In Retrospect: a Manifesto and its Underpinnings by Tom Konyves

by Tom Konyves

When I produced my first videopoem, Sympathies of War, I was quite aware of (and pleased with) the double meaning in the title: on the surface, a series of fragmented lines mimicked a censored letter from the “front”, madame… regret… sympathies of war…; on another front, a different struggle was underway – Montreal poetry in 1978 was under attack from within its own ranks, caught between the conservative tendencies of mainstream, book-oriented, blank verse writers and the revolutionary tendencies of “sound poets” and “performance poets” who were being outpaced by the visual artists practicing performance art and video art. I lamented that ‘In view of the abundance of new books of poetry, it is becoming evident that not many wish their poems to leap off the page into another element’1 and ‘there is a little bit of poetry in everything but by no means is there a little bit of everything in poetry. Poetry has been more than welcome in theatre (Beckett) music (Dylan) film (Cocteau) and the visual arts (Johns) … The state of the art is in crisis…’2

Thirty years later, movingpoems.com, the most comprehensive website dedicated to videopoems, boasts more than 1500 works; there are major poetry film festivals on every continent; Zebra, the Berlin-based Poetry Film Festival, offers prizes valued at thousands of Euros. Poetry, packaged with the moving image, has arrived. But ideologies are colliding.

***

In October, 2011, a month after I published Videopoetry: A Manifesto, I found myself in New York presenting a talk about teaching creative visual writing. Crossing The Borders (or Art Does Not Acknowledge Borders) was the theme of the School of Visual Arts’ 2011 Round Table Presentations that was being held at the legendary Algonquin Hotel, best-known for its 1920s hosting of literary and theatrical notables at its “Round Table”. The keynote was the controversial Noel Carroll, whose call for “the ‘inter-animation’ of the arts, which is a call for impurity, a call for art forms to inspire each other, a call for strategies to move across the arts…” was, for a poet who envisioned and pioneered the hybrid form of a videopoem, a most welcome affirmation of “our current acceptance of the porosity of media.”

The fall of 2011 was a propitious time to be in New York. Two years earlier, I had tried to meet up with the renowned surrealist scholar and translator Mary Ann Caws. I was curious to hear her opinion on whether my position on this relatively new genre of visual poetry (although Duchamp, Richter, Man Ray, Cocteau, Dali, Maya Deren and James Broughton dabbled in it) could be supported by what I attributed to its Surrealist underpinnings. (I was in the midst of my research then, visiting archives in San Francisco, Chicago, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Budapest, Paris and New York, screening works mostly on VHS cassettes, a few on DVDs.) I had written her but, as it happened, our schedules conflicted.

This time around, I met with her in her office at the Graduate School of the City University of New York, where she had served as Distinguished Professor of French, English, and Comparative Literature since 1987. We never got into the underpinnings because the appearance of my manifesto (I had just handed her a printed copy) prompted her to reach for her 713-page tome, Manifesto: A Century of Isms, and plant it before me on the desk between us. Volume 2, perhaps?

By 2011, I was aware of “general” descriptions of interart experimentation, specifically between the words of poetry and the images of film and video: preeminently by William C. Wees, who introduced me to the essays of Scott MacDonald, David P. Foster, Richard Hancox and Bart Testa in Canada; among the practitioners, by the writings of Peter Todd in England and the Americans Richard Kostelanetz, George Aguilar, Konrad Steiner and Hollis Frampton; in addition, via Eduardo Kac, to E.M. de Melo e Castro’s reflective essay “Videopoetry”; all these merit acknowledgment as my precursors. Yet general is the operative word, as I had failed to find any theoretical support for the “inner workings” of this new hybrid form.3

Drafting my manifesto emerged from the necessity of correlating hundreds of videos and films that, in the words of Ron Silliman, “predicated on some glimpse of poetry after the book”.4 The immediate obligation was to summarize my research for the benefit of my students in “Word and Image”, a course I had developed and taught for the two previous years; more precisely, to integrate the definition, categories, features and constraints of the genre into an academic essay.

According to Mary Ann Caws, what ultimately transforms an academic essay into a manifesto – its historical context (its nowness and newness marks a moment of crisis), violent typography (the model of the shout, it calls for capital letters, the coincidence of form and function, loves bigness, demands attention), excess in reach (a prescription/directive for future acts), a potential for energizing (writing in the present tense) – is that it is always contrarian, always opposed to something, implicitly “inviting the reader/listener to the side of the brave.”5

What could not be ignored and compelled a polemical response in the Manifesto:

  • (1)  the lack of a commonly-held word designation for this new genre, evidenced by the various use of the words film, video and poetry, separated or hyphenated, “poetry” preceded by or preceding “film” or “video”, etc. Attributing the variety of designations to the novelty of a genre in its early stages of development, I returned to the word I had used 30 years earlier to describe my multimedia work.6
  • (2)  the non-verbal films that bore traces of the purists, a cinema whose language was “based on a total separation from the language of theatre and literature”7, wherein the intentional omission 
of any representation of text (verbal language, voiced or displayed) pointed to the decades-old argument for film’s medium-specificity and, by implication, its legitimacy8. 9
  • (3)  the films that were verbal, whose image-text relationships were illustrative, whose texts, more often than not, had been appropriated from some pre-existent, previously-published poem as the script for and narration of “poetry-films”10. 11
  • (4)  because a particular method for successfully blending these two aesthetic forms could effect a transformation in how we interpret and experience poetry, it would need to be re-defined as different from what we commonly understood as poetry. In the hybrid form of a videopoem, I envisioned “poetry” as residing in more than the distinct, material element of the text, and this first became clear to me when the text used (written, voiced or a combination of the two) was appropriated from what had previously existed as a traditional “poem”.12

Two years later, as I was preparing my Address to the 2013 E-Poetry Conference, I realized that the full potential of the argument in the above two statements could not be grasped without questioning the properties and function of that most appropriated form of text elements, the ‘previously composed/published poem’.

Between 2011 and 2013, the ever-increasing number of works submitted online and screened at new venues admitted a closer look at the employment of the text element. The most popular employment continued to be verbatim appropriations of pre-existent poems, more often than not from published (printed or online) collections.13 The premise was simple: the words of the poem would need no alteration (other than their visual re-presentation appearing in convenient doses, x words/lines per frame) but, most importantly, the text’s original “references” would not be much compromised by the juxtaposed visual or sound elements in the work. Implicit in this approach was privileging the appropriated, pre-existent text as the “poetry” of the entire work – over its collaborative potential at the moment of its encounter with the image (until that moment, the text is incomplete; it is ‘only one element’ in the process of ‘measured blending’).

When I invoked the surrealist method of yoking together “distant realities’, I did not anticipate what was becoming the norm for the visual treatment of the pre-existent poem: a frivolous juxtaposition of (admittedly non-illustrative) images to the inflexible text element, a most curious hodge-podge of images surrounding the immoveable object of the words. In these juxtapositions, there appeared to be no evidence that the image element was functioning to re-direct original meanings in the text toward new interpretations. While the “non-illustrative” was non-negotiable, I proposed that, in a successful videopoem, the work’s elements contain a collaborative property, an original incompleteness:

What is specific to a hybrid form like videopoetry is not what is specific to its elements… Text, image and sound tend to arrive complete-in-themselves, self- sufficient, if you will. For the hybrid form, the specificity, I would suggest, is in the collaborative properties (a more accurate term may be synergistic properties) of the individual elements. In other words, not all texts (a good example would be most previously published poems), not all images (obviously) or soundtracks embody collaborative or synergistic potential. This collaborative property implies an incompleteness, indicating the presence of accommodating spaces in each of the elements.14

These accommodating spaces become apparent in the linear “time-line” structure of a videopoem.15 At the point where it is juxtaposed with a textual element, the image may or may not possess a collaborative property to effect a new meaning. Similarly, the text element may or may not have been prepared to collaborate. It is only when a particular text or image suddenly suggests a different, supplementary interpretation from its otherwise clear, original meaning that it becomes a motivated device for “defamiliarizing” its otherwise common, everyday “reading”; that is, it becomes a sign for something else, forced – by intent or chance – to reveal an unexpected association between what is seen, read or heard. It is in the nature of this type of anxious association between text and image that a large part of the poetic experience resides.16

As videopoetry is a postmodern construct, one method to identify the existence of a collaborative property at any point in the work is to determine whether one or another of the three elements is perceived to acknowledge the presence of the other. If this self-reflexivity is a necessary attribute of a successful videopoem, it is because it foregrounds a function to reduce an assumed transparency between sign (text) and referent (image), in favour of drawing attention to indirect, supplementary relationships, but never so distant a n d c o n f u s i n g as to cause disengagement with the work.

Which is to say, I am not prepared to abandon meaning. From an artist’s perspective, my aim has always been to arrest the narrative flow to create new meanings, the recontextualizing of “automatized” content.17 However arrived at, whether by chance or preconception, every videopoem discloses its own set of relationships within which we should be able to discern the presence (or absence) of patterns, repetitions, codes and devices. From these we may or may not construe a meaning. Meaning-making, the accomplishment of an aesthetic richness, is the work of form, not content, but non-meaning or anti- meaning is also the work of form. Interpreting forms in one way or the other, as producing significant meaning, some meaning or no meaning, is ultimately a matter of individual taste.

Of this individual taste, I have to look no further than my own writings on the subject.

I find more significant meaning in works that use concrete images than abstract images, and works that favour visual experiments to make us aware of possible new readings of the text. I prefer text elements wrenched from unconventional sources, utterances that refrain from obfuscation as well as the mass marketing of sentimentality, with an understanding that metaphors grow out of the pressure – to see it this way or that – applied by images to the words we hear or read on the screen. I listen to the soundtrack in hopes of discovering threads of a matter that conveys more information than ambiance, that brings as much attention to the change from one frame to another as to the motion within a frame. I am drawn to form before content for, as we were told in the sixties, there are eight million stories in the naked city.18 The poetic experience is gleaned from the way a certain form has been imposed on the content, the material, the story. There may be potential in each one of 8 million stories, but until form is brought to bear on the organization of details, discernible step by step, shot by shot, from the first frame to the last, a story is just a story, no less but no more.

Thus, what had been intended at the outset to serve as an academic essay describing a new form of visual poetry, assumed the title of a Manifesto. With that word, I injected some provocative statements (e.g., redefining our notion of poetry to the experience of judicious juxtapositions) to revivify a conversation, to question the poetics of and the poetic experience in the word-image relationships expressed in a videopoem. But it was also an utterance of the moment, a revelation that poetry had survived a transformation when its own medium-specific material was coupled with a particular moving image and projected onto a screen.

Notwithstanding the clarification of its territory, definition, constraints and categories, the Manifesto did not and cannot eliminate the persistence of questions raised about the genre. Distinguishing five separate categories was necessary but still a modest preparation for an expedition to witness a new art form emerging from its infancy. Most urgent is a concerted effort to investigate individual works to further our artists’ understanding of the underpinnings of this hybrid art form and, in the process, to assist our audiences in comprehending, appreciating and evaluating what they have experienced.

For inspiration and guidance, we can either follow Noel Carroll’s recommended methodology – after sufficient description, contextualization, classification, elucidation, interpretation and analysis, “the proof of the pudding is in the tasting”19 – or simply envisage videopoetry as Marianne Moore would have us see poetic experience, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”20

Tom Konyves
May 14, 2016

1 Konyves, Tom, Poetika, A Critical Assembling, Assembling Press, Brooklyn, Richard Kostelanetz, ed., 1979, p. N/A

2 Konyves, Tom, Videopoetry, The Insecurity of Art, Vehicule Press, Montreal, Ken Norris, Peter Van Toorn, ed., 1982 p. 82

3 In February, 2014, I came across a notable exception: Jerrold Levinson’s 1984 essay, Hybrid Art Forms, in which he identifies three “varieties” of hybrid art forms, “which can be labeled juxtaposition (or addition), synthesis (or fusion), and transformation (or alteration).” While all three ‘varieties’ can be distinguished in hybrid art works that use combinations of text, image and sound, transformation best describes the form of videopoem examined in the Manifesto and further developed here. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3332623?origin=JSTOR-pdf

4 http://pages.citebite.com/u5m1f2a8y6njv
5 Caws, Mary Ann, Manifesto, A Century of Isms, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2000 p. xxi
6 My response was: Videopoetry is one word; it is not separated or hyphenated. As one word, it indicates that a fusion of the visual, the verbal and the audible has occurred, resulting in a new, different form of poetic experience.
7 Dziga Vertov ‘s 1929 film, Man With A Movie Camera, begins with intertitles (including this phrase) admonishing authorial manipulation such as ‘intertitles, scenarios, sets, actors, etc.’

8 The question, “does it (videopoetry) have to display poetic text? or just any text?” was still unresolved as recently as 2007. It was brought to my attention by Geof Huth in his May 15, 2007 blog entry http://dbqp.blogspot.ca/2007/05/dialog-and- nature.html
9 Text, displayed on-screen or voiced, is an essential element of the videopoem.

10 Poetry-film was William Wees’ term for poems adapted to the screen. Important to note that I didn’t impute it inherently “wrong” to import a pre-existent, previously-published poem as long as the juxtaposed imagery not only does not illustrate the words heard or read but, in fact, transforms the function of the words of the original poem into an entirely new context.
11 Imagery in a videopoem – including on-screen text – does not illustrate the voiced text.

12 Used in a videopoem, a previously composed/published poem represents only one element of the videopoem, the text element. The “poetry” in videopoetry is the result of the judicious juxtaposition of text with image and sound.
13 I had alluded to this in the Manifesto’s prolegomenal argument: The underlying dichotomy opposes videopoetry… to works which publish poems (voiced or displayed on-screen) in video format. Re-publish would have been more apt.

14 In my 2014 videopoem, “ow(n)ed”, the appropriated image was a team of castellers recorded on a cell phone in portrait- mode. When placed at the center of the 16 x 9 format of the screen, the shape of the original image frame disclosed a triptych effect; on either side of the image, an ‘accommodating space’ suggested the juxtaposition of text. Moreover, the soundtrack (by chance) provided a rhythmic marking for the temporal play of the text.

15 Maya Deren used a similar “spatial” term to identify poetic experience as “vertical” interruptions in a horizontal narrative. see http://tldrify.com/gs3
16 Something could be said for the after-effects of the work, the experience after the credits, when the screen goes black.
17 “There comes a time,” wrote Roman Jakobson in 1921, “when traditional poetic language ossifies, ceases to be palpable and becomes outlived like a ritual or a sacred text whose very lapses are considered holy… the form masters the

material, the material becomes fully dominated by its form, the form turns into a stereotype and dies out, New, unusual forms must at this point be created to rejuvenate poetic language.”
Steiner, Peter, Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics, sdvig Press, Geneva-Lausanne, 2014 p 182

18 Words of the concluding narration in the American TV series, Naked City, based on the 1948 film, which won 2 Academy Awards for cinematography and editing (two categories of a film’s formal devices, its shaping, not writing, the story)
19 Carroll, Noel, On Criticism, New York, Routledge, 2009
20 Moore, Marianne, Poetry, Observations, New York, The Dial Press, 1924, 30-31.

In Retrospect: a Manifesto and its Underpinnings is reproduced here by kind permission of Tom Konyves.