The Poetry Storehouse: An Experiment in Collaboration and Ekphrasis

As part of our recent Word. Image. Digital. Symposium, Othniel Smith presented a brilliant paper on The Poetry Storehouse. You can read the full paper here and watch the videos.

The Poetry Storehouse opened its metaphorical doors in October 2013.

A website put together by a panel of poets and literary academics, mostly in the US, its twin aims were (a) to utilise online technology to attempt to find a wider audience for contemporary poetry which might otherwise remain restricted to small-press print editions and (b) to stimulate creativity in other artists – whether they be actors, photographers, painters, filmmakers or composers – who might feel inspired to respond ekphrastically to the poems which were showcased.

Poets were invited to submit examples of their work, and make them available on a Creative Commons licence, for “creative remix”.  Over the next year and a half, a carefully curated selection of English-language poetry from all over the world was published on the site, as text, and also in audio form, the poems read either by members of the editorial team, or by the poets themselves.

The most productive group of creative remixers were filmmakers, one of whom is Dave Bonta, who is also a poet, and who runs the Moving Poems website which is an invaluable resource for anyone with an interest in video-poetry. Here is his film of a poem by Tara Skurtu entitled “Foreclosure”:

The guidelines for remixers were clearly set out: credit had to be given to the original authors, the site of first publication, and The Poetry Storehouse. It was the responsibility of remixers to ensure that any non-Storehouse material (such as music or video) which was used was either in the public domain, or material to which they owned the rights.

If a remix was to be used for any commercial purposes, it was incumbent on the remixer to seek the permission of the authors – thus, when the compilation of four films which I made from Storehouse poems was screened as part of Cardiff Contemporary Moving Image Festival in 2014, for which I received a small fee, I was careful to seek the approval of the poets concerned.

Remixers were also told to clearly indicate if they had re-edited the text in any way. And, while many of the poets who became involved with the Storehouse were themselves filmmakers, they were discouraged from posting their films of their own poems to the site, since the aim of the project was the “passing on of the creative baton” rather than pure self-promotion.

My experience of using the site is that poets were overwhelmingly positive when it came to reinterpretations of their work:

Eric Burke, interviewed by the Moving Poems website (from where the all the poets’ responses reproduced below were sourced) said: “When I finish writing a poem, I have a much narrower view of what the poem is (does, means) than I do much later, after many re-readings. What I am discovering with the creative remixes at The Poetry Storehouse is that there are often productive interpretations of the poem that I have missed altogether. This is a very rewarding experience.”

Amy McLennan: “This is the first time I’ve been part of a true collaborative project. While it was really scary, it was good to know I’d have no control – EVERYTHING out of my hands.”

Bill Yarrow: “Having your work available to further development and expression (personally, I see it as resurrection) is a great blessing.”

Of course it is unrealistic to suppose that a poet who hated what a remixer had done to his or her work would make their dislike clear in the public arena; often the response was a dignified silence. (Lennart Lundh: “Some presentations carry the words, and some drop them from a tall building. We take that chance.”)

It may also be that poets carefully selected the work which they submitted – perhaps poems which themselves were responses to paintings, films or music, or which were light-hearted, or abstract and fluid in terms of meaning.

Peg Duthie: “the selection-for-submission process can be a fun exercise whether one eventually hits ‘send’ or not. Allowing myself to imagine where a remixer might go clarified some aspects of where I am now … as well as suggesting some riffs I might want to pursue myself.” Thus, the prospect of having their work visualised may also have affected the poets’ creative process

It also seems clear that poets who wrote elsewhere about issues such as personal bereavement or his or her chronic health problems tended not to make these poems available to be remixed, since this might invite responses which implied a disrespect for their experience.

Unsurprisingly, there were a number of poems whose which provoked multiple responses; these tended to be those which were more playful, or resistant to literal interpretation. Here are two adaptations of the poem “Advice Dyslexic” by Lisa Vihos, one made by Australian filmmaker Marie Craven, the other by Nigel Wells (NW):

Over the eighteen months during which the Poetry Storehouse project was active, the work of 131 poets was published, read by 26 readers, and creatively responded to by 17 remixers in total. On the first anniversary of the project, two contests were initiated: one in which filmmakers were invited to make a film prompted by one of three poems; and another one in which poets were invited to write verse to accompany a wordless video; the results were published on the site.

The Poetry Storehouse was a totally unfunded project, and inevitably, workload pressures meant that it became unwieldy. It began to wind down in February 2015, when it was closed for new submissions of poetry. New remixes were accepted until November 2015, following which the site was archived.

The winding down of the Poetry Storehouse means that it has ceased to be updated, and while it was a site where a sizeable and diverse collection of contemporary poetry could be accessed, this is no longer the case. Many of the poetry films which were made, however, remain online, and can be found by using the term “Poetry Storehouse” on search video sites such as Vimeo and Youtube. Furthermore, several poets host the films made of their poems on their websites, using them as online advertisements for their books.

A number of the films produced as a part of the Poetry Storehouse experiment have gone on to play at festivals worldwide – largely specialist poetry film festivals such as the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Germany, the O Bheal Festival in Ireland, the Reversed Festival in The Netherlands and Canada’s Visible Verse Festival.

One example is my adaptation of Lissa Kiernan’s poem “Census”:

I would argue that the legacy of the Poetry Storehouse comprises not only this diverse and distinctive range of video-poetry, but also the fact that it is an example of a safe digital space in which artists from all over the world – filmmakers working in Belgium, Australia, the United States and the UK – could respond in a collaborative manner with their fellow creatives, contributing to the continuing development of a lively and accessible hybrid art form.

To quote from the Poetry Storehouse’s original mission statement: “Creative energy is never created from scratch, nor does it ever die, but continually morphs from form to form as each of us is inspired by what has gone before us and in turn inspires what comes after us.”

— Othniel Smith

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