Tuesday, April 7, 2015

'Darkroom' by Erica Goss, with an interview about poetry and technology

In the spirit world
backlit by old stars

dreams sound like
water falling

we are inside
and outside
at the same time

trays clack like old bones
as faces rise from wet paper

their deep cloudy eyes
and conquered mouths
appear between our hands

lips and chins a blurry landscape
touched with the faint light
of a slow exposure

switch off the red
and exhale
we stand on their ashes

Posted with permission from Erica Goss
Editor this week: Michelle Elvy

Whenever I look up Erica Goss, I find she's up to something new and inspiring. She has been a poet I've followed for a number of years, beginning with her collaborations with Michael Dickes and Marc Neyes (see, for example, Arrhythmiaand her poetry column at Awkword Paper Cut

I admire the way Erica's poetry reaches inside. I love the way 'Darkroom' reaches to to the spirit world that we can see in this dark space, a space where are are inside and outside at once. That's such a great idea, playing with shadows and image, past and present. Film and poetry. 

Which brings me to Erica's newest project: a summer camp, Media Poetry Studio, designed to teach poetry and film-making to teen-aged girls. She is launching this project with two other poets: David Perez and Jennifer Swanton Brown. 

Why girls? "Because," as Erica writes, "even here in Silicon Valley, the heart of innovation and technology, too many girls sit on the sidelines while boys participate in exploring and learning about the world. In addition, women are vastly underrepresented in technology fields... David, Jennifer and I wanted to do something significant, art-wise, to counter that trend...Our goal is to provide artistic young women in our area with opportunities to produce their own films, inspired by their own poetry."

I was so intrigued by this project, I wanted to know more, Below is a set of questions I put to Erica and her partners. Erica answers primarily, but David and Jennifer join in, too, at the end. I love what David adds about happy accidents, and how Jennifer reminisces about her childhood and the unexpected – and beautiful – surprise that came from her technology-oriented dad.  

I hope readers will enjoy the reflections and insights offered by these three poets. And that you'll click on the beautiful video poetry that Erica mentions at the end of her interview, which includes award-winning examples of video poems.  

Thank you, Erica, David and Jennifer, for your generosity of spirit and words. 

Poems by David Perez and Jennifer Swanton Brown also at my blog this week.

Please also visit the other Tuesday Poets, whose posts you can find by clicking on the sidebar to the left. 

Q & A with Erica Goss, plus bonus material on art, technology and inspiration at a young age from David Perez and Jennifer Swanton Brown

Can you please tell us a little more about the inspiration behind Media Poetry Studio and the genesis thereof?

The idea came about when David Perez (David is the Poet Laureate of Santa Clara County) and I had a conversation about how to make an educational experience that was specific and unique. We wanted to do something with poetry and art. We also were aware of the growing dissatisfaction about the lack of girls’ participation in technology. As residents of Silicon Valley, we wanted to do something really powerful about that which involved art and literature. We brought Jennifer Brown into the conversation, and she connected us with the California Poets in the Schools, which continues to be a good thing. Jennifer also has tons of experience working as a teaching poet.

Why work in the hybrid zone between media and poetry?  Please tell us a little more about why technology is equally important to developing young girls as well as voice/ poetry. 

The reasons for combining poetry and media are many, but most important, we wanted to put poetry where kids are already looking: their screens. It’s pretty hard to get teens out to a poetry reading, but you can reach them through media. Combining poetry with film is a powerful and evocative package, and kids get that right away. As far as the importance to girls, there are many studies that show that girls withdraw from experimenting with technology in middle school, which is when boys start getting more proficient. I’m not talking about selfies here – I mean understanding and adapting technology to improve it and own its capabilities. In Silicon Valley, women make up barely 30% of the workers at tech companies – that is just inexcusable. We need to groom our girls to be the confident women who can change that.

When did you first become interested in poetry? Was it a young age that you developed your voice? How did you first find it? 

I started very young. I wrote my first poems at the age of 8. I tried to write a novel when I was 12, but became overwhelmed by Chapter 2. I’ve been more of a short-form writer ever since! I don’t remember a time when I did not have poetry in my life, and I have had a series of epiphanies around writing throughout my life. In my childhood, poetry was how I expressed myself best; as a teen, it became a secret outlet for my overwrought emotions. As I moved into my twenties, I stopped writing for a few years, but came back to it after I turned thirty. Since then, I have written consistently, and more publicly. My voice has developed through experience, voluminous reading, and my own personality. And experimenting. This, in part, led me to video poetry.

Is it through personal experience that you arrive at this place, where you now want to share poetry and teach about voice, or do you arrive at it through your own intellectual development as a poet? Or a combination of both? 

I think I’m here as part of a natural evolution. I enjoy teaching, and I think that part of a writer’s responsibility is in nurturing a community of writers. I especially think that’s important for youth. 

Why is poetry a good medium through which to reach young people  either their minds or hearts? What poets do you most like to share with young people? 

Poetry is, in my opinion, the best way to reach young people. For example, I have led poetry workshops with 7-year-olds. What they have to say is sometimes so profound it takes your breath away. By showing kids how to read, write and appreciate poetry, you give them a powerful skill. Young kids especially enjoy poetry that breaks grammar rules, since they themselves are acquiring written language and can spot the places where the poet had fun with words. I like to start teens out with Adrienne Rich, Sylvia Plath, Carolyn Forche - poets whose passions are strong and who have a flair for image. I’ve never had a student who didn’t get Walt Whitman, but we’ve spent lots of time pondering Emily Dickinson. High school students can navigate Shakespeare’s sonnets with a little guidance. And I pick and choose from many, many other poets, both contemporary and ancient.

Can you share a favorite quote about poetry, or by a poet? Some lines that inspire you

This quote from Rita Dove pretty much explains my philosophy about poetry: "Nothing is too small. Nothing is too, quote-unquote, ordinary or insignificant. Those are the things that make up the measure of our days, and they're the things that sustain us. And they're the things that certainly can become worthy of poetry.” I love poets who can make a poem out of something as ordinary as, for example, towels. This poem from Richard Jones is an example:

White Towels

I have been studying the difference
between solitude and loneliness,
telling the story of my life
to the clean towels taken warm from the dryer.
I carry them through the house
as though they were my children
asleep in my arms.

Could you tell us about the other project founders and their interest in poetry and teaching and also technology? 

The three of us have lived in Silicon Valley for all or most of our lives. Technology is part of the air we breathe, like it or not. As artists, we feel free to use the materials of technology - video, cameras, computers, etc., in the service of art. For me, it’s about reclaiming some of the space that technology takes (concentration, for one!) and putting it to good use. Some of the fun of creating the camp is experimenting with different tablets and photo-taking devices, and using the royalty-free images available on the Internet. I want the students to dive into this remix culture, to be part of it, to contribute to it. It’s a giant sandbox of possibility.

It’s a little difficult to explain what “video poetry” or “poetry film” is, so I suggest that people watch a few to get an idea of the power of the art form. Here are some suggestions:

The Dice Player, by Nissmah Roshdy
This Dust Road, by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Arrhythmia, by Erica Goss & Swoon


David Perez on 'teaching' poetry and the intersection of art and technology

My interest in what would become Media Poetry Studio began on the worst day of teaching of my life. It was a poetry composition class, and no one wanted to write poetry. The frustrating part was that I knew all of them to be talented poets. I don't say this in that camp-counselor, everyone-has-potential kind of way. These kids were good. But they were being lazy, spending the whole class on their cell phones. Finally, I gave them an assignment that required the use of their phones. I had them go outside and take pictures, then use them for writing prompts. I had them share photos and videos with each other, then discuss what they liked. I parlayed that discussion into further writing activities. In other words, I got them to discover imagistic thinking, a cornerstone of poetic technique. I say 'got them to discover' rather than 'taught'. I did not write the words 'imagistic thinking' on the board and have them repeat its definition. I empowered them to follow their own inclinations and was there to point out their successes and help them overcome challenges.

Media Poetry Studio is the result of all my experimentation and happy accidents. It is everything I know that works about teaching art stripped clean of everything that doesn't. 

The best lesson I've ever heard about teaching comes from a math professor who said that rather than teaching calculus, he gets his students to invent calculus. This is a way of saying that knowledge separate from the drive to apply it is pointless. Students need to teach themselves, and they teach themselves only when they generate questions that they want to answer. Even though calculus is already a known quantity, this professor treated it as if it weren't in order facilitate active questioning. He got them to want to discover something. Hard to do if they're convinced the right answer is already out there in the world. I try to teach poetry and videography in this way. What's interesting is that media poetry as an art form is so new that students are literally in a position to invent it. I don't have to pretend that it has yet to be discovered. It is currently a mystery. Its boarders are undefined. Few have seen it. Fewer actually do it. It is the perfect form to foster the spirit of questioning and experimentation that gives rise to real innovation. At the same time, it is compatible with the way young people are sharing and viewing content. 

Media Poetry Studio gives students the opportunity to work with professional digital media artists and some of the most prominent poets in the Bay Area. Our knowledge and experience are resources that allow us to let students experiment without wasting their time. Our diverse skill sets allow us to help students see their media poems to completion no matter what the project calls for. It needs stop motion animation, no problem. It needs 3D motion graphics, sure. It needs color graded 4k video downscaled to traditional HD, let's do it.

All of this is to say, we are not really "teaching art" -- we are making art happen. Art rarely occurs when you know exactly what you're going to do and how you're going to do it. More often it occurs when you have an inkling, an itch whose origins you can't explain that's pushing you somewhere you've never been before. The same is true for technological and scientific advancement. Most of the technologies that influence our lives were not the result of people knowing what they were doing. They began with intrepidity and a willingness to fail. In fact, failure is essential. It is by trying, failing and trying again, that we produce anything remotely interesting. 

Art and technology have more in common than most of us think. Part of this is because young people are getting less and less arts education while their lives revolve more and more around increasingly convenient and addictive information technologies. What's interesting is that the hardware that students walk around with every day in their laptops and cell phones is capable of producing beautiful art. Instead it is being allocated to selfies and whatever wisdom one can fit into 140-character blips. The truth is that you can pack wisdom into 140 characters, just like you can create a beautiful film with an iPhone. Media Poetry Studio's mission is to inspire students to push themselves in the directions they want to go. They're already making video clips for Instagram. They're already composing posts for Twitter. We are going to show them how to move beyond the video clip and into the film, beyond the post and into the poetry. 

Jennifer Swanton Brown on poetry and technology, or: Mom, Dad and Me

The source of my interests in poetry and technology is the same – my parents’ influence in my early childhood – but my journey along the three paths of poetry, teaching and technology diverges in a twirling dance. My mother read me poetry from early childhood. She had poems by heart, and soon I did, too. One of my favorites was “Disobedience” by A. A. Milne. My mom wrote verse in cards to her nieces and nephews; she was an educated woman. My dad was a mathematician, an early pioneer in computer programming. He moved our family from Boston to Palo Alto, CA to join a computer company in the 1960s. He loved computers and the space program and technology fascinated him in a way that was contagious. Both parents loved classical music, which was always playing in our house. I was encouraged to read and write, and I loved school as a girl. In many ways, mine was a fortunate childhood.

I published my first poem in the fifth grade, in the Palo Alto Times, a local paper. Encouraged to explore my own voice by my young idealistic teacher, I discovered an outlet for feelings that weren’t discussed at home. As much as my parents loved me, they also struggled, and we didn’t talk about how their pain – their real suffering –  affected me.  Unconsciously, I believe now, I learned that poetry was a place for invisible feelings to be allowed “out” in an acceptable way.

My mom was the reader, the language lover. My dad was a computer nerd, one of the earliest, with pocket protector and horn-rimmed glasses. So when I began seriously writing poetry in college, I assumed my mother had been my influence. In my father’s later years, however, he started sending me little emails, almost every day, small observations about the world around him, the things he noticed: birds at the feeder, the lilacs outside his window, how yummy his lunch was, how much he loved my mom.  My dad, the technology freak, was the observant one, the one who listened. Creating computer code was his creative language. When my dad died, we discovered poems in his wallet that he’d been carrying for years.

My discovery of (and love for) teaching was also something of a surprise. In this blog post, “Why Teach Poetry,” I talk about my circuitous path through literature, nursing, and poetry eventually to teaching. I have to confess, I’m really not a technology lover, myself, the way David and Erica are. I like paper. I like pencils. But I love what they’re doing, and I appreciate that technology is critical to the future of the human race. My kids have helped me understand that, one an actress, the other a writer, both inseparable from their technology. And I think my dad would be thrilled beyond measure that I have the opportunity to combine poetry with technology. My mom (always a little afraid of my poetry, I think, or at least a little mystified) has recently found a new way to enjoy it – sitting in her house in Maine, she can watch and listen to my recite my poetry through the magic of her computer.  Mom, Dad and me – still together with poetry through the wonders of the digital world. 


Erica Goss is the Poet Laureate of Los Gatos, CA, and the host of Word to Word, a show about poetry. She is the author of Wild Place (Finishing Line Press 2012) and Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets (PushPen Press 2014). She won the 2011 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Contest and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010 and 2013. She writes The Third Form, a column about video poetry, for Connotation Press. Recent work appears in Lake Effect, The Red Wheelbarrow, Passager, Main Street Rag, Pearl, Rattle, Wild Violet, and Comstock Review, among others. More here and here

David Perez is the author of the poetry collection Love in a Time of Robot Apocalypsepublished under Write Bloody Press. He tours regularly throughout the United States and Canada, and has competed at the Individual World Poetry Slam and the National Poetry Slam. A recipient of the Arts Council Silicon Valley Fellowship for Literary Art, Perez has led poetry outreach programs for youth communities throughout the Silicon Valley, and has coached two poetry slam teams competing in the Brave New Voices Festival. He has also given workshops at Santa Clara University, San Jose State University and the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2010 he earned an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College. He currently lives in San Jose, California.

Jennifer Swanton Brown published her first poem in the Palo Alto Times when she was in the fifth grade. She has degrees in Linguistics and Nursing, and completed her Master of Liberal Arts at Stanford University in 2012, with a thesis on the domestic poetry of  Eavan Boland. Jennifer has been a poet/teacher with California Poets in the Schools since 2001 and joined their Board of Directors in March 2013. Her poems have been published in multiple local journals, including Caesura and The DQM Review. In October 2013, Jennifer became the second Poet Laureate of the City of Cupertino. You can follow her poet laureate Poem-A-Day project “A Lane of Yellow” on Tumblr (laneofyellow.tumblr.com) and other Cupertino Poet Laureate news at cupertinopoetlaureate.org. Currently the Area Coordinator for Santa Clara County, and an occasional working poet/teacher, Jennifer also manages regulatory education for clinical researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine. Follow CPitS Santa Clara County news at The Santa Clara County Poets in the Schools blog (scc-pits.blogspot.com).


TP Editor this week, Michelle Elvy, is a writer, editor and manuscript assessor based in the Bay of Islands and currently travelling in SE Asia. Her poetry, fiction and reviews can be found most recently in Ika, Takahe, Revolution John and Entropy. She edits at Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and Blue Five NotebookShe is also an associate editor for Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton, 2015) and also on the editorial team of the Queen's Ferry Press series Best Short Fictions. She is also chair of New Zealand's National Flash Fiction Day. More at michelleelvy.com and Glow Worm


Kathleen Jones said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen Jones said...

This is an absolutely wonderful poem, Michelle. I love the images of the faces emerging between their fingers in the darkroom and the spirits 'backlit by old stars'. Always underlying the poem but never said was the old idea that the spirits became trapped in the photographic image and were unable to leave earth. Stolen souls. Thank you for the poem and for the illuminating interviews that go with it. Much food for thought (and workshops!)

Helen Lowe said...

I agree with Kathleen: "exactly what she said." :) This is a lovely thoughtful poem -- and the interviews reinforce what a vibrant world of poetry there is out there. Thank you for all your work, Michelle.

Harvey Molloy said...

This poem captures the magic of darkrooms. Great choice.

Jennifer Swanton Brown said...

Thanks for featuring Erica and sharing the news of our Media Poetry Studio! Nice to "meet" you here in the blogosphere.

AJ Ponder said...

Amazing Michelle, there's so much here, not just the poem, which has a beautiful eye to detail, "backlit by old stars" is my fav line :)