Last week, we proudly introduced you to George Aguilar, an individual whose past and present work with cinepoetry has played a crucial role in the development and popularization of the form. This week we’re sharing the second half of his intriguing interview with Mixed Media Editor Matt Mullins. Be sure to catch Part 1 if you missed it, and also check out George’s recommendations for further viewing.
MM: Is videopoetry the end of the line technologically? That is, can you imagine another place future technologies may be able to take literature/poetry?
GA: Gosh, I can imagine hundreds of ways future technology can serve literature/poetry, as evidenced by all of my past, rejected grant proposals!
One “far out” idea I particularly like stems from a scientific demonstration I saw on TV. A scientist conducted an experiment where he was able to ‘read another person’s mind’. He attached electrodes to the subject’s larynx and then asked the subject to answer questions without making a sound or moving his lips. Somehow the layrnx in the throat automatically receives the answers from the brain even though the subject wasn’t speaking. The electrodes converted the information from the larynx and converted it to words in a machine on the table. The scientist was able to “read” the subject’s mind. He also concluded that it would be possible to reverse this process and send signals to the larynx and back into the brain creating the “putting thoughts into the head” scenario.
So I can imagine someday soon a person being able to place their hand on some kind of object and they would suddenly hear a voice recording in their head. I think it would probably be a combination of electronic “texting” combined with some tactile apparatus that converts that into electric signals that our brains could understand.
Wouldn’t it be fun if you were able to walk into a flower garden, touch an electronic-based sculpture and then “hear” a poem in your head that enhances your experience?
MM: You tend to collaborate on your video poems, creating the visual elements that accompany a poet’s language. Talk a bit about this collaborative process.
GA: The process of collaboration with either long-dead poets or still-living poets always varied. I first collaborated with Sylvia Plath when I discovered an audiotape of one of her poetry readings in the NPA archive. I always loved what she had written but had never heard her voice until I listened to those tapes, and her voice blew me away. I felt she was a poet who must be heard (as well as read) and decided to make my first poetry film based on her reading of “The Disquieting Muses.” This poem also happened to fit some black/white film footage I had shot while in college of a young woman going for a nighttime swim. This was my first poetry film, “Agitated Beauty,” which was really made to promote Sylvia Plath’s voice.
I then worked with an e.e. cummings poem because he seemed to me someone who would have been a cinepoet if he were alive today. He always seemed to try and find a way to break out of the confines of the printed page and so I produced, “somewhere i have never travelled” which combined a voice over with 3D animated images of an umbrella moving through space.
The cinepoems I’ve made with still-living poets have always been the most satisfying. Poets like Guy Johnson, David Bengtson, James Cagney Jr, and Paul Portuges were open to the idea of me merging their work with cinema and I found their openness inspiring and gloriously challenging. This process was unique for them as well. In one case, the poet actually added a few extra lines to his original poem after seeing my near-finished film version.
In the cinepoem, ‘An Uncommon Ghost’, I had edited together the animation of a space-surfing skeleton and then brought in slam poet, James Cagney Jr., who improvised a poem on the spot while he watched it. In ‘Blackbirds’, David Bengtson allowed me to replace a few of his written lines with only sound effects. It should be noted that David was one of the first U.S. teachers to teach videopoetry as a course.
Perhaps the most “unique” collaboration occurred while I was learning how to operate my new avatar inside an online, virtual world in 2007. I had just learned how to screen-capture the real-time activity of my avatar walking through a graveyard when a female avatar appeared near me. As we typed back and forth to each other, I learned that she wrote poetry. I then had a spark of inspiration and asked her if she wouldn’t mind writing a poem on the spot and perhaps move around the digital graveyard so I can film it. She agreed and I recorded her avatar dancing among the graves and later added the text of her poem. To this day, I have no idea who the person was behind that avatar.
MM: What technological tools are you currently using to create your videopoems?
GA: I currently make new works within machinima or ‘game-film’, which is the technique of using your computer to record action within a videogame or virtual world. I also experiment with other forms of cameraless-filmmaking, which is a movie-making process that doesn’t involve a camera, of course. I’ve also been experimenting with ways to use non-computer based technology like solar and wireless to bring poetry and images into natural settings. I am also very hopeful about electronic paper, which could allow cinepoets to combine words, sounds and images in newer ways.
MM: There are a number of people creating videopoetry today. Whose work stands out for you?
GA: There is so much out there that I haven’t seen that I feel a bit inadequate answering this question. Recently I viewed, Why I Write: Verses in Exile #1 by Kosal Khiev, 2012 Winner of the Zebra Poetry Festival a very powerful performance piece that everybody should watch.
I think the machinima-poetry work of borg-poet Cecil Hirvi is unique and worth mentioning. You can see some of that here.
On occasion I like to go over to PoetryVisualized.com to check out the new works there. They were the first all-poetry video portal to appear on the web.
MM: What are the challenges of technologically merging various media into a poem machine that still fulfills the ancient idea of poetry?
GA: What a great question! The main challenge in “fulfilling the ancient idea of poetry” means the new media artist/poet must have a direct, unfiltered, untainted connection between him or herself and the audience. This is made extremely difficult (if not impossible) because technology corporations do their very best to track, monitor and generally bother everybody in their never-ending quest for money. Technology also feels inherently ‘cold’. The challenge of this, I always find, is to somehow make it feel warmer, more natural and therefore more inviting to the public. But I do mostly believe that poetry should evolve along with the technology and eventually subvert it. In the 1940s, William Carlos Williams had already described very well the basic commonality between poetry and machines:
“On Poems as Machines Made Out of Words.
To make two bold statements: There’s nothing sentimental about a machine, and: A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words. When I say there’s nothing sentimental about a poem, I mean that there can be no part that is redundant.
Prose may carry a load of ill-defined matter like a ship. But poetry is a machine, which drives it, pruned to a perfect economy. As in all machines, its movement is intrinsic, undulant, a physical more than a literary character.”
MM: In terms of your videopoetry, is there an overriding aesthetic that guides your work? Has that aesthetic evolved over time?
GA: The one common element in all of my past cinepoetry work is that each new work needs to be very different from anything I had done previously. Either the visual style needs to be different or the poem needs to be different in tone and content. Sometimes I will experiment with a new cinematic or visual technique or even try a different platform altogether. It could be something outlandish like making a cinepoem while at the top of Mt. Everest. I suppose I love the challenge of trying something new … the very different, to see if it will conquer me or I it.
The neat thing about this kind of continuous experimentation is that it forces me to try things outside my comfort zone and that constantly keeps me on creative edge. Once, I produced a cinepoetic machinima/mashup titled, ‘The Sunfisher’, which combined old black and white footage from the 1950s with machinima shot in a virtual world. The found footage I used were clips featuring a WWII vet and his cowboy cronies in Wyoming. The accompanying original dialogue audio was terrible so I decided to try my hand at creating new audio dialogue for the seven characters using voice-changing software and just my own voice. The result was a new audio track complete with seven different-sounding voices matched to the lips of the characters. Not a very easy task but now I understand how voice dubbing works and I had a lot of fun playing different characters. Most of my new work seems a mishmash of cinematic/poetic/new media styles, and I like that.
MM: What’s next for you, both as a maker and promoter of videopoetry?
GA: I am continuing experimenting with new technology to see how it can serve poetry, literature and the arts. Currently, I’m developing a whole range of new, non-computer based skill sets that I hope to apply to some new original work in the future.
I also continue to reach out to new and established videopoetry/cinepoetry groups to offer help and to establish a global network (so everyone knows what is happening), and to help promote cross-pollination and collaboration. I can foresee perhaps a large, international gathering in the near future, so some of the terminology and overall goals can be worked out collectively.
I also hope to someday place the entire NPA archive of poetry films, videos and cinepoems (500 titles) up on the web so it can serve as an educational resource.
For further viewing, George recommends:
A Deed Without a Name (1993, 16mm to video, 2 min Animation dir Cathy Cook) One of the first cinepoems I put on the NPA website in 1996 and a film I always show to teachers. Film begins at 0:42
Elegantly Forbidden by Cecil Hirvi. A machinima (game film) made inside a virtual world, using avatars to explore the relationship between a rigid class-system of an ancient Japanese fishing village to a class-system generated within our own minds.
Why I Write: Verses in Exile #1 by Kosal Khiev., 2012 Winner Zebra Poetry Festival
Cold Cows (1972, 16mm, 4 min dir. Franklin Miller) First poetry film I ever saw at the NPA.
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 to 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