Minneapolis poet Todd Boss frequently reads his work at Nina’s Coffee Café in St. Paul, Minnesota. After finishing an evening’s reading, he was approached by a woman named Angella Kassube. She introduced herself as a designer and animator, and expressed interest in making his poems into short films.
“I said sure, let’s do it, let’s go for it,” Boss recalled.
Kassube animated Constellations, which was published in Boss’ 2008 collection of poems titled Yellowrocket. That venture jumpstarted the collaboration project that became Motionpoems, a nonprofit organization transforming contemporary poems into “short-short” films.
“What she came back with was so interesting,” said Boss. “The artistic process of seeing my poetry come to life in film was so fascinating, and I quickly convinced her to collaborate.”
Between them, they were able to reach out to a number of poets and filmmakers and get them on board. Poets Jane Hirshfield and Robert Bly were amongst the contributors to the first season.
That was seven years ago. Now, Motionpoems is a well-established arts organization in Minneapolis working not only with individual poets and filmmakers, but also with major publishers, film companies, and literary organizations. Boss serves as the company’s artistic director.
“We were pedaling pretty hard those first years, trying to get attention,” Boss stated. “But it’s an easy thing now to strike up new relationships.”
One reason Motionpoems is so appealing to poets and filmmakers alike is that the work benefits both sides of the artistic partnership. Filmmakers are able to work with original texts that are vastly different from screenplays.
“For filmmakers, there was a general sense that poems weren’t available for collaborations. And we’re kind of destroying that myth,” Boss explained. “There’s now a vast wealth of literature available to them.”
The fact that these are collaborative pieces means that creating a powerful and evocative film can be tricky. Filmmakers are not dealing with a text specifically intended for film; they are working with a piece that, in its original form, is designed for the page.
“It’s like a translation or adaptation exercise,” Boss said of the added challenge. The films, which often go on to festivals, provide a new way for filmmakers to talk about their work.
On the other hand, Boss pointed out, poets are able to see their work made relevant in a new medium, as well as the thrill of encountering someone else’s interpretation of their poem.
“It’s a deep honor, really, for a poet to have that kind of attention paid to their work,” Boss said.
Motionpoems makes an effort to change things up each year.
“Every year we try to reengineer our model a little bit,” Boss stated.
One way they have tinkered with their method is by featuring marginal or minority groups. This past season featured all female poets. For its seventh season, Motionpoems is working in partnership with Cave Canem, a Brooklyn-based foundation supporting African American poets. Currently in production, the upcoming season will feature all black poets.
They are also reaching out to new audiences. According to Boss, Motionpoems is planning its first season of films for children.
Each year, a dozen poems are selected for public screening at Motionpoems’ annual festival and premiere at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
“We pick our best, and pick a mix that feels dynamic and interesting for a mixed audience,” Boss said of the selection process. “There’s no real magic formula; it’s just curation.”
While the screening experience is similar to that of a short film festival, the adaptation element results in an equal focus on both content and cinematography.
“Someone [at the screening] will encounter all styles, all types of filmmaking, all kinds of solutions to the problem of developing a poem into a film,” Boss expounded. “But the general tone will be elevated because of the content of the films.”
Door County residents will be able to experience the genre-blending art for themselves. Boss, in partnership with Write On, Door County, will screen a selection of Motionpoems’ films and host a discussion at Margaret Lockwood Gallery in Sturgeon Bay on July 8 at 7 pm.
For more information about the upcoming screening, visit writeondoorcounty.org.
The Trees, They Were Once Good Men
who for whatever
reason were never
given the keys to
and who stand now
to one another, some
entangled, some even
grown together, in
more than solidarity
but still afraid to fall
in love again.
these, in this thin
stand here one sees
one’s slender life,
one’s limbs lifted
Can you hear your
Your farthest flung
flitter of shame?
Your heaviest sigh,
sung like a name?
No, nor can I.