The Power of Motionpoems

A dream of Tod Boss’, a modern poet and lover of animation, was to have his work illustrated by an animator. Boss’s dream came true one night at a small cafe he frequented in St.Paul Minnesota where he met Angella Kassube, a designer and animator who had a deep love for poetry.  After exchanging their work, Boss and Kassube created a joint project titled Constellations back in 2008 which featured the former’s poetry and the latter’s animation. This small project spawned the hybrid art form the Minnesota duo dubs Motionpoems. Currently, dozens of hand-selected “episodes”, or shorts, decorate the motionpoem library now spanning 8 seasons, with the ninth on its way. 

As Boss stresses in the video above, the coalescence of poetry and film found in motionpoems truly result in the creation of absolutely lyrical, and often very spiritual, short films. Since the release of Constellations, various artists of color have used the motion power platform to empower the voices of minority groups otherwise absent in popular media. This includes two enlightening and visually stunning shorts, American Arithmetic and Mariposa

American Arithmetic showcases the social power capable of motionpoems 

In American Arithmetic, Natalie Diaz’s stark and revealing poem on the systematic oppression of Native Americans is paired with the direction of Suadi-American, New York based filmmaker Mohammed Hammad. Diaz’s words are carefully intertwined with the voices of Native Americans who extrapolate on the genocides of their people and share the various accounts of police brutality their loved ones have been subject to. Compounded with the voice-over of these heart-wrenching stories, the piercing emotionless stares of the Native peoples featured in this film successfully illustrate how fragile centuries of colonization has made their communities. At the same time, Hammad’s directorial choice of having their gaze directly face the camera also showcases their generational resiliency and determination to preserve their culture. 

Without the power of Diaz’s words, Hammad’s would only appear to be a well-edited string of portraitures and wouldn’t hold as strong of a social impact. In the same respect, Diaz’s words may not have expanded to the eyes and ears of those outside her community without the dissemination of the film across the internet. American Arithmetic utilizes Diaz and Hammad’s respective art forms to ensure the Native American population, only representing 1% of the U.S.,  isn’t reduced to a mere statistic but a distinguished face fixed to the existence of children, adults, elders, and the memory of Jason Pero—a 14 year-old Native American killed by law enforcement the film is dedicated to. 

Not all shorts in the motionpoem catalog are as politically voiced as American Arithmetic and solely seek to explore the creative possibilities the art form allows. In his motionpoem Mariposa, meaning “butterfly” in Spanish, director Kristian Mercado Figueroa refrains from pushing an explicit political agenda and instead allows for viewers to decipher the short for themselves. 

Mariposa demonstrates the unique artistic and cinematic capabilities of motionpoems 

Rachel Inez Marshall’s poem invites viewers to a navigation of motherhood across generations of Latinx women. Similar to American Arithmetic, Mariposa refrains from a contiguous delivery of its poem and divides the verse amongst women of various ages. Rather than appear as a recitation of Marshall's words, this explicit directorial choice of Figueroa allows for each line to appear as a dialogue between mothers and daughters separated by space and time. 

When coupled with Marshall’s poem, the sporadic shot selection, restless camera movement, and 16mm film grain of Mariposa truly transcends viewers to a near dreamlike world. Beautifully paralleling their generational conversation, Figueroa directs these women’s stories in a non-linear fashion oscillating back and forth from several locales and temporal spaces similarly to how our dreams transpire. Mariposa is admittedly jarring in its first watch, especially for viewers unfamiliar with such experimental cinema, but, if you let it “take you”, the short grows progressively hypnotic, engrossing and ethereal— especially with the lyrical hum of the monotone score. Figueroa’s film transitions from its surreal diegesis to a fully realized documentary. Because the interviewees' words on being a single mother seamlessly continue the conversation from the end of the poem, the shift in form isn’t harsh but harmonious when put into perspective the themes expressed throughout the short. 

Provided his delicate handling of the poem, it’s quite remarkable Figueroa hadn’t collaborated or even met with Marshall until after the film’s completion. Marshall poem’s near-perfect translation to screen makes it seem as if it were written as the script for the film. Boss created motionpoems precisely to allow for rising filmmakers and poets to find their own artistic expression in each other’s work. Mariposa, and even the politically voiced American Arithmetic, both illustrate the endless artistic capabilities Boss and Kassube’s hybrid art form which has also provided a great avenue for smaller, and minority, artists to add a voice to their communities. 

All 8 seasons of motionpoems are available to stream here. And you can explore the filmography of rising directors of color Mohammed Hammad and Kristian Mercado Figueroa on vimeo.