Presenter of the National Book Awards

Interview with Todd Boss, Co-founder, MotionPoems, 2015

Honorable Mention, 2015 Innovations in Reading Prize
Twitter: @Motionpoems

Once you put a poem on paper, it becomes reimagined by every reader. A motionpoem is just a window into one reader’s reimagination of the work.

—Todd Boss

National Book Foundation: How does the filmmaker select the poem?

Todd Boss: It’s a misconception that Motionpoems “matches” poems with filmmakers. In fact, we offer filmmakers groups of about 10 poems at a time, and filmmakers select their poems from those groups. We invite filmmakers to read, fall in love, and choose.

Filmmakers fall in love with poems the same way any reader does; something in the poem reaches them or speaks for them or touches a chord. If a filmmaker doesn’t fall in love with a poem, we send them more poems until they do.

NBF: What is the relationship between the poet and the filmmaker like? Do filmmakers often consult poets about the direction of their motionpoems?

TB: We invite the filmmaker to participate in a short, facilitated conversation by phone with their poet if they would like. That’s because they have been guaranteed complete creative control over their project.

We always preface the conversations by telling the poet that the conversation is purely research for the filmmaker and may not have any bearing on the creative direction of the project. We take the opportunity in that conversation to reinforce the fact that the filmmaker is in complete creative control. In fact, I often tell poets that they may not like their films.

Todd Boss (right) with Guest Producer Jennifer David credit Sarah Hrudka
Todd Boss (right) with Guest Producer Jennifer David (Credit: Sarah Hrudka).

NBF: Does that happen often?

TB: Almost 99 percent of the time. It’s a shock reaction in its initial viewing and it’s usually overcome in the second and third viewing. It’s just that, at first, seeing someone else’s interpretation of your work is jarring.

It’s a real trust game that our poets have to play. They have to be comfortable with giving up the poem. Smart poets understand that intrinsically. Once you put a poem on paper, it becomes reimagined by every reader. A motionpoem is just a window into one reader’s reimagination of the work.

Most of our poets love our motionpoems after the third time they’ve seen it. It’s just that initial shock that we’d like to prepare them for.

NBF: Your entire sixth season, thanks to a partnership with VIDA, features poems from female writers. How do you see Motionpoems expanding the voices of other communities in future seasons?

TB: We just announced that season 7 will consist exclusively of poems from African American writers through a partnership with Cave Canem. We’ll have more representing voices from different cultures and groups. We will also be exploring poems on timely themes that are potent for the moment.

NBF: Many of your films are co-produced by presses like Copper Canyon, Milkweed, and HarperCollins. How did these partnerships form?

TB: Really just through an invitational conversation. We say, “What have you got in the coming year?” and “Can we read through it?” and offer it to our filmmakers. The resounding answer is yes; we’re rarely turned down. It’s a great marketing and publicity tool for publishers. It’s also a great gift that publishers can give to their authors.

NBF: Since launching, Motionpoems has appeared in classrooms, film festivals, and museums. What’s next? What plans you have in the future?

TB: We just acquired a consultant in LA to help us with our distribution challenge, which is where is the audience and how do we distribute our films so people can encounter them. The questions are numerous - is it an airline? Public plaza screens? Is it IFC cable channel interstitials? Is it something that purely lives on social media and gets shared?

We have a lot of questions about that right now, but we face a lot of the same distribution questions that poetry faces. Just because we’re in a different medium doesn’t change the nature of the challenge. There are a lot of possibilities  we’re exploring.

NBF: What were some unexpected challenges?

TB: The most difficult challenge is when a poet really doesn’t like their film and asks us to not release it. It’s only happened twice out of eighty films so that’s a pretty good batting average. But when it does happen, it’s a heartbreaker for the filmmaker. We have to go to them and explain the situation. We’re loath to release anything that the poet would feel strongly against, so it’s a situation that we have to navigate really carefully.

Other than that, it’s been pretty exciting. It’s been a solid ride with a lot of momentum these last five years in terms of gathering audiences, hosting successful events, finding amazing filmmakers, signing on the top-notch poets - that’s really been quite simple.

There’s the fundraising challenge that every nonprofit faces - convincing funders that as a startup, we’re a good investment. That’s been tricky.

Photo credit: Nicole McDonald

NBF: What was an early high point for Motion Poems?

TB: For me, the highlight was in the very first year. It was approaching Louise Glück with an email and getting a phone call back. My cellphone rang while I was driving and it was her and I almost drove off the road. [Laughs.] I called [co-founder] Angella Kassube immediately afterwards and I said, “I think we have something really valuable here because Louise Glück just called us.” We were shocked.

She didn’t end up participating with us. I can’t remember why, but that was pretty telling to me that we had something important that a poet like her would call us back.

NBF: What has been your most meaningful moment of success?

TB: There are a lot of meaningful moments that happen throughout the course of the year, so I’m only as good as my last one. It happened just about a month ago - one of our filmmakers, who had completed a new film, wrote a poem to us to thank us for what it had meant to him to make this film.

He had quoted the original poem a couple of times in his poem to us, and he had put a lot of thought into expressing himself that way. It was clear that making the film meant a great deal to him, his family, his relationship with his mother, his relationship with his art form, and how validated he felt as a filmmaker, so there’s a lot that goes on.

It’s interesting, you’re the National Book Foundation and you think about poetry. I’m a poet, so we think about poetry. But there’s another side to this whole thing, and that’s what happens on the filmmaking side; it’s extremely heartwarming and encouraging to me when I hear from that side of the equation. It’s real deep and strong passion inspired by the work they do for us. It’s just amazing.