“This poet’s prayer was answered by the invention of the lens, which gave us a new gift for self knowledge. Might the cameras of the world provide transformative experiences? Could television possibly become the ultimate metaphysical guru?”
Video poet George Aguilar has taken James Broughton’s words to heart–and is working hard to make television “the ultimate metaphysical guru.” His mission: to bring video poetry to the masses.
And just what is video poetry?
“Video poetry is a mixed-media format in which poem, image and sound interact symbiotically,” says Aguilar. “At its best, the video poem fuses poem and image–just as a song fuses melody and lyrics.”
Not surprisingly, then, many video poems resemble music videos. In fact, Aguilar considers many of the more creative musicians and music video directors great video poetry producers.
“But video poetry can make use of the technology and the media in a much more powerful way than standard music videos can,” insists Aguilar. “A video poem lends itself to many images and visual styles–the artistry comes in creating these compact images.”
As the director of the San Francisco-based Poetry Film Workshop, Aguilar has implemented an aggressive and ambitious effort to promote and market this unique art form.
Part Poet, Part Videomaker
After graduating in 1989 from the University of California at San Diego with a degree in film and video, Aguilar headed home for San Francisco to set up shop as an independent producer.
“One day I came upon video poetry by accident,” remembers Aguilar. “I saw this sign that said ‘Poetry Film Workshop.’ I looked inside and saw this little old man with a cane and a cap in a rat’s nest of an office. He showed me the first poetry film I ever saw.”
The man was Herman Berlandt, longtime poet and founder of the Poetry Film Workshop. The poetry film was Cold Cows by Franklin Miller, a two-minute, black-and-white silent film.
Entranced by the short piece, Aguilar asked if there were more.
“Berlandt pointed to the piles of film cases and stacks of videotape that surrounded him,” says Aguilar. “I offered to help organize the works into a proper archive so that I could see them all.”
Five years later, Aguilar has transformed the organization, best known for its Poetry Film Festival (see sidebar). The first such festival opened to great acclaim in San Francisco in 1975, thanks to Berlandt and friends–including James Broughton and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Even Variety covered the goings-on.
Off to a smashing start, the festival became an annual event. Over time submissions steadily increased, but coverage tapered off. Berlandt quietly collected his video poems and promoted the festival, waiting for the catalyst that would reinvigorate the organization. According to Berlandt, that catalyst was the modest Aguilar.
“I simply sent out the general message to the media and they picked it up,” says Aguilar. “Whenever you start something, the first few years you get a lot of visibility. Then when you become an annual thing, they drop focus on you.”
Thanks to Aguilar’s efforts, the Workshop is back in the spotlight. Now Director of the Workshop, he coordinates the annual festival; he’s also responsible for several innovations designed to bring the Workshop into the Nineties. For instance, he’s added multimedia CD-ROMs to the list of accepted formats for the Festival. He’s also upgraded the festival venue, choosing the sparkling new, hi-tech Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena. Aguilar views these changes as very much in keeping with the trends in video poetry.
“For us, multimedia means using all the arts,” says Aguilar. “Younger artists especially have an intuitive understanding of art and technology–and how to make both work so you can make a living. Manufacturers are making the equipment people need to create high-quality work at home. I believe there’s a great desire to merge all these art forms on the desktop.”
On the Tube
Aguilar’s most ambitious goal is to bring video poetry to TV. He believes that video poetry is well-suited to the medium.
“A lot of video poetry is very hip, dynamic stuff,” says Aguilar, “stuff that’s really devoid of the sex and violence you see on regular TV. It’s the artistic approach that makes it powerful without being shock content.”
Aguilar cites one of the 1993 festival winners, Imperial’s Ism–about the Hamlet, North Carolina chicken plant fire in which 25 workers died–as a perfect candidate for TV.
“This video poem delivers as much valuable information in a short time as you’d learn in the standard linear PBS-style documentary,” says Aguilar.
Aguilar is marketing collections of video poems as a TV series. Called EYESTRUCK, the half-hour show draws upon the Workshop’s archive of award-winning film and video poetry–including the work of such luminaries as Ferlinghetti, who’s given Aguilar his permission to use his poetry film Assassination Raga in the series. With 18 years of material like this, Aguilar can fill a lot of shows.
First, Leased Access
In search of a TV market for EYESTRUCK, Aguilar has turned to leased access. For many independent producers, the leased access provision of the Cable Act of 1992 is the key to getting programming on the air. The provision requires cable system operators with more than 36 activated channels to make a portion of their capacity available to all comers for a reasonable fee. (For more on leased access, see John K. Waters’ On the Air in the September 1994 issue of Videomaker.)
“With leased access, small arts organizations that have survived on volunteerism and grants can now expand their fundraising opportunities while broadening the audience for the arts,” says Aguilar.
Aguilar began by cataloging all the winners of past festivals; he then contacted them about having their works appear in the show. All proved enthusiastic about EYESTRUCK and leased access.
But Aguilar’s initial contacts with the cable operators were less encouraging.
“I started talking to Viacom’s Dylan Marie Antoinette,” says Aguilar. “I told her that we were a nonprofit organization and that we wanted to get on the air. She wasn’t very helpful. She was replaced by Greg Pond, who has been very helpful. He provided us with contact names of other leased access producers. A lot of them had been on the air for a few weeks and then dropped out because they couldn’t keep up the production of weekly shows.”
Aguilar consulted with these leased access producers–which gave him another idea. Not only could the Workshop lease local access time for EYESTRUCK, the Workshop could also offer EYESTRUCK to leased access producers in other communities who need programming.
“We decided to package our tapes and lease them to other producers,” says Aguilar. “They can sell commercial time for our programming in their area. We charge them $150 to $300 per show for a week. That’s fairly low; if producers can sell eight minutes of commercial spots at $50-$100 each, they can make money.
“This is a win-win situation for artists and business people. Entrepreneurs don’t have to spend time in production. Our package is pretty complete; the producers can spend their time selling and producing commercials for their customers.”
The setup serves the Workshop well.
“The important thing about leasing for us is that we aren’t responsible for finding the local commercial time,” says Aguilar. “It’s up to the local programmer to do that. The leasing income helps our financial situation as an arts organization and allows us, we hope, to get royalties for our artists as well. The Workshop has always tried to pay its performers; EYESTRUCK is logical extension of that.”
Aguilar’s proposal also benefits leased access producers. By selling prepackaged programming like EYESTRUCK, they can begin to earn a living as producers right away, while building up a base of skills, contacts and money that will eventually allow them to produce their own shows as well.
Meanwhile, the Workshop has leased time from local Viacom leased access Channel 47. The EYESTRUCK series premiered “the day the comet hit Jupiter,” July 21, 1994. Borrowing its name from the provocative Broughton quotation that begins this article, “The Metaphysical Guru” featured four works: video poem Bombs and Prayers by Antero Alli; poetry film Words of Wisdom by Annie Frazier-Henry; animation poem Moon Flight by Dr. Edmund Skellings, Florida’s poet laureate; and video poem Inching by Gilbert Kwong. The Workshop pays $50 for each airing of the half-hour show, scheduled to run in its Thursday 9:30 p.m. time slot for 12 weeks.
Aguilar’s next challenge: TV programming listings.
“It’s really important to everyone involved that EYESTRUCK be listed,” says Aguilar. “I’m trying to find the best way to force them [the listings publishers such as TV Guide] to do it. If you aren’t on one of the main local channels, they won’t list you.”
Then, the World
Aguilar’s future plans for video poetry and EYESTRUCK are grand indeed. He’s looking far beyond the first five shows; in fact, he’s already scripted an entire season.
“We hope to do 26 shows every year for the next few years,” says Aguilar. “I hope that we can hire the staff and production crew we’ll need to launch all these new initiatives.”
If anybody can bring video poetry to the masses, it’s Aguilar.
Videomaker contributing editor Stephen Jacobs is an English instructor and independent video producer. Paula Munier Lee is Videomaker’s feature and special project editor.
CALLING ALL VIDEO POETS
If you can “incorporate a verbal poetic statement in narrated or captioned form” in a 16-minute-or-less video, enter the 19th Annual Poetry Film/Video Festival. The three-day event–which boasts such alumni as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and James Broughton–attracts more than two hundred entrants a year.
As last year’s winners prove, the mixing of poetry with images can cover a wide range of formats and materials. One of the two Grand Prize winners, Mother of Invention by David Garden Jr., is a Claymation piece with an original rhyming poem as its narrative soundtrack. The visuals are reminiscent of the films by the Brothers Quay; the DeEvolutionary theme of the piece would make DEVO proud.
The other Grand Prize Winner, Trout by Wendy Woodson, is a nonrhyming spoken word performance in which the camera plays the part of a second character. (This is an important distinction, since mere videotapings of poetry readings are not eligible.)
Also present in the 1993 collection of winners are student films, computer animation pieces and even poetry documentaries. The poetry documentaries used poetic narrative tracks and documentary footage of their topics to create brief, dense essays on topics of social injustice. The two in this collection include: The Imperial’s Ism by Alexander Kort (from a poem by Thomasai MacDonald), about the chicken plant fire in Hamlet, North Carolina that left 25 workers dead; and Who Cares by Robert Talbot (from a poem by Roger Siegel), a montage about homelessness.
The festival will run November 25-27 at the Center for the Arts at Yerba Buena. For this year’s contest, the entry fee is $10; the deadline is November 1, 1994. For details, call (415) 776-6602.