Guest Blog Post, Amanda Auchter: The Art of the Contemporary Ekprasis

It’s National Poetry Month and I’m focusing on ekphrasis. When I mention this to people, even fellow poets and writers, I usually am met with “ek-what?” Ekphrasis is a term used to denote poetry written from or inspired by visual artistic mediums and traces its lineage back to the Greeks and Romans, including the works of Homer’s The Iliad and Horace’s “Ars Poetica.” The word ekphrasis, in fact, comes from two Greek words, ek, meaning out, and phrasis meaning speak. Ekphrastic poetry, then, functions as a “calling to” or “speaking to” (or about) art. 

Historically, conventional forms of art, as seen in Robert Hayden’s “Monet’s Water Lilies,” and “Archaic Torso of Apollo” by Rilke, are central to traditional ekphrastic poetry. However, in the last few decades, many reservations have been raised about the use of ekphrasis in poetry; mainly, that it limits the poet’s ability to seebeyond the work itself. 

Oh, I disagree. Ekphrastic poetry is not just a celebration of art—in all of its forms—but is limitless, in fact, in its scope. The poet may choose a photograph and discuss the subject, yes, but more than that, may choose to write about the photographer one can’t see in the image, or capture something partially exhibited in the background, or simply use it as a source of intellectual and artistic inspiration. 

The problem with this argument, and those like it, however, is that when discussing ekphrasis, critics often conjure images of someone entering a gallery exhibit and then rushing home to write a poem about it. This argument, sadly, sells the practice of ekphrasis short. True, there are numerous poems in the vein of I just saw the Van Gogh exhibit and now I have to write a Starry Night poem, but the beauty of ekphrastic poetry is the dialog it creates between artists: poet and image, poet and painter, graffiti artist, jazz musician. 

Notable collections such as Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia, Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll andTo Repel Ghosts, Sharon Dolin’s Serious Pink, and Joseph Campana’s The Book of Faces are ekphrastics that speak to an entirely new generation of readers and poets. These poets and their works are helping to bring the ekphrastic out of the museum and gallery and into a new century where the image is dynamic, where the concept and definition of art is limitless. 

As the Greeks and Romans utilized the ekphrastic as a means to understand their fellow human and their place in the universe, so do contemporary poets such as John Ashbery, Sharon Dolin, Kevin Young, and Natasha Trethewey. In a modern era, ekphrasis is not limited by tangibility, but by the possibility of what the artistic media can encourage. Many successful modern ekphrastic poems bring the tradition into the new millennia by opting to utilize contemporary media as a means to reflect a modern, often skewed and distorted culture and thought. 

In Kevin Young’s collections, To Repel Ghosts and Jelly Roll, Young’s poems are inspired by the blues and the experimental African American artwork of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Similarly, Jeannine Hall Gailey’s poems in Becoming the Villainessare concerned with the modern image of the objectified woman, using the artifice of female comic book superheroes and pop artist Roy Lichetenstein’s women to explore the role of female characters in a culture so visually consumed. 

Today’s ekphrastic is not an expected recreation of Rembrandts and Van Goghs, but function as a call- and-response to the media and images of a dynamic, contemporary culture. Music, film, comic books, and pop art are all integral to the way we think about the world around us, our interior and exterior landscapes. 

Art exists to hold the viewer and the subject of the work in place, in a moment in time. In this, both the viewer and the object are always present. Beyond the description of a painting, a blues song, or a film, ekphrasis is a work of detail and experience, with the poet’s implement of perspective bridging the gap between the real world and the imagined. 

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.” http://bethshadur.com/the-poetic-dialogue-project

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.