Making My Illuminated Text Poem

(an updated version — with audio)

A Warning: An Illuminated Poem from Mr. Hodgson on Vimeo.

I was asked by a few people yesterday how I created the illuminated poem I shared yesterday. So, I am trying to step back a bit and reflect on how I went about it and the choices I made in the composition process. A version of this post will also be on the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site.

First of all, I began my day at Bud’s site, where he had an image of warning signs and a few lines of a prompt for a poem. I also had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to explore how to do a simplified Illuminated Text project. As I mentioned yesterday, it was through some colleagues at the National Writing Project’s Digital Is site that gave some insights, some inspiration and a direction for me to proceed into this unknown terrain.

The writing came first, although I wrote the poem knowing that I would be using the text in some sort of animated project. I worried less about more poetic elements such as meter and rhyme and flow, and more about the message of the poem. The theme put forth by Bud was a warning, and I knew I wanted it to be about shaking up life to get to the things that are important. The lines came fairly easily, and I was revising them as I was creating the project. The last line was most important to me, and I changed it a few times to get it to how I wanted it.

Next, I opened up Powerpoint. I’ve done lessons around animation with Powerpoint before with my students, although it has been some time since I dabbled in there myself. I decided to use a plain white background, and to use just one single slide. This narrowed my working space and limited some choices, but that was fine. I debated the black-text on white-background, and even tried some other colors. In the end, I liked the simplicity of the design. I wish I had more time to spend with font, though. I feel as if that area of text choice might be more deliberate than I was.

I then slowly added each line of the poem as text boxes. Here, though, I made some decisions about which words should be separated from the line — which words should be their own individual block of text.  The word “go” seemed to need to move, right?  And I wanted to make the word “door” its own text, as if it were a doorway of sorts.  The stacking idea came later, as the text became the door. I knew that later, these planned separation of text would give me more flexibility in the animation. I didn’t want too many words like this. Instead, I tried to break off pieces that had meaning on their own in the lines of the poem.

Once the words were there, then I began the rather difficult task of animating the words and lines. There were about 20 pieces of animation in the poem, and synchronizing them to work one after another, or in tandem, took some time and trial-and-error. I wish I could say that I was very, very deliberate in every movement that I chose. For some lines, I was very purposeful.  The line that ends “shake it up” was a line I wanted to shake up — connecting the visual to the words. For others, I wanted it only to look good. I’m not sure why I made one line vertical, and then added multiple “open it” texts around the piece. I had some vague concept of the phrase making connections with the poem. I don’t think it worked, even though it looks cool, visually (although I should have staggered it more). In fact, not every animation here is completely in sync with the meaning of the text it animates.

More than once, I made some mistakes in the animation design and had to step back in time, and rework the sequence and flow. This is where the structural weakness of Powerpoint came into play — it is not designed for this kind of project, I concluded. The management overview of my workflow was weak. But I always like the idea of using a platform for something other than what it was designed for.

I knew I wanted to convert the Powerpoint into a video, and I have this software program that I bought a few years ago to do that. But I guess I hadn’t updated it recently, and it would only create a video with a watermark. I didn’t want that, and so I turned to the web. I found the AuthorStream site, which converts slides to video and then kicks out an embed code and hyperlink. I wasn’t happy, to be honest, because I didn’t want to the poem to be silent. But I could not find a way to add audio with the site.

Later in the day, I finally figured out how to update my Powerpoint conversion software. I took that raw video, and dumped it into MovieMaker, where I added some music from Freeplay Music. Then, I added in a narration audio track, which is what I wanted all along. I want voice in my poems. The result is pretty decent, and I could not host it myself at my Vimeo video site, which I am now doing.

Given the limits of the tools I used, I am pretty happy with the results. I think the technology helped make the poem very different than I would have been as just lines on the page. The animation, and the choice of words that get animated, and the sequencing of animation — plus the audio tracks — really make this a very different kind of poem.

Could I replicate this in the classroom? Yes. It would require time and mini-lessons around the deeper levels of Powerpoint — particularly around structuring a page of animated text (which requires organizational skills) — but on a smaller scale, this is doable. And there is no real need for the conversion to video, either. You can add audio right into Powerpoint slides and share the project out as a PP Show. The quality is not as good, in my experience, but it is workable.

What do you think?

Peace (in the poems),

Warning: An Illuminated Poem

For a while now, I have been interested in the idea of “illuminated text” and how to create a project that uses this concept. Over at the NWP Digital Is site, Elyse has been offering suggestions on how one might proceed. She suggested Powerpoint might be one cheap option (and gave a link to a site with various projects that might be models), and a light went off in my head. Of course!

This morning, for Bud’s poetry prompts ( with the concept of a “warning” as the theme), I dove into Powerpoint and using just a single slide, with custom animation, created this poem. I converted it to a video online with Authorstream. I wanted to add music, but it didn’t quite work right. (And I am a little frustrated that a software program that I bought a few years ago to convert PP to video no longer seems to work right.)

So it is a silent poem.

And here is a screenshot of my Powerpoint, just to give an idea of the complexity of animation. Still, I think this could be done with students, on a smaller scale.
Illuminated poem screenshot
Peace (in the poem that moves),

Poems All Over the Place

I write poetry throughout the year, but April rolls around and suddenly I am writing every day because so many of my friends and connections are also writing poems. They inspire me. Since the start of the month, I have been writing just about every day with Bud the Teacher, who posts an image as a writing prompt. I’ve also been sharing the poems, and others, over at our iAnthology network for National Writing Project folks. And I have been dabbing with Twitter-sized poems and Prezi poems, and more. In many cases, I have also been using Cinch to podcast my poems (see my Cinch site to listen to poems)

I’m not going to say that all of the poems are very good. A few are just a possible start towards something else. A few are written, posted and then discarded (recycled?). Here, then, are a few poems from the last two weeks that I think have some legs.

First, Lisa posted a call for poems about teaching on Twitter and her blog site, and I wrote this one not long after our standardized testing. I call it “The Muted Mind” because I was trying to get inside the head of a particular student.

Second, in the iAnthology, I was having a discussion with someone about ee cummings and the off-beat style of poetry. When Bud posted an image about “play,” I decided to play with a poem myself.
Playtime Poetry
This is a haiku that I wrote on the first day of April, hoping for warmer days.

Springtime whispers love
I sit here waiting for you:
a flower, blooming

One day, Bud posted an image of the Periodic Table of Elements. Here is what I came up.

Atomic Structure

electrons fuel me
as i circle around you;
where you desire equilibrium,
i desire movement;
they say i am nothing
but negative energy,
as if i am sucking the life
out of you;
they say you encompass
the positive energy,
as if that were the path
that lights the way forward;
we know better:
you are what fuels me
and I am what fuels you
and no chart on the wall will ever
uncover the magic of that.

Also on the iAnthology, a weekly writing prompt asked us to the concept of Hate with metaphor. This was difficult and I had trouble finding a way in. I decided to use Prezi again, and center my ideas around a giant version of the word Hate, and then end with a positive message.

And finally, this poem is inspired by the circular nature of math — a sort of poem that folks in on itself. It’s a Mobius Strip of words.

(start at the end)…. the particles
of the chalkdust that appear to be
rising exponentially,
mathematically creating wonders
that only imagination might otherwise
discover ….

…. i arrive at the chalkboard
in order to hold you off
with your rectangular eraser
so that my calculations and your expectations
might find a way to resolve
themselves …..

…. instead, the quarry of calculation eludes us,
so i stumble back through the cloud
to find my seat,
watching the sunlight from the window
reflect and refract inside … (return to the start)

What poems are you writing?

Peace (in the words),

Giving 25-Word-Stories a Poetic Touch

I periodically jump into Twitter to write short, short stories — known by the hashtag of #25wordstories. In the past week, as poetry has been front and center, I’ve been trying to cross-pollinate the concept of 25-word-stories with a poetic theme.  My aim has not been to write poetry in Twitter, which I also do from time to time, but instead, to write a story with a poetic touch or theme. Alas, some are better than others. The limits of Twitter really makes things interesting and difficult. And certainly challenging.

Here is what I have so far:

What would you write? And if you do it on Twitter, use the #25wordstory hashtag. (There is also a #poemaday hashtag for daily poetry writing and a #poetweet for folks using Twitter for writing poetry as a tweet.)
Peace (in the stories),


What I did: I Wrote Poetry

We had one of those very odd weather days yesterday, when snow closed down my school (because of the elevation and bus routes) but not my sons’ schools. My wife was in DC, lobbying for the National Writing Project as part of the effort to restore federal funding. So, it was me and our dog for a few hours. I did chores and in-between, I wrote.

I started out with the Global Poem Project, adding a few lines to a collaborative writing project. (See more about it in my post from yesterday.)

Then, I ventured out onto Bud Hunt’s site, where he is posting an image each day and asking us to write poems inspired by the pictures. Yesterday, the prompt was about what keeps you up at night. (by the way, come join us at Bud’s site.)

begets dreams
begets hours of wakefulness
of missed opportunities which
begets regrets
which in turn
begets confusion.

Then, I saw that one of my NWP friends, April, had written a haiku at her blog site. I was reading it — it’s about a blind date — when I realized that a good comment might be a haiku, too. So I wrote one from the other side of the story of her haiku.

nervous energy –
inside, he sees the mirror;
and combs back his hair.

I noticed another NWP friend, Andrea, had a poem, too. (She is part of a #poemaday twitter feed). Her poem was about kids and clothing and the metaphor of growing up and growing out of things. Again, I was struck by her poem and found myself writing a haiku response.

Bags of your clothing
sit ready for donation;
parting is sorrow

And then, yet another NWP friend, Joel (starting to see a connection in my network of teacher-writers?) had a great poem about April Fools and the weather, which was on my mind, too, as I looked out our window to the trees dripping with snow. He referenced the groundhog in his poem, so I thought a way to comment w0uld be a poem from the groundhog’s viewpoint.

A Groundhog’s Response

Just because I came up
doesn’t mean
I know what
I’m doing;
Sometimes, I am just
coming up for air
and sunshine.
You try living down in a hole
and see how you like it
and add to the cramped quarters
the pressure of expectations.
It’s not the shadow that scares me;
it’s you people.

Finally, I had my guitar out (dog at my feet) and was trying to work on a new song. This is what came out. I don’t necessarily feel it will go anywhere beyond this demo, but songwriting is poetry, right? I have been trying to write something about Japan — something true. But I have been failing miserably for days on it, to be honest. I can’t quite get the right song or emotion. So, this started out as a song about Japan, but veered sharply away at some point.

Lost and Found

When the shadows are falling
and the voices are calling
and the world is storm
brewing at sea

Will you hold me together?
Will you offer me shelter?
Will you keep me forever
if that’s what I need?

‘Cause I feel the Earth tearing apart
if you reach out your hand — I’ll give you my heart
I feel I’ve been lost
’til you found me

Well, we all have this fire
this burning desire
to shed off the past
as history

But somehow it finds us
it’s never behind us
I’m no longer the man
I used to be

I refuse to allow the pain to creep in
I’m shouting out loud — please let me in
I feel I’ve been lost
’til you found me

Peace (in the writing),

A Global Poem Project

I saw this project and could not resist adding a line. It’s a Global Poem for Change Project by LitWorld, and they have started a poem with the help of poet Naomi Shihab Nye. The poem is open to the world to contribute a line, so that the poem slowly grows with each contributing poet. And the theme of peace and global change for the better is at the heart of the project.

Here’s the line that I added:

I sent my thoughts out from my heart
a small step, but it’s a start

Go ahead — you come, too. The door is open for you for a single poetic line.

Peace (in the collaboration),

PS — here is more information:

Slice of Life: Cool is the Way it Plays

Slice of Life 2011Last night, my wife and I went to a jazz concert that celebrated the music of John Coltrane. It featured tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson and beyond the drums was the legendary Jimmy Cobb, who has played with everyone from Charlie Parker to Miles Davis and more. He may be getting on in years but he can still kick it.

As I was listening, my mind drifted along with the music and this one line of words kept popping in my head. “Cool is the way it plays …” and this morning, I still had it there. “Cool is the way it plays ….” and as I was walking our dog, under the stars, this poem started to form for me.

I purposely tried to weave ideas in and around the lines, making an attempt to captures some of the ways I heard Javon Jackson play around with melodies and lines.

Cool is the Way it Plays

is the way it plays
on stage
the way the notes graze
against each other
in melodic memory
in harmonic time
in the rhythm of the line
is where the notes
take chances, sometimes,
I’m out here alone –
in there
you’re trying to find
the hook, the head,
the crazy way I said
to listen to that sound
coming from that horn
as if it were some theme
I’d heard before
we were born
reminding us
to listen,
to listen,
to listen to the currents
weaving in and out
of each other –
is the way it plays
on stage,
Put away the rage
dance along the line

You can listen to the podcast version of the poem, too.

Peace (in the cool),

Slice of Life: Writing with my students

Slice of Life 2011(This is part of the Slice of Life Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers) We were able to sneak in a bit of freewriting in class yesterday. For about 15 minutes, the room was mostly quiet as my students worked on stories, poems, letters, comics and whatever it was that they decided to write about. My only condition for freewrite is that they are writing and they are quiet. The condition I set for myself is that I write along with them.

Yesterday, I had an image in my mind from last weekend, when some thick fog rolled into our area as the warm weather hit the cold earth. It was an eerie experience, like something out of Stephen King. My son and I noticed an old tobacco barn that had fallen down over the winter (there was a lot of that around here), and that scene of slow destruction amid thick fog was pretty amazing.

I tried to capture that in this poem.

Abandoned Barn
(listen to the podcast)

Soft light flickers through
the veil of fog,
Shimmering off the old barn
and seeping into my mind.

Boards, beams
and advertising banners announcing the sale
of tomatoes, turnips
and summertimes along the roadway

lay scattered on the ground,
a graveyard of wood and iron
and seeds.

The shotgun blast of rubble
instills in us a sense of fear, awe,
and curiosity.

I lean against the weight of winter —
the remnants of snow, sleet
and falling rains —

but it’s an illusion, too,
in this cloud cover that is as empty
as mist.

Spring warmth wrestles winter’s fury
and then, beneath the stillborn chaos,
a flower blooms:
slow, sturdy and strong.

Peace (in the poetry),

A Poem: Why Watson?

A few weeks ago, when I first read that IBM was pitting its supercomputer, Watson, against contestants on Jeopardy, my first thought was: Why did you name it Watson and not Holmes? This poem sprung up from that thought, and I forgot about it until this week when Watson crushed the humans in the game.

You can listen to the podcast I had done, too, of the poem.

Why Watson

Why, I wonder, is it Watson
and not Holmes
who is the spirit of the answer machine —

Wasn’t it Holmes who uncovered the truths
by means of the scantest of clues?
Wasn’t it Holmes who silently let his gears churn
to make the most of improbable connections?
Wasn’t it Holmes who asked questions that seemed irrelevant
only to later turn on the pin of relevance?
Wasn’t it Holmes?

And where was Watson?
Acting as the foil, watching and wondering
and waiting to beat Truth over the head
with his London umbrella
in hopes of forcing a confession.

Or is it always Watson, and never Holmes,
who solved the murders,
and therefore it was I, the reader,
who was left in the dark,
never understanding the mystery to begin with?

Like many, I thought it funny that Ken Jennings used a Simpson’s quote for his final answer, and I also found his essay on Slate about his thoughts on matching wits against the machine, and why he realized that the humans were “the away team” in this experiment.

Peace (in the clues),

Inside My Poetic Mind: A Reflection on Writing

Lost Piano Poem rough draft
Yesterday, I shared my digital poem entitled Lost Piano (Standing on the Shoulders of the Ocean) and today, I wanted to take a step back as a writer and mull over what I was trying to do with the poem, where the inspiration came from and why I scribbled out so many lines.

I am sharing the draft paper of the poem here as a sort of roadmap and instead of writing out my reflections this morning, I decided to sort of wing it and podcast my ideas as I remember them and as I am looking at the rough draft version.

Here is the final version of the poem

Lost Piano (Standing on the Shoulders of the Ocean)
listen to the podcast

I imagine the notes
riding the tides out each night
as the world slumbers —
silent fingers slipping over ivory puzzles,
piecing together stories in the moonlight.

What hint of a symphony draws the ears
of the stars above,
stretched to the point of falling from their perch
so that they may hear?
What rhythms push down into the depths
of the sand below,
burying treasure on whose map one
cannot ever hope to find?

Last night, as you and I stood on shore,
watching the waves lap at the pedals of that piano,
we listened for whatever might come.
We closed our eyes and held hands,
breathless in the moment of wonder.

We both swore we heard it.
How could we not?

You; the lost murmurs of your mother
sitting in her easy chair
overlooking the bay, unfolding stories
in her lap.
Me; the distorted refrain of my brother
on electric guitar,
amplified sounds behind doors locked
to keep us out.

These songs of our lives entwined, locked like fingers,
moving their way into a single melody
only we could hear, together,
as one.

We left it there — that song —
as others had done before us;
We left that song on the piano
standing on the shoulders of the ocean.
We left it there and walked away.

Peace (in the poet’s mind),