Poets on Poetry: A Virtual Village of Discovery and Poetics
You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.
While poetry remains as the primal foundation for my visual and literary work, I’m constantly analyzing its relationship to my ‘mixed-media’ identity, and I like Carrie Mae Weems’s words, “Sometimes my work needs to be photographic, sometimes it needs words, sometimes it needs to have a relationship with music, sometimes it needs all three and become a video projection.” There are endless creative decisions for each of us, linked to our needs as human beings.
As a poet who is also a photographer and painter, I find myself perpetually challenged by meditations on my blurred insider-outsider role as well as the tail-chasing dialectic of Subject-Object and Other. For me, poetry and photography, as mediums, exist as persistent spaces of discovery, shock, pleasure, risk, and joy. These spaces also contain voices, which can be intense, inaudible, deafening, subtle, sonorous, and even, choral. The process of imagination and experimentation is as rich and provocative as the final realization, which then of course, morphs itself into history, after-lives, caesuras, and resurrections.
During the summer of 2011, I began to visualize P.O.P as a series of poetic portraits that would be three-dimensional. In a sense, the P.O.P project is a sequence of visual poems, nuanced and calibrated as Russian dolls, with poets, poems, and questions nesting within one another. I had a number of anxieties and questions. How could I make this genre of portraiture and what/whose likeness would it resemble? How much of its original essence could this derivative of poetry possess?
In the spring of 2012, I invited local contemporary poets to visit my Brooklyn studio to participate in the project. I was overwhelmed by the response, given that the P.O.P was both a difficult and sublime labor of love. I had no funding to initiate or complete the project. One afternoon I went to B&H and purchased a minimal amount of equipment. Next I read web tutorials about how to use microphones and the video-editing software Final Cut, which I’d already learned to use for my interests in creating small, lyrical art shorts.
My artist’s studio, located in an industrial building in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, occupied a poet-crazy-making proximity to noisome subway trains and the Manhattan Bridge. Below my small room, mammoth delivery trucks honked while my neighbors slammed doors and gave me a stylized brand of Brooklyn-glare as I begged them to give me twenty minutes of quiet to make a recording. A CrossFit exercise facility rolled tank-sized tires down my hall while its members jogged laps and shouted adrenalized anthems around our floor. Upstairs a guitar maker sanded beautiful electric guitars in his humming woodshop. A perpetual strain of emo-techno music lurked somewhere inside the walls. My assistant went from floor-to-floor searching for the invisible culprit, which we never identified.
Had I money and a state-of-the-art studio I’d have been capable of creating seamless perfect recordings. Now, I look back at my blips, acknowledging such challenges as much as the perfectionist me in will allow. No matter how much sound editing I could afford (not much) the train or freight elevator buzzer was sometimes audible. Each day the pressure of epiphany and “teachable moments” tilted back and forth. As a photographer, the sound of the world had never mattered during shoots. (Now I wonder why I play any music at all during the portrait process.)
One afternoon I schlepped equipment to a tiny upstairs room in the Lillian Vernon Writers House at New York University to film Sharon Olds for the P.O.P project. I was deeply moved by her reading of a Lucille Clifton poem. Elated, I returned to Brooklyn only to discover that my memory card was damaged and there was no possibility of data recovery. Sharon’s powerful voice runs on a private reel of my memory without any means to recover our singular experience, except in these words.
The format for most of the videos is that each poet reads an original poem and then shares a poem by another poet that s/he would like to share with an explanation of his/her relationship to the shared work. After the reading of both poems the participating poet then answers a question s/he has selected from a pool of anonymous questions generated from other participants in the project. By late spring of 2012, I’d filmed eighty poets. (My goal had been one hundred with an initial expectation to work with at least fifty poets, if I was lucky.) This virtual village grew into a complex and dynamic conversation—I was struck by what the poets, as individuals and as a group, allowed me (and by extension, an unknown audience) to see. It was astonishing to consider the videos as “pages” and to examine their spliced vocabulary.
But the intimacy of reading and the intimacy of watching/listening to a video are inherently different, and often incomparable. I hoped P.O.P would reflect Robert Frank’s foresight, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks.” For me it is reflexive, involuntary—expansion and contraction.
When we, as poets, participate in conversations about poetry, technology, and media, we sometimes insist upon a polarity from which judgment and value are also drawn. I’ve always viewed technology as an instrument that serves the endowment of my imagination. And if there is any scale, I prefer to favor imagination and discipline to the trending faceless labor of mobile applications and virtual engines. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to snare exciting new media possibilities within a narrow loop of either/or. For the most part, I don’t see technology as a threat to poetry though there are continuing issues surfacing in critical regard to ownership, authorship, and the economic infrastructures of publishers.
I wondered about the idea that young poets who are wielding smartphones, socio-technological conflicts, and their own specific generational issues might find a broad geography of poets who resemble them, literally, thematically/narratively, and emotionally. It will be interesting to review the P.O.P project in a few years and to compare which themes and concerns have shifted, which issues may be defunct, and which will be timeless.
There is also a hope that new energy will be generated through the P.O.P conversation itself. Perhaps someone in the audience will search for the poet’s original work or endeavor to write his or her first poem, encouraged by the presence of a voice, a face, or phrase in the ether of creativity.
The intimacy, diversity, and variety of the videos forged into a collective that resonated with my own deepest feelings and tensions regarding individuality and community. The communal space was language itself. This was, if I had one, my agenda. The more difference the better. The tactile sense and awareness of a poet’s mind at work is a stirring visual. The project helped me to approach, on my own terms, the jarring leaps of technology and its relationship to one of our most ancient traditions of humanity.
I would like to thank the Academy of American Poets, especially Jen Benka, Mary Gannon, and Jeff Simpson. Their eyes listened first. I would also like to thank Gerald Stern, Anne Marie Macari, and the spirit of Muriel Rukeyser. I would also like to thank Joseph A. W. Quintela, my gifted assistant, who braved the noise with me. And, finally, a persisting gratitude to every poet who made the effort to meet me under the bridge.