Motionpoems: Videos and an Interview with Todd Boss

The following interview was originally published on PRISM international's website in April 2015. After PRISM recently updated its website, much of the old online content was lost. I've worked to archive some of that content here on the blog.

As PRISM Poetry Editor at the time, I had the opportunity to interview Minnesota poet Todd Boss. In addition to being the author of the collections Yellowrocket and Pitch, Todd is the co-founder of Motionpoems, an organization dedicated to making short film adaptation of contemporary poems. After prodding Todd to take his obligatory “pizza pug” photo, I asked him a few questions about Motionpoems, as a primer for new viewers.

Todd Boss
Rob Taylor: Could you tell us a bit about Motionpoems? How did the project come about? What makes you passionate about this particular way of presenting and promoting poems?

Todd Boss: Motionpoems has its genesis as an artistic collaboration. An animator approached me after a reading in 2008 to ask if she could animate one of my poems, and I said yes. A few projects later, wanting to share our enchantment with this hybrid of forms, we began inviting other poets and filmmakers to contribute to what became the first of an annual public premiere. Since then, more that 80 projects have been made.

Motionpoems is a nonprofit collaborative. We partner with publishers to introduce great new poems from forthcoming titles to our growing network of commercial and indie filmmakers. We do not art-direct these projects, but instead allow each filmmaker to choose his or her own creative direction for his or her project.

We began with the aim of making poetry more accessible to readers who increasingly get their content from screens, but our mission has changed in recent years. Now we just want to make great art. The audience is still important to us, and still stokes us. But the focus now is on the work itself.

RT: Could you walk us through your three favourite Motionpoems to date? What makes each of them stand out to you?

TB: My favorite films have yet to be released, which is part of the fun: I’m always most excited about whatever’s going out to subscribers next month. But of the films currently on our site, here are a few I love to use as great examples, for various reasons:

When at a Certain Party in NYC – Erin Belieu

Written by a woman, this poem is brilliant in a hard-boiled male voice, and jazz sharpens its snarky edge. Animation suits this poem better than film could, I think, because it can slide around and deliver so much visual rhythm. I love what the animator adds to the piece, from the tuna salad menu board to that perfecty timed license plate at the end.

Karl – Dag Straumsvåg

I love it when our films aren’t literal representations of the poems, but instead use the poems as jumping-off-points for whole new layers of story or meaning. This animation creates incredible tension with its use of pauses, sound design, and the interplay of an unscripted spider and moth. Not to mention whoever lies bleeding at the telephone upstairs…

Antique Sound – W.S. Merwin

The great Pulitzer winning poet W. S. Merwin recorded this poem in his Hawaii home after we approached him with the concept of pairing it with footage of an actual turntable submerged in a pool of ink, a sound installation by sculptor Evan Holm. I love the layers of metaphor in this pairing, and I love how tenderly it was filmed.

RT: What’s next for Motionpoems? What’s the Big Bridges project?

TB: Motionpoems wants to theme its seasons to draw attention to certain populations of artists, or important issues. Our new season’s poems, for instance, are all by women; our next by African Americans.

Big Bridges is a project commissioned from us by the Weisman Art Museum’s at the University of Minnesota. Minneapolis is the site of the famous 2007 collapse of the I-35W bridge. Inspired by the fact that the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that “25% of America’s bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete,” we’ve issued a national call for poems that “dream big about big bridges.” Five winning poems will be made the subject of a film contest, the results of which will premiere as part of a larger exhibit at the Weisman this fall. Details can be found on our website.

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