Still Looking At Blackbirds
by Katie Haegele
A writer's hand brings its creations to life in a short Web film based on the poem "Budapest" by Billy Collins.
Don't get me wrong: I love ink and pulp, journals and 'zines, secondhand bookstores and the smell of a library. But digital literature, that just keeps surprising me.
In fact, it was a piece of digital poetry that taught me there are more than 13 ways of looking at a blackbird.
Edward Picot is an English writer and critic who, this month, completed 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (www.edwardpicot.com/blackbird), a collection of animated pieces inspired by the Wallace Stevens poem of the same name. The original poem is broken into 13 short stanzas; likewise, Picot's project consists of 13 individual Flash animations. His very short films bring to life - new life - Stevens' startling images, such as "barbaric glass" and "the bawds of euphony."
Picot is also a fiction writer, and in 2000, he decided to put some of his work online. What began as a cheaper alternative to print self-publishing became an interest in the literary possibilities of the new medium, and he started writing nonlinear fiction. He told me that he views digital poetry as a natural extension of 20th-century experimental poetry.
Picot said that "many of the ideas of concrete poetry" - in which the shape of the typography on the printed page is an element of the poem - "have been picked up by hyperliterature. Instead of having a poem about a bird which is shaped like a bird, you can have a poem about a bird which is shaped like a bird and moves across the page like a bird."
Picot's Web site (www.edwardpicot.com) is home to the Hyperliterature Exchange, which offers links and criticism of digital literature, his own original pieces, and the Blackbirds sequence. He says that to be successful, visual "interpretations" of poems must be original pieces of art in their own right.
"If you're going to be literal-minded, then you'll never get anywhere. You have to remake it as something new. I suppose the paradigms would be something like Verdi making an opera out of Falstaff, or Tchaikovsky making one out of Eugene Onegin, or Hitchcock making a film out of Rebecca or even Walt Disney's Fantasia. Not slavish translations of existing works of art, but new works of art which use the old ones as jumping-off points."
Or, as the Sundance Channel would have it, action poetry!
Last year, the independent-film channel commissioned animators to create shorts based on poems by Billy Collins. The resulting Action Poetry Series (www.bcactionpoet.org) consists of 11 short films, each narrated by Collins, who recites his poems in a deadpan that reminds me of Kevin Spacey's eternally amused voice-over in American Beauty.
The animated films for three of the poems - "Some Days," "Budapest" and "Forgetfulness" - were made by Julian Grey, director and partner of Head Gear Animation in Toronto (www.headgearanimation.com). Head Gear makes stop-motion animation, Claymation, mixed media and live-action films for commercial and broadcast clients, such as MTV and Kellogg's.
I talked to Grey about his films, which are dark, witty, and clever, like the poems themselves. Although he wasn't familiar with the poems he chose beforehand, he was already acclimated to the idea of taking another person's concept and making it visual.
"As a commercial director, I am often engaged in interpretation of ideas and brands, translating concepts into a visual medium that can engage the viewer," he explained.
In the poem "Budapest," Collins describes a writer scribbling, his pen "intent as any forager with nothing on its mind but the grubs and insects that will allow it to live another day." For his piece, Grey shot an actor's hand frame by frame, then added wiggly little creatures resembling pen doodles in cel animation. The result is a film about a writer who literally makes things come to life.
If that's not a good metaphor for literature, both on the page and on the screen, I don't know what is.