Welcome to the forth installment of the Ekphrastic Writer’s column. As the author of the first comprehensive guidebook on multi-genre ekphrasis, The Ekphrastic Writer, I’ll be posting monthly musings, fielding your questions on ekphrasis (and beyond), and fostering a conversation on contemporary practices in visual-art-influenced creative writing.
Happy National Poetry Writing Month! Before I respond to a couple of letters, I want to share a tribute. Late last year I had written a letter to the wife-husband editorial team of the first journal dedicated to ekphrasis: Ekphrasis—A Poetry Journal. The year was 1997. The World Wide Web was in its infancy and the term “ekphrasis” was foreign to everyone but a few literary scholars. Carol and Laverne Frith created a small, loose-leaf journal which they secured with staples. If you were writing poems influenced by the visual arts back in the late nineties and early aughts, you dreamed of placing your poems in Ekphrasis. Back then, physical dictionaries did not include “ekphrasis” and the word was not Internet-searchable until around 2004. While I myself knew the types of poems the highly discerning Friths where seeking, I assumed that the journal’s title was just a unique name with no grand meaning. As a young writer, Ekphrasis was the first place that I could actually read poems by poets who engaged with the visual arts, such as Peter Cooley, Grace Bauer, Jeffery Levine, and David Wright.
Back to my letter. My guidebook on ekphrasis had been released and I wondered about the Friths’ journal and succession planning. I’d sent several emails that had gone unanswered, so I composed a handwritten letter and sent it to California. “I’m so grateful to you both for the work you’ve done for the world of ekphrasis,” I began. However, months later a terrible thing happened, which I shared in a desperate post on Facebook: “Writer friends, please help. A letter I wrote to Laverne and Carol Frith was returned with the word “deceased” scrawled across the envelope.”
Once I received confirmation, I wrote this next post: “My heart is heavy as I announce that Ekphrasis—A Poetry Journal has folded (and the website scrubbed from the Internet) after nearly a quarter century. Founders Carol and Laverne Frith both passed away, in May 2020 and December 2020 respectively. Today I celebrate the Friths having championed ekphrastic poetry at the dawn of the ekphrastic movement. While journals that tout ekphrasis will continue to come and go, theirs was the first. Thank you for paving the way, Ekphrasis editors.”
Here are excerpts from some letters that I received in March:
My question is....what ekphrastic poems about music rather than visual art can you recommend?
Signed, Seth C.
Dear Seth C.,
The grandfather of ekphrastic scholarship (insofar as “ekphrasis” is a subgenre of creative writing), James A. W. Heffernan, defined the term thusly: “verbal representation of visual representation.” So, the term ekphrasis as set forth by scholars limits “ekphrastic poems” to those that concern only visual representation. Hence, while there are indeed music-influenced poems, it’d be antithetical to the literal definition of “ekphrasis” to label them as ekphrastic.
Furthermore, it’s worthwhile to note that when writers call their poems “ekphrastic,” they are choosing to inform their readership of the genesis of their inspiration. In every one of my ekphrastic poems, for example, I both use the artworks’ titles as the poems’ titles and I include citation epigraphs.
While it’s possible that we’ve all read music-influenced poems, if the writer chose not to indicate to the readers that specific fact, then the poems cannot be categorized. The readers’ curiosity about the poems’ origin, as it were, remains a question.
It is interesting to note the inherent transparency in “ekphrastic” poems’ influence, as compared with non-ekphrastic poems in which we cannot know, and perhaps are happily ignorant, to their origins.
(By the by, it’s not the poets’ responsibility to offer any caveat to their readers. Poems should stand on their own.) Yet, if one simply embraces “ekphrasis” as synonymous with “description” (as in the Greek term, “ekphrasis”) in the spirit of naming music-influenced creative writing, it’d be wise to offer a prefix byway of specifying a musical relationship. In my guidebook on ekphrasis, I coined “phonoekphrasis” to specify verbal representation of sound elements of artwork (which could include other disciplines besides the visual arts, I suppose).
So, to answer your question, I recall poems by Langston Hughes which evoke what were then called Negro hymns and spirituals, as well as the prose of Gregory Spatz, who’s also a gifted violinist and thus writes poignantly of playing music. On the Poetry Foundation website, you can search “poems about music” for an exhaustive display of both poems and prose that, in some way, treat music. As an ekphrastic practitioner, what I also find fascinating is the ways in which the visual arts have been informative to composers. For example, a musical composition influenced by artwork, and aptly called, “Pictures at an Exhibition,” is a suite of ten pieces composed for piano in 1874 by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky. Also, I recommend Siglind Bruhn’s 2000 nonfiction book, Musical Ekphrasis: Composers Responding to Poetry and Painting.
A friend of mine, after reading something I wrote about a historical character, suggested there was too much of myself in the poem. And I thought, isn’t that the point? If there is nothing of us in what we write, then it has no emotional core; it’s flat prose, not poetry.
Signed, David B.
Dear David B., I can think of very few things more injurious to a writer than an indelicate reader. Readers who know us personally are perhaps the worst providers of feedback, for they lack objectivity and they’re offended by the notion that they’re interlopers to our creative process. I implore everyone: If you chose to share your work with people close to you, ask them to do one of two things: “Please just read this for enjoyment, as I require no feedback.” Or, “please read this and indicate to me the places in which you were confused.” Most people have fine intentions, but it’s your job to direct them to a response that supports your creative process. Instead, allow only your instructors, workshop members, and editors to provide you with critical assessments.
Last December I attended a virtual event hosted by Middlebury College which featured Julia Alvarez (poet, novelist, and essayist). During her talk, Alvarez offered this brilliant articulation of the creative writing/creative writer relationship: “Every novel is emotionally autobiographical,” she opined. Remember the adage, “writers don’t write about feelings, they write with feelings”? What we feel is highly specific and autobiographical. If what we’re writing has been enlivened by deep imagery and particularities, we are necessarily writing from the wellspring of truth. Not truth in terms of verifiable facts about our lives, but the emotional and bodily truths. In other words, if you (the writer) believe it (can imagine it), then you can embody it, which can result in a sense of truth-telling for your readers.
If you wish to join the conversation, send your letters to E.W. at ekphrasticwriter(at)gmail.com.
Ekphrastically Yours, E.W.
Post Script—Biographical Note: E.W. (Janée J. Baugher) is the author of The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influence Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction, as well as the ekphrastic poetry collections, The Body’s Physics and Coördinates of Yes. Recent work has appeared in Saturday Evening Post, Tin House, The Southern Review, The American Journal of Poetry, and Nimrod. Her writing has been adapted for the stage and set to music at venues such as University of Cincinnati, Interlochen Center for the Arts, Dance Now! Ensemble in Florida, University of North Carolina-Pembroke, and Otterbein University, and she’s performed at the Library of Congress. Currently, she teaches in Seattle and is an assistant editor at Boulevard magazine. www.JaneeBaugher.com. Follow her on Instagram: @ekphrastic_writer.
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