Last week I got an interesting book out from the library. It’s called In Person 30 Poets and it’s published by Bloodaxe Books. I haven’t read it all yet, but already it is without doubt one of the most interesting poetry books I’ve read recently, for one simple reason – as well as the poems themselves, the book contains two DVDs on the poets themselves reading their own works aloud, often in their own homes.

Of course, poetry was an oral art form long before it was ever written down, and there are no shortage of modern poetry slams and poetry festivals where you can hear poets performing their own work. But this is an anthology of more personal readings, rather than performances, and can be seen as well as heard.

Anyway, the book got me to thinking about the value of poets reading (rather than ‘performing’) their own poetry and whether this book/DVD or book/download model is one that has a future in poetry publishing. Several poet’s websites I’ve visited recently have also included videos of them reading their own work and I have to say that as a reader/listener/viewer, I am most intrigued to a) see what the poet looks like, b) hear their voice and c) listen to the intonation, speed and style of their reading, to see whether this provides some extra insight into the poem that I may have missed in my own reading. I am much more interested in this than in a podcast or other audio version. Maybe I’m just nosey.

But there are, certainly in some cases, disadvantages. Not all poets are necessarily great at reading aloud, or at being in front of the camera, and some readers might prefer to interpret a poem in their own way anyway, without a specific interpretation (albeit the poet’s own) being somehow forced onto them. There are, perhaps, as many meanings within a single poem as there are readers.

Obviously, there are advantages too, more so with a DVD than a simple audio CD. Watching a poet read their own poems allows you to understand more fully what their intention was when they wrote the work and glimpse which parts are the most important to them. The 30 Poets recordings are often taken in the poets’ own homes, which adds a more personal touch – it’s rather as though the poet has invited the viewer around for a cup of tea and a quick poetry recital.

So is this the way that poetry publishing should and will go? The Poetry Archive, set up between Andrew Motion and Richard Carrington and now presided over by Seamus Heaney, is an attempt to make poetry readings by poets easily and freely accessible to a wide audience through their website www.thepoetryarchive.org and there are various other similar ventures with recordings, podcasts and online audio, either free or paid (which opens up another can of worms that I might explore in a future blog post…). But I’m surprised that there aren’t more poetry sites with video and more video-poetry-books being created. As a publisher and interactive ebook creator myself, I know that the technology is there, and indeed, how to do it. And there are other wonderful interactive features that could be used to enhance (rather than detract from) the experience. So if it’s not about technical skill, perhaps it boils down to demand. Do audiences want to sit at home watching poetry read aloud by poets? And are the poets themselves ready for it?

If you have any thoughts on poets reading their own works, on poetry filming in publishing or on anything else related, please do add your comments below – I’m very interested to hear your thoughts and ideas.

So far, I haven’t recorded any of my own poems yet, nor have I produced or published a video-poetry-book. But perhaps it’s something to think about…

2 thoughts on “Poetry on film

  1. It will do you well to see and hear yourself. As for others it is also, great, if they like you. It is really too bad there isn’t a working poetry television show. Hard it is even to get some poem on read by Garrison Keillor. Some of it is poems by women about flowers, and preachy crap, and stuff from juveniles and dopes that we wish would be stabbed or stomped by bears and pigs.
    Most important poets live in the Mid East, and write and perform powerfully aiming to get people to kill. – right?

    • Thanks for your comment, Russell. A poetry television programme would be great, assuming it really was the best poets who performed, yes. I think it’s fascinating to watch poets reading their own poetry, and even more so when it’s on video from their own home or somewhere where it’s more a ‘reading’ than a ‘performance’. I’m considering recording some of my own poetry, even if only for my own benefit, to watch back and see where things can be improved. It’s probably a rather good learning tool.

      Being from the UK, I can’t of course agree that the most important poets live in the Mid East (!), or claim to know what their intentions are. But it is unfortunately true that there’s a lot of terrible poetry out there (hence the reason I’m being so selective about what to include on this blog). Luckily, there’s some fantastic contemporary poetry being written too, which really cuts through all that rubbish!

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