The Making of “At Freeman’s Farm”

The Making of a Videopoem

Marilyn McCabe

I am both interested in and skeptical of integrating poetry with other media. I believe a good poem should exist richly in the reader’s mind without any fancy bells and whistles. On the other hand, I’m intrigued by what might be possible if one brings text off the page.

A videopoem or cinepoem is very generally a short format exploration of the interaction of text, image and sound on a screen. Since the beginning of film, people have been fooling around with this intersection. As early as 1928, short films that could be considered within the realm of what we now term “videopoems” were created by Armand Artaud with director Germaine Dulac, and Robert Desnos with Man Ray.

And now that digital video equipment and editing software is easy to come by, it’s become a more common form of expression, and has taken on that term of art.

At its very simplistic level, this is sometimes just a video of the author reading the poem on camera. At its most sophisticated it can be a cinematic exploration of the spirit of a poem. Also encompassed in that spectrum are video-poems that contain words moving across or around a screen, or a poem voice-over with moving images, or a cartoon depiction of what’s happening in or an interpretation of or response to a poem.

The most important question for me is: Does this medium allow me to express with effective emotion the unguarded encounter of humanity with the world?

Canadian poet and multimedia poetry pioneer Tom Konyves, who seems to have coined the term videopoem, in his essay “Videopoetry: A Manifesto” defined it this way:“Videopoetry is a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poeticjuxtaposition of images with text and sound. In the measured blending of these three elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience. Presented as a multimedia object of a fixed duration, the principle function of a videopoem is to demonstrate the process of thoughtand the simultaneity of experience, expressed in words – visible and/or audible – whose meaningis blended with, but not illustrated by, the images and the soundtrack.”

Here are the general categories of approaches to videopoetry I have found in my research:

– the audio-visual thing itself is presented as a “poem” with no reference to written text

– the poem is just a point of inspiration and the audio-visual takes off from it

– the audio-visual is the text in motion

– the audio-visual is an embodiment of the poem, echoing images, using the text visually or just as an audio voiceover, all or portions

– the audio-visual is an animation of the poem, as above

Music is often also part of the presentation, another layer.

But an effective videopoem is not a poem with layers on it, but rather a complete integration of its elements to create a new thing.  This project has forced me to expand my understanding of what I can consider a “poem,” or how what I consider to be vital components of a poem:

– sound

– vocabulary

– image

– lineation

– ambition

– silence

I find these things can be expressed in ways other than what I’d always thought.

One way to approach making a videopoem is to choose a poem to build from, and this is what I chose to do with my project “At Freeman’s Farm.” My poem of that name is a lyric poem, which presented some particular challenges, as it is already rich in images. I had to ask myself: How can I allow the images created in the poem work with projected images to create a creative tension? The purpose of art, after all, is to consider something — by questioning, comparing, imagining outward, contradicting. Art is interesting and valuable to us human beings because it invites us to inquire. I wanted to avoid simple illustration and instead find opportunity in some kind of gap between exactly what the poem is saying and exactly what the image is showing.

The other challenge in using a lyric poem – that is, basically, a poem that meditates on a moment in time – is that I am asking it to exist in the time-based medium of video, basically a narrative framework – that is, giving the expectation that this happens, then that happens, then that happens. How was I going to reconcile that? Did I need to somehow address time, show its movement?

Sound is another vital element. Consider the suggestive power of music. It creates a mood, but can also be manipulative: it can push the audience toward an emotional response that may feel forced. What did I want to accomplish with sound?

I had to consider how to deal with the text of the poem itself. Will I project the actual words somehow or just allow the words to be read, or some combination? (One of the things that interests me about this medium is that it allows us to harken back to the original aural nature of poetry – text that is only heard. Relying just on the spoken word allows the ear to catch it and the brain to linger on what it remembers.)

How would I balance all the elements? I did not want any one element in the project – poem, image, voice, music – to outweigh any other element. This medium is basically asking the human senses of sight and hearing to compete. Are we capable of integrating in our brains multiple inputs such that what we receive is in balance? This is the challenge of the form.

“At Freeman’s Farm” is a meditation on the landscape of war. It references the Saratoga battlefield, a site of one of the decisive battles of the American Revolution. It references other battle sites in other wars, from the Homeric wars to the detonation of the A-bomb in the New Mexican desert. I decided to interview a few veterans about their experiences of war in the various landscapes in which they were caught — Vietnam, Korea, Iraq. What did it look like, smell like, sound like?

As a beginner at all this and not experienced in video nor editing software, I reached out to a friend to help me out. We wandered around the Saratoga battlefield, and I pointed at things, and he ran the camera. Then we set up a simple studio in my house where we interviewed the veterans I asked to participate in the making of this project. Then we spent hours with me hanging over his shoulder cutting and pasting video and audio after I had listened many many times to all the interviews and watched and watched all the video footage. I had developed a rough “storyboard” of sorts, identifying spots of audio I wanted, how I wanted them integrated with my reading of the poem, and what images I wanted where.

As I mentioned before, I was working in an essentially narrative mode, even though I was using a basically meditative, lyric input.  Any narrative has to contain conflict and change, so I tried to figure out how the images could contain that.  I tried to balance close shots and far away shots, and again, the rate of change between shots. The veterans’ voices created an interesting weave, high and low, slow cadenced and quick.

I also used a series of shots to represent change: Using milkweed pods shot at different stages of their development is how I tried to stitch time into and through the visual narrative, to create a moving, changing rhythm within the larger piece.

One of the ways I dealt with time was in the movement from image to image. I felt a kind of rise in energy in the third stanza where they’re talking about ordnance and the mechanisms of war, so I used faster flashes, and used the rise of the music and the cadence of the voices.

In the course of developing my project, I began to learn that images too have rhythm, have silence; that speech – with its rhythms and stutters – is rich and complicated and that voices are a kind of text; landscape is a kind of text and has movement and emotion. I learned I could create a kind of lineation and space by manipulating the movement of sound and picture. In the end, the whole thing felt more like a creating dance than anything else.

I have not lost my loyalty to the magic of words on a page, the mind moving through them, controlled by lines and space. But I do think this other medium is a fruitful mode of imaginative inquiry. Another opportunity to play.

The final product of this project can be viewed on my Vimeo page at https://vimeo.com/58902028, and my other experimentation in this medium: http://www.vimeo.com/marmccabe.