May 31, 2018

Poetry on Video

Poetry has from the beginning been an oral/aural art. We heard poems long before we wrote poems. And we must have seen poets perform those poems long before we saw them on a page.

Some poems have greater impact being heard. Some work better on the page. Sme poets are great readers. Some poets are great performers of their poetry. Some are not so great to see and hear read their work.

I have been helping with a project to move many years of poets reading at the Poetry Center at PCCC video online (see example below).

Poetry online at YouTube and other sites has been happening ever since video went online, but has really exploded with the advent of more ubiquitous broadband connections that allow smoother streaming, and with the dominance of smartphones.       

Video is also being used by poets and publishers to promote poetry. For a publisher, this is an intentional way to get a poet's face and vice in front of potential readers. Sure, you still need to do tours and readings and book signings, but video has greater reach.

Sometimes the promotional aspect if more accidental. In 2014, an unpublished poet from Toronto named Sabrina Benaim took the stage at the semifinals for the National Poetry Slam in California. he looked and sounded really nervous, but the nervousness played well into her poem, “Explaining My Depression to My Mother.”

I have read that this was her first time performing it aloud (though I wonder how she made it to the semi-finals). She performs it in a rush of words, short of breath. She has said that she can’t remember the performance because she was really was that nervous and panicked.

It was videotaped and put online and that performance went viral. It has currently more than 6 million views on YouTube and an estimated 50 million views across all social media platforms. You can't plan a video to go viral. It just happens.



Sabrina Benaim had no book to promote and no publisher who wanted to promote her at that time. She worked on a poetry manuscript after that performance. She also stayed in contact with people who discovered her through the video. many of them were young people dealing with depression and parents who saw something in her poem about their own child's struggle with it.

Social media is still a part of her poetry life, but she has a first book of poems. Depression and Other Magic Tricks has “Explaining My Depression to My Mother” at its heart.

The small poetry press Button Poetry shot and uploaded her video back in 2014 and released her book three years later. The video certainly played a role in the book's publication and success. Preorders on Amazon were more than 5,000 and Button Poetry had to up their first of 25,000 copies with a second run of 15,000.

Button Poetry itself started with poets sharing performance poetry videos online. It didn’t start publishing books until 2013.

Movie trailers have long been used in theaters and now are even more important online. Novels often have a trailer nowadays. Poetry collections are playing catch-up in this area of promotion, though there are lenty of poets reading onlie that act as promotion for the poet, their work or the venue where they were reading.

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival has been using video since its early days. At one time that vide would get some airplay on PBS TV stations. That's a distinguished place to be, but a limited audience. They moved much of that video in recent years online and their YouTube channel offers hundreds of poems free to people who will probably never have the chance to attend the festival or even see these poets read in person.

I was at several Dodge Festivals and heard Stanley Kunitz read, but now that he is gone, I am glad that video cameras were there to preserve the readings.




Not very reading captured on video is a performance in the way that we now think about "performance poetry," but every reading is a performance of a kind.




Do you know of a poetry performance on video that you think works really well for that medium? Share the link with all of us here.


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