Still Moving

Ron Mann on his 1982 film Poetry in Motion.
By Ron Mann interviewed by Daniel Nester (Daniel Nester)

To say that Poetry in Motion, Ron Mann’s 1982 documentary, is the greatest poetry documentary of all time doesn’t really quite give the film its due. Thirty years on, the film still holds up as an anthology and time capsule, one that’s on a par with or even surpasses its print inspiration, Donald Allen’s New American Poetry: 1945-1960. It arrived in theaters and video stores at a time when poetry was reasserting itself as an oral and performance-based art, a synthesis of previous countercultural movements with free jazz, punk rock, and theater of cruelty cabaret. 

You might guess that I am a fan. Right now on the floor of my office, I have spread out VHS, LaserDisc, and DVD copies of Poetry in Motion, along with two objects known as CD-ROMs.

Just 23 years old when he shot Poetry in Motion, Mann and a skeletal crewdocumented about 70 poets for a total of 45 hours, shooting in San Francisco, the Sierra Nevada foothills, and Toronto, as well as at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project during the 1982 New Year’s Day Marathon Reading. Twenty-four poets made the final cut, with 20 or more in the bonus materials.

Those 24 performers read like a who’s who of late 20th-century American countercultural poetry. There are the luminaries, Robert Creeley, Diane di Prima, Michael McClure, Jim Carroll, and Gary Snyder among them. The musicians backing up poets were heavy hitters themselves: David Murray with Amiri Baraka, Jamaaladeen Tacuma with Jayne Cortez. Allen Ginsberg fronts Toronto new wave band the CeeDees, Kenward Elmslie croons with a boom box atop his lap, and Ntozake Shange, rocking a Prince T-shirt, performs “What Does It Mean that Black Folks Could Sing and Dance” with a dance troupe.

This list also includes Ed Sanders’s musical tie, sound poetry combo Four Horsemen’s barbaric yawp, John Giorno’s double-voice backing tape, Jim Carroll’s albino-like skin and shaky voice, and Nuyorican Poets Cafe co-founder Miguel Algarín singing over the final credits.

Mann’s second full-length film, Poetry in Motion, took on a life of its own after its theatrical release. According to Mann, it was the first film to be put into a bookstore, when in 1985 VHS copies were sold in Rizzoli’s in New York; and one of the first films to be digitized, a radical idea at the time, in QuickTime format at 10 frames per second, on CD-ROMs. It was also one of the first digital projects to use hypertext. The project also engendered the first CD-ROM sequel, when Poetry in Motion II was released in 1995, featuring bonus footage and 20 more poets’ performances and interviews. Not bad for a film shot on 16mm on a budget nearing $200,000.

One favorite scene in the Poetry in Motion II CD-ROM features Anne Waldman, who performs in the documentary and interviews Ted Berrigan and others. As she’s discussing her ideas about performance, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Olson, we hear her two-year-old son vocalizing from his high chair. He’s off-camera at first; then she places him on her lap to give him some hot tea.

“This is a kind of performance,” Waldman says of her child.

Mann still produces and directs documentaries, all with a focus on popular culture: 1999’s Grass covered U.S. marijuana laws, 1988’s Comic Book Confidential anticipated the resurgent interest in comics and graphic novels, and 2009’s Know Your Mushrooms covers, well, you might guess. 

I spoke to Mann over the phone in his Toronto production offices last December. Over the course of our hour-plus conversation, we covered such topics as John Cage’s deadly fungi, John Giorno’s contribution to the film and the promotion of poetry in general, an encounter with Richard Linklater, getting shitfaced in Bukowski’s house, and the on-camera debut of a singer-songwriter by the name of Tom Waits. 

Daniel Nester: This film introduced me to a lot of people who would become my heroes. I suppose I’m 12, 13 years younger than you, and it wouldn’t be until 1986, after your film came out on VHS, that I saw it. I would rack up all kinds of late fees from TLA Video in Philadelphia, watching Baraka, Giorno, Waldman, Sanchez over and over again. I wouldn’t be a poet if it wasn’t for this film. It presented all these possibilities.

Ron Mann: I make films to meet my heroes. And meeting [William S.] Burroughs was, for me, just incredible. In organizing this, I had already made a film about jazz musicians—Imagine the Sound, with Archie Shepp, Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor. It was kind of a history of free jazz. It gave me a bit of credibility in talking to these guys, and there was some crossover. 

On the other hand, trying to tell people I was making a film about poetry was . . . well, people thought I had lost my mind! Of course, when I got turned down by the CBC and others and the C Channel, which was a culture channel at the time, I kind of knew I was on the right track.

DN: How did things get off the ground?

RM: I remember getting a phone call in the middle of the night, three in the morning. I rolled out of bed, and it was Allen Ginsberg on the phone, saying he would be in the movie. He was the first person to say yes, and I knew if he said yes, it would give me credibility with the other artists. It was the beginning of a long relationship with Allen. He had given me interviews on a number of films, including Grass, and a long interview for a TV show called The Fifties, based on the David Halberstam book on Kerouac.

One of the greatest moments of my life was carrying Allen’s harmonium after a reading. I thought it was so holy.

So I put together with John a list of artists, and to be honest I just kept recording poets. I couldn’t stop! There are people like Antler, whom we tracked down in a forest in Wisconsin, who was published by City Lights. I actually talked to [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti, but he didn’t want to talk about poetry; he wanted to talk about his paintings at the time.

DN: Who did you film at the Poetry Project?

RM: Everybody. Tom Verlaine [of Television], Richard Hell. A lot of the New York scene. There was also Cookie Mueller, a number of poets. It was an incredible scene. 

There’s a movie, Blank City, which really brings back the energy of the time. Remember, the context of this was the beginning of the indie film movement, with Jim Jarmusch and all those folks. Jarmusch and I shared film crews around this same time. 

DN: I read somewhere that the entire 47 hours of footage is housed at the University of Wisconsin. Is that true?

RM: Well, my archive is actually at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I gave Emile de Antonio [Mann’s mentor, listed as consultant in the film] the John Cage footage for his film Mr. Hoover and I, and his films are at the University of Wisconsin. So the hour interview I did with Cage is there.

It was one wonderful day baking bread—zucchini bread, if I remember—with John in his apartment. That interview inspired the mushroom movie. John was a huge mushroom person. He has a mushroom in his apartment, and he warned me not to brush against it because it would be fatal if I did.

DN: Thinking back to Poetry in Motion, his performance is not on a soundstage or in a club.

RM: Right. The soundstage performances were at a studio here in Toronto. Some club ones were at a live event called Wholly Communion, which continued until 2001. It was named after the 1965–66 reading in Albert Hall, and a movie of the same name that Allen [Ginsberg] was in.

DN: Was that the same place where Anne Waldman and John Giorno read?

RM: That was at the Cactus Lounge in San Francisco. For a short period we went to the West Coast to record Tom Waits and Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen. These poets were heroes of mine. I grew up reading poetry, and the Beat poets in particular. Later, I went to record at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project New Year’s Day Marathon Reading and other places. 

I just remembered the first time talking to John about the project. The inspiration for the movie itself was at a rock club. Back then, poetry readings at rock clubs were a new thing in the early ’80s. A friend, Gary Topp, ran a repertoire cinema called the Roxy, later a rock club called the Edge, where new wave and rock bands played in downtown Toronto. He booked John Giorno and William Burroughs among bands like the Police. 

DN: I assume you went to see Burroughs. Had you heard of John Giorno before?

RM: No, I hadn’t. I’d read Burroughs growing up. I remember going there with a journalist friend, Salem Alaton, and we were just blown away. I remember saying this before, but the effect watching John was like coffee and cigarettes. He was like the Bruce Springsteen of readings.

Because I knew Gary, he allowed me to go upstairs and talk to John afterwards. He showed me his Dial-a-Poem albums, which are these K-tel-like compilations of poetry, and I immediately turned to my friend Salam and said, “This is my next film.” I talked to John and asked about documenting, doing a film version of the Dial-a-Poem series, like a Donald Allen anthology-type survey of New American Poetry.

DN: You mentioned this New American Poetry inspiration to Terence Diggory a couple years back. You were 22, 23 years old when all of this was going on. It must have been a heady time for you to meet all of these people.

RM: I mean, I read these people! I was completely a fan of Bob Creeley, Ted Berrigan. And Ed Sanders—my god, I remember the late ’60s, when my brother gave me the Fugs’ Live at the Fillmore East, listening to “Slum Goddess from the Lower East Side,” and I was hooked—the kind of protopunk poetry that had a lot of energy and meant a lot to me.

DN: Just judging by the bonus footage on the CD-ROM Poetry in Motion II, a lot was left on the cutting room floor. I wonder, poets being the fragile artists they are, if there was any blowback or protests from those who didn’t make the final cut?

RM: I mentioned Emile de Antonio before. He made a film called Painters Painting, an anthology of the Abstract Expressionist painters organized around the Henry Geldzahler show in 1970 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He once said to me that the only people who didn’t like that film were the painters who weren’t in the movie!

I was aware that a lot of the artists who were not in the film would be kind of, umm, not that happy with me. But the thing I tried to reinforce is that if I filmed it, it existed. I mean, why did I document these artists? I did it to have a record of poets that have never been filmed before in a time when there was a resurgence of poetry as an oral tradition, as performance. And it will exist for a hundred years.

DN: It sounds like you really thought about it as a proper movie.

RM: There really is a dramatic structure to it. Mostly due to [Emile] de Antonio again. He came by and watched the performances with us while we were searching for a structure for the film. And he looked at a box that said “Bukowski” on it. Now, this was a four-hour interview I did with Hank, at his house, over many bottles of wine. At the end of the filming, the cameraman was drunk. You could see the camera floating off into space. Peter put it on for D to watch, and he said, “This is your guy.” We said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “He’s your anti-narrator.” And we said, “What do you mean? He hates poems! He hates readings!”

And he said, “Exactly!”

I got around to understand what he was saying, that you would agree with what Bukowski was saying or not. But for me, this was a celebration of poetry and a celebration of a moment. It’s an homage to Woodstock, a documentary I can watch over and over again. I thought maybe it would make things more trivial, like The Ed Sullivan Show. Poets spinning plates.

The film was before MTV, the time that, if you liked the bands, you had to make an effort to see them. People went to see beach party movies to see Elvis, or A Hard Day’s Night to see the Beatles sing. You get to see these mythical figures perform. For me, filming these poets performing, the idea of presenting poetry as a performance, as a film, was a way to collect and see these artists read. This was a different notion of poetry, out of the library and on the street. John Giorno talks about this staid idea.

DN: He just comes out and says, “Nobody reads poetry anymore.”

RM: And the whole idea of curling up on the couch by the fire. This was really bringing it to people. There’s something we might forget, that John Giorno held a role as one of the great promoters of poetry. I mean, whether you think of him as a great poet or not is almost beside the point. He put poetry on matchbook covers and flags; he chalked it on the street. He made it relevant again.

I recently produced a movie called Examined Life by Astra Taylor, about philosophers. It has [Slavoj] Žižek, Peter Singer, Cornel West. It was kind of a Poetry in Motion with philosophers. They were literally in motion—they walked, a lot of them, as if to demonstrate the practice of meditation while walking.

It’s all about the idea of bringing ideas out in these hyperaccelerated media bites. Where ideas are just pop and we don’t really have time to, I don’t know, settle into an idea. 

DN: You use complete poems, for one thing.

RM: That’s another one of the things about the poetry and film from Imagine the Sound—I didn’t cut those performances. I was pretty clear about that. 

DN: And there are no cutaways to the audience, as they have in comedy specials.

RM: Well, that’s The Last Waltz. That idea is straight from The Last Waltz. So in itself, you’re experiencing it as a concert, as a performance. What was great was the reaction to the movie where you had spontaneous applause in theaters, as if it was a band’s set. 

DN: Tell me about the screenings. You told me about how you kept some of the original posters when it was shown in theaters. Was it blown up to 35mm for release?

RM: Nope, the movie was shown in 16mm. It premiered at the Film Forum in New York City in 1982. Janet Pierson ran it with Karen Cooper. Karen is still there, and Janet went on to program South by Southwest. Ben Barenholtz picked this movie up. He was one of the legends of the independent movie scene. Ben ran Libra-Cinema 5 Films, which was bought by the Weinstein brothers. He was there that night. I thought I conquered the world when I played the Film Forum.

The film brought together the poets at movie theaters whenever it was shown. Each night a different poet read in front of the film. It was a big event, this movie. 

DN: This is also the very start of the indie film movement as well, just when a critical mass of people were adopting the DIY ethos with both filming and distribution.

RM: I have this incredible story. I was at Sundance [in 2001] when Richard Linklater had his film Waking Life premiering. And Louis Black, a friend who founded South by Southwest, came up to me and said, “Richard Linklater wants to thank you.” I was like, “What do you mean ‘Richard Linklater wants to thank me’? I don’t know Richard Linklater.” I thought he had the wrong guy. And Louis said, “No no no, he really wants to thank you.”

So I walked up to him and introduced myself. Richard Linklater says, “You were in Houston showing your film Poetry in Motion with Ntozake Shange at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston in 1982.” And I said, “Yeah, yes I was.”

“Well,” he said, “you talked afterwards and you inspired me, and the next day I went out and bought a camera.” 

My jaw dropped. I’m sure it wasn’t anything I said, but it was kind of like that film itself had that energy, that a 23-year-old could go out and make a movie about his heroes.

A few weekends ago Anne Waldman had a reading in Toronto. And I got to reestablish my friendship with her. I mean, we were always friendly, but I hadn’t seen her in 30 years! It was great. I taped a poem she performed in support of Occupy Wall Street, and put it on my iPhone and put it on my Facebook. She’s still a fantastic reader. Twenty younger poets were there from Victor Coleman’s class at U of Toronto. We all were looking for a bar afterwards to hang out. We went a couple blocks and I invited them back to my office. We wound up staying here drinking 12 bottles of wine till four in the morning. It was totally a blast. And it could have been 1982.

What inspired me were the younger poets—I mean, Damian Rogers and Sarah Cohen, young Canadian poets—and it was just fantastic being around that energy, seeing that there’s still poetry that is alive.

DN: What’s great about poetry in the last decade or so is that the different camps are far more fungible and cross-pollination-friendly, as opposed to the more clannish days of the decades before that. If we talk about the Beats and the Black Mountain Poets and punk, we can see how they’re of the same family tree, much more now than before.

RM: Who’s the person who wrote The Unsettling of America? 

DN: Wendell Berry.

RM: Right. He talks about a farmer in Kentucky, and there are times when I am down and I will turn to poetry. There’s something nurturing and soulful that nothing but poetry can be, I guess a balm for the soul. A lot of poetry that I read, like Gary Snyder, is still so beautiful and timeless.

DN: The diversity of the reading styles in Poetry in Motion bears that out. I mean, you have Baraka performing with a band, and then you have Ted Berrigan reading a poem to Anne Waldman at the bottom of a flight of stairs in a very conversational style. It showed me that poets have any number of choices when they perform and read their work—that it’s about what the poem itself asks you to do. Some poems are meant to be shouted, others whispered.

RM: There’s the shouters and screamers and the fast-talking women. And then there’s this beautiful singular voice. When I made the comic-book film, I made the artists read their work. The bubbles you see there, the speech bubbles, really are the voice of the artist, and people hadn’t heard the voice of Will Eisner or Robert Crumb before. And it really brings alive the work. In the case of poetry, it brings it off the page. Ntozake Shange has dancers, and there’s the kind of punk poetry that is more theater of cruelty or something. Sometimes the greatest shout is the most quiet.

DN: Diane di Prima’s performance is so quiet and so peaceful.

RM: Hers was so beautiful.

DN: And that was the first time I ever heard Tom Waits as well.

RM: That was the first time Tom Waits was ever filmed! He was very shy. I never used his interview, but I remember him talking about poetry as a kind of eavesdropping. We were on the street at a Chinese restaurant across the street from where he was living. The sun was coming down, which is the magic hour, and he recorded a lullaby, which Robert Fresco shot beautifully. I had a very small crew. David Joliat did the sound and was the voice in the film announcing the poets by name.

DN: I was wondering who that stentorian voice was.

RM: You can see him and me and the entire crew in one of the last shots with Jim Carroll. That was another nod to de Antonio, who made the documentary on the Weather Underground; there’s the last scene with him and the members of his skeletal crew, Haskell Wexler and Mary Lampson. It’s a way to show how we were all involved in it together.

What I loved about it was that it was just the human voice. There’s something genuine and authentic about it that I still think about what made that film so powerful. Ginsberg called it a classic. I didn’t think about it that way at the time. I did think about future audiences. I didn’t think this would exist as anything more than publishing electronically or amplifying these artists so other people could be exposed to them.

DN: I can only speak for myself, but there would be no other way for me to hear about Helen Adam at 18 years old.

RM: We shot Helen Adam in the hallway of her building because we couldn’t fit a crew in her apartment, which was filled with books and jewelry and agates. 

DN: I loved her interview with Anne Waldman. Did Waldman and Giorno do all the interviews, or did you conduct any yourself?

RM: I wanted the artists to interview each other. I didn’t really have the confidence that I have now as a filmmaker. I was pretty young. There was a kind of family of poets that knew each other and were able to translate. There was a comfortability of friends talking to friends. I just used that as kind of a way to defer to them and make it more conversational. Painters Painting gives another inspiration here, where the interviews with artists have an intimate, fly-on-the-wall effect. That was the reason, other than being 23 and being in awe of these people.

DN: In some of the shots you will see Anne Waldman and, say, Amiri Baraka, and in others it’s the poet talking to someone over the shoulder. There is one shot, I think, on the Poetry in Motion II CR-ROM where it’s Jim Carroll, Ed Sanders, and John Giorno talking, and you realize there are not too many opportunities to see these folks talk about poetry in general, but performance specifically, and it buttresses the thesis of the film.

RM: I should look at the transcripts. This was a moment in time when there was a new movement in American poetry, North American poetry, that brought together both the poets from the Beat era and the younger post-punk. 

Remember, the entire project is happening in the ’80s, when there’s this rewriting of what happened in the 1960s. The Reagan era was in part about reducing the ’60s to sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it being a failure, and that includes a lot of the cultural heroes who were in this film. There was that synergy of post-Beat and the punk movement merging, in New York especially. 

DN: In another bonus clip, you have an interview with a printer who was putting together a book by the poet and editor Tom Clark. You cast the net wide, to show all the aspects of poetry performances and publishing.

RM: That was out in Santa Barbara. There was also an interview with Ann and Ken Mikolowski of Alternative Press, which made fantastic stuff in Ann Arbor, one of the great printers of poetry and ephemera, and published a lot of the artists in Poetry in Motion. I still have framed one of Tom Clark’s poems, called “Stooges Anonymous.” [Reads it.]

DN: There seems to be an extended family tree from this film. Poetry in Motion launched a lot of careers and projects.

RM: There’s a lot of crazy asides here. Jim Carroll and I became really good friends after that film. I made a movie in 1984 with him, Listen to the City, a fictional one I’ve just rereleased, and it also included his wife, Rosemary Carroll; Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Band; and poets Elizabeth Smart and Christopher Dewdney. Even I forgot about that [laughs].

And B.P. Nichol and I were great friends until he died. He inspired Comic Book Confidential, he helped me write it, and most of his collection is in that film. He had a comic strip himself in underground papers.

The publicist for Poetry in Motion, Elliott Lefko, also put together the Cactus Lounge shows. And he was so inspired by the movie that he became a poetry promoter! He brought in people like Lou Reed to Toronto and became a professional rock promoter. He now works at a place called Goldenvoice and helps run the Coachella Festival and the Leonard Cohen tour. That movie completely changed him.

DN: Didn’t Atom Egoyan work as a production assistant?

RM: He was a PA, yes. Atom got lodging for Jim Carroll at the University of Toronto. Peter Mettler worked on the film and became Atom’s cinematographer for his films and his own. Bruce McDonald, who made a number of movies like Hard Core Logo, was a PA. This was the beginning of what we called the Toronto New Wave, and a lot of them began working for me at the time.

Did Poetry in Motion change the world? Maybe it made a little dent. My thing is sort of a cultural historian. I’m still at it all these years later. De Antonio once said to me, “My bet is on history.” In other words, you need a record of alternative culture, dissenting voices. Otherwise, we’re stuck in the status quo. With Examined Life just recently, we were laughed at! But the truth is, people do want to see this stuff. 

It’s the end of television, anyway. The language has changed, the visual language has changed, and the way we interact with audiovisual language has changed. I think it’s an exciting time for poetry—like the early ’80s. It’s kept alive, and it’s not going away. We’re not bored to death by poetry readings. We’re brought alive by them.

Originally Published: April 11th, 2012

Daniel Nester’s most recent book is the memoir-in-essays Shader: 99 Notes on Car Washes, Making Out in Church, Grief, and Other Unlearnable Subjects (99: The Press, 2015). He is the author of the nonfiction books How to Be Inappropriate (2009) and God Save My Queen I and II (2003, 2004), and is the editor of The Incredible Sestina...

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