I’m not far into this year’s Cadence: Video Poetry Festival when I come across a strangely striking image. A giant baby slips through the center of an hourglass and lands in a city. With Golden Gate Bridge in the background, the baby lifts a crown to its head from the tip of a castle spire and clutching a cheeseburger the baby is pelted by little rockets. Weeping diamond tears, it soothes itself by stomping through the city, crushing cars and dashing helicopters to the ground as it goes. After a dip in the ocean, the baby leaps onto the moon where it slips into a peaceful sleep, thumb in its mouth. English subtitles read, “choose, choose the living.”
Mad! (Fou!), directed by NoBudget Animation with poetry by Hélène Matte and music by Félix-Antoine Bérubé and Tina Jacob, is one of over 50 video poems collected by Cadence this year. A Canadian stop-motion fairytale seemingly made of intricate paper scraps, this 3-minute long surreal film is a wild ride, described by the artists as a “Child king learn[ing] to walk in the universe. His environment falls as he rises.”
Cadence: Video Poetry Festival is an annual film festival presented by Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum. It aims to make poetry accessible by pairing it with video and sound, featuring poets and directors from across the globe. For its fourth consecutive year, Cadence has gone virtual. Along with a feature-length film on 16mm by Huw Wahl called The Republics, a translation of Stephen Watts’s Republic of Dogs/Republic of Birds into a documentary essay, Northwest Film Forum has curated five separate programs, all currently available online. Programmed in coordination with Seattle author Chelsea Werner-Jatzke and media maker Rana San, the festival screens 60 artist teams from more than six countries every day between April 16th-25th.
The festival is broken into five set programs, or showcases, each with its own title and overarching theme. The curators have selected a minimum of ten video poems within each contextually correlating grouping. With memorable highlights in each section, the span of artists offered to the viewer is both expansive and palatable.
“The strength and volume of submissions to Cadence this year proves that video poetry is not the niche or inaccessible art form it is often framed as,” says Cadence Co-Director Werner-Jatzke in a festival press release.
However, the festival does offer an air of niche, if only for its unique content. Each video is delightfully short in comparison to a traditional film festival, offering a variety of tastes. In the ‘Foam to Form’ program, the audience is met with ambient stop-motion dreamscapes like that of Lauren Fliner’s Knot Waking and experimental films like Portland-based Lyr Casper’s Rotten Fruit, an audiovisual poem about time, gender, transformation, and self-actualization.
Program Three, ‘Ink of the Unfamiliar Pen,’ gives us the Super 8mm Belgian film Flames that Drift (Laii ende Drift), while the ‘This is How I Excavate’ showcase features Germany-based Meike Redeker’s Ophelia, a film in which a woman lying in a river (depicting Everett Millais’s Ophelia painting) speaks backward for four minutes before the footage reverses itself to reveal a strong, coherent statement on female archetypes.
Among the international and heavily Canadian selection of directors and poets is Portland-based video artist, poet, and editor Olivia Louise. Their video poem, Barbed Wire Land, is a moving dissection of America’s fascination with barbed wires and the esoteric meanings behind them. Throughout the poem, Louise can be heard delivering deceptively simple yet disarming statements, including, “They wrapped metal strings around their land. This gave their land a shape. There was pain involved. This gave their shape authority.”
Through archival footage of cows and ranchers, state borders, and barbed wire installation, Barbed Wire Land acts as a despondent commentary on the division and claiming of space where once had been open land.
“Barbed wire was this object sparked from the colonial consciousness that was always going to be invented,” Louise explained in our email exchange. “Metal strings, puncture wounds in the land and body, and the innate violence of containment… so I began writing the poem almost as a research prompt: what is the historical life of barbed wire?”
When I asked about the place of video poetry in today’s artistic climate, Louise responded, “Video poetry is taking flight… [it] attempts to cut through the noise with metaphor. It demands we slow down and refuses to be passively understood. I think it will be remembered not so much as a new category of film, but a brilliant new sword in the information wars of late-stage capitalism.”
A Barcode Scanner, an Iraqi film directed by David Shook with cinematography by Pshtewan Kamal and poetry by Zêdan Xelef, delivers another haunting depiction of life behind enforced boundaries. Here, Xelef “recounts the drudgery of everyday life in Chamishko, a camp in Northern Iraq that now hosts over 5,000 Êzîdî families who survived the Islamic State’s ruthless genocide.”
“Tent block, then muddy street, then tent block,” starts Xelef in Arabic, “In the beginning there was the number, and the number became a price tag stuck to us. The number made our selection easier from afar. No need to point.”
“Tent Block. Then Muddy Street. Then Tent Block,” the narrator continues, “Who introduces the IDPs [internally displaced persons] to sunrise? Who convinces them that the sun serves any purpose but heat? …Muddy street. Then Tent Block. Then Muddy Street. A tomato vendor: If only there were a tomato festival so that people could learn to associate the color red with something else.”
From the Middle East comes another video poem, this time about the American Northeast. Comments From A Roadside Alter, a collaboration between Israeli director Yuval Nitzan and New Jersey-based poet Dimitri Reyes, offers an illustration of the trials faced by black communities. Their film depicts grainy archival inner-city footage, “chronicl[ing] the painful and joyous life of a soul that, like many others, met a violent end in one of America’s troubled cities.” This footage, paired with the bright yellow subtitles of traditional closed-captioning text, is accompanied by Dimitri’s mournful words. “When a roadside altar speaks,” he begins, “Pop. Pop. Pop.”
One of the festival’s most gripping films is the world premiere of Canadian video poem, Winter Sleep. Directed by Chad Galloway with poetry by Sheri Benning, and in collaboration with Heather Benning, Winter Sleep “ask[s] viewers to reckon with the devastating socio-environmental impact of agribusiness.”
“In my dream, I wake and the village is empty, coal smoldering, acacia shadows on snow,” starts the mesmerizing voice of performer Andrew McCrimmon, “In my dream, I wake to chaff and dust, a war lost, harvest thrown down, rain scattered on the temple floor. In my dream, I wake hungry… We were told to take what we did not lay down. Reap what we did not sew.”
Matched to mostly stationary footage of a bleak winter forest, the visuals behind this poem offer a slow-burning backdrop to the tale of depredation and calculated violence.
“… In my dream, we tell these stories to our babies in their cradles. The moral of these parables? What good is your labor if the fruit doesn’t grow and grow and grow?”
In Benning’s poem, Saskatchewan is undergoing a crisis. With small farms ravaged to make way for industrial mega-farms while family-owned agriculture faces threats and violence from imposing big business, the scene is eerily familiar.
Despite the sadness, and indeed because of it, Winter Sleep is filled with immense beauty. The direct simplicity of the poet’s voice, not emboldened nor apologetic, pairs remarkably with the stark winter scene, steady in the frame. There is no melodrama here, and yet the words ring both potent and true. A tale of commonplace misery, where commodity is valued above livelihood, capital above ecosystem, money over earth.
The scene shifts as the camera pulls back to a wider vantage point, exposing that the forest is but a patch of trees on an otherwise uninhabited Saskatchewan prairie farm.
“I wake in the hip roof barn,” McCrimmon coos, “and where we hang the throat-cut animal, men dangle… hailstorm, flood, drought, interest rates, debt loads. Go big or get out.”
The howl of a Northeastern Coyote streams through the following silence.