Do You Know About Motion Poems? If You Teach Poetry, You Will Want to Know This.
By Saara Myrene Raappana
All the unscreened windows of my office in Guizhou province were open wide, per the Chinese preference for fresh air even on cold, late winter mornings. Eight of my university students, bundled in layers of scarves and insulated coats, had squeezed into the space—four on the narrow couch, one on each sofa arm, and another two sharing an office chair.
It was 2011, and I was living and working at a small university in southern China, and this was the fourth meeting of English Poetry Club. We were watching a motionpoem—a film adaptation of Jane Hirshfield’s “The Cloudy Vase” by Scott Olson and Jeff Saunders. My students ooohed at the intense close-ups of a clock and a patterned glass vase. On the closing image—clearness leaping like a “practiced tiger” back into the vase—someone murmured the Chinese word for tiger. I asked if anyone wanted to read the poem aloud. Two hands shot up. The poem is short, so we agreed that we should listen to the poem twice, and both volunteers read. Carly, a quiet, determined girl who almost always wore a shirt with a pink cartoon bunny on it, frowned and asked about the difference between the meanings of the poem’s phrase “Past time” and the word she was familiar with, “pastime.” We talked about whether the “old” in “old clearness” meant “not young,” “former,” or “respected.” A young woman who’d taken the English name Lemon asked to watch the motionpoem again.
Motionpoems, founded in 2008 by filmmaker Angella Kassube and poet Todd Boss, is a nonprofit production company whose mission is to produce short film adaptations of great contemporary poems in order to expand poetry’s audience. Poems are selected through partnerships with publishers like Copper Canyon Press, Graywolf Press, Farrar Straus & Giroux, and McSweeney’s; periodicals like Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Review, The Believer, and Tin House; and even the Best American Poetry anthology. Selected poems are then offered to a network of filmmakers. For Season 6, the Motionpoems team has partnered with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts to cull an all-female poets season. Poems from seasons 1-5 can be found on the website—including poems by Bob Hicok, Erin Belieu, Maxine Kumin, Mark Strand, Peter Jay Shippy, Dora Malech, and so many more.
Motionpoems has recently also started moving into the world of public art. In October 2014, Motionpoems will unveil its “Arrivals and Departures at St. Paul’s Union Depot” event: Poems written by Minnesotans on the theme of “arrivals and departures” are being made into motionpoems by Minnesotan filmmakers and will be projected in October onto the façade of the St. Paul, Minn., Union Depot, a newly renovated neoclassical train station that stretches a full block wide. Custom screens have been constructed, which, along with lawn-area speakers, will allow the films to be projected at 5-minute intervals like arriving and departing trains. This is the first year of the “Arrivals and Departures at St. Paul’s Union Depot” event; the second year will be open for submissions by all non-Minnesotan U.S. residents, the third to international residents, and then the event will return to Minnesotans again.
I’d first seen a motionpoem a year or two before moving to China to serve with the Peace Corps. I love the way the form marries my two biggest obsessions—poetry and moving pictures—in a way that enhances both. The best motionpoems, like the best movie adaptations, stay true to the original poem while simultaneously creating a new work of art. They’re funny, like “Stupid Sandwich,” or triumphant like “Render, Render,” or joyous, like “The Pilgrim Is Bridled and Bespectacled,” or hauntingly gorgeous like “White Fur.” I love having something that transforms my non-poetry-loving friends’ polite, long-suffering attention to poetry into wide-eyed enthusiasm.
And that—the way motionpoems inspire passion for poetry even among the poetry-averse—is why I needed motionpoems when I was teaching English in China. The first three weeks of English Poetry Club were, to put it generously, awkward and sad. This was an extracurricular club, designed to give my English students time and space to use English on multiple levels. They each—like most Chinese people—had about 100 classical Chinese poems memorized and could passionately dissect their favorites.
They’d excelled at analyzing “The Red Wheelbarrow” when we’d done it in class. But for three weeks, the poetry club would sit in shy, intractable silence when I asked if anyone would read the selected poem aloud. I didn’t fare much better with discussion questions. Even asking them to act out “This is Just to Say” devolved mostly into Lemon looking patiently uncomfortable while presenting her friend Yeven with crumpled up paper “plum pits.”
On the third week, after every one of my discussion questions was met with polite but intractable silence, Yeven (who, thanks to obsessive viewings of Friends, had the greatest command of English slang in her class)—said, “Maybe…our English isn’t very good.”
She was right and wrong. My students’ English skills were limited due to a dearth of English resources and qualified teachers in the impoverished countryside villages they’d come from. They were convinced that, while they loved Chinese poetry, English language poetry was too difficult for them to understand or appreciate. I disagreed. While their English was good enough to understand the literal meaning of the poems, it was too academically test-driven—and their cultural signifiers were too different from the English language system of metaphors—for them to identify with the poems, so they had no motivation to engage in the work necessary to explore deeper meanings. And even the simplest poetry can be profoundly confusing if all you have is the literal. Each week, their faces grew more distant, and I thought more longingly about starting a basketball club instead.
Then I remembered Motionpoems. At that time, Motionpoems had four seasons of expertly produced poem-movies featuring the work of contemporary poetry’s heaviest hitters (Motionpoems is now entering production for the Season 6).
After the success of the Hirschfield screening, I tried another: Boss’s “The Trees—They Were Once Good Men,” an evocative, flickering animation by Emma Burghardt. Again, the students ooohed and clapped and asked to watch the poem again. We had a lively discussion: What I saw as a lament seemed to most of the students to be a joyous, humorous love poem. Their interpretation hinged on seeing the images of triumphantly waving and embracing hands in the motionpoem—plus, they interpreted “sun-riddled” as “sun-joking,” rather than “sun-dappled,” my comparatively pedestrian interpretation.
The motionpoems didn’t necessarily make the poems easier to understand; my students still struggled to understand the words and their complex implications, but hearing them read along with compelling images connected my students to the poetry in a new way. Suddenly, they wanted to read those two poems over and over until they understood every word. I caught a few of them passing hand-written versions of “The Trees” in Oral English class later that week. They’d forged an emotional connection to English and to poetry that hadn’t been possible before Motionpoems.
Saara Myrene Raappana's poems have appeared in such publications as Blackbird, Cream City Review, Subtropics, Iron Horse Literary Review, and The Gettysburg Review; and she has been featured on Verse Daily. She’s an editor for Cellpoems, a poetry journal distributed via text message. She lives in southwestern Minnesota with her husband.