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SpokenWordBerlin defines poetry video on their own terms


To wit, the poets of SpokenWordBerlin are getting the last words on the matter by releasing a new DVD collection of original poetry videos. This writer has seen previews of selected videos, and feels the anthology is time well-spent by all parties: by the poets and artists, who brought fresh and pointed experiences together in words and images; and by the viewers, who'll be enticed to reconsider the broader possibilities that language, performance, and creative imagery can create.

Any viewer of this collection will need a solid understanding of the German language to glean the most from the disc. It is an unabashedly European collection, and it does not apologize to Anglophone viewers by including much English language material. That said, the disc has a few transcendant moments that don't need much translation. A war room conference on "Bonn" is an arch appropriation of Cold War period movies, in a piece by Sebastian Kraemer. Bas Boettcher performs outside an office tower, whose lights have been wired into a dot-matrix display, spilling 3-letter acronyms as a backdrop to his technophilic rap. Urban themes abound in the collection. Sex, drugs, violence... it's all there, and so are a few others like travel, love, and fantasy.

The individual productions are simple, but that doesn't hinder their effectiveness. It is very easy to overburden the text of a poetry video with images and sounds that try to explain the poem. Instead, a director should allow the poem to make its message in tandem with the imagery. A successful poetry video can use all the elements at its disposal to amplify a poem, and still show clearly what influences come from where... the text should stand on its own, as should the imagery and sound. As both a performance poet and director of many of these videos, Wolfgang Hogekamp has learned to give the poetry respect and focus in the production, and not let the images take over.

That said, the one possible directoral shortcoming in this collection would be in how so many of the videos play directly from poet to camera, from eye to eye. A broader tactic might allow the camera to scavenge the environment and form counterpoints to the text through the imagery; this happens in some pieces, but could happen more. Among the videos this writer saw, most are of poets are performing to/with camera throughout. Sets, locations, and poets change. Visualizations change. And yet the camera seems locked quite squarely on the given poet at almost every turn. Pieces such as in den staedten by Jan Off, with its surveillance camera gaze, do break this eye-lock on the poet now and then.

Naturally, the spark between a good, charismatic poet and a live camera is hard to resist. It satisfies the poet and the filmmaker who feel a bond of attention through the lens. However, if the camera is to realize its fullest potential as a complementer to the language, it must have the freedom to roam away from the performing poet. It takes a certain confidence and selflessness between the director and the poet to do this, to have the faith that the camera will tell its own counter-poem to the spoken text, and still be faithful to it. When one is a performance poet and director, such trust is already in one's hands. Hogekamp may want to exercise that trust more fully in future productions.

This criticism is a faint echo of what the Zebra curators voiced when Hogekamp et al were excluded from Zebra's program. Zebra's critique seems unreasonably harsh after viewing these clips. And this critique is certainly not intended to label SpokenWordBerlin's achievement as second class. To the contrary, it's one of the best anthologies of its kind. It is rare for a community of writer/performers to assemble such a body of work in cinema, and they deserve much praise for not only rising to the practical but the aesthetic challenges of the task.

Berlin, with her ambitious poets, is absolutely a place to reckon today in poetry video, as Chicago and San Francisco once were, as Vancouver remains. A salute to SpokenWordBerlin, for creating a marvelous feast for the mind!