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The third annual Midwest Video Poetry Festival greets upheaval with contemplation

This year’s festival screens October 21 and 22 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, incorporating live readings and a kid-friendly matinee.
A still from "The Perfection Of Chance" by Mark Niehus, screening October 22 at this year's Midwest Video Poetry Festival.
A still from “The Perfection Of Chance” by Mark Niehus, screening October 22 at this year’s Midwest Video Poetry Festival.

This year’s festival screens October 21 and 22 at Arts + Literature Laboratory, incorporating live readings and a kid-friendly matinee.

From Greece to China, from New Zealand to Peru, and from Detroit to Madison, the 2022 Midwest Video Poetry Festival is screening an array of work from across the country and around the world on October 21 and 22 at Arts + Literature Laboratory. Now in its third year, while still celebrating the international talent it has hosted in the past, it showcases a large number of works from the Midwest. 

Video poetry is the art of poetry combined with the art of video, and the parameters beyond that are pretty open-ended. “Video poetry can be whatever you want it to be,” says Genia Daniels, Managing Director of MVPF. “It can be experimental. It can be more direct and on the nose. It has really broad interpretations.” Video poetry, although it is a very niche genre, has a wide audience. Festival founder and executive director Rita Mae Reese created a video poem for one of her works a few years prior to MVPF’s inception. This sparked her curiosity to visit a video poetry festival in Seattle called Cadence, and eventually led Reese and Daniels to start their own festival.

They initially planned to hold the inaugural MVPF in April 2020, but in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic and event shutdowns, reorganized it as a virtual event that November. I volunteered as a screener back in 2020, when a majority of the entries came from outside the region. In 2021, the festival returned as a hybrid experience, with a few people watching in-person at the ALL space, some at simultaneous in-person screenings at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, and some online via ALL’s YouTube channel. Now in its third year, MVPF is fully in-person and its focus is deeply rooted in the community, with six participating filmmakers coming from Madison and Milwaukee. “Video poetry has an international reach and we started MVPF with a desire to make video poetry more local,” Daniels says.

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The Wisconsin emphasis this year includes a live performance on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. from three local poets, who will read alongside the works of filmmakers. This gives the audience another way to see the juxtaposition of the two mediums in real time. Poets Sasha Debevec-McKenney, Dana Maya, and Philip Matthews will be reading their work with the projected works of filmmakers Jim Kreul, Aaron Granat, and Luke Bassuener, who have created images and visual manipulations based on the poems. The film will be silent as the poets perform their work.

In between the two main screenings, this year’s MVPF will also try to bring in a younger audience with a “family matinee” on October 22 at 3 p.m., featuring work made by and for kids. One of the works on this program is from the students of the North Side’s Lindbergh Elementary School, who collaborated with Madison Poet Laureate Angela Trudell Vasquez to create animated interpretations of three of Vasquez’s poems. Through stop-motion movement, cut-outs of photos and stick-figure drawings are brought to life. Under the mentorship of Luke Bassuener, a Madison Metropolitan School District art teacher as well as a busy local musician, the whimsical nature of the kids’ drawings adds a playful and hopeful tone to the poetry.

“Angie gave the students free reign to imagine whatever images came to mind when they heard or read the piece—that meant the students were able to work on the animation before they ever got to meet Angie in person,” Bassuener says. It will be interesting to see how the students will react to this being featured inside a gallery space.  (Previously, Bassuener and his students at Crestwood Elementary on the West Side have landed their animated works in the Wisconsin Film Festival.)

The family-friendly programming at the Saturday matinee also includes “Las Chicas y Chicos de Blossom Street,” an animated poem written by Araceli Esparza, with visuals by animation director Steve Dorchester. A little girl named Luz narrates her memories of a Latino community with family-like neighbors residing close together in an apartment complex. She takes photos of the people she has grown to love and journals their shared histories. This sanguine recollection from a child’s perspective is emblematic of the meditative nature of many of this year’s MVPF selections.

Milwaukee-based Angela Voras-Hills wrote and directed another of this year’s entries, “How to Survive A Nuclear Attack,” wherein she explores how media was used to dominate women who are confined in domestic spaces. By juxtaposing monotonous and rigid visuals released by the Department of Civil Defense in the 1950s with the cutting and honest truths of the poem, Voras-Hills asserts and reclaims agency. She interpellates the narrative and frees herself from patriarchal shackles through language.

The introspective and pensive through-lines of this year’s line-up have a lot to do with how the pandemic has forced the world to a standstill for more than two years. Even now, people are reeling from this interruption. There is an overwhelming thread of filmmakers feeling forlorn and struggling with the worldwide upheavals caused by COVID-19. Yet, even in the festival’s more dark and difficult video poems, there is a jagged beauty. “There’s collective creativity that is happening. People are responding to the same things all over,” Daniels says.

But those responses have a truly ambitious and global scope. Maxime Coton’s “Nobody But The World” interprets a poem by 14th-century Persian Sufi poet Jahan Malik Khatun, whose meditations resonate with the political climate against which Iranian women are currently rebelling. Maryland-based filmmaker Andrew Knox’s “Instructions On Living Near An Abandoned Tennis Court” is an experimental documentary that meditates on the repurposing of deteriorating space. Lastly, a video poem directed by Belgium-based filmmaker Jelle Meys, “The Moon Appears,” is an animation of the poem by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca that meditates on the rise of the moon. The variety of works that focus on contemplation should remind the audience rumination is one of the most productive ways of coping with the changing realities of the world.

The video poems at this MVPF grapple with the realities of life with a curiosity toward the inner landscape of the mind. Poetry becomes necessitated by the jarring nature of our existence, especially in light of all the tragic events of the past two years. In some odd and twisted way, MVPF allows us to see the connectedness of all our pains and sorrows, and how even in the midst of our isolation, we are not alone. We emerge together.

The Midwest Video Poetry Festival is free. The video poems will be made available on the Art Lit Lab Youtube channel for the entire month of November.

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