A good poem is a small slice of life. Loud music, a gentle gaze, raucous laughter, a brisk winter breeze. Poetry moves sensation to the page by transforming texture and temperature into text.
Film, on the other hand, seems to do the opposite. It reanimates text from symbol to substance, giving voice to a laugh, a face to a gaze.
The Visible Poetry Project plays with this contrasting relationship between poetry and film. Throughout the month of April, 30 poets are paired with 30 filmmakers to make 30 films based on new and old poems for the 30 days of National Poetry Month. On April 14, several of the films will premiere at the Bowery Poetry Club. There will be a second screening later in the month at the Gutter Bar in Greenpoint on April 28.
The Visible Poetry Project was founded in 2017 when Michelle Cheripka, Alex Max and Christina Ellsberg, who each have poetry or filmmaking backgrounds, brainstormed ways to make poetry more accessible. “I had this idea that I wanted to watch a movie that made me feel the way that I do when I read a poem,” Cheripka explained.
They started working on the project in December of 2016 and rolled it out the following April. It continued into 2018, growing much larger and drawing poets and filmmakers from across the globe. This year’s participants hail from Detroit, New Orleans, Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and beyond.
Cheripka explained that poets and producers submit samples of their work in a general call for submissions, then the Visible Poetry Project team sits down to identify the poets whose work they think would be visualized well and the filmmakers whose work speaks to them. The team allows filmmakers to select the top three poets they’d like to work with, especially if a poem or theme speaks to them.
This year, the Visible Poetry Project has paired poets like Shalewa Mackall, who practices the Ghanaian tradition of Sankofa; Melissa Stein, whose poems have appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, and the Harvard Review; and Luisa A. Igloria, author of The Buddha Wonders if She is Having a Mid-life Crisis, with filmmakers like Chiara Sgatti, who animates stories through her drawings; Sarah Durn, who has participated in the project all three years; and Danielle Eliska Lyle, a self-described “black archivist” who produces films about women, the black diaspora, and black culture.
So far this month, the project has released 10 videos with titles as varied as “the secret ingredient to the atomic bomb was something simple like vanilla extract,” “Echolocation,” and “Baklavas on the Kitchen Table.”
There’s no common theme to the videos; each is as varied as the artists behind them. In “Alcoholism,” bright illustrations animate a despairing poem, and in “Memory-Bridge,” a DJ scratches records to a slam-poetry-style recitation.
“What’s kind of incredible about those projects is you have a chance to be experimental in a way you don’t get to be when you’re just creating a short film,” said Cheripka.
This year, the Visible Poetry Project has 35 videos lined up for release. At least one video will be released each day of the month, but the project also has three double features planned and one triple release. On Friday, the project plans to release three different interpretations of the same poem, each by different filmmakers.
This Sunday, the Visible Poetry Project will present a selection of this year’s films at the Bowery Poetry Club. Some of the films, like “Alcoholism,” have already been released on the project’s website. Others, like Bowery Poetry Club founder Bob Holman’s, will premiere at Sunday’s screening. Keep your eyes on the project’s website for daily releases of new videos, or stop by the Bowery Poetry Club and the Gutter Bar for live screenings.