The Poetry of Cinema
CU and Naropa explore the links between film and the written word
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 6-23-2011
Though an obscure class or two on film studies or screenwriting sometimes appears on the course list at Naropa University, the Buddhist-inspired Boulder school has no film studies major. However, since 1999, Naropa has enjoyed the presence of the novelist, singer-songwriter and screenwriter Junior Burke, who is on the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics faculty and was formerly its chair. Burke has also taught film studies at the University of Colorado Boulder for the past half-dozen years, and he was an integral part of bringing this weekend’s Moving Images poetry and film conference to Naropa’s Summer Writing Program (SWP) in conjunction with CU’s film studies and creative writing programs.
Billed as “the first symposium of its kind, bringing scholars, filmmakers and poets together to explore the intersection of film and poetry,” Moving Images is the product of Burke’s introduction to University of Chicago heavyweight Tom Gunning (director of the school’s Department of Cinema and Media Studies) two years ago.
“Tom was coming out here and doing some teaching at CU, and I met him through [former CU film studies chair] Dan Boord,” Burke tells Boulder Weekly. “He had just received a Mellon grant and was going to be able to put on several events around the country, so we decided to put on a film/poetics event at Naropa, and it’s been two years of planning.
“It came about through the history between CU film studies and the Kerouac School, in terms of strengthening the relationship between film and poetics,” Burke says. “In some ways it’s an interesting fit because of Stan Brakhage [who taught at CU until his death in 2003] being the founding spirit of the film studies department over at CU and his experimental mode and his stature in that little alternative film world. In many ways that is a good fit in terms of the Kerouac School being an ‘outrider’ lineage and experimental for its time.”
Over three days at Naropa and CU, approximately 20 speakers — including academics, writers and filmmakers — will use Moving Images’ platform to explore the relationship between poetry and moving pictures since the era of silent film. According to Lisa Birman, director of Naropa’s Summer Writing program, the fact that Moving Pictures coincides with the second week of SWP wasn’t planned at all.
“Funnily enough, we already had a film/poetics theme for week two of the Summer Writing Program before we knew this was gonna happen. So when Junior came and said, ‘What do you think about this idea?’ the timing was actually just phenomenal,” Birman says.
CU film studies Professor Phil Solomon, who considers himself a “poetic filmmaker” and whose own filmmaking strives for “poetic overtones,” is also participating in Moving Images and calls it “a perfect storm.”
“I am interested in promoting a stronger relationship between [CU] film studies and Naropa,” he says. “I’m not particularly interested in the literal juxtaposition of poetry and film. In point of fact, I have rarely seen it done successfully — that is, images accompanying a poem being read on the soundtrack. For me, poetry lives in blessed silence on the written page. More often than not, I prefer to read it than hear it read aloud — so what interests me are what I would call ‘poetic films’ and what I would call ‘cinematic poetry,’ poems which evoke a cinematic sense or evoke a cinematic sense of place or atmosphere and create uncanny juxtapositions — like film editing or dissolves — as you scan over the words.”
During Moving Images, Solomon will be analyzing Brakhage’s notable 1980 film, Murder Psalm, as it relates to “the crucial differences between image metaphor and language metaphor.” Solomon stresses that he was “thrilled” at the news that Gunning, whom he calls “the premiere film scholar in the U.S.,” is coming to Boulder to talk about the relationship between film and poetry. Unfortunately, Gunning turned down Boulder Weekly’s interview request because of three dissertation defenses due in the past week, but perhaps his involvement in this weekend’s conference will speak for itself.
“I know his fine critical writing,” Kerouac School founder and internationally renowned poet Anne Waldman says of Gunning, “and it will be a great honor and pleasure to encounter him live and addressing the creative community in Boulder. We welcome this unprecedented collaboration.”
Naropa’s faculty has included such legendary film-interested literary icons as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and the wild-eyed archivist Harry Smith. Still, perhaps no one in Naropa’s colorful history of revered underground icons has been so involved with the juxtaposition of film and poetry as Waldman, whose interest in film began in her youth and who has been collaborating with her husband, the filmmaker Ed Bowes, for the past decade.
“I grew up in Manhattan and saw a lot of experimental films as a young per son, which opened and illuminated the dark cave of my brain,” Waldman tells Boulder Weekly. “Montage and jumpcuts and syncretic layering have always been important in my own writing. Manatee/Humanity [Penguin, 2009] has a section mimicking a film narrative. I’ve worked with filmmakers over the years, and appeared in an early Adolphus Mekas film [and] also in an early film by Robert Kramer.”
Waldman, who just finished working with Bowes on a short film tribute to Akilah Oliver (the beloved poet and Naropa teacher who tragically passed away in February), says she often finds “extraordinary rhythm in the movement of film, in its quick transitions, in its gestures in time and space, much like the unexpected moves of poetry and like our own metabolism.”
Moving Images will be a welcome celebration of ideas, passions and connections between CU and Naropa, but also a rare high point in the recent history of the Kerouac School, which was rumored to be on the chopping block amid the ongoing “reorganization” of Naropa, which confirmed in May that it is contemplating a move out of Boulder.
According to Burke, the elimination of the graduate and undergraduate writing programs at Naropa in favor of keeping just the 37-year-old Summer Writing Program (probably the most well-known and well-respected part of Naropa outside of Boulder) “was never going to happen, and we weren’t going to let it happen.”
As for the recent anger over Naropa President Stuart Lord’s controversial declaration a few weeks ago that he intends to relocate the school’s historic Allen Ginsberg Library to the basement of Naropa’s administration building, Burke said simply, “I feel that the Allen Ginsberg library is a tangible manifestation of everything that’s been built here, in terms of the Kerouac School, and I feel it has to be preserved.”
When asked about Naropa’s future, and the future of the Kerouac School in particular, Burke was a bit more cryptic.
“There’s been a lot of changes, but I feel pretty positive about the present. I don’t know about the bigger picture, but I know the level of commitment of the people I work with here, and I think that we’re gonna be able to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”
With Moving Images descending on Boulder this weekend, the Kerouac School’s present looks bright.
UPDATE (June 25): I’d like to report a necessary correction to my article. Apparently it was an error to say that Dr. Lord “intends” to move the Allen Ginsberg library, as sources have reported there was an unsuccessful plan in place to move the library by July and, while he has been aware of talks about moving the library, Dr. Lord was not aware of the plan to take action so fast. There will be more open discussion at Naropa about the library’s “expansion” in the fall.