Interview with Multimedia Poet and Translator, Denise Newman

Please enjoy my interview with multimedia poet and award-winning translator, Denise Newman. Denise currently teaches in the Writing programs at California College of the Arts, and her video poem, My Way can be found in the Loud Thought Look gallery in the Fall 2015 issue of SOUND:POETREE::. A big thanks to Denise for taking the time to share her thoughts with me; it was so nice to hear from her on these important matters. I'm inspired! I hope you will be, too. 

Pictured: Denise Newman Photo Credit: Rachel Walther

Pictured: Denise Newman
Photo Credit: Rachel Walther

SOUND:POETREE:: First, hi, Denise! How are you? It's so nice to be in touch again, and I'm so happy that you were able to contribute your video poem to the Fall 2015 issue of Sound:Poetree::. I've gotten quite a few questions about your piece already. Can you tell us a little about your video poem, My Way? What was your inspiration for the piece? Did the words come first or the video? Is there anything else you care to share about your processes, intentions, or the meaning(s) you were hoping to convey? 

Denise Newman: Hi, Melanie. Here we are meeting through your wonderful Sound:Poetree:: site. How exciting! Congratulations on making your long-time dream come true. 
Let me give you a brief background for My Way

One day a tiny grub appeared on the wooden floor of our hallway, stretching and rolling in all directions like a person trying to get out of a bag. I brought it outside and filmed it. The footage didn’t stand on its own, so I tried to write something for it, but everything was either too literal or too distant. Digging around in my papers, I came across a stanza from an abandoned poem that I felt matched my pathos for the grub. It seemed like it was trapped in its own form the way we humans are trapped by our egos. It’s the first video poem I’ve made with text superimposed over the moving image. In other videos I use actual text in the scene and collaborate with natural elements such as snails, ants, fire, a cat’s tail, etc, to move it and trigger meanings beyond my control. 
It’s difficult to create a balanced relationship between image and text. So easily one is subservient to the other as either caption or illustration. I keep working on the language part, trying out different texts, until I feel there’s a dynamic relationship between the two. 

SOUND:POETREE:: How did you get into making video poems? Or, what inspired you to branch out into another medium in this way? Was there something about this poem in particular that you felt could not be conveyed on the page, that required a multimedia approach? 

Denise Newman: I’ve always worked with different media. I just go where the greatest source of liveliness is, and one medium ends up informing the other. Working in video the last few years has renewed my appreciation for how language reveals the subtle workings of the mind and perception. Most of what I know about video I’ve learned from my friend and former student Alex Nichols, who had a long-time visual art practice when she came into the writing program. At the end of her studies, she suggested that we continue to work together—I would help her with her writing and she would help me with my videos. Five years later we’re still meeting regularly. I also took a class at CCA with Kota Ezawa that helped me better understand video poetry in a visual art context, and the following year Lyn Marie Kirby, a visual artist and professor in the film program, and I co-taught a studio course Text as Image and Material and this experience further deepened my knowledge of the field.

SOUND:POETREE:: What kinds of tools (software, equipment, etc.) do you use to make a video poem? Are there low-cost, DIY options out there for people who might want to try to make their first video poems? I have recently come across soundslides, but it seems like you are using a different approach. How would you recommend getting started? 

Denise Newman: I recommend jumping in and making videos with whatever tools are at hand, like your phone. My earliest videos were made with a point and shoot camera and iMovie. Unless you have a passion for technology (I don’t) it’s best to start simply. As your work develops, you’ll max out those tools and by then you’ll have your own set of criteria for selecting equipment, like a camera and an editing program. I bought a camera recently with a viewfinder and a good zoom because I’m drawn to filming insects often in bright light, where it’s hard to see the image on a digital screen.

SOUND:POETREE:: This next one is maybe kind of heavy, but here we go. I think that the future of poetry will rely on our ability as poets to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of our times. Of course, this is not new, art has always (in some way) reflected or responded to the times. But, one thing I think that means for us is that we need to embrace, rather than shirk away from, the vast array of digital tools available to us. So, I think your video poems are immensely important in terms of pushing the boundaries of what is possible in poetry. But, I wonder, how do you see your work responding to or engaging with the times that we are living in? And, can you comment on the future of poetry in the digital age? Is there hope for us? (Say yes! Haha.)  Finally, what are you working on these days? And, who are some of your favorite poets/artists right now? 

Denise Newman: My poetry is definitely evolving with our times. For many years I’ve been seeking ways to bring poetry off the page and more into the mix of everyday life. I’ve been collaborating with composers, mainly on choral music, and I’m currently working on a second large-scale poetry installation at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden with Hazel White. I’ve been influenced by social practice artists like Harrell Fletcher, and really appreciate the unpredictability that comes with working with others, including other species like snails and grubs. The videos are just one more mode to explore language, and the only reason I’ve been able to make them is because of how accessible the tools have become. Technology and the Internet have tremendous potential for poets, and it’s really great that there are editors like you who are utilizing them to promote interdisciplinary poetry. I think it’s really an exciting time for poetry.