Finally, I have a chance to explain what the word ekphrastic means. I can barely remember how to spell it now. And, funnily enough, Wikipedia spells it differently than I do. I got my spelling from Alvin Knox, the brilliant poet and my fellow colleague at The Loft, and truthfully? Even though I am guilty of using Wikipedia for everything, I trush Alvin’s spelling more, because, well, he knows everything about poetry and besides he comes originally from Idaho, where my ancestors hail from, so of course that means he is correct.
Ekphrastic poetry is poetry based on art. Broadly, one could use the term ekphrastic to refer to any kind of writing based on art. Alvin did a great lecture on this subject when I was in Nashville a couple weeks ago. He passed out pictures of art and we were all supposed to write pieces based on it. He had some really great questions that you could use to jog your writing muscle, such as:
- Does this work represent our sense of reality, or does it create its own?
- What detail, other than the central figure, most intrigues you?
- What things or objects in the work seem familiar? Unfamliar?
- What is your basic emotional reaction to the piece?
- If you could ask the artist one question, what would it be?
And so forth. There were many more questions and they were all similarly helpful. He also gave us a handout that listed the various approaches used in ekprhasis, which include:
- Description which lends insight to the art
- Telling a story based on the art
- Responding to a theme or emotion suggested by the art
- Writing from the point of view of the artist
- Using the artwork to explore a personal issue
Again, this is only a brief list. Apparently, ekphrastic poetry is growing in popularity. There’s even a journal devoted exclusively to it, called, amazingly, Ekphrasis: A Poetry Journal. Has a ring to it, don’t you think?
I love anything to do with art, because I have a minor specialty in writing about it. I’ve written tons of features about artists for various magazines, and done copywriting for art colleges and galleries. I’m also a firm believer that studying art can teach you to write better. Why? Because the essence of studying art is to really look closely at a piece of work, until you have deconstructed and figured out every little tiny piece of it. And being able to deconstruct a piece of writing is one way to get to the heart of it. When we first start out as writers, this is something that takes a lot of work to accomplish. But the more we write and read, it becomes a near-intuitive process.
I also have a soft spot in my heart for ekphrasis poetry because the best poem I ever wrote is ekphrastic. It is based on a tapestry hanging in the Speed Art Museum in Louisville (which is pronounced Loo-uh-ville, and you say those first two syllables as fast as you can, for those of you who’ve never been there).
There’s a whole long story behind the poem which has to do with my first residency in the MFA program at Spalding, and how I had to write a @#$%^ poem, which I was certain I wouldn’t be able to do, and how I moaned and groaned and wrang my hands and finally skipped dinner (which wasn’t as much of a sacrifice as you might think, because dinner was in the Spalding cafeteria and everything was fried) and sat in the computer lab by myself and obsessed until the poem came out. And then it got chosen as one of the poems to be featured and was a huge success. Which taught me that it is usually better to write than eat dinner, a lesson I seem to have forgotten over the last couple years.
The connection in the poem is Louis, the Sun King, which Louisville is named after, and my own son Lewis, which is spelled in the way we spell it out here in the wild west, and the poem is about, basically, how odd and wonderful it is to have a son, because basically, he is male, which might as well be that he is a different species. And that’s all I’m going to say because I think now that I’ve discovered Ekphrasis, the journal, I’m going to submit to them.
The moral of this very long post which happened to take a couple unexpected turns is this: try incorporating writing about art into your repetoire. You don’t have to become an art critic or even know much about art. Find some art you like and use it as an entry point for your writing. You might focus on the color in the background of a painting and end up writing a description you can use in your novel. Or you might write about a person in the painting and end up with the beginning of a short story. Visual cues can be very powerful.
Here are a couple of websites that have images for starters, courtesy of Alvin Knox:
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Ialso found this site about ekphrastic poetry, and Alvin recommends The University of Virginia website page on it. Next time you are blocked in your writing, check out one of these sites, find yourself a piece of art, and start writing about it.