November 20, 2009

Part I: On Animated Poems & YouTubing

I've been watching a lot of (prose) book trailers on YouTube lately, and I've come to the conclusion that in order for them to truly serve the book they need to be one of the following:

1) incredibly funny
2) incredibly provocative
3) an original artwork in and of itself

There are a few that actually achieve one of these standards. I am seeing a lot of slideshows combined with midi music, or a "live" reading in a poorly staged room. That might summarize the book, but it won't sell it. I'm going to do an upcoming post on the (prose) book trailers I think are most successful, so if you have a suggestion please leave it in the comments section. I was really in the mood to try creating a trailer for Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, but it's premature--not only is the book still being written (at least, when I'm not procrastinating via YouTube), but it won't be out until April 2011.

This left me in search of a more timely pursuit. So I turned my attention to poetry. What most people know of "animated poems" are either 1) Billy Collins, or 2) the short clips sponsored by the Poetry Foundation and shown on repeat loop in the elevators of the AWP Conference hotel this year. People were so distracted by the connotations of the placement (poetry = Muzak?) that the clips got needlessly derided, but many of them are actually lovely.

Here's a link to the most well-known of the Billy Collins productions:

& my actual favorite of his (yes, I do like his poems):

& my favorite of the Poetry Foundation ones:

Of course, what these have in common is original and fluid art illustration, which I'd kill for. But unless you have a personal connection to an artist willing to work for free, or a partnering institution (the Poetry Foundation works with docUWM at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee), you'll probably have to go another route--it's pretty easy to get good at iMovie, but it doesn't have that kind of functionality.

I'd say the standard for a more homegrown look is set by the (fairly numerous) videos of Todd Boss reading poems from his first book, Yellowrocket:

& you could also go for a purposefully low-tech aesthetic. This tends to require a ton of patience, but can really pay off as in the video below:

I've been missing the satisfaction of a short-term creative project. On Sunday I discovered that my laptop (and I suppose all Apple laptops) had the iMovie software already installed on it. On Monday I made a video for "Vocation" (which first appeared in 32 Poems, and will be part of I Was the Jukebox). On Tuesday I posted the slightly refined version that you see below.

It doesn't look like any of the other videos, for better or for worse; I've always tended toward a bold design style that favors photographs (see my website). It cost under $100. It took about 20 hours, and that includes familiarizing myself with the iMovie software. I did already have a microphone on hand, bought from some earlier gigs recording poems for online journals. But honestly, I'm not sure it did the job any better than the built-in mic.

This video is a test balloon. If it seems to generate some viewers or interest, I'll make three more and roll them out early next year, as a lead-up to the publication of I Was the Jukebox in April. If it doesn't stir a peep, well, I'll live. Either way, I'm grateful to have the excuse to familiarize myself with a new software--you never know when that's going to come in handy. The number of viewers for these videos tends to range from 224 in six months (anemic, but respectable) to 124,000 in two and a half years (damn you, Billy!). There's no financial reward. It's a matter of seeing if the judgment of the people find it worth their while.

If I can do this, you can do this. My next post will cover some of the tricks, techniques, and pitfalls to keep in mind if you tackle animating one of your poems.

[I've sure you noticed that the poems from the Poetry Foundation and Todd Boss all cut off on the righthand side. That's because they uploaded in widescreen format, which doesn't fit in the lefthand column of a blog--a shame, since blogs seem like the logical way for these poem/videos to go viral. On the other hand, standard doesn't look as good on the YouTube homepage, because they add black bars to either side. So I uploaded in both. It's not ideal--I'd rather have one absolute version, and therefore one absolute viewer count--but as I'm learning, these videos require all kinds of small compromises and workarounds.]

Read the "Part 2" post here.
Read the "Part 3" post here.


Matthew said...


This a really interesting topic right now. I think you lay a good overview of several video types out there. For starters, I think your video is great. The only thing that catches me is the audio quality. You read well, but the audio is a bit too tinny and shallow to sink well with the bold visual. Though, this seems an easy fix. I'd keep going.

As for other videos, I like this one by Beth Ann Fennelly: (

But my favorite overall have been the new video clips from Electric Literature, which certainly capitalize on being an artwork in themselves. My favorites:

( and (

Thanks for the intriguing post.

nathan said...


I thoroughly enjoyed this small review (one of many, I presume) and appreciate the variety of poems you've used to illustrate certain trends within this genre (if we can safely call it genre). I enjoyed your video as well, but similar to Matthew's comment, sound quality was the only issue. I do look forward to reading more. Great poem, by the way. The close was particularly good.

Thank you for this post.

word verification: eutesc, which would suggest in some anagramic way, I'm calling you "cutese(y)"? *shrugs*

Jessie Carty said...

i just subscribed to your youtube channel so i could give everything a better view :)

i've been running a youtube lit mag for a little over a year now and i struggle with the best way to present each genre but my favorites also tend to be the ones with photography and the author reading their work.

we'd love you to stop by. youtube user name /shapeofabox

Sandy Longhorn said...

Thanks for the post and the video. It adds a wonderful new dimension to the poem. I'm looking forward to learning more about the tricks and pitfalls and possibly trying this myself.

Stephanie said...

Great topic. This is one of my favorites:

Susan Rich said...

Wow -- I have just started my first blog this week - and now a whole new technology to learn. I've been blogging about the poet Madeline DeFree's 90th birthday party at Elliott Bay Book Company. What fun to make an animation of one of her poems. Thanks for the idea.

dylan said...

I love this video. Love it. Love the poem, love the way it fits the poem, love the graphics, love the transitions, love the way it ends--love its confidence.