Poets write in rhyme, muse in metered form or cause us to gasp at perceptions that seem far larger than the mere words from which they're shaped. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas once defined poetry as a fundamental creative act using language. In other words, poets can't not write poetry. Yet poets are exploring different ways of presenting their words. Some are pairing them with animated videos, others with music. And some have decided that the words alone suit them fine, thanks. Here are three Minnesota poets who are making news for themselves, and for poetry.
Todd Boss: Turning verse into video
These days, Todd Boss often refers to his poems as scripts.
They're still poems, but they're also the inspiration for animators who, in essence, turn his poems into short films. "Poets have so little exposure for their work, and that's why they write: for an audience of listeners," said Boss. "We see film as a gateway drug for poetry."
Two years ago, Boss began working with Angella Kassube, art director at HDMG in Eden Prairie. The result was a new genre they call motionpoems. Last month, they announced a pilot collaboration with the Best American Poetry anthology to produce about 15 motionpoems from work in the 2011 volume.
"We want to surprise the reader into reading a poem," Kassube said.
While poems reflect a poet's vision, motionpoems reflect the animator's. Some use the poem's words, while others rely on images. Some are literal, others evocative. The poet often provides the audio, but sometimes a hired voice is needed, "because reading really is a theater skill," Boss said.
Motionpoems have been shown at the Loft Literary Center and at international film festivals. "It's creatively a beautiful thing to do," Kassube said of the art form, with Boss adding that improving book sales "is the next phase."
Reaction from poets has been mixed, said Boss, 42, of St. Paul, whose 2008 collection, "Yellowrocket" (Norton), met with wide acclaim. "I often warn poets [who have participated] that they won't like what they see -- sort of create this worst-case scenario," he said, grinning. "I tell them to give their video a couple of views, and they all end up liking them."
Almost all of the 40 poets approached for permission to use their poems in the anthology project accepted. One thing Boss and Kassube have learned is that viewers still want to read the poem, so there's a link to the poem beneath each video on www.motionpoems.com.
So far, animators and filmmakers have done their work for free, or a pittance, so Boss and Kassube have launched an ambitious donor campaign on the fundraising site kickstarter.com (search for motionpoem) through June 15. Funding will enable video artists to receive stipends, and screenings to be scheduled beyond Minneapolis.
One goal of making films, Boss said, is to create for poems the same sense of anticipation that people feel when the lights in a movie theater go down. "We should come to poetry the same way."Ryan Vine: Readers, poems and sacred spaces
"I've had strange successes with my poetry," said Ryan Vine. "Obviously, no one expects to read at Carnegie Hall."
Vine hastened to explain that there are several performance halls within Carnegie Hall and that his reading earlier this year, in the 268-seat Weill Hall, was decidedly intimate, and yet almost every seat was filled. The occasion was the Sanctuary Project, a collaboration of poets and musicians coming together around the idea of sanctuary.
A chamber music ensemble called Lunatics at Large commissioned two poems from Vine, 34, an assistant professor of English at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. He was, let it be said, not just the only Minnesotan, but the only non-New Yorker on the program -- a result of one of life's serendipitous moments involving a discarded photocopied poem and a curious composer who picked it up and wrote a concerto.
The composer, Laura Koplewtiz, "called me up and said, 'Hey, I hope you don't mind, but ... ' and of course, I didn't," Vine said, delighted that she was so inspired. "I believe a sacred space is created between the poet and the reader, and that poetry is the most intimate of all the arts. You come as close to a person as you can without touching them when you read their poem.
"It's a primal noise, like saying 'Yum,' or grunting during sex," he said. "You haven't just read a poem; some alchemy has gone off inside you."
Witnessing a collaboration of music and poetry may ease feeling intimidated by such intimacy, although Vine balks at the popular goal of making poetry more accessible, "because 'accessible' has such negative connotations in the art world, like, it's easy." Rather, he believes that both music and poetry are in the service of storytelling. "It's a way of thinking," he said of writing a poem. "You can get it down on a page, and then you can move on."
Through the Sanctuary Project, "I came to some new understanding of my poems, by hearing the music," he said, but he reserves judgment on more multimedia approaches. "I think poetry resists that, and I hope it does," he said. "There shouldn't be any distraction between you and the poetry." Not even a website. His latest chapbook of poetry is "Distant Engines" (Backwaters Press).
He wouldn't have it any other way. "When all of our coal is done and our oil used up, you can slip a book of poetry into your back pocket and go off into the woods and be OK."
He laughed. "For a few days, anyway!"Connie Wanek: Letting the blank page listen
Connie Wanek imagines a time when poems might be published with hot links that a reader could click on to learn more about a certain allusion, to gain some historical background, to read more about Chaucer or Shakespeare.
She imagines this, she says, in the same way that she realized she probably needed a website, and asked her son to build one. She's not against technology; she'd just prefer that others handle it while she writes poetry in the summerhouse -- "The Folly, as we call it" -- that she and her husband built on the wooded tract where they live outside of Duluth.
Still, she knows that poetry is changing. "I noticed that someone set one of my poems to music," she said. "It's on YouTube, but I haven't watched it." It's not that she's against push-the-envelope artistry, but it clashes with her introverted nature. "There's a new generation of professional poets who are seeing new options in the genre for fame and fortune. And they have to, because there's so much competing for people's attention. It's tough to break through this great noise, much less from somewhere north of Duluth."
Yet, Wanek does. Her latest collection, "On Speaking Terms," was published by the prestigious Copper Canyon Press and was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award this year and a winner of the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. She continues to write poetry because "it's the way I figure the world out. When I'm done with a poem, I think, 'Oh, so that's how I feel about that.' A blank page is like a psychiatrist's couch, just sitting there, listening."
Her poems can inspire almost visceral reactions, given that critics have found them both "lit by a hard-won optimism" as well as "trenchantly bitter."
Wanek, 58, laughs easily, and at this, she smiled. "Oh, I know that review. I don't feel at all bitter. But I know that in every person's response, there is something for me to learn. Because I'm not saying it's not true.
"I mean, I'm disappointed that [life] didn't turn out better than it did," she said, then seemed to steer her thoughts away from elaboration. "But I'm getting lazy. I have this thing that people do too much, and a lot of it wasn't really worth it, in my opinion." She smiled, the view of Lake Superior through the restaurant windows also putting human accomplishments into perspective.
She doesn't make a point of writing each day, "but I show up," she said. "With a good cup of coffee and some pre-6 a.m. chocolate, I write."