Today’s prompt is inspired by a series of ekphrastic studies I’ve been writing on images of “women at bath.” In compiling these sketches, I’ve observed, among others, paintings by Degas, Picasso and the woodblock artist Hashiguchi Goyo, searching for visual elements that might bring a fuller sense of description to my writing.
The traditional mode of ekphrasis—that is, the “making of poetry from art”—involves describing or imaginatively inhabiting a painting, sculpture or photograph; in this way, the poet more or less lends their descriptive craft to that of the visual artist. What I’ve been investigating, however, is how iconic images (such as Picasso’s “Blue Nude”) can be broken up into elements that recur in various, refracted ways across images, then worked into a poem’s narrative fabric in a way that doesn’t necessarily foreground itself as ekphrasis.
I have been discussing some of Susan Sontag’s thoughts on photography with the students in my First Year Composition classes lately, and her comments about the way that photographic images fragment our modern sense of reality have made me think about how the same ideas might apply to poetry. Though our sense of the “real” in reading a poem is more diffused than the expectation of strict verisimilitude that we have in looking at photographs, a poem can, in some way, still be thought of as a lens or a frame through which we are given a curated glimpse into an event, thought, or world.
If you’ve been following the Lantern Review Blog for a while, you’re already familiar with the ekphrastic poem, that is, a poem written in response to a work of art. This prompt is a variation on the idea of ekphrasis and, like this prompt from two weeks ago, gives you an opportunity to play with perspective (except with higher stakes).
Pick a photograph of a meaningful occasion in your family’s history. A wedding, for example, or a baby shower. Maybe even a funeral; just choose an image that tells a story and features more than one member of your family. Look carefully at the people in the photo and think about their personalities, voices, idiosyncrasies. What family folklore comes to mind when you look at each individual? Now think about who’s not in the photo. Someone who passed away recently, or who has been deceased for decades. Someone who missed the occasion because they had something else to attend to, or forgot to show up.
Now write from the point of view of the absent party. Proceed in whatever way feels most natural to the voice of the person whose absence you’ve identified — this may mean you’re working mostly with direct address, description, narrative, or a combination of modes. You may find yourself experimenting with the voice of the dead, the voice of a divorced parent, or that of an uncle who cut himself off from the family. The idea is to forge a new perspective from which to consider your family’s history, one that would otherwise go unaddressed by more normative modes of “telling” family lore.
de Young Poetry Series
Part of the”Cultural Encounters: Friday Nights at the de Young” program hosted by the San Francisco’s de Young Museum. This month, the series is being hosted by Michael Ondaatje and will take place on March 19th. (See our Community Calendar for more details).
Claim the Block: A WritersCorps Reading Series
Student artists from the WritersCorps San Francisco program present their work at a number of gallery venues around the city. March’s installment will take place at the Contemporary Jewish Museum.
If you look at nothing else in this post, you must check out this super-cool art browsing tool. The SF Museum of Modern Art has made it possible for you to dynamically explore 4,775 individual images from their collection simply by zooming, dragging, and clicking. Browsing through the wall of images as it expands and contracts in response to your mouse-clicks is a completely mesmerizing experience, not to mention a great free way to familiarize yourself with the museum’s collection. Adobe Flash Player is required to view the site.
Curated by Marne Kilates, this online journal focuses on ekphrastic poetry, presenting poems artfully alongside the images which inspired them. Of note: the most recent issue includes work by Luisa Igloria, whose thoughts on ekphrasis were featured in a recent post of ours.
Ekphrasis, says its web site, “is a poetry journal looking for well-crafted poems, the main content of which addresses individual works from any artistic genre . . . Acceptable ekphrastic verse transcends mere description: it stands as transformative critical statement, an original gloss on the individual art piece it addresses.” Ekphrasis is available by subscription. Submissions are accepted via postal mail.
As we continue our exploration of ekphrastic poetry, poet Fiona Sze-Lorrain, whose first book (Water the Moon) we reviewed last month, graciously answers some questions that we’ve posed to her about the ekphrastic elements of her collection.
LR: How do you envision your work with ekphrasis with respect to the larger arc or project of Water the Moon?
FSL: Ekphrasis is indeed one of the many channels I turn to for building the muscle of my imagination. The Greeks say, “In the beginning was the verb.” How about “In the beginning was the image”? I remember having read — a long time ago — an interview with the French theatre artist, Ariane Mnouchkine, who (probably influenced by the Japanese theatre philosopher and pioneer, Zeami) perceived emotion as coming from recognition, which is an useful perspective for actors. In a way or another, I too define my experience of ekphrasis as emotion coming from recognition… for instance, by recognizing something in paintings that can transform descriptive clues to deceptively personal/emotional landscapes or narrative possibilities. Part of the larger arc of Water the Moon is about dialogues with artistic voices or consciousness that follow me like shadows over time. Steichen, Van Gogh, Dora Maar, Man Ray… these happen to be just some of them whose iconic images play a role in molding my sensibilities since a child.
LR: In “Steichen’s Photographs,” you write “Photos have no verbs . . . / . . .Verbs are those trying not to pose” (58). Indeed, it seems that your ekphrastic engagement with photography in the collection is more immediate in nature than your engagement with other artistic media, like painting — for example, in “Van Gogh is Smiling,” you continually invite a reconstruction of his iconic images, “Let’s imagine fifteen sunflowers” or “Let’s retrace your starry blue night” (51), rather than delivering a direct experiential response to a particular work. In what ways does the camera’s eye provide a different type of visual or interpretive experience than other forms of visual art (e.g. painting, sculpture)? How did these differences influence your decisions about craft and perspective?
FSL: Perhaps this is just a personal preference. I am married to a man who knows much about the world and craft of photography. By chance and good fortune, I have also crossed paths with the work of a few important photographers of our times. So I tend to feel more intimate with photographs, though paintings, to be honest, always offer me the contemplative space whenever I need it. Photographs — less so. They tend to be more visceral for me, and contain specific social realities that I can more easily identify with or pinpoint. As you can see, the cover image of my new book of poetry, Water the Moon (italics) is also a photograph. (It is entitled “Cortona,” taken by American photographer, Blake Dieter, in Italy). The clock in it is a metaphor of the Moon – in terms of time. I like films tremendously too and sometimes imagine photographs as immortalised snapshots from an unknown film. In general, it is harder for me to be oblique when writing about photographs than about paintings. You do not see something just because it is visible. There must be something else. What is it? I don’t know.
LR: Both “Steichen’s Photographs” and “Larmes” balance deftly on the seam between the perceived and the perceiver — in other words, we are made aware of the strange subjectivities at work when our gaze as readers is directed towards the speaker, whose observations become the subject of the poem as a piece of art, even while she herself is engaged in a process of fixing another artist’s subject in her own gaze. How can ekphrasis be of use to both the poet and the reader of poetry as an exercise in gaze, perspective, and subjectivity?
FSL: Ekphrasis (like any form of writing) is all about distance, because ultimately even if emotion must come from recognition, there comes a distilled point when the lie of the expression becomes evident: the artist, the painting, the poem, the writer, the reader, the reading … all these can never exist in one same space of subjectivity. “Let it not be the medium we question but the man — painter and photographer,” summed up Sadakichi Hartmann in “A Monologue” that was published in Camera Work in 1904, around the time of Steichen’s early photography. If anything, what ekphrasis offers is a bridge between various agendas, intentions and temporalities, based on an unchanging image. This bridge is dynamic — it constructs and deconstructs itself all the time. Besides, no one gaze is identical. I suppose it really is just simply the evocative power of an image that defines what we would call ekphrasis. At least this is what I feel – for now…
To read more about Fiona Sze-Lorrain, please visit her web site. Water the Moon was released by Marick Press in February 2010 and is available for purchase on their site.
Torso of ApolloEdvard Munch’s “The ScreamGrecian Urn
In keeping with our theme for the month, The Page Transformed, this week we’ll be looking at the ekphrastic poem, or poetry written in conversation with a work(s) of visual art. In its most traditional form, the ekphrastic poem is an elaborate, highly detailed description of a work of art: a painting, a statue, even a drawing or photograph. In contemporary poetry, however, the ekphrastic mode has evolved to include a wide range of forms and responses to visual art. The poet can respond to the artwork, challenge its claims, inhabit it in the lyrical mode, or even use it as a point of departure into a larger discussion or narrative.
Alternatively, ekphrasis can also be an invitation to reflect upon the moment of encounter between the poet and painting (for example), or the circumstances under which the work of art was created. Some of the most successful poems of ekphrasis are contemplations on the materials from which specific visual masterpieces were created. Others adopt a mode of “re-framing” the painting, and narrate a particular scene from the perspective of someone situated outside of the painting, or someone shadowed in the periphery of the image.
Virtually any of these forms of engagement (and many others, not listed here!) can afford the poet a powerful way to further explore the rich intersections between language and visual art.
* * *
Prompt: write a poem that engages a work of art in one of the modes discussed above. You can either begin with a selected work of visual art and let your poem unfold from there, or begin with a line (or image) of poetry and work “backwards,” searching for a work of art that captures the mood or sensibility you want to evoke.
However you choose to approach this, allow your creative process to be dialogic, to move in conversation between image and text, and to afford both the room to be works of art that can stand on their own.
For further reading and some wonderful examples of ekphrastic poems, take a look at the Academy of American Poets’ article “Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art.” Among the poems listed in the article are:
As part of our exploration of ekphrastic poetry, poet Luisa Igloria (who was featured in our November 2009 interview) very graciously agreed to answer some questions about the role that ekphrasis plays in her most recent book, the Ernest Sandeen Prizewinning Juan Luna’s Revolver [UND Press 2009].
LR: In what ways did visual art inform your process in developing Juan Luna as a project?
LI: Visual art provided both a means to stimulate individual poems, as well as provide points of thematic unity between the different parts of the book. I looked at photographs, old lithographic representations, postcards, and more. Juan Luna’s Revolver could not have evolved without calling to poems that make some reference to art — after all, Juan Luna was a painter, one of several Filipino artists and intellectuals who left the Philippine colony for Spain and other European destinations in the mid to late 1800s to study and to travel. Juan Luna was perhaps most famous for his mural “Spoliarium” which depicted two defeated gladiators being dragged into a chamber where they would be stripped of their armor and prepared for burning. The painting won one of two gold medals at a Barcelona exposition and took the art world there by surprise. In truth, however, I came to the Juan Luna poems in the book more gradually — the book perhaps really began with my long-standing fascination with stories about the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, and how 1100+ indigenous Filipinos were transported to serve as live exhibits there (many of them were taken from the northern Cordillera region in the Philippines, which is where I grew up). I’d done considerable research on this and looked at archival material, and it became clearer to me as the poems came that one of the central themes in this project was colonial spectatorship. Fair-goers at St. Louis in 1904 came to see the Philippine reservation and its half-clothed savages, and protested that they had paid to see “the authentic native” when well-meaning persons out of concern for their health, wondered if they should be given warm clothing to wear. While traveling in Europe, Juan Luna and his contemporaries were similarly gawked at. But through the powerful art and literature they produced (Juan Luna’s compatriot Jose Rizal wrote the two novels that further inflamed a grassroots-led revolution which finally overthrew the Spanish colonial regime) they had found a way to return the gaze of the Other.
LR: What influenced your decisions in terms of where and how to place ekphrastic poems like “Letras y Figuras,” “Dolorosa,” and “Mrs. Wilkin Teaches an Igorot the Cakewalk” within the text of Juan Luna? How do you envision their particular contributions to the arc and the rhythm of the text?
LI: When I’m beginning to work on the structure of a book, I also like being led by the tonal and emotional congruencies between parts. I try to see what kinds of “music” might be made by the decision to set one poem next to another, one section next to another. I don’t necessarily think a chronological approach is always the best one. And, I much prefer trying to set up relationships across poems so that it might be possible for an image or motif to jettison the reader back or toward another moment, in another poem… For example, even if the 1904 / World’s Fair poems form the last section, I hope it eventually becomes clear to readers that I’ve been trying to talk about the implications of looking at something or someone, or being held in close scrutiny, really from the very outset (such as in a very early poem in the book like “Intimacy deserves a closer look” ).
LR: In the poem “Ekphrasis,” you write of the viewing of sculpture as a process of critical reading: “the bridle that is history’s wants it to stay / its previous course — At least that’s how // it might be read” (55). In what ways can the exercise of “seeing” and subsequently interpreting a physical object of beauty prove useful to poets in our own crafting of imagery and perspective on the page?
LI: Poets frequently “see” and “interpret” — that is, find ways to move from a physically sensuous validation of the world (“seeing” is part of that) to finding in language the means, the shape, the form in which to express it. “Seeing” has never equated to a “neutral” activity to me. Even when I’m people-watching, I quickly realize I’m making up stories, wondering about the hidden narratives: who’s that old couple in the parking lot? where are they going, what are they thinking, who will they meet? what did they have for breakfast? When the imagination exerts an influence on what’s given, we make art. That’s one of the things that still continually amazes and humbles me – that on the one hand historical reports might say of events in the past, “these things are over, they’re done” — but that on the other hand, poetry can say, let’s look at it again; and what if? So yes there is critical reading, but there is also a sense that meaning can be remade or that a closed door is not necessarily what we think it is. We might think we know everything there is to know about something. But poetry always reminds us of the mystery that remains.
To read more about Luisa Igloria and her work, please visit her web site and blog. Juan Luna’s Revolveris available for purchase from the University of Notre Dame Press.
During the month of March, we’ll be exploring the theme “The Page Transformed: Intersections of Poetry & The Visual Arts” in our posts. We’re interested in ways in which poetry and the visual arts speak to one another, inform each other’s practices, and blend with one another on the page. We’ll begin with an examination of ekphrastic poetry, and will eventually move on to explore other areas of intersection – the book as a physical object of beauty, for example, and broadsides and typography (poetry as visual art). We also hope to feature conversations poets who engage in both the visual arts and poetry, as well as a couple of posts about visionary experimental figures like Theresa Hak-Kyung Cha, who pushed the boundaries of text as object. Our prompts this month will also work in with our theme, and (we hope) will provide exercises that ask you to creatively engage with and perhaps try out some of the topics we’ll cover in our Editors’ Picks and Interview posts.
For this week and the beginning of next, we’ll be focusing on ekphrasis and ekphrastic poetry. The Academy of American Poets’ website gives what I think is a helpful definition of ekphrasis: “poetry confronting art.” The idea of the image which confronts and subsequently moves the poet to speak is clearly reflected in what is perhaps one of the best loved examples of American ekphrastic poetry: William Carlos William’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” based on Breughel’s painting “The Fall of Icarus.” In his poem, Williams interprets the actions of the figures in the painting, highlighting the isolation of Icarus’s action in the larger context of the scene — while country people go about their daily lives, herding sheep and plowing fields, Icarus is visible only as a tiny pair of legs attached to an unseen body already engulfed in water. Only one man looks up to the sky, but has already missed the action. Williams plays powerfully on the desolate futility that he reads into Breughel’s interpretation of the myth:
off the coast
a splash quite unnoticed
Williams’ poem is certainly a famous one. But perhaps my favorite meditation on the commonalities between the work of the poet and painter in creating imagery that will resonate in the mind of the viewer or reader is Robert Lowell’s Vermeer-inspired poem “Epilogue,” which I will leave you with:
Epilogue by Robert Lowell
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.