Guest Post, Lois Roma-Deeley: Got Ekphrasis?

Got Ekphrasis? Conversations Among Art Forms

Who doesn’t want to feel exhilaration, even transformation, during their creative writing process? Often when we are writing alone we get trapped in our own obsessions, verbal tics, repetitive images, “go-to” metaphors; and sometimes we just come up empty. Perhaps we can enhance our creative process by allowing another artist to speak into our imaginative space. Yes, it often feels risky but the rewards can be great.

I am speaking of the practice of ekphrasis, a conversation between and among two or more art forms. Working within an ekphrasis framework, some poets are using visual art, music, photography as well as mathematics, philosophy and physics to enhance their creative process and transform their finished work.

Ekphrasis can be viewed as an active, rapid interchange of the unexpected. It requires an attitude of openness and vulnerability. Ekphrasis courts the unanticipated.

My own experience with ekphrasis involves working with visual artists and musicians, some of whom I collaborated with for more than 10 years. When I first began working this way, my initial responses were nervousness and fear. I didn’t know how my collaborators would receive my work—or if they would understand my vision—or if they would try to impose something on my imaginative space that would feel false and intrusive. And I was also afraid that I would do the same thing to them! However, mid-way through my first collaborative project, what I discovered was that my fears were unfounded. In fact, my collaborators affirmed my poetic vision and enhanced my process by offering unexpected but thoughtful and useful suggestions about my work. Their reactions to my process and to poems allowed me to “think bigger” about my whole body of work. They saw things in me and my work that I could not otherwise see.

Significantly, I learned the approach to ekphrasis projects often centered upon these two dynamics:

  1. Focus on structure or form
  2. Focus on theme or content (essence)

I have worked with artists on numerous ekphrasis projects. However, I collaborated with two artists far more than any others.

With visual artist Beth Shadur, I have worked for more than 10 years on a multitude of artistic adventures. Beth founded and curates the Poetic Dialogue Project (for which I am the poetry curator), an ongoing project pairing visual artists with poets to make collaborative work. Its exhibitions have traveled nationally and internationally.

During our collaborations, Beth and I would often talk about how the “rhythms” and “structures” in a particular visual art piece matched the rhythms and structures of a particular poem. For example, here is Beth’s work “Witness,” which she created in response to my anti-war poem “Bougainvillea and TV.” If you look closely at this painting, you can see part of my poem and my name embedded on the palms, in the upper left hand corner of the picture. My poem is written in free verse with short lines followed by longer stanzas. Beth’s work has similar rhythms of color. My poem ends with the lines: “Now I know I will never understand a thing./The world talks only to itself./Rain to War. Child to dirt/Bougainvillea and TV.” Notice all Beth’s multi-cultural symbols of peace alongside the embedded image of the child lying in the dirt, which is a response to those lines. Both the poem and the visual art retain their own integrity but each is clearly “in conversation” with the other.

Collage and painting mixed media artwork

Beth explains the transformative power embedded in the ekphrasis framework that she heard from her many Poetic Dialogue Project collaborators:

“Poets mentioned experimenting and working outside their own comfort zone to create new ideas and forms for their work, while artists who had never considered text as part of their work found ways to integrate the poet’s voice. The ongoing dialogue offered each creator the opportunity to witness and effect the creation of ‘the other’, respond, communicate, argue, compromise, and sometimes, to change or overcome difficulties. In making collaborative work, each individual brought his or her strength to the paired collaboration, allowing each contribution to be weighed and valued, given critical consideration, as the pair moved to develop solutions to the creative process as a team. In some cases, the collaborative effort was exciting and inspirational, in others problematic. Some pairs mentioned difficult struggles in working with a person who was a stranger; and yet struggle, too, is part of the creative process. All pairs found that the collaborative process in creativity became a catalyst for new directions, new forms and new paradigms in their process and practice.”

The other artist I worked with was composer Christopher Scinto. He and I collaborated on the creation of a music drama, The Ballad of Downtown Jake. Christopher wrote the music and I wrote the book and lyrics. “Jake” is based on my collection of poems High Notes, the writing of which was a direct result of our collaboration.

When we first began working on our project, Christopher and I would talk about the way the structures of jazz pieces—“riffs”—can be mirrored in the structure of poems and a poetry collection. Christopher suggested we create five characters based on his anticipated musical considerations, which he would refer back to when writing his musical score. We decided the core conflict of our characters would be a differentiated struggle with addiction. A short while later, I named the characters and wrote a five-part poem titled “After the Jam Session.” The refrain in the sequence was a riff on the line “Give it to me,” which later became a kind of guiding principle for us. We decided each of our characters was addicted to something— whether it was fame, love, justice, power or hope. Ultimately, we realized we wanted to address the essence of those addictions in terms of the sacred and the profane and the role it plays in the creation of art.

The Ballad of Downtown Jake promotional picture. Paradise Valley Community College. March 12-15

Watch The Ballad of Downtown Jake here.

Working with these artists transformed my poetic process and my poetry significantly. However, the most important gift I received from working with artists on these projects was joy: The pure delight of creating. The simple delight in discovery. The excitement of invention. The elation along the journey. The transport of another’s imagination. The experience of living art.

Guest Post, Lois Roma-Deeley: Still and in Our Own Age: Why Creative Writing Matters

Lois Roma-DeeleyYou have heard it all before: No one reads anymore, buys books anymore, supports small presses anymore. Fiction is taking a beating from crass consumerism and poetry has been bludgeoned to death by a stylized ennui that has no patience for long sentences like this one.  Plays are either musicals or revivals of musicals. Anyone untalented can publish anything bad at any time in any format so no one has time to find the good writing.  The whole culture of American literature is in one sorry state.  Why should you—why should anyone—bother to write at all?

I am here to tell you that your poetry/short stories/essays/plays/novels—whatever your creative writing genre happens to be—matters. That your contribution to making the culture of our time matters. That your devotion to the craft of writing and your efforts to sit down and write with considered purpose and focus, or as Lucille Clifton has said, with major intent, matters.

I can say all this to you with some impunity because I have witnessed firsthand how the power of language—despite the protestations of all the cynics and the naysayers—moves audiences and readers in profound ways.

In 2012 I was nominated for U.S Professor of the Year, an awards program sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Of the award, The Chronicle of Higher Education writes: “The honor is the nation’s most prestigious teaching award.”

However, as a poet and a community college professor who teaches creative writing and women’s studies, I was certain I would never win such an award. I was certain I would not win—not because I was insecure or doubted my abilities as a poet and teacher, but precisely because I believed these abilities were at best misunderstood and, at worst, completely disregarded by most of America.

I only completed the application for the award because the very earnest and very sweet student who nominated me insisted that I do so. She sat in my office with her moon-eyes and her Tinkerbell-sweet voice insisting that I simply had to fill out the application which, as it turned out, wound up taking me 20-plus hours to complete.  I simply did not have the heart to tell her no.  And even as she thrust the application material into my hand, I told her yet one more time that I was not going to win. “Poets don’t win these kinds of awards, Carolyn. Please don’t be disappointed when I don’t win. I’m not going to win.”

But she was right and I was wrong. I did win.

In fact, I am the first national winner of this award that Arizona has ever had in any category.  As a national winner, I was asked to give a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to an audience that included the U.S. Under Secretary of Education as well as college presidents and chancellors, deans and professors from all over the country.

Indeed, during the last few years I’ve had other successes, awards and honors, all of which have given me opportunities I would never have imagined possible when I was first starting out as a serious writer.

I have been invited to give poetry readings, speeches and workshops to audiences across the country, and I have seen the cultural cynics proved wrong many times over.  As I look into the faces of strangers whose eyes seem to lock onto mine with an intensity I find both humbling and scary, I have learned—rather I have re-learned—that language used with “major intent” is still a powerful, transforming force. People tell me they are moved by my words. People tell me they have been changed. People tell me the words matter.

So, to all of you who are sitting down today to write with major intent, know that your efforts—though solitary and so often fraught with frustration, longing and despair—matter.  Know that there may be one person or whole rooms of strangers who need and want to hear what you have to say. It matters to them the work you do.

It matters.