In early August I was able to attend my first festival devoted to videopoetry, the 2013 Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar, Scotland. One of the high points of the weekend-long event was a live reading by classicist and poet Henry Stead of London Poetry Systems, a recitation of his translation of Catullus’ long poem (#63), “Attis,” in front of a screen onto which a film was projected. It was essentially a karaoke version of a videopoem, with the soundscape included but no words. As fellow audience member Graham Barnes put it,
The compelling Galliambic metre of the poem and Henry’s (1960s) ‘beat poets’ delivery style combined with the haunting soundscapes and film images representing scenes from the poem made for a powerful and memorable, multi-modal performance.
Catullus 63 tells the story of Attis, the lover of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, who in keeping with many members of the Cybele cult castrated himself as an act of piety and then lived out his life in regret and tormented exile.
Stead’s semi-musical recitation style was fairly understated — a good choice to balance the high drama of the poem. Because he was reciting rather than reading, he could stare out into the distance, and his clean-shaven white face became part of the large screen onto which the film was projected, a startling and effective technique for this ancient text about divine possession, madness and transformation. This video, made three years earlier, doesn’t quite capture that effect (and the video behind him is inevitably hard to make out):
I’d given readings with videopoetry interludes, which had always gone over well, but Henry Stead’s “Attis” made me realize I could take things to another level. This past Wednesday, I got my opportunity with a reading in a local bookstore-cafe, the inaugural event in a monthly poetry reading series organized and emceed by Jason Crane. (Thanks to Jason for the photos that follow.) As featured reader, I had 25 minutes, and the focus was to be on my new chapbook of poems about banjos.
For the month preceding the reading, I’d been beavering away making videopoems using texts from the book. As poetry films go, they are fairly unsophisticated because I lack either the software or the know-how to make “real” films, but fortunately we are living in the golden age of remix, and there are great troves of public-domain films and videos on the web that one can steal from, as well as free and Creative Commons-licensed sound and music one can borrow. Since the poems all reference or are concerned with banjos to some degree, musical videopoems seem like the logical next step beyond the print edition, and some of the imagery I found allows me to expand on things that are only suggested in the text with additional, visual metaphors, such as the round, white dome of Monticello suggesting something more about the “jars” in a poem called “How Jefferson Heard Banjar.” The point is that I was making these videos anyway, so why not try to give a reading with karaoke versions of some of them?
Here’s the set-up. I needed a high table large enough to hold my laptop and speakers. A set list with the poem titles and page numbers in black magic marker helped me quickly and easily find the next poem text while the present poem’s credits rolled on the screen. The projector sat on a separate table in front, projecting onto a screen off to my right:
In a bookstore-cafe still open for business, the challenge was to compete with ambient noise and respect the needs of other customers (e.g., to browse books with the lights on). Fortunately, the store was well equipped with an excellent mike and speakers. If I’d had the means to plug my laptop directly into their amp instead of having to use my own speakers for the soundtrack, I’m sure that would’ve been better, but the volume seemed sufficient — even, I’m told, at the far end of the seating area:
I didn’t mind not having a large screen and movie-theater darkness, because frankly, my made-for-web videos aren’t as high-resolution as they could be. As usual for me, I chose a fairly relaxed, naturalistic style of reading, except for one video where I attempt (not too successfully) to imitate a 1940s film noir narrator. Based on my own sense of things as well as the numerous positive reactions afterwards (some even from people who weren’t friends or relatives), I’d say the reading went pretty well. It was definitely a very different experience from any other reading I’ve ever given. I felt most complimented by the fact that the three children in attendance seemed spellbound, including a toddler who’d been restive earlier and Jason’s two boys, who I’m told are regular, football-loving American kids.
There was simply no question that I’d have to practice my ass off for a couple of days in advance, reading the poems over and over while the videos played in a VLC playlist on my laptop. With regular poetry readings, practice might seem optional (at least to poets who don’t read this site), but with audiovisual accompaniment, you have to come in on cue or the whole thing flops. I had assumed the screen would be behind me and prepared accordingly, but with it situated to my right, I didn’t have to glance exclusively at my laptop for visual cues.
Complete memorization of the poems would not have been a bad thing, much as I resist internalizing my own words to that degree. I wouldn’t have had to fumble with a book and set list, and possibly could’ve engaged more with the audience. However, with the audience focused on the screen, what really mattered was my vocal delivery, not eye contact. And with the accompanying music being generally melodic and at points down-right funky, it took off the pressure to give an absolutely flawless reading. So in a way, this approach offers a bit of a crutch to those of us (95% of poets?) who are not highly skilled performers.
There’s nothing like a live reading to improve one’s delivery, though. I had been afraid that the necessity to sync up my reading with prerecorded music and images might make for kind of a mechanical delivery, but I don’t think that happened. In fact, for some of the poems in the set, I found myself reading in a more intense, impassioned style than I used when I’d recorded myself alone in a quiet bedroom for the online versions of the videopoems. And since I had to pay close attention to the music for many of my cues, I think this approach actually improved my over-all sense of timing and rhythm.
With the laptop in front of me, it was possible to pause the videos for a few seconds when needed to make introductory remarks, though I think I only had to do that twice. In a regular reading, it’s all too easy to natter on and on about what prompted a particular poem, and forget that our job is to entertain, not to lecture. With this reading, I had to be mindful not only of the tight time constraint but also of the effect on the audience of interrupting the music and the flow. The next time I do this, I will add enough slack-time in the intros and credits of each video for all my brief contextualizing remarks.
Now, all this might seem like a huge lot of effort for a 25-minute reading in front of 30-some people, but I found it hugely energizing and reaffirming. More than that, it was useful to be reminded of the essential ephemerality of what we do. As Walter J. Ong points out in his classic study Orality and Literacy, sounded words with their inherent temporality are uniquely dynamic and close to the human lifeworld. Fans of online audiopoetry and videopoetry like to claim that we’re recovering an oral dimension and liberating poems from the prison of print. But if we’re serious about orality, it seems to me, we need to periodically test our words and images in the crucible of live performance.