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New class teaches ‘movietelling’

Student poets are rewriting famous television shows and movies, like “Mad Men” and the episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” University of Miami Creative Writing Professor Walter K. Lew currently teaches workshops on a craft that involves poetry and mass media called “movietelling,” in which one redubs particular television and movie scenes to provide personal commentary. Lew and his poetry students showcased their creative projects at 7:30 p.m. April 24 at the Dorsch Gallery, on 151 Northwest 24th St. in the Wynwood Art District as part of the O, Miami, a poetry festival taking place throughout April.

“The students do marvelous work. Some do as well as any professional doing movietelling,” Lew said.

Chris Joyner, a first year MFA poetry student at UM, redubbed scenes from Mad Men as a debate about American foreign policy. Leah Silvieus, another first year MFA poetry student, took documentaries about animals and made them into stories about the complexities of language. For example, tentacles of octopi became metaphors about how “slippery” language is.

Jennifer Nellis, a former student of Lew’s in the Mills College MFA program in California, redubbed scenes from the Hitchcock-directed “A Dip in the Pool,” which takes place on a cruise ship, to produce a commentary on gender and sexuality.

Nellis dubs the main character as a homosexual man.

“Men should be flat, women should be round. Oh, to be a round man on a ship where flat men dominate and women crave angles…” this new character said. “So, I crave the angular skin of men. I will find my island.”

Movietelling has its origins in early 20th-century live film narration and became popular in places such as Japan, Germany and, in the 1970s, the Soviet Union. A more subversive form of such narration can be found in Korean film history. Under Japanese rule, Koreans were forced to view documentaries praising the Japanese empire, but the Korean movietellers’ narrations often cleverly inserted criticism of Japanese rule.

Lew points to mass media as a source for resistance, or at least for scrutiny, in American culture today, where, for example, most households have at least one television. In an age of media convergence, where people have access to traditionally separate media like movies, TV shows, and Internet on a single iPhone, ample amounts of information are at people’s fingertips.

On one hand of the debate over how media influences people, some argue that such an influx of information and images leads people to the point of leaving things such as stereotypes unchallenged.

“Movietelling calls people forth to produce their own takes on mass culture using poetry. The poet can use the finely-tuned weapon of poetry and the emotions, insight, and imagination it stimulates against the homogenizing powers of mass media,” Lew said.

This craft, in addition to providing an interesting way to engage with media, allows poetry to creatively adapt to the times and revitalizes its political and historical traditions.

“Poets were once considered political spokesmen or a mouthpiece for a discontented populace. Their work was avant-garde,” Lew said.

His students find movietelling especially innovative and interesting.

“Most people today would probably prefer to watch a movie or TV show over reading poetry. These types of media are just more accessible and immediate,” MFA candidate Chris Joyner said. “However, movietelling allows the poet to tap into the visual in a way that enhances the experience of both poetry and visual, allowing the two to coalesce into something entirely new and unexpected.”

For more information on the event, visit to the Dorsch’s Web site at dorschgallery.com/upcoming/ or e-mail Professor Lew at wlew@miami.edu.

Kristen Soller may be contacted at ksoller@themiamihurricane.com.

April 27, 2011

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Kristen Soller

Contributing News Writer


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