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.
So you’re drafting a poem and nothing seems to be working. Fifth draft, sixth draft… the language drags, the images remain hackneyed. But here’s a thought: have you considered experimenting with point of view?
Though this is something you probably had to do in middle school, I’ve actually found that shifting the narrative center of a poem (unless, of course, you’re not working with a narrative center, in which case you’ll just have to keep on drafting) can bring new energy to a drafting process gone slack.
I wouldn’t recommend doing this too early in the process – I’ve come to think of this “trick” as something of a last resort, like when I’ve done all I can to work through a poem and still don’t feel it’s arrived. For example, earlier this week I was working on a fairly straightforward poem about a family in a hospital watching their dying father take communion: the wife waited, the child sat. The chaplain poured the grape juice. The chaplain blessed the grape juice. The chaplain passed the grape juice.
Things were getting a little boring. So I switched it up and forced the narrative into a second person point of view. All at once, it wasn’t “the man dying,” but you. And you were dying. Working through the poem with this fresh perspective forced much of the material (about half the lines, I’d say) from the narrative, but also demanded that certain details be added. What do “you” hear when you’re at death’s door? How do “you” perceive your family?
Whether or not you stick with the perspective switch after you’re done with the exercise, hopefully you’ll find that this has forced you to write toward a different set of expectations and demands. Work to make the individual versions as distinctive as possible, and have fun!