The why and how of making poetry videos

Poetry videos, especially on YouTube, are becoming a popular introduction to spoken word, performance poetry and especially slam poetry. With the growth of channels like Button Poetry and viral poetry videos of poets like Sarah Kaye and Taylor Mali, many people have discovered spoken word online potentially without coming across the live version in their own city.

We make no secret that one of Melbourne Spoken Word’s focus points is expanding the amount of work of Melbourne poets and performers available as video online, on our own YouTube Channel. We believe that one or two good quality videos of a poet’s work can help to increase their profile and the profile of live events in Melbourne.

Whilst Melbourne Spoken Word, with the help of poet Freeman Trebilcock, plus the YouTube channel, RealPoetryMovies presented by Ken Smeaton, get around to gigs and try and film people, we think you should consider getting out there and doing a video or two of your own work. We should also mention at this point that the work of David McLauchlan, who for many years recorded poetry and spoken word around Melbourne and broadcast it through his TV show, Red Lobster on Channel 31, where you can still access all 275 episodes, recorded between 2003 and 2012.

Why would you make a video of your work? The simple answer is so that people who potentially want to see you perform, and ask you to perform at their event know what you’re like on stage. A video is often the best analogue to your live performance, even for those who consider themselves ‘page poets.’ Of course, for some, poetry published on the page might be the best or another way to introduce your work, or perhaps radio or audio recording. A video is useful in particular for those with more performative and aural aspects to your work. It’s an example of your work for those who don’t know who you are or have never seen you perform before.

The first hurdle many people ask is about equipment. Either it costs too much or they don’t know how to use it. We’d recommend you don’t use a smartphone like an iPhone to record video unless you can find a place to steady it. Many videos on YouTube recorded on smartphones are quite shaky. Also, the sound is often terrible because it picks up all of the background noise and people talking around you. It might work better in a quieter environment. If you have a bit of cash, it might be worth investing in a DSLR camera or a camcorder, which you might be able to get from as little as $300 now, or less if you try eBay or factory outlets.

Poetry videos don’t require a lot of fancy camerawork or editing. Often you can just press record on the camera, upload it to your computer, and use a simple program like iMovie or Windows Movie Maker to trim the video and add your name or some other info as titles. From there, you can play around and try and get fancier depending on your skill level or by learning off others. Watch some videos online and see what you like and try out things.

One option is to borrow either equipment or help. If you’re at university, you can often borrow equipment from an AV library on campus, such as I’m able to at RMIT. You might also be able to hire equipment for less than it costs to buy it, or just borrow a camera from a friend. If technology and all this freaks you out a little, poets and tech-savvy friends with cameras might be able to help you out, either in return for some kind of help in return, or a small fee.

One word of warning with equipment is that sound can be a major sticking point for a good video. Often microphones attached to the cameras aren’t the best sound and with poetry videos, and being able to clearly hear the words is vital. For those with a bit more cash or access to fancier gear, a lapel microphone, an external recorder or microphone will help. At gigs, you could also use a dictaphone or voice recorder plugged into the sound desk to get clearer sound. If none of that is possible, just get the camera as close as possible to reduce interference.

In terms of where to film, it’s best to record it live at a gig, such as when you feature or at an open mic. If you want, try an interesting location, perhaps that fits with your poem. Think music videos. Perform your poem in a forest, or a graffitied lane way or on the street, or on a tram. Ride your bike and record it on a GoPro. It’s best not to record something in your bedroom or just at home. A plain white wall would also be fine, but perhaps a little boring.

But most important of all, record your best work. The poem people love, the one you feel the best doing, that poem you’ve memorised. This might be the first time they’ve seen and heard you. You want to make a good impression.

Photo by Peter Taylor. Creative Commons License.

Annie Solah