Promoting Poetry Films, videos and Cin(E)-Poems via Emerging Technologies Part 1

by G. Aguilar c 201


In the 1990’s, fresh out of college and with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, I set out to make my mark in cinema.  I knew the traditional path to filmmaking was not in the cards for me and I knew I had to find an alternative way to be involved in filmmaking.

During those days, most of the friends I grew up and went to school with were taking corporate paths and I fell into office managerial work that was not inspiring in any way and barely paid for a lifestyle. In 1991, while touring the converted military base of Fort Mason, I accidentally came upon a small windowless office and a petite old man named Herman Berlandt.  Herman introduced me to the National Poetry Association and Poetry Film Workshop office where I discovered a collection of films and videotapes stacked near flammable chemicals and a hot plate.  The alarming condition of this poetry-based office and the unique nature of the films were enough for me to return and see how I could help.

I volunteered my free time to clean up and catalogue the 200 film/video titles and was completely mesmerized at this cinematic genre that contained a poem, either in written or vocal format, mixed with film imagery.

After I finished organizing, viewing and cleaning this material, I was asked to become director of the annual Poetry Film Festival, which typically drew about 30 people in a small office space since 1975. As festival director of one of the only all-poetry film festivals, I grew the number of entries we would get each year, organized a strong judging committee made up of poets, artists and filmmakers and tried different ways of enticing audiences to come to the under-funded festival.   I arranged for screenings at the Exploratorium, The new Yerba Buena Center for Arts and other small art houses to broaden the reach. 

The NPA executive director at the time, Jack Mueller, worked at Lawrence Berkeley Labs as a science writer and often mentioned something called “The Internet” around the office.  Jack also knew that Apple computers had a program then that gave away free computers to schools and non-profits, which he applied for, and we received a brand new Mac SE for the office.  At least now, we could type up press releases and print them on clean paper.  I taught myself how to use a computer on this Mac and was soon designing flyers, film catalogues and posters.

An early flyer 1993

It was wonderful for me, personally, to receive between 80-100 new poetry film/video entries a year, view them, pick the best and screen them in San Francisco.  However, it bothered me that this great work could only be experienced here and I needed to find alternative ways (with a limited budget) to bring them to larger audiences. One way was to package the best of poetry films into broadcast videotapes and disseminate it to educational groups as rentals.  I convinced Jack to purchase $100 worth of mailing labels targeting schools and universities in the U.S.  So with a volunteer or two, spent a week stuffing over 1000 envelopes with NPA/PFW flyers and sent them out.

Here is a list of those who took us up on our offers from those early mass mailings.

Poetry Intern. Festival at Rotterdam, The Netherlands 1993/96
University of Wisconsin - Madison, Wisconsin, 1993
Fayetteville State University - Fayetteville, Ohio, 1993
California State University at Stanislaus, California, 1993
Northeast Louisiana University, Louisiana, 1993
Niagara County Com. College - Sanborn, New York**, 1993
Los Angeles Unified School District, LA, California, 1993
Santa Fe Community College - Gainesville, Florida, 1993
California State University at San Bernardino, CA**, 1993
The Center for International Education - St. Paul, MN, 1993
U.S. Intern. Education - College of Liberal Arts, SD, CA, 1993
Pacoima Middle School TFA - Pacoima, California, 1993
University of California - Santa Barbara, California, 1993
University of Chicago - Photography and Film, Illinois, 1993
Poet's Video Cooperative - Nevada City, Nevada, 1993
The Museum of Modern Art, Video Study Center-Dept of Film, NY, 1993
Concordia Writer's Conference - Concordia College, Minnesota,1994
Long Prairie/Grey Eagle HS, Long Prairie, MN** 1994-2001

Youth Media Resource - Healdsburg, California, 1994-95
Cornish College of Arts and Crafts - Seattle, Washington, 1994
James Campbell HS - Honolulu, Hawaii, 1994
Evergreen State College - Olympia, Washington, 1994
Northridge University - Northridge, California, 1994
Central European University - Prague, Czech Republic, 1994
State University of New York at Buffalo, New York, 1994
Abilene Christian University - Abilene, Texas, 1994
The Banff Center - Banff, Alberta, Canada, 1994
American Indian Contemporary Arts - San Francisco, CA, 1994
Women in Film/Video - Denver, Colorado, 1994
American Indian Contemporary Arts - San Francisco, CA, 1994
The Poetry Film Group - New York, NY, 1995
The Word Monthly Guide to Poetry - Richardson, Texas, 1995
Yellow Ball Workshop - Boston, Massachusetts, 1995
 Pacific Film Archive - Berkeley, California, 1995
The Knitting Factory - New York, New York, 1995
The White Barn Film Festival, California, Oct.6-8, 1995

1st Ann. Video Poetry Conference, University of Buffalo, Rochester, NY, 1995
Galileo HS - San Francisco, California 1995-96
University of Southern California Film Dept - Los Angeles, CA** Cleveland Heights HS - Cleveland, Ohio, 1995
Remscheid Computerforum,
Akademie Remscheid, Germany, 1995
University of Buffalo - Rochester, New York, 1995
Jones Intercable - Tampa, FLA 
 DUTV, Channel 54- Drexler University - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1995-2001
Culture Shock, East Bay Media Channel - Oakland, California
Local Color, Channel 52 - San Francisco, California* , 1994
The Festival Series, Channel 52 - San Francisco, California 1995-1998
PBS, WGBH, ZoomTV, 1996
PBS, KQED TV, The Living Room Festival 1996

PBS, The Short List, 1997

A few universities were requesting our materials to air on their local educational channel and that started me thinking about trying that here in the Bay Area.  Around 1994, national cable providers were forced to provide “Leased Access” channels, which charged a small fee to let non-profits and other small groups broadcast on a local cable channel AND allow them to sell advertising on their channel.   You just needed to have some content and $25 to begin your own ad sponsored cable show! We were suddenly in a position to become a small time TV producer bringing poetry-based programming to the locals and hopefully raise funds as well.   I worked with a local volunteer who helped sell a few commercial spots including a spot to a new, small company that had just started called Pixar.  They supported our show in the form of providing us animation software. Our show series that aired on Leased Access in 1994 was called “Literary Television” and featured a different, local poet introducing a series of films from our film festival and archive.  We lasted one season since Comcast, the nation’s largest provider of cable, successfully sued to destroy Leased Access cable TV by raising the fees. 

During this time I was becoming a bit more computer savvy since I had free access to the latest Mac and software through Media Alliance, which was adjacent to the NPA office.  I soon learned how to “massage” different small software programs to do my bidding.  I set up the NPA office Mac to automatically E-fax out press releases to over 200 media organizations across the country.  I transferred the substantial mailing list Herman had built over the years into the computer and could now print out thousands of mailing addresses on sticky labels.  What would normally take Herman and a volunteer to do in three days took me just half an hour on the Mac.

Also at this time, Jack had connected a 14k modem to the world wide web and showed me the Internet in its early form before there were any web browsers. Using 'Gopher' and 'Veronica', I viewed electronically transmitted poetry online.  I remember Jack mentioning to me that some of the scientists he knew at Berkeley were also poets and that they would often “electronically-mail” their poems to colleagues across the country using this new technology.   I remember it would take over an hour for a simple text-based “webpage” to download…and that was exciting!  At the same time, the private company AOL was  sending out disks offering free memberships into their online community. In addition, modem speed were improving every other month or so. 

Although it was still too early to post and stream videos on the Internet, it was now at least possible to cheaply promote the annual festival via email and a simple website.  I could certainly see the potential of the Internet and I recall collecting close to a hundred thousand email addresses between 1994-1998 and spamming people about the various poetry events happening at the NPA. This was before the term “spamming” became such a bad word. Since I could share information about the poetry film festival with anyone who was on the web, at the time, was enough for me to feel that here was a platform that could be vital in promoting the genre and poetry in general.

My early electronic outreach efforts brought some distinction and allowed for interesting collaborations.  Small private companies Netvideo and the Blue Wolf Network were experimenting with different ways of streaming video on the web and I worked with them to provide short poetry films (2-3 mins) because these worked better for streaming than longer works.  With their help, I was able to create the NPA’s first website which was then one of the only non-profit, literary websites in existence on the web. Encyclopedia Brittanica was called it one of the “best websites” and if our home page was usually one of the first to pop up whenever you used one of the newly created browsers from Netscape.  We were also able to stream a few short videopoems and poetry films. A very nice experiment but the majority of Internet users did not have the capability of watching them so it remained a unique thing that few people could experience.   I also collaborated with filmmaker Paul Devlin, providing him with a few, select cin(e)-poems for his pilot series titled 'SlamNation'.

It was also around this time that I collaborated with the very persuasive poet-technologist Merilene Murphy, founder and developer of Telepoetics in Los Angeles. Merilene worked to develop and promote a special device that connected a telephone line to a TV set.  An early form of webcam, this Telepoetics device allowed you to phone call a group of poets in Los Angeles or Vancouver or Chicago and listen and watch them live on your TV in San Francisco.  I was very intrigued with this and worked to integrate Telepoetics into several NPA events for about a year.  Although the TV feed through the device produced a grainy, black and white, snap-shot image, it was enough for me to grasp the potential of live, poetry events via the phone line.

By 1996, I was becoming more immersed in the electronic delivery of poetry in different ways.  The NPA had a very good website, a few streaming videos, a cable TV show, Telepoetics events, email spamming and a way for one administrator to electronically fax out announcement flyers to over 100 media organizations around the country.  It all took quite a bit of my time yet kept the costs down.  There was absolutely no money in this and most people I knew did not understand what I was doing but I was convinced that it was my duty to bring poetry films and videos to more people.  The main obstacle I faced during this time was convincing the larger, older poetry community to work with me to utilize these new technologies.  Not to say that all of the older generation wasn’t open to new things, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was an early poetry filmmaker and seemed open to new things but it was mostly a lone wolf operation on my part.  Fortunately, a younger group of poets and a new poetry movement called “Slam Poetry” was coming into the picture and was a bit more receptive to my electronic efforts. (you can explore more of the old NPA website news at the Wayback Machine Archive.)

Slam/Cin(E)-Poetry cover flyer

These conferences, museums and schools asked for videopoems and poetry films from the archive:

The Museum of Modern Art, Video Study Center-Dept of Film, NY, 1993
1st Ann. Video Poetry Conference, University of Buffalo, Rochester, NY, 1995
Concordia Writer's Conference - Concordia College, Minnesota,1994
Texas Council of Teaches of English Convention - Fort Worth, Texas, 1993

Also in 1996, I was receiving fewer actual films but many more works shot and edited on video to the annual festival because the video format was more accessible and affordable. This was also the first year I was receiving digital works on CD by filmmakers working with computer software video editing programs.  It was a revelation for me to be able to pop in one of these CDs and view a crisp, clean video on my computer screen so easily.  I preferred it to threading a film projector or inserting a scratchy VHS tape into the machine.  I realized that this digital format could (and would) be the dominate media for small production filmmakers. 

I probably viewed over 1000 poetry films and videos during the early years at the NPA and felt I had a good grasp of what I thought made a good work.  Occasionally a few filmmakers and teachers, such as Bill Wees of McGill University, would drop by and we would have long talks about it all.  Soon I was trying to figure out how to clearly define the cinematic genre we were promoting so it would be less confusing to festival entrants and to the public.  I sat down and came up with the term, “Cin(E)-Poetry”, which was short for Cinematic (Electronic)-Poetry.  These three words connected together allowed two different artforms to be “connected” through any electronic means.  “Electronic” meaning anything that was created using a machine (film, video or computer) and that could be delivered electronically via TV, projection, computer and the Internet.   “Cinema” and “Poetry” in the title meant that these two artforms need to be entirely present in the work equally and with very little ambiguity.  Hopefully, this meant that I would no longer receive so many film entries that either showed a videotape reading of a poet on a stage or a film that showed trees “swaying in the breeze” or “waves crashing” wordlessly.   Creating a new word like Cin(E)-Poetry, allowed our organization to also set itself apart and to clearly attach a better definition in order for people to understand what we were trying to do.  At the time, anything with an “E” in it such as E-Commerce and Email were being thrown around and I wanted to include that idea as well.

First flyer we produced that hints at the new name change:

What is a Cin(E)-Poem?

Cin(E)-Poetry is an artform which combines images, sounds, music with a spoken or text-based poem to create a unique multi-media work of art.

Ultimately these efforts starting bringing a little press:

 VideoMaker Magazine,  Profile: "George Aguilar and VideoPoetry"  1994

And a few individuals like Heather Haley from Vancouver and the founders of the Zebra Award in Berlin called for advice on how to start their own festival as did Noel Franklin and Bob Redmond from 11th Hour Productions in Seattle.

A support letter from Herman

In late 1996, I was preparing a large Cin(E)-Poetry outreach effort for next year when I learned that Jack Mueller, the NPA Executive Director, was leaving to run a museum in a small town in Texas.  There was now a leadership void within the NPA that, honestly, had a fairly weak board of directors.  I felt I needed to step in and provide new leadership otherwise the organization would just cease to exist.

Elected as the NPA executive director and president, I had to learn on the job how to write grants, build a board of directors, fundraise, publish the literary journals Poetry USA and Mother Earth Journal, produce the major live poetry events AND oversee the annual festivals.   This was a particularly challenging time professionally and personally since I had to change the culture and mindset within the organizational leadership if the NPA and the Cin(E)-Poetry festival were to continue on into the future.  This meant handing over the reins of the film/video department and Internet efforts to others while in focused on administration.

"It's about time the literary community got some official recognition"

The following two years brought many hard fought victories and dramatic change with a new board made of different generations of poets.  By 1998, we were producing many more events throughout the year and saw slight increases in our funding gained from grants and ticket sales.  My managerial philosophy was simple: Bring in smart people to direct a program and then leave them alone to do their job.  Most of my time was spent getting them the money and support they needed.  What this also meant was that I was getting more and more removed from the aesthetic side of things. 

A few major highlights from my tenure as E.D., was supporting the eventual National Slam Champions of 1999-2000. (Insert group photo) The Slam leadership from San Francisco approached me about supporting their efforts one year so they can compete in Chicago against numerous other cities.  I worked with them to provide free venues and supplied grant funding for them throughout the year to develop a strong team of poets.  The NPA and I were proud and honored to help pay for their airfare and provide a little “walking around” money for the 5 poets, telling them only that they were “ambassadors” from San Francisco and had only to conduct themselves as such.

The team tied for 1st (with the team from San Jose) and was featured on ‘60 Minutes’ shortly after.   The following year, I produced my final, live event at the Masonic in SF which had headliner Maya Angelou along side some of the best young slam poets in N. America and the then poet laureates of St. Louis and California. (Insert Photo)  We also had a half hour program of Cin(E)-Poems projected on the large screen for the 2000 people in attendance.

NY Times on National Poetry Slam

Hello Network provides Streaming Media Technology to the NPA.

By 1999 I was at a crossroad.  I could continue as ED or move into a different phase.   To remain as ED meant I would not be able to focus my energies and what I truly enjoyed doing; making films.  Being ED also meant having to deal with politics on a routine basis as funding became harder and harder to come by thanks to the recent bust.  My decision to retire from the NPA was made somewhat easier with the help of (what else?) technology.  Sony VAIO had just produced one of the first laptops capable of editing high-quality video via a firewire that connect a small digital vid camera to the computer.  Before that, it was extremely difficult and expensive to connect camera to computer. This was right up my alley so I announced to the board I was "retiriing" and planned on creating my own cin(e)-poems and promoting the genre while I traveled around the country.  I happily handed the leadership over to the board of directors, at the end of 2000, and immediately hit the road with my new tools, contact phone numbers and emails of people I had corresponded with via the annual CP festival and tour.   I also purchased a new product that allowed me to wirelessly connect to the Internet from almost anywhere albeit at near 14k modem speed.

I felt that "hitting the road" with a computer filled with cin(e)-poems was a good way to create a more personal connection between what was happening in San Francisco with others who were also keen on the work but could not find anything similar in their area.


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