Mark Leidner, whose book Beauty Was the Case That They Gave Me is forthcoming from Factory Hollow Press, has been animating poetry for several years. So far, the only name I’ve found that refers to animated poetry is Action Poetry, which seems to be a malapropism used by Billy Collins on his website bcactionpoet.org. Leidner’s pieces range in subject from Einstein to pretty girls to the sphinx. Animated narrators and characters speak lines of Leidner’s poetry in stilted, Shatner-esque fits and starts, the effect of which is at once comic and, like Shatner’s best moments, frightening. The poems are often satirical and work with sensitive topics in an engaged but matter-of-fact tone that recently inspired someone at a Leidner reading to walk out. The animated pieces are accompanied by expertly selected non-diegetic music that is never distracting, but usually works magic. The pieces are interesting in so many ways. First, as what they are. The things themselves are so pleasurable and bold and totally solipsistic they absolutely are worth watching. They also make me think hard about poetry and poetry’s narrative voice. Some people have a hard time separating the narrator of a poem from the author of a poem. My students usually do at first. So do some relatives. Seeing an animated robot or stand-up comedian speak the poems is a good way to explore the difference. The pieces also reinforce the power of poems themselves, that is the words in their exact arrangement apart from how they are communicated, whether by page or voice or computer, to carry powerful and precise meaning. Rather than distract from the writing, the visuals and music can highlight just how good it is.
Mark and I recently g-chatted in two sessions. During the first, Mark was eating a bowl of rice, beans, kale, onions, garlic, celery, and cheese, as he was getting ready to go to the movies.
Here is a link to Leidner’s YouTube channel, where you can find the pieces referenced in the interview and more:http://www.youtube.com/user/trembyle
8:16 PM Mark: Just finishing cooking supper. Let me know when you’re ready.
8:17 PM me: What are you cooking? Mark: Beans & rice. Some kale, onions, garlic, and celery thrown in there too. me: That sounds very healthy.
8:18 PM Mark: Well, I’m about to slap it in a bowl and drown it in cheese, so that’s where the fun comes in. me: Awesome. Do you want to eat first?
8:19 PM Mark: I can probably do both, once I get it served. 2 mins. me: cool.
8:23 PM Mark: OK
8:25 PM me: When did you start animating poetry?
8:26 PM Mark: February 2009 I had to check YouTube for my earliest video because I couldn’t remember. me: haha Have you read or published the poems you’ve animated outside of that context?
8:27 PM Mark: Most but not all of the later, more elaborate videos were also published as text in various journals.
8:28 PM me: So the poems came first?
8:30 PM Mark: At first they did. But toward the end, I found myself writing the poems because I wanted to make a video out of them. In the beginning I used the moviemaking software in order to edit the poems, but by the end I was using the poems to make the movies. Though it wasn’t as clean a reversal as that. I still wanted the poems to be able to be the best text-only pieces possible; so I tried to find text that could carry the burden of both poetic & cinematic pressure. This led to editing videos to serve the poem, and vice-versa, until at the end I don’t know which form was serving the other.
8:32 PM me: So, you do you see the work as able to stand on its own both as typeset poetry and in video form? Do you ever worry that separating them will take something away from the verse?
8:37 PM Mark: I hope it stands on its own in both forms. Also, some changes are made to amplify each form’s best qualities. A lot of time a technical problem decided for me. For instance, a line that would’ve been perfect in the poem, when translated into the Xtranormal software, never would come out sounding right, or natural – so I had to cut it – though in the poem a line like that might stay in. So there are various small differences, but the overall narrative structure of each, and pacing, stays the same. I’m not worried about either one taking away from the other. Most people saw those videos ages before they would ever read the poems, and the audiences aren’t the same either, so as far as a reader or viewer of either might know, they were each a singular thing. Also, I don’t see how either could take away from the other? Unless one of them sucked. Which I was trying to avoid. I figured, if they’re both as good as can be, then nothing else would matter. But most people probably wouldn’t even see both, so it doubly didn’t matter.
8:38 PM me: I suppose you can’t really worry about it, but it’s possible for someone to see one of the video pieces, think it’s a yuk-yuk funny kind of thing and then be less willing to take the print version seriously. But that person is an asshole. Have you performed “Jokes” live?
8:39 PM Mark: Lol
8:40 PM Mark: In a sense. I tried to do stand-up comedy three times, each in various formats, but never the entire “Jokes” monologue. Though I did several of the jokes. It turns out I’m not nearly as good of a comedic actor as that robot is. me: I’ve heard you are quite skilled from a reliable source.
8:41 PM me: There is something so sad about the animated comedian. I mean, the Julianna Barwick has a whole lot to do with the mood there, but what else do you think is going on with that character that makes him tragic?
8:44 PM me: I bet you’re watching it right now.
8:45 PM Mark: Well, as you said, Julianna Barwick does most of the heavy-lifting; that’s one thing I learned from making these films; that music always does the most emotional damage to a listener, both in poetry – the lyric – and in cinema. You can put virtually any text or monologue over something by Chopin and it will seem instantly epic, romantic, and awesome. But as for the “Jokes” comedian. I think his plight is deepened by the fact that most of his jokes are paradoxes, and that combined with his lack of emotional response to them makes him seem existentially shellshocked. Sorry I did that pretentious – the lyric – thing.
8:46 PM me: See, that’s interesting to me, because when I look at him, he seems so full of emotion. I think it has something to do with the audience being completely dark, kind of like a Truman Show phenomenon, combined with the way you’ve set up the camera angles and controlled his movements. That dude is sad.
8:47 PM me: When he says “and I need a job,” it feels like Richard Pryor or something.
8:51 PM Mark: Lol. You’re right – I forgot about the mise en scene. He is literally alone and surrounded by infinite darkness. Also when he says “I don’t like making people laugh” and then the people laugh – lol, as if he / I didn’t program them to – it’s all a bit much and difficult for me to praise honestly since it is a product of my own.. you know what I’m saying. The saddest thing of all is how long it took and how amazingly tedious it was to make it. me: It was time well spent. It is a masterpiece.
8:53 PM me: I feel like it must be hard to find exactly the right soundtrack for the pieces. Some would be way too invasive or emotionally forceful. Others might not have much of an impact at all. How do you go about selecting the right piece?
8:55 PM Mark: Length of the song is most important criteria. I have a million possible wordless pieces on my iTunes and so first thing I try to match is length; since if you can time a song to go through its own emotional arc & coterminate w/the poem’s, that is idea. Obviously in the “Jokes” instance I looped Barwick because the second criteria – novelty / or just my desire to share a song I think people will love & might not know about – or to contextualize a song I love with one of the poems – is the second criteria. When I heard that song I knew I wanted to use it because it adds the perfect thing the jokes alone lack – mystical / non-lonely / romantic swelling beauty.
8:57 PM me: It is maybe the most beautiful song. I didn’t know her work, so thanks for that. Mark: With the “Story” that one started with me wanting to use the James Bond theme, because I love it more than almost anything, so it was a process of trying to find a song from a James Bond movie that wasn’t the theme, but that had traces of the theme in it, to thread behind the poem until the inevitable theme could drop in at the last second. me: I noticed that. Right when he says, “Darling, it isn’t a story. It’s a poem.”
8:58 PM me: That made me wonder if you were dead set on ending it that way or if it just occurred to you when you were wrapping it up.
8:59 PM Mark: No, I wanted to use that song from the very beginning, and since Xtranormal had that “spy-esque” scene, and since I’d just written a draft of that poem, I decided to try to put all three together. me: Let me know when you have to go to the movies, by the way.
9:01 PM Mark: Fuck–I kind of have to go now. The movie is at 9:20. How about one more question & then we can do a follow up in the next couple days if you want? I would like that. This seems like just the beginning. But it’s up to you… whatever you want to do. me: Yeah, this is going to take a while, I think.
9:02 PM Mark: Sorry I have to jet. Going to movies is like a second job now… me: I wanted to ask you about all the uns in Story, unimprisonable, unuttered, impenetrable, next time. Litotes. Have fun.
9:03 PM Mark: Ahh. Litotes. Yes. Okay. I’ll email you / txt you soon. Thanks, Alex. me: Thanks.
2:30 PM Mark: hey alex, let me know if you’re around me: Just thinking the same thing. Mark: lol sweet
2:31 PM me: I’ve got “Story” playing in the background. “Once uttered, it calls action forth from the body.” Mark: what minute are you at, i’ll sync up me: 4:30
2:32 PM I should have said 4:20. Sorry. Mark: lol me: He loved to utter things, but didn’t. That seems hard.
2:33 PM Mark: it’s quite a cross to bear me: “Because he didn’t live his life in life, but in language, the man, who felt otherwise unimprisonable, not by geography, not by mortality, nor even by the corporeal boundaries of his own body, nevertheless felt utterly imprisoned by the unuttered thing and found himself surrouned by an unimpenitrable thing more powerful than language.” How much were you thinking about sound when you were writing this?
2:37 PM Mark: I was trying not to think about it. I knew that I wanted it to sound glued together by sound and rhythm, but that those were like waves I wanted to surf, and in order to surf them you have to think about something else: I was mostly focused on the plot, or the narrative concept, just trying to get to the next element in the story as fast as possible before I forgot it. That was the writing process. Then in the revision process it was a constant battle between conceptual development and lyrical expression. Revision was more about sound, writing was more about idea.
2:39 PM me: That makes sense. Really, it’s like a dog chasing its tail in terms of narrative. Or maybe more like one of those cheap fireworksy worms that you light and it starts growing and growing tons of ash. It can’t stop. It has a point, and its point is itself and what it is doing. It tries very hard not to go beyond that, but even in trying not to go beyond it, it necessarily does.
2:41 PM Mark: That’s very true. I would love to be able to write an actual noir, actual thriller, actual “story,” but at the time when I wrote this, my process was so determined by spontaneity that every single event that needed to turn, had to turn immediately on language and meta-wheels.
2:44 PM me: Totally. I love that, meta-wheels. It’s a great way of talking about the poem. I want to talk about your Twitter presence soon, but before doing that, do you see what you’re doing as political at all? Not necessarily government political, but with any motivation to change or influence artistic or poetic attitudes? For instance, I’m thinking about “Chapbook City.”
2:49 PM Mark: I love power so much–studying it, thinking about where it comes from, how it is used and abused from the national scale to the person, the poetic–that I feel it’s always there as a ghost in the room behind every thing I say, think, and do, let alone write. But I also try to avoid overt confrontation with the political in my process. My process is usually about solving a formal problem. I think, I want to make a movie that uses this song. Or I want to learn how to contextualize a terrible joke so that it seems poetic. But the content that floods into the vessel that best enables me to meet those formal challenges is always political. In this sense I think any formal or stylistic… good thing becomes political automatically, because form itself is like a little conceptual machine designed to argue for its own power.
2:52 PM me: Why do you think it is that when you are trying to avoid confrontation with the political, it is exactly that that ends up flooding into your vessel, as you put it so nicely?
2:55 PM Mark: It’s not that I’m trying to avoid only the political–I’m trying to avoid everything–in a sense, trying to avoid content itself, which is the best way to give yourself the freedom to understand the new form with as few sentimental attachments as possible–and I suppose the political, the sexual, the mortal–flood in because those are the only themes there even are, or have ever been. Should’ve added “the aesthetic” to that list.
2:57 PM me: Do you really think you can separate form from content like that? I mean, why not devise some kind of “Poetry of Change” after John Cage or something like that that takes intention out of the process entirely? Are you curious to see what bubbles up out of your psyche when you feel like you’re relinquishing control?
3:05 PM Mark: I suppose I cannot separate it that cleanly. That whole thing I just said co-exists right next to another thing, where I am deeply invested in exploring politics, sex, death, and aesthetics as consciously and clearly as possible. So I’m not really interested in removing intention, or simply curious to see what happens when I relinquish control. The kind of art that claims to been about that has never really moved me. Knowing that my inner toddler-rhetorician’s tendency is to shout and scream about whatever I want to say about these fountains of content, I try to give it an internal formalist to grapple with. Whatever pinwheels out of the paradox is what I end up with.
One area in which I exercise much control is in the forms I choose to try to learn, which tend to be narrative, visual, and social–like movies, poems that behave like movies, or poetry readings–all of which I think have their own formal biases toward articulating socio-political visions.
3:08 PM me: That really resonates with what I’ve encountered of your work. Those topics, which I agree, are fundamental in some important ways, so easily become diffuse, and therefore, not thoroughly explored without a kind of balls-to-the-wall attitude. (What does balls to the wall really mean, anyway?)
3:09 PM When you write “I don’t know if I told you, but I lived in Brooklyn for 2.5 years” and then the other character says “You told me” in one of the Chapbook City pieces, it does seem like you are making an overt comment about writers and contemporary writing culture.
3:18 PM Mark: LOL. I just read on urban dictionary that its from when pilots push their accelerator joysticks (balls) all the way forward so that they touch the wall of the console, meaning full speed ahead, pedal to the medal.
That Chapbook City episode was originally about me trying to make another comic for HTMLGiant, and I had no ideas for a joke, I just knew I liked this character and this world, and I also wanted to do one where there was some really rudimentary animation instead of just still shots. But I still couldn’t think of a joke or a story for the strip… until one weekend there was a series of readings in Northampton in which many poets from NYC had come. I was surprised by how many of them either mentioned Brooklyn in their banter, or their poems. I had never been to Brooklyn at that point and so for me it held this allure of chic that it still does, for me anyway, having only been there a handful of times now. Anyway, like anything cool or seemingly cool that I was not a part of, I wanted to make fun of it because it had power over me. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way was that mentioning Brooklyn or referencing it had become a commoditized way to authenticate something that ought not to need geographical authentication. At least that’s how I felt when I took that semi-accurate potshot.
3:20 PM The other side is, I would be from Brooklyn if I could.
3:21 PM me: Thank you for the etymology! That is a great tale of how the piece came about. Indeed. Indeed. The thing is, though, I think it’s BK that might start being jealous of W.Mass. I see that you say you are from BK on your Twitter profile.
3:24 PM Mark: I do that mostly to confuse any students who might stumble across it. But also a little to make the people who stumble across my twitter feed who don’t know me, think I’m a New Yorker, which I think makes my tweets more interesting. I would be willing to bet that in the mouth of a New Yorker the same text is more compelling than someone from elsewhere. Sometimes I try to figure out what the most authentic place to speak from is, and change my Twitter bio accordingly. But also it’s a joke. There’s something funny about some young white person proud of the fact that they’re from Brooklyn. Funny and sad. Especially because it’s on the Internet, where it doesn’t matter where you’re from.
3:25 PM me: How true. I have to go at 3:30. Can we try to talk about twitter in tweet-style bursts?
3:26 PM Mark: Yes. me: Good. WTF? Mark: Twitter is beautiful. Like a sonnet. Or a movie. me: How long? U and Twitter? I mean you.
3:27 PM Mark: I have been tweeting for a year or two, I can’t remember. It took me 6 months to not hate it. 6 months more to see it for what it is. 6 months more to love it. me: Is the Twitter you the real you? I should say, how close is the Twitter you to you?
3:30 PM Mark: I will probably quit twitter when I know the answer to that question. me: haha.
3:31 PM But if I were hanging out with you would you say something like this to me: “i wish badgering a woman into sleeping with you by repeatedly accusing her of being a lesbian magically made you gay at the moment of orgasm”?
3:35 PM Mark: The form would be different, but the idea would be the same. Maybe “wish” would change. It’d probably come out something like, “Let’s make a romantic comedy about a jerk, say, Adam Sandler, who badgers Jennifer Aniston into sleeping with him by accusing her of being a lesbian–but then at the moment of orgasm–at the end of Act 1–he magically turns gay. Then the whole second act is about him trying to magically badger a gay person into sleeping with him to reverse the spell–but he falls in love with that person–maybe Aaron Eckhart–then at the end he can decide to stay how he is, or change back… ?” Plus we would probably be drunk, and you would probably have to be a woman. I become way less performative around men.
3:36 PM me: You said that to me last night. Mark: lol Maybe we can cut those last two lines from the interview! me: Amazing. So amazing.
3:37 PM Mark: But the point is, I often have an idea, but the form it arrives in will have certain things that are slightly untrue–impurities–because perhaps there is no pure form for any idea.
Alex Phillips is an Assistant Professor and the Director of Assessment and Curriculum Development at Commonwealth College, the honors college at the University of Massachusetts. His poetry and translations have appeared in journals such as Poetry, Open City, and jubilat, and in Ted Kooser’s newspaper column American Life in Poetry. His recent book-length poem, CRASH DOME, was published by Factory Hollow Press.