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June 01, 2011

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and Music —– May/June 2011.

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At a recent event at Penn State, poet Robin Becker opened her reading by noting that poetry had its origins in song, and she quoted the Pennsylvania poet J.D. McClatchy who says: “All arts want to have their birth in music”. Poetry and song do seem to overlap in significant ways. Some poets like the Surrealist Peter Blegvad set their words to music. Musicians also make songs of poems, as in Joni Mitchell’s rendering of W.B. Yeats’ `The Second Coming…

...John Cale’s version of Dylan Thomas’s `Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night…

...or Leonard Cohen’s ‘Take this Waltz’ based on Lorca’s
poem `Little Viennese Waltz’...

Some songwriters, too, have the lyrics of a poet. Many cite Bob Dylan as a prime example, or his forebear, Woody Guthrie, who wrote poetic narratives on the lives of the poor. This particularly American tradition is carried on today by artists like Gillian Welch, who write the stories of the outcast, poor and bereft. Written about the tragedy of American sharecroppers in the 1930s, Welch’s `Annabelle’ recalls Walker Evan’s eponymous photographs of Depression-era poverty. Songs like this also recall the origins of poetry, as an essentially sung form and a means to convey oral histories.

March 01, 2011

Why Poetry Matters: Poetry and the Domestic —–February/ March 2011.

I had a break last month from writing my usual note about poetry for the Nittany Valley Writers’ Association Newsletter. The reason was because chaos ensued after my apartment was flooded last month. I am now getting back on top of my writing workload, however, and things are getting back to normal.


Poetry is often thought of as an elite mode of writing which focuses on grand themes. Some of the most successful poets, however, place their poem in a familiar domestic space, which nevertheless enables them to work through universal and enduring themes. Take for example, a poem by local poet Robin Becker: ‘The Roast Chicken’.

Ostensibly, the poem tells a simple story; the narrator cooks a roast chicken, picking over its carcass on consecutive nights. By the end of the poem, however, it is clear that the narrator is actually picking over her own life choices. The tone is rueful, self-mocking even, as the narrator sits down to eat ‘alone’. The use of humor, however, makes the subject matter all the more affecting: the suicide of the narrator’s sister, loneliness, the lack of family life, and the narrator’s fear that she may be taking on the characteristics of her father. Though the poem is confined to a simple, domestic scene, it hinges on a sense of regret, and ends with the image of an old flame who admonishes the narrator for lost chances:

And you’re left
knowing that she was your best chance,
though she would say
your best chances are the ones you take.


Note: You can find ‘The Roast Chicken’ in Becker’s collection All American Girl.

February 23, 2011

Review of Fireside Reading with Robin Becker and Cellist Kim Cook.

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Last week, I attended a reading by the poet Robin Becker, who is currently the Penn State laureate. Every year or so, Penn State chooses an artist from amongst its staff to represent the university and to make links with the community. This year teh laureate is Robin Becker, and she was joined at the reading by a previous laureate, the cellist Kim Cook.

Becker opened the event by noting that poetry had its origins in song, and she quoted the Pennsylvania poet J.D. McClatchy who says: “All arts want to have their birth in music”. Music, according to McClatchy, is “the most godly of all the arts”.

Thinking about music and poetry, Becker talked about how both arts are able to bring back reminiscences: the idea of “memoire involuntaire”. As John H. Mace explains, these involuntary memories are “described in modern literature as instances in which memory comes to mind spontaneously, unintentionally, automatically, without effort” (2).

This was Becker’s introduction for Kim Cook who was to play Bach’s ‘Suite in G Major’. Becker also, however, read a poem: ‘Girl with Cello’ by May Sarton . Sarton was new to me; I am ashamed to say that I had not really come across Sarton’ poetry before, but I am really enjoying discovering her. (I was interested, for example, to discover that, like me, Sarton wrote a poem based on the Cluny Tapestries in Paris: ‘You are the lady woven into history. / Imagination is our bridal bed’.)

After the cellist had played, Becker presented some of her own poems, and many of these were about memory, the praise of song and nostalgia, as she indicated in her introduction.

There were many poems that looked back nostalgically (but without sentimentality) on Becker’s Jewish familiy life. ‘The New Egypt’ was a poem about Jewishness and acquisition. The poem is moving in its description of how the Jewish people had to learn difficult lessons in order to survive: the narrator’s inheritance is these lessons. I loved the closing lines where the narrator describes the necessity ‘to plant the self in the desert like an orange tree in the desert and irrigate, irrigate, irrigate.

‘Too Jewish’ was more sinister, as Becker’s narrator described women correcting their noses, which were supposedly too big. Becker concludes: ‘In the name of love, we draw a blade across the beloved’s face.’

Many of Becker’s poems seemed to deal with loss. ‘Repair’ was a 9/11 poem, which fused a nostalgic view of Greenwich Village, New York, with a lost relationship: “our New York of the damaged, the irredeemable, beyond repair”.

This concern with loss extended itself beyond human worlds to the sphere of nature too. In the pantoum, ‘Bird of Prey’, Becker circled around the conflict between nature and building developments in Pennsylvania. Other poems praised nature, such as ‘Meeting the Gaze of the Great Horned Owl’, where Becker admits ‘I wanted that creature’s attention’. Switching for a moment to the gaze of the owl, the bird watches the human observer, seeing ‘something large straining to rise and failing’. Becker describes human failure as compared to the beauty and elegance of nature. Similarly, in ‘In Praise of the Bassett Hound’, Becker admires a sickly but enduring animal and all the ‘mute creatures in their green, dying skin’ (a phrase that recalls Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Fern Hill’).

Friendship in general is an important theme of Becker’s work, and often loss is redeemed by connections to other people, as in ‘Listening to Bach on Route 89’ or ‘Our Best Selves’. The narrators of Becker’s poems are wryly aware too of their failures in making or maintaining relationships. ‘The Roast Chicken’ is extremely moving in this respect, as an isolated narrator contemplates their own loneliness without self-dramatising illusions:

Mace, John H. (2007) ‘Involuntary Memory: Concept and Theory’ in Involuntary Memory, ed. John H. Mace, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 1-19.

January 12, 2011

Video of local PA Poet Robin Becker reading 'The Poconos'.

December 14, 2010

Hollywood Goddesses and my Christmas Tree

Christmas Tree Decorations

This year I decided to make some of my own Christmas decorations featuring my favourite women stars of Hollywood’s golden era. Here are my favourites…

Ingrid Bergman

From Hitchcock’s Notorious. This really is one of my favourite films, because Bergman isn’t playing the role of the pure one, but the woman with a reputation. The film really clarifies society’s disdain for women who don’t live up to society’s standards.

Louise Brooks

Various clips. I remember seeing her in Pandora’s Box as a student and being very taken with her. Again she is playing one of those women who push at the boundaries of society.

Greta Garbo

From Queen Christina.

And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo’s face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archtype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman. -Roland Barthes


Lena Horne

From Stormy Weather

Katy Jurado

You are a good looking boy. You have big broad shoulders, but he is a man. It takes more than big broad shoulders to make a man, Harvey and you have a long way to go. (In High Noon)

Kathryn Hepburn

From Bringing Up Baby

Veronica Lake

From The Glass Key

Nina Mae McKinney


Eve Marie Saint

From Hitchcock’s North by Northwest

Jean Simmons


and my absolute favourite Rita Hayworth

From Gilda

September 30, 2010

Surrealism – I am the Eggman…?

September 10, 2010

'Intimate Violence and the Femme Fatale': Abstract for 'Writings of Intimacy'.

I am going to be attending the ‘Writings of Intimacy’ conference at Loughborough University tomorrow and Sunday. Here’s what I’m speaking about:

Intimate Violence and the Femme Fatale: Trauma, Abuse and Gender Politics in the Noir Detective Story

‘Just tell me the truth. I’m not the police. I don’t care what you’ve done. I’m not going to hurt you, but one way or another I’m going to know.’ (Chinatown, Polanski and Towne 1974).

Much has been written about the gender politics of the noir detective story, but the intimate relationship between the detective and the femme fatale deserves greater attention. What is particularly interesting about this relationship is that in the traditions of the genre, the detective is always questing for intimacy, while the femme fatale repels it. Mary Ann Doane confirms this dynamic when she notes that the femme fatale often works as an ‘epistemological trauma’, whose depths must be plumbed or fathomed by the hero. Early versions of the femme fatale are merely another challenge to the hero, but Jack Boozer has pointed out that as the femme fatale developed in movies like Marnie and Chinatown, she becomes associated with the intimate trauma of sexual violence and works to ‘unveil [society’s] brutish aspects through the illumination of her personal disasters’ (Boozer 1999: 24). This paper surveys the development of the femme fatale from classic hard-boiled detective novels to modern day fiction, considering how the relationship of intimacy between the detective and the heroine serves to uncover a more traumatic kind of intimacy – of rape, sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. A classic text is Raymond Chandler’s 1942 novel, The High Window, in which, as a knight-protector, Marlowe must delve into the past of the mysterious and man-hating Merle in order to help her to recover from her sexual trauma. Winston Graham’s noir-ish novel, Marnie (1961), also features a male hero who must force the criminal and frigid femme fatale to face her sexual trauma, as does the film version (Allen and Graham 1964). By the end of these narratives, the femme fatale is no longer a mysterious epistemological trauma, but in gaining intimacy with the detective-hero, her secrets are broken open. As sympathetic as such portrayals might be, women are still positioned in such texts as passive victims, incapable of recuperating themselves. There are counterpoints, however, in more modern noir fiction. Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep (2009) is ostensibly a novel about sexual exploitation, but reversing the trends of the genre, Abbott poses the sophisticated noir hero, Joe Lannigan, as a fatal seducer, an epistemological trauma like the femme fatale. Rather than being saved by the knight-detective, Abbott’s heroine must save herself from the fatal intimacies of sexual abuse and exploitation.

June 11, 2010

Alan Moore at the Magus Conference at University of Northampton.

Writing about web page

Here is some footage of Alan Moore from the recent Magus conference:

There is more footage on YouTube if you search for “Alan Moore” and “Magus”.

April 20, 2010

Alan Moore on V for Vendetta and Lost Girls.

I’m thinking ahead today to a paper that I’m giving at the end of May on Alan Moore and I found these clips on YouTube which are from the BBC4 shorts, Comics Brittanica.

Alan Moore on V for Vendetta

Everybody should be master of their own destiny. – Alan Moore on V for Vendetta

Alan Moore on Lost Girls

It’s the very idea of it which is controversial. For one thing, from its very inception, I have insisted on calling it pornography. For one thing, I think it’s a bit less pretentious than calling it erotica. And also because I think the only difference between pornography and erotica is the income bracket of the person reading it. So yes, if you’ve had an education and you can understand all the French double entendres, then erotica’s the thing for you. But my dad would probably have to call it pornography. So we thought it was more down-to-earth to refer to it as pornography from the inception. – Alan Moore on Lost Girls

February 28, 2010

Gil Scott–Heron at Columbia College, Chicago 18th Feb 2010

Writing about web page

Gil Scott-Heron has always been an impassioned and inspiring performer, but I can’t pretend that I have always been completely comfortable with his polemic. When teaching political poetry in a Creative Writing workshop setting, I use his album Small Talk at 125th and Lennox to show the power of political writing, but also to highlight the problems in using poetry for moralising or didactic purposes. In this kind of workshop, it is useful to play students ‘The Revolution will not be Televised’...

...and/or ‘Whitey on the Moon’.

In poems like these, Heron uses rhetoric, humour and irony to critique American society, but what is more disturbing is how he uses such techniques in the poem/song ‘The Subject was Faggots’, a diatribe against homosexuals. The homophobic hatred in this poem is shocking and disturbing, and it is very difficult to understand how Scott-Heron becomes so bigoted when he is such a passionate spokesperson for black rights. Thinking about these paradoxes, however, does force students to consider where the line is between political polemic and hate speech. As Tim Dellow explains for Rock Feedback:

Like with Johnny Cash before him, there is a desire to whitewash and sanctify the artist towards latter stage of his career. This is a man made up of many faults. (Rock Feedback )

Gil Scott Heron at Columbia College

It was with some trepidation then that I attended a little-publicized “reading” by Gil Scott-Heron at Columbia College, Chicago to celebrate African History Month. The reading, however, turned into a three and a half hour show to a warm audience of Chicagoans, who continually shouted or clapped encouragement.

After a warm-up act by performance poets, Verbatim, Scott-Heron began his set by simply talking, telling stories in a very honest and unaffected way. For example, Scott-Heron told the story of how he was touring with Stevie Wonder in 1980 when the terrible news came that John Lennon had been shot. Wonder decided not to mention Lennon’s death until the end of that night’s show, and Scott-Heron recalled in moving detail how Wonder spoke about his murdered friend. The next day’s newspapers, however, reported that Wonder hadn’t mentioned Lennon’s death. Scott-Heron told us wryly to always stay until the end of the gig.

When Heron did start to play, it was simply him and a piano singing classics like ‘Your Daddy Loves You’, ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’, ‘Pieces of a Man’, ‘Winter in America’ and ‘Or Down you Fall’. Later a pianist, drummer and a harmonica player join him to blast out more upbeat numbers like ‘Three Miles Down’, ‘95 South (All of the Places We’ve Been)’, ‘Work for Peace’, ‘Is That Jazz’, and ‘Celebrate, Celebrate, Celebrate’. The night ended with everyone on their feet, young and old, and it fe;t more like a gospel church service than a gig. Strangely missing were the diatribes of Small Talk at 125th and Lennox, as the more aggressive polemic was replaced by a message of simple survival. Less confident and knowing than it once was, Scott-Heron’s voice sounded all the more sincere when he sang out:

From the Indians who welcomed the pilgrims
And to the buffalo that one ruled the plains
Like the vultures circling beneath the dark clouds
Looking for the rain


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