The Ekphrastic Review Talks with James B. Nicola on Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists
Tell us about how this book came into being. How did the idea come to you, and how did it evolve? What changed along the way?
As the number of poems I had written (or was working on) grew, I began keeping them in separate files organized by theme. New York poems turned into my first collection, Manhattan Plaza; those about the theatre and performing arts, Stage to Page, my second collection; those about loss, longing, and the queasy feeling in the hollow of your gut that accompanies them, Wind in the Cave. The file that I had once called “On Art” has finally turned into a collection with illustrations: Out of Nothing.
After Shanti Arts accepted it for publication, publisher Christine Brooks Cote and I began to discuss which images to use along with the poems. Only a few of the pieces are ekphrastic per se: Some poems called for several images; others, an image only indirectly, or tangentially, related to the text; still others, no image at all.
Meanwhile, I revisited the flow of poems to fashion Out of Nothing as a single work of art in its own right, like a long poem or three-movement symphony, with several interwoven journeys: Chaos to Cosmos, ancient to post-post-modern, unborn to everlasting. You’ll notice, for example, that the prologue opens the book with the birth of Beauty, while the last word of the last poem is “stars.”
How is writing ekphrastic poetry similar and/or different from writing from other sources of inspiration?
Today, one can open a book or click on a website to see a piece of architecture or art, or its facsimile. So for my money, we need not spend so much time describing, which ekphrastic poetry did in classical Greece. Artwork for me has served as prompts to the poetic process, then, rather than simply as subject matter.
Still, while I might like to go wherever inspiration, passion, and caprice take me, there is that other soul in the room—no, not the audience, who is always there-and-not-there (viz. my first book, Playing the Audience: The Practical Actor’s Guide to Live Performance). I mean the artist. In the same way you are never alone “When you read” (the title of one of the poems in Out of Nothing), so several souls are always involved when you experience art. Ekphrastic poetry—what with reader, artist, and poet in tow—cannot help but be communal.
Has writing poetry from paintings changed the way you look at and respond to art?
When I go to a museum or gallery, there’s now a strange, inscrutable whisper deep in my gut telling me that my silent reactions do not have to stay silent. The humility of subjecting oneself to something greater, ironically, can turn into an arrogant expression of that very act of “subjection!”
What’s more, once I’ve written a poem about a work of art, it is nearly impossible to see the artwork again without recalling that poem. The first time cannot be repeated.
You write about a wide variety of styles of art. Did you always have a wide appreciation for art, or did writing ekphrastic poetry broaden your horizons?
I still remember as a little kid the first time I saw the Worcester Art Museum’s El Greco, with its eerie lighting and other-worldliness. When I was in third grade, a fellow student (a recent transplant from New York City, no less, whose mom had met mine through the museum guild) painted a very funny series of overlapping shapes in various colours—squares, triangles, circles, and so forth—while the rest of us were painting trees, hills, beaches, houses and whatnot. That was the day I first heard the term “pop art” —from that fellow student. So on my next trip to the museum, there was a lot to explore. My mom even took my brothers and me there for Saturday art lessons for a couple years.
So I am not sure if writing ekphrastic poetry “broadened my horizons” as such, but the fact that I loved and appreciated art on my own long before taking an academic course in it meant that I automatically knew to experience the thing personally first, before letting anyone tell me about genre or style or “ism.” To this day, at an exhibit, I will read a curator’s caption only after first engaging with the work of art directly. This independent, intrepid attitude has helped me to see what is there rather than what someone says I am seeing, and kept me open to new experiences, exotic cultures, and innovative visions.
What are some of your favourite poems in the book? Tell us why, or what they mean to you, or how they happened.
Poems are so like progeny, so asking for favourites is like asking a parent to pick a favourite child—I simply can’t do it. But I can mention some poems that have been particularly satisfying to perform lately.
I often start a set with “Where does art/start?” which is at the beginning of the book. I performed it as the NY Poetry Festival back in 2016, by the way, and a young poet wrote a pastiche of it which got published in a British Poetry Journal on-line, citing Out of Nothing as its source—long before my poem was published elsewhere!
As a closer of a set, it’s fun to perform “Tower,” the last poem in the book, with its concise cosmic twist.
A couple of the narrative poems have been quite fun for audiences: “Water Lilies,” which is not just about Monet’s painting glazed on a coffee mug, but ultimately about the beginning of everything; and “Yesterday’s Rains,” where the point of a certain arts & crafts festival sort of sneaks up on the listener, as does the point of the poem—and of art.
Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists, James B. Nicola, Shanti Arts, May 2018
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