Todd Boss finds a new way to put poetry in motion

Motionpoems – MTV for poetry enthusiasts?

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    "Yellowrocket" poet Todd Boss hopes to bring poetry to a wider audience.
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When the Monitor introduced readers to the poetry of Todd Boss two years ago, Boss was at the start of what he calls a “perfect storm” that swept him and his writing into literary prominence. His first book of poems, "Yellowrocket," had just been released by W.W. Norton – which normally doesn’t publish debut collections – and it would soon spend several weeks on the poetry bestseller list. The winds of good fortune continued through this spring, when Norton published "Yellowrocket" in paperback, another anomaly in the publishing world.

Boss demurely claims that “luck” had a lot to do with his success, but readers and critics of his work know better. We know that talent, a distinctive voice, and stunning poems that burn themselves into the reader’s memory really fueled his meteoric rise. We also know that another perfect storm is brewing.

You can see the winds kicking up if you go to www.motionpoems.com and watch the video “The God of Our Farm Had Blades,” which features a poem from Boss’s second book, "Overtures on an Overturned Piano," due out in fall 2011. The video, or motionpoem, shows how three powerful forces are converging: Boss’s remarkable writing, his vision for poetry in mainstream culture, and outstanding design and animation, which far exceed the norm for poetry videos.

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See for yourself, but be warned: "The God of Our Farm Had Blades" is so striking and cinematic – a short film, really – that you can’t just watch it once. Most people replay this gem, created by Tom Jacobsen of Pixel Farm in Minneapolis, several times, because each viewing pulls them deeper into the poem and the rugged world where Boss grew up.

In fact, one of the most haunting scenes is of a young Boss standing by his bedroom window, watching the windmill on his family’s property and listening to “the unholy noise of that old windmill,” which “bears somehow on my own lonesome childhood soul,” he says.

The quality of the writing – the words – suggests that Boss’s second book will be as strong as the first, and as evocative. "Overtures on an Overturned Piano" will deal with loss, return, and the inner music of our lives – themes inspired by the day Boss’s father lost the family piano out the back of his pickup truck.

That distinctive perspective doesn’t stop with his own poems; Boss wants poetry to engage the YouTube generation, which is why he and art director and animator Angella Kassube founded Motionpoems in 2009, after she animated a couple of his poems. “The work was partly inspired by Billy Collins's animated pieces at bcactionpoet.com, which were commissioned by the Sundance Channel,” says Boss. “Angella and I both have a passion for bringing poetry to a wider audience, so we started getting other poets and animators involved. I pick the poets (sometimes Angella steers my decisions, too, based on her passions), and she picks the animators.”

To date, 13 videos have been produced (12 more will première in October), and Motionpoems are now a regular feature of Twin Cities Public Television’s weekly arts program, Minnesota Original www.mnoriginal.org/art/.

“Books are great and all,” says Boss, “but a poetry section at the bookstore is totally daunting to a casual or first-time poetry reader. All those volumes of poems can't be broken down into ready samples unless the reader begins opening each book one by one, and trying out poems at random. In addition, books shortchange poems by presenting them as literary artifacts. Motionpoems is more true to poetry's original medium (oral interpretation) than books are, because they bring a poem's audio delights to the fore, and endeavor to stir the reader's imagination dramatically.”

Others in the industry obviously agree with Boss. W.W. Norton even features two videos of his poems on their site, along with info about "Yellowrocket."

“Publishers know that digital media is about to change the industry, but they're not sure what poetry will look like onscreen,” says Todd. “We do. It'll feel like poetry, it'll look like film, and it'll engage the reader in ways that print poetry could only dream of. I'm not yet ready to predict the demise of the printed book; the goal of Motionpoems is to drive more readers to books.”

And they do, as this viewer (and many others) can attest. After you watch a motionpoem from "Yellowrocket" two or three times, the book calls you back to hear the words anew, and to feel the breeze that is clearly rising.

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

Have you seen a motionpoem? Join the Monitor's book discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

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