If musicians can do it, why not poets? That thought inspired Chicago poet Dwight Okita to create "Crossing With the Light," his--and perhaps the city's--first poetry video. At a time when the audience for serious poetry is getting smaller, Okita is one of a small group of poets and poetry lovers who feel video can give poetry a broader appeal.
"Coming from an advertising background," says Okita, "I am painfully aware that poetry has an image problem. It's invisible. People think of it as something of another era. They can't see the link between the contemporary life they are living and poetry; you need a radical link to get people to see the connection."
"Crossing With the Light" is a video adaptation of one of Okita's poems, produced with the help of the Chicago Access Corporation. It will premiere Monday, September 19, as part of the "Arts on Access" series, which that evening will feature four independently produced videos. The weekly show will air on cable-access Channel 19 from 9 to 10 PM every Monday.
Okita, an avowed popularizer who once read a poem to the accompaniment of Stevie Wonder music, even has a kind word for Rod McKuen. "He's taken his poetry and put it in the hands of the public, while other poets, better poets, have absolutely failed. He is completely aware of how the media work and how marketing works. And I admire that, because without people who do that, poetry would have no image at all."
The widely published Okita certainly has the respect of the poetry world; publisher W.W. Norton recently asked him for the right to anthologize one of his poems, "In Response to Executive Order 9066: All Americans of Japanese Descent Must Report to Relocation Centers." For Okita, however, even a Norton anthology does little to further public awareness of poetry.
"The problem with most artists is they have no sense of their audience. Most poets in Chicago play to each other. They play to their friends. But you don't need to convert the converted, you need to convert the unconverted--the virgin audience which is out there waiting and searching for what you have to offer." The "virgin audience," he says, is anyone who has never bought a book of poetry.
Okita's excursion into video parallels in a way Wordsworth's use of images that would be more accessible to the common man. In "Crossing With the Light," both language and visual images are familiar. It was shot at a north-side locale--the point where Clark, Diversey, and Broadway converge. Okita, reciting his poem as he walks the streets, tells ". . . how poets would see love in the parking of a car / love in the rear-view mirror, love in the slowing / of tires between yellow lines."
The video, like the language, forces us to take a fresh look at familiar scenes: the billboard over the corner record store that reads "Mysteriously satisfying," the traffic signals that direct us, passing cars whose headlights are like a moving string of holiday lights.
With the help of producer and director Marsha Morgan, still photographer Jennifer Girard, and video cameraman Jonathan Letchinger, Okita takes a busy street corner and makes it stand still for a brief, poetic moment. The poet seems to merge with the scene as we see him walking amid the crowds, crossing the street, anxiously waiting for the traffic light to change. Sometimes the cars seem to be breathing, the headlights become watchful eyes.
Okita refuses to interpret his images, however. The poem itself must carry the message, he says; the video serves to enhance it.
While some poets may consider his effort a "bastardization of the art form," Okita feels that most will respond favorably when they see the care and sensitivity with which "Crossing With the Light" was produced, This love poem talks not only of romantic love but of the love of city living, love of the times, and love of the present, the moment of crossing with the light. Most of all, it is an effort to reach out to a general audience.
Of special interest is the still photography of theater photographer Jennifer Girard, whose grainy, pointillistic final shot of the poet imparts a feeling of his fragility, vulnerability, and trust.
"Crossing With the Light" has been entered in the CAN (Chicago Access Network) Illinois Community Television Competition and Festival, also called CAN Fest '88. Poets and others interested in video production can call the Chicago Access Corporation at 738-1400 for information about classes and the program. Okita also invites those interested in his video and its production to call him at 883-5219.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jennifer Girard.