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
Click here to learn more about or purchase Out of Nothing by James B. Nicola at Shanti Arts.
Visit James B. Nicola's website, or order an autographed copy, by clicking here.
Raven at the Crossing
Do you seek a pattern in all this whiteness,
asks the woman dressed as a raven.
Or is she a raven, cloaking a woman in feathers and wool?
You’ve tramped through new-fallen snow to this edge
where land dissolves into not-frozen water, where fog
is indistinguishable from water, sky inseparable from fog.
Woman-Raven, Raven-Woman—her blackness is a bridge
between these white strata:
snow-covered scrub, water, fog, sky.
Her curtsey drags the hem of her cloak
in the drifts, bows her long cardboard beak toward the water.
If this is a gate, she is its keeper.
Where her corvid mask points, you see
a distant line of grey figures.
Snow-covered trees, most likely. Or ghosts.
Another land at another water’s edge.
Would you go, if a boat waited?
There is no boat. There is only a raven
dressed as a woman in a raven costume.
A bare branch overhead hints at an invisible forest.
Red and white beads hold feathers to her cloak.
The beads rattle like icicles falling into each other.
Red is the world’s only colour, the only sound in the silence.
Hannah Silverstein lives in Vermont. Her writing has appeared in Si Señor, The New Guard, and SWWIM Every Day.
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea. --T.S. Eliott
With the precision of a surgeon, he spliced your
canvas-- lacerated the fibres and dismembered your vision,
assured that his recension
would temper provocations, the suggestion of swinging calves,
shaking rumps and switching skirts, stirring the yearning of outcasts
who gathered in bar chairs on balconies and poised tenuously on stairs--
They emptied their cups to numb the absence.
You sat among them, filled your glass to the brim and above the brim
another round that burned down until the green fairy's swirled apparitions, acidic and swift,
appeared in darkened corners, unnoticed like loose strings in
the fringes of bar-rooms
You disappeared with your musings, in your muses,
you painted yourself into the foreground, the background,
the periphery where you belonged. In shadows,
you conjured her, with skin acerbic, her caustic gaze,
from her frame and swallows yours whole.
There’s a fissure in the skin of the canvas.
Set like a limb reattached, She leans into the
break to gaze--a spurned lover cast aside
to survive only in brush-strokes
of alleyways--drown in oceans of arsenic.
She reminds us to listen for the ghosts
in shavings of erasers, to see yet
what lingers in the margins--
their hauntings in wasted papers.
Poet's note: "This past spring, I took my two little girls to The Art Institute in Chicago. As usual, we stopped to see Toulouse-Lautrec's At the Moulin Rouge. I crouched down to talk with my youngest about the 'green lady' in the painting, and it was the first time I saw a suture in the canvas--it was cut by an art dealer who believed the inclusion of the 'green lady,' May Milton, decreased the painting's value. It was later reattached. (It astonishes me how we can see art so differently from various angles and points of view.) From that visit, I knew I wanted to tie together the idea of creation and revision in an ekphrastic poem, a marriage of TS Eliot's relationship with Ezra Pound and posthumous splicing of Toulouse-Lautrec's painting by an art dealer."
Erin Holtz teaches English and Creative Writing in the Chicagoland suburbs and writes poetry late at night. She has been published in Mothers Always Write and in Lament for the Dead.
“I think everything in this room is about residential schools,”
I turn and take in the four black walls
And sink a little into the ground.
When we reach the painting on the back wall
My eyes go straight to the middle
Where a woman
Is being torn away from her child.
The mother’s expression--
“I am having a hard time facing this one,” I say.
Feeling a compression stretch
Across my chest
I think I have nothing left
To breathe out
I look up.
Outlined in chalk.
Clarissa Mae de Leon
Clarissa Mae de Leon is a PhD student at the Queen’s University Faculty of Education where she researches curriculum theory and multiliteracies. She lives in Kingston, Canada with her greyhound, Emilio.
Anamorphis: On a Secret Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, West Highland Museum, Scotland
He never ran on issues,
claiming a chromosome shuffle,
but slewed in the colors' auguries,
uncaught by silver curve,
to be amazed
without smoke or mirrors.
For a while nothing
but glitter and black,
flakes the color of cat
cries, (or wine wild eyes?)--
maybe only cold stars,
a stare's delusion
of blueing magnitude.
But palpable is the noise of thronged life,
and the crashing of hot cymbal
so thus, these colors coalesce:
red nerves, a shriek unglued,
three shades of magenta
like a sky lowering
over too much history.
Then emerging parts, bits, of you,
your tiny future: no face yet but
privative months set
forth to snatch perception:
lost March, lost April,
May, and the way cities
rose, brimming burns
bent, parted at your touch.
Splendid the muffled inklings,
the face faking form,
in the church of imagination
until finally the great pretender
himself! colours within colours,
splendid, him, in the hours
when earth's uneven work
hung in balance like a laurel,
the middle of all other
Dorie LaRue teaches at LSU in Shrevport, LA. Her book of poems, Mad Rains, was published in 2014. Her novel, Resurrecting Virgil, won the Omaha Prize for Fiction. Both are available on Amazon.
Reading in the morning light
she looks the part of a peaceful
old woman, every inch of lace
and black taffeta in proper folds,
in proper place, a small book in
her lap, nothing here to cause a
fuss except maybe a few birds
fluttering in an delicate cage
beside her. The thin filigree
bars filtering the early light.
But in the night, the full moon’s
glow will wake her. Aching, she
will rise and dress and read more,
hoping to satisfy hungers she
knows as her own. Her husband will
stir in his sleep choosing not to turn
and hold her. Exotic plants will call
her name. She will discuss with
them the roots of her longing.
Anna Cotton is a writer and retired teacher living in Lakeland, Florida. She has published poems in Miramar and The Avalon Literary Review. She also has a poem forthcoming in Earth's Daughter.
The Camel Girl’s Camel Bemoans His Fate
In 1886, Ella Harper was born with a deformity of the back knee and later twinned with a camel in W. H Harris’s Nickel Plate Circus in Tennessee — she the star, the camel the shadow.
Just as the Ottoman Empire again
loses its independence,
I too lose mine,
arrive here, come to this --
seasick, unquenched hump
flopped over, nostrils clamp-weary.
I stand tethered, legs locked,
atrophic, rot in my own muck.
My moldy foot pads ache.
My coat peels away, soft clumps
fall on cold concrete.
My urine concentrates,
my dung dries.
My stench sickens me.
My heart cracks.
There is no other of my ilk,
no Cheng or Eng to turn the pages
as I moan my sour music
while Ella plays camel, smiles at you,
a sweet Alice in your carnie Wonderland,
clutches 200 a week, grabs an education,
nabs a husband, loses babies — barren
as the desert I belong on.
And they wonder why I bellow,
spit foul brown.
What is not here, fades: sand
underneath my feet, the caravan
I belonged to, the soft blowing
of my naqah on my muzzle,
nuzzling that is understood.
Hearing my name: Jamal: Beauty.
Mikki Aronoff’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Lake, EastLit, Virga, Weaving the Terrain: 100-Word Southwestern Poems, bosque, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, Love’s Executive Order and elsewhere. A New Mexico poet, she is also involved in animal advocacy.
No dogs bark at this hour,
Desolate, an abandoned field burnt by the sun,
Dry shaving curls on a workshop floor long unswept.
Harsher than sawing wood, a motorcycle
Rips along a distant road, popping
Explosions in small packets sputtering
Bits of shrapnel, broken teeth,
Busted rivets, chopped up brittle, pits, tracers, short-lived sparks.
Slowly silence thickens, concrete putty sealing joints and crevices
Of a room deafening to the slightest vibration,
Hardening gradually, spiral candy.
The world is asleep, I am awake.
Passing time heaves, a resting animal.
Dimly, a behemoth of swarming thoughts like fireflies drifts past.
I wait steadfastly, a metal tool seeking the warm grasp of a skillful hand.
Now is the moment to enter into stillness
Deep as cloisters enfolding underground rivers,
Delicate as a tissue by the slightest cough perforated.
Before the smallest particle of noise tears like flint into gossamer darkness,
I will take long draughts, cupping my hands descending as birds into the springs of tranquility.
Gonzalinho da Costa
A shorter version of this poem was originally published at This Dark Matter.
Gonzalinho da Costa—a pen name—teaches at the Ateneo Graduate School of Business, Makati City, Philippines. He is a management research and communication consultant. A lover of world literature, he has completed three humanities degrees and writes poetry as a hobby.
Digging Up Dali
Hair dripping from the Tampa weather we plunged
ourselves through to reach the museum, we stood before paintings
so frighteningly large and bright our breath was a rainstorm.
You asked me where I thought Dali began “The Ecumenical Council,”
and I told you it must have been where the self-portrait in the corner
launched his first brushstroke. The octopus was already placed
before my headphones weren’t working, before you offered yours,
nestling them gently around my neck. But I didn’t want to hear the audio tour,
I wanted to feel the skeleton brides on bikes with rocks on their heads,
riding and riding into the abyss.
I wanted to feel around you, too,
to tell you we’d already started a work of art. Everyone, I wanted to say,
has a binge every now and then. Even Dali, with his barely touched
plate of wavy shrimp, his paltry sexual desires.
What would he paint, now, of his exhumation, his possible
tarot-card-reading daughter? Would he ask for her deck, or hide her face
into each melting face or breast? Would his skeletal resurrection
have a mustache, a paintbrush? To be Dali’s daughter, is to eat
from the tidal pools and cliffs of Port Lligat.
And to be near you, is to always find buried things,
cutting through layers of humus and topsoil to curiosity, enlightenment.
To uncover is to find one’s life pulse, the inside of a tooth, perhaps a hair tissue.
To breathe, from the newspaper’s hand-painted faces, to find a daughter
in “Manhattan Skyline, Tarot the Moon.” What would he paint, of a human’s
unfurled DNA, that could curl around and around the moon?
L.E. Goldstein is a native of Florida. She holds an MA from the University of Southern Mississippi and an MFA from Boston University. She is currently studying and working at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her poetry chapbook, The State of the Ship, was published by Dancing Girl Press in 2016.
John Bernhard (USA, b. Switzerland). Contemporary. Click for artist website.
I am night and a thousand stars hurtle through my skin, punching through the ether.
I crouch, prehistoric, in the space behind clouds, my volcanic heart attracting lightning sympathetic, interstellar.
My shadow is a supernova cutting a path through the light, slimming ever thinner
until nothing else remains. My insides negative, the darkness turned out,
pepper-black and coal-hard.
Lightning waits for me on the other side of the forest. He’s tall and thin,
pale or blue, holding me in, but this isn’t a cage. These aren’t flowers
I’m pollenating—they’re caves spelunked, mountains cliff-hung,
open seas hard to port, hives honey-brimmed and buzzing places where
I can hide.
Holly Lyn Walrath
This poem was first published along with these images in the book Dreamlike Art and Deviations (Art Pub Books) by John Bernhard.
Holly Lyn Walrath’s poetry and short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fireside Fiction, Luna Station Quarterly, Liminality, and elsewhere. Her chapbook of words and images, Glimmerglass Girl, will be published by Finishing Line Press in 2018. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She is a freelance editor and host of The Weird Circular, an e-newsletter for writers containing submission calls and writing prompts. You can find her canoeing the bayou in Seabrook, Texas, on Twitter @HollyLynWalrath, or at www.hlwalrath.com.
John Bernhard is a Swiss American artist, photographer and writer who traveled North America extensively before settling in Houston, Texas in 1980. For more than three decades he has chosen the medium of photography to explore the everyday world from new perspectives, breaking away into different pathways of artistic expression. Bernhard was educated at the EPSIC Technical College in Lausanne and at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs de Geneve in Switzerland. He is the author of nine books, the most recent of which is Dreamlike Art & Deviation. Beginning in 1985 with a solo exhibition at the Houston Center for Photography, Bernhard has had more than 30 solo shows, three museum exhibitions, and many collective exhibitions throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Bernhard’s work has been reviewed in publications such as Communication Arts, Graphis, Photo District New Magazine, The Houston Chronicle, ArtSpeak Magazine, Swiss Review, and has been widely published in such books as Love & Desire by William A. Ewing, (Chronicle Books), Female Contemporary Nude Photography III, (UDYAT), Spain, and Nude Bible, (Tectum Publishers, Belgium).
Scroll down for writers, archive by month, and categories
(use search box above)
Sherry Barker Abaldo
Meghan Rose Allen
Mary Jo Balistreri
B. Elizabeth Beck
Karen G. Berry
Susan P. Blevins
Rose Mary Boehm
Charles M. Boyer
Catherine A. Brereton
Charles W. Brice
David C. Brydges
Mary Lou Buschi
Danielle Nicole Byington
Wendy Taylor Carlisle
Fern G. Z. Carr
Tricia Marcella Cimera
SuzAnne C. Cole
Gonzalinho da Costa
Robert L. Dean, Jr.
Joanne Rocky Delaplaine
John Scott Dewey
Marc Alan Di Martino
Catherine Ruffing Drotleff
Suzanne E. Edison
Kurt Cole Eidsvig
Tara A. Elliott
Alexis Rhone Fancher
Ariel Rainer Fintushel
Edward H. Garcia
Adam J. Gellings
Grace Marie Grafton
Emily Reid Green
Rebeca Ladrón de Guevara
Laura Quinn Guidry
Andrea L. Hackbarth
Judith Lee Herbert
A. J. Huffman
Pat Snyder Hurley
Arya F. Jenkins
Brandon D. Johnson
Crystal Condakes Karlberg
Christopher T. Keaveney
Olivia J. Kiers
Loretta Collins Klobah
Kim Peter Kovac
Jean L. Kreiling
Stuart A. Kurtz
Tanmoy Das Lala
John R. Lee
Clarissa Mae de Leon
David Ross Linklater
Gregory E. Lucas
Lorette C. Luzajic
M. L. Lyons
Ariel S. Maloney
John C. Mannone
Mary C. McCarthy
Megan Denese Mealor
Patrick G. Metoyer
David P. Miller
Stacy Boe Miller
Mark J. Mitchell
Thomas R. Moore
Mark A. Murphy
S. Jagathsimhan Nair
Heather M. Nelson
James B. Nicola
Bruce W. Niedt
Kim Patrice Nunez
M. N. O'Brien
Pravat Kumar Padhy
Daniel J. Pizappi
Melissa Reeser Poulin
Rhonda C. Poynter
Marcia J. Pradzinski
Anita S. Pulier
Amie E. Reilly
J. Stephen Rhodes
Ralph La Rosa
Mary Kay Rummell
Mary Harris Russell
Janet St. John
Lisa St. John
Kelly R. Samuels
Christy Sheffield Sanford
Courtney O'Banion Smith
Janice D. Soderling
David Allen Sullivan
Kim Cope Tait
Mary Stebbins Taitt
Mary Ellen Talley
Liza Nash Taylor
Janine Pommy Vega
Sue Brannan Walker
Martin Willitts Jr
William Carlos Williams
Morgan Grayce Willow
Shannon Connor Winward
William Butler Yeats
Abigail Ardelle Zammit
Our primary objective is to promote writing, art and artists today and through history. All works of art are used with permission of the creator or publisher, OR under public domain, OR under fair use. If any works have been used or credited incorrectly, please alert us so we can fix it.