “literature.” Do you think videopoetry will impact the future of the poem on the page? What do you think videopoetry has to add to the literary conversation?
GA: The poem, as an oral tradition, is even more ancient than the page and I think cinepoetry and videopoetry are providing an electronic forum for poets to be able to express themselves in either manner in any way that best suits them. You would certainly find those who feel that written poetry reached more people, but at the expense of hearing the poet’s voice. What is lost when we are asked to replace the human voice with symbols on a page? On the other hand, reading words on a page seems to create a deeper impression on the mind than a human voice would. What else explains people’s fascination with “texting” when a simple phone call would suffice?
This dance between text and the spoken are what I explore in my cinepoems. I’m able to experiment with these forms to discover the impact of each. This enables me to create compelling works where visuals can be considered a kind of “page” where I combine both ancient communication methods to see how it is perceived or “read” by the viewer. But the visuals can also communicate something other than blankness or ‘eye candy’. The visuals provide the “body,” the electronic body standing on a rock (made of 1s and 0s) yelling into the emptiness of space hoping someone will hear and understand it.
MM: Cinepoetry/videopoetry often seems visually resonant of short, experimental filmmaking, and you yourself are a filmmaker. Beyond the addition of the poem’s text or audio of the poem being recited, what makes videopoetry distinct from experimental film?
GA: When I think of experimental film, I expect it to be just that—experimental. Something trying to be different from anything else. I certainly do try to experiment in each of my cinepoems. Sometimes I work with a pre-written poem and other times I might create the visuals first and use them as inspiration for the words. Or I might try a different animation style combined with a mixture of certain text with certain sounds. What distinguishes cinepoems and videopoems from the general category of ‘experimental’ is the fundamental requirement that the poem and cinema must be equally balanced in the work. That doesn’t necessarily mean that words should always be shown (or heard) along with the visuals at the same time. It just means that the artistic intent of the poem is equal to the cinematic intent, no matter how it’s constructed.
Check back in next Thursday for the rest of our interview with George Aguilar, and his cinepoetry recommendations for further viewing.
ABOUT GEORGE AGUILAR
George Aguilar was director of one of the oldest and longest running annual poetry film festivals and archivist to the largest and richest collection (over 500 titles) of poetry films, videopoems and cinepoems in the world. He was president of the National Poetry Association (based in San Francisco) and producer and consultant on the first all-literary website which streamed some of the first poetry films and videos ever seen on the web. He is also an award-winning cinepoet and new media poetry innovator and early consultant to the founding of the Vancouver Videopoetry Festival,The Zebra Poetry Award Festival in Berlin, VideoBardo in Buenos Aires and the Sadho Poetry Film Festival in India, among others.
He currently is designing new poetry media platforms for public display and the Internet and continues to promote cinepoetry in the educational field worldwide and is working towards bringing the archive (spanning 1975-2000) to the web.www.George.Aguilar.com
Photo Credit: “film” by popturf.com