Friday Prompt: Ekphrasis, the Remix

"The Tub" by Edgar Degas (1886 | Musee d'Orsay, Paris)

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.

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Editors’ Picks: Ekphrastic Poetry Resources

As we wrap up the first part of our March theme, we’d like to offer you the following list of resources, which we hope will inspire you to delve deeper into the world of ekphrastic poetry.

Clockwise from Top L: ArtScope Screenshot, Detail of I Gusti Putu Hardana Putra's "Unvoice" (Carrying Across Exhibit), "Camp Scene" (Art of Gaman Exhibit)

Asian American Art: Gallery Exhibits

The Art of Gaman – Arts and Crafts from the Japanese American Internment Camps, 1942-1946
Smithsonian American Art Museum | Renwick Gallery (Washington, D.C.)
March 5, 2010 — January 30, 2011

Carrying Across (curated by Yvonne Lung)
[Multimedia exhibition exploring acts of interpretation and translation] Asian Arts Intiative (Philadelphia)
Feburayr 19, 2010 — April 30, 2010

Paj Ntaub: Stories of Hmong in Washington
Wing Luke Asian Museum (Seattle)
March 5, 2010 — October 17, 2010

Here and Now: Chapter III — Towards Transculturalism (Chinese Artists in NY)
Museum of Chinese in America (New York City)
February 11, 2010 — March 28, 2010

Poetry in the Galleries

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.

Online Image Archives & Tools

New York Public Library Digital Gallery
A truly useful collection of over 700,000 archival images — you’ll find book illustrations, art prints, photographs, postcards, images from magazines and newspapers, and more.  We did a simple search for “chinatown” and came up with 256 really interesting hits.

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.

, 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.

The Page Transformed: Luisa Igloria on Ekphrasis in JUAN LUNA’S REVOLVER

Juan Luna's "Spolarium"
Juan Luna's "Spoliarium"

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 blogJuan Luna’s Revolver is available for purchase from the University of Notre Dame Press.

The Page Transformed: Introduction & Part I – Ekphrasis

Breughel's "The Fall of Icarus"

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
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

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:

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.
All’s misalliance.
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.

[Text of “Epilogue” courtesy of  To read more about ekphrasis, visit this article on the Academy of American Poets’ website.]