So in addition to demolishing a shed, I’ve been taking an ekphrastic poetry class. Each week we would view a still life picture and write a poem about it. We were also asked to take a photo recreating the original art. I’m not much of a visual artist and a poor photographer, but I managed to use objects around the house to recreate my version of the original art.
Turns out to be somewhat time consuming, but I managed to get all the work done. During the weekly class sessions we’d show our photos, read our poems and then have a “workshop” on each poem where we’d offer what we liked and suggestions for improvement. In the end I ended up with eight poems with photos.
Some of the poems I actually like.
I’m one of my worst critics – I rarely really like anything I write and the stuff I do like … well other people don’t seem to. Maybe that’s too harsh, but I have to say that editing your own work is difficult at best.
There is only one thing harder that editing your work is actually starting writing in the first place and avoiding that “writer’s block” thing. I hear about it all the time and often find it hard to get started on a piece or even decide what I want to write about. Deciding on what to write is likely one of my biggest problems in writing.
Heck, it’s likely one of the biggest problems in my life. In my younger days I would often say, “If I knew what I wanted, I’d be dangerous.”
Now in my older years I’m likely not as dangerous, but could be writing more if I could just focus better on what I wanted to say.
That indecisive part of me is what draws me to ekphrastic poetry. It’s poetry that is a response to viewing a picture or other visual art. What to write about is in the picture and then becomes the starting point for writing. The writing about the art work includes:
- Details of the original art
- Understanding the audience. The poem and the poet must remember that the reader is viewing the art as well as reading the poem.
- Interpretation of the art. What is the art and what is it’s effect on us.
- Focus on the art. If the picture is about a bird, the poet should use imagines and metaphors related to birds or the actions of a bird. At the least the poem shouldn’t wander off the subject of the art.
- The artist should be considered.
The general process I followed in creating an ekphrastic poem was to:
- View the original art for a few minutes.
- Free write about it for 20 minutes. This is just to get the mind focusing on my first impressions and most would not be used later. However, there was almost always one or two good lines of this that would become the foundation for the final poem.
- Research the art and artist. What I would look for here is clues to the artist’s intention with the art and how others might have interrupted it. Sometimes simple things, like how the art was created gives me clues into responding to the work.
- Create a photo of my interpretation of the work. I would collect a bunch of objects, stage them and with my iPhone, take a photo. With a few of the photos, I’d edit them slightly, cropping, adjusting light levels and such.
- Write the poem.
- Share the poem with my classmates, note their suggestions.
- Edit, edit, edit.
When I look at a picture, I tend to see a story. While the art is a picture frozen in time, my mind creates a story of either how we got to this point or what happens after this point in time.
Think about Van Gogh’s painting, Starry Night and start asking questions about it. Under the night sky are some hills and little village. What is the viewer looking at? What is happening in the village? Why are the stars drawn that way? Who is looking at the scene? Who lives in the village? Why is the viewer out at night viewing this scene?
The answer to these questions form the basis of the poem.
It is simple, yet complex. One poet will see a traveler arriving in the village, while another might see a traveler leaving. You might see a connection between the painting and Van Gogh’s life. You might see a connection between this picture and a Shakespeare play or you might hear Don McLean’s song.
Whatever you as the poet find, becomes the dialog in your poetry about the Starry Night and what you try to communicate to your reader. The great thing about the class is that I had three other interpretations of the same pice of art to listen to – which only deepens your understanding of what the artist, Van Gogh in this case, was trying to show in the art.
Simple, yet complex.
I know that you’d like to read one of my poems and see one of my pictures, but that will have to wait for another time as this post is already too long.