Within two weeks of meeting poet Todd Boss, in the fall of 2008, filmmaker Angella Kassube had created a forty-second animated exploration of Boss’s poem “Constellations” that featured twined hands, star maps, and excerpts of the text in motion, all set against the audio backdrop of Boss’s reading of the poem. The two teamed up soon thereafter to cofound the Minneapolis-based poetry and film collaborative Motionpoems, which has since produced dozens of such films—each created by Boss and Kassube with the help of dozens of freelance filmmakers—bringing works by both emerging and established poets to life. The team is currently working on its fifth annual season of films, which will be released this spring.
“It’s not just a poem in a literary journal anymore,” Boss says. “It’s something you can share and people can get absorbed in, in a totally new way.”
Poems are chosen for adaptation through partnerships with independent publishers such as Copper Canyon Press, Graywolf Press, Milkweed Editions, Wave Books, and McSweeney’s Books, whose editors share work from forthcoming titles for consideration. The team also works with literary magazines such as the American Poetry Review, the Believer, and Tin House, as well as Scribner’s annual Best American Poetry anthology to cull new content. Kassube and Boss host the films on their website, and use various social media platforms such as YouTube to share them. Films have been made for works by poets Jane Hirshfield, Mark Strand, Richard Wilbur, and Dean Young, among others. “One day Louise Glück even called us,” Kassube says.
Part of Boss’s interest in Motionpoems comes, he says, from “poetry’s distribution problem,” which he blames in part on the bookstore shelf itself. “The row of [narrow] spines in a bookstore is a really hard place for people to find poetry,” Boss says. With Motionpoems he hopes to invite readers to discover new work—and, through it, old work—by contemporary poets in the same way that audiences discover new movies.
“I love the idea that film is a form that everyone can immediately understand,” Boss says, noting a kind of openness with which people approach cinema. “They think, ‘Okay, I’m ready; tell me a story, engage me.’”
Boss says the project doesn’t adhere to a particular aesthetic, and he and Kassube choose poems they think might appeal to the individual filmmaker they’re working with on a particular project. The filmmakers—typically commissioned by Kassube or, more recently, through a partnership with the Independent Filmmaker Project, a New York City–based nonprofit that represents independent filmmakers nationwide, and works with scores of volunteer musicians, composers, voice actors, and production assistants—choose to represent poems in a variety of ways: Some are animated, some are filmed, and the interpretation is often far from literal.
“Poems are different scripts from those most of us ever work on,” Kassube says. “They’re extremely dense. Especially in the beginning, I was holding this thing in my hand and I wasn’t entirely sure what I could do with it.” She says the filmmakers are given free rein over the films they make, and as such feel a sense of creative freedom rare to freelance artists, who are often limited by a client’s direction.
Conceived of as a sort of web-based television channel for poetry (the founders initially planned to call the project Poems.TV), the short films are produced and released on a television-like schedule: Each season consists of about a dozen films (a new Motionpoem is released every month on the website throughout the season, free of charge) and kicks off with a premiere, which involves a public screening and discussions with contributing poets and filmmakers. For the first three years, Motionpoems premieres were held at Open Book, a mixed-use incubator for literary arts and publishing in St. Paul. Last April, Motionpoems was invited to hold its season-four premiere at the prestigious Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
“That was really pretty exciting,” Kassube says. “Especially for me, because I’m an artist and I’ve been going to the Walker Art Center since 1977.” The fifth season of Motionpoems is scheduled to premiere at the Walker Center in April. Boss says he and Kassube are also looking for a venue for a first-ever premiere in New York City.
The Motionpoems team also plans to host a film-projection series at St. Paul’s Union Depot this October. Minnesota poets may submit an original poem on the theme of “Arrivals and Departures” with a seven-dollar entry fee by January 15 through the project’s Kickstarter page. Five winning poems will be developed into films for the series.
Last fall, Motionpoems announced a new partnership with Minneapolis-based production-management team Egg Creative and television producer Jennifer David, who will oversee production of season five. The project has also received funding from the Minnesota State Arts Board, as well as a number of private foundations, individual contributors, and corporate sponsors, which has allowed Boss and Kassube to pay a stipend to filmmakers, who often spend many hours on each film.
“When I create any Motionpoem, I read the poem hundreds of times,” Kassube says. “I look at each word, every letter, every comma, every period, and every line break.”
As a poet, Boss says, it can be jarring to see his poems set in motion. And he warns most poets whose work is being rendered into film that they may not immediately like the result. “It’s been reimagined and adapted and almost translated,” Boss says of the process. Which is why, he says, it’s only fitting that the poet may feel disoriented. “For the poet, the poem has ended where it ended. For the filmmaker, it’s just starting there.”
Christie Taylor is a writer and public radio producer living in Madison, Wisconsin.
A still from Mark Strand's motionpoem "The Mysterious Arrival of an Unusual Letter."