The Ekphrastic Writer’s Column
Greetings from Door County, Wisconsin!
Here’s a question from one reader:
Ekphrastic writing has become a way for me to give shape to ideas that might otherwise escape expression. Imagery doesn’t explain, it doesn’t always clarify, and that’s what I trust about it. You asked "where does ekphrastic writing get me?" Very often, imagery provides me with an opening, a way to explore an idea, an experience; it’s very useful when I need to change direction, change the tone, or introduce another element. Imagery is a prompt. It doesn’t always take me where I expected, it surprises me. So much in life is just incomprehensible, but an image can give doubt and confusion a form, make it almost manageable, or make it something we can live with.
Signed, David B.
Dear David B.,
“An image can give doubt and confusion a form” is a brilliant argument for why writers of any type should turn to the visual arts especially when they’re experiencing a block in their writing. I met a woman today at a quaint Fish Creek inn who lamented, “I want to share my wedding album with my grandchildren, but besides us, they won’t know anyone in the pictures, which would bore them to tears.”
The concept of unfamiliarity giving rise to boredom stupefied me. Ekphrastic writers know that any image can present an opportunity for memory as well as magic. Let the eyes lead you to the questions you have but have not yet uttered aloud. Let the eyes lead you to the answers without questions. Look deeply and let that single act of looking be the guide that opens the door.
Where does ekphrastic writing get me? In 2019 the organization Write On, Door County launched the nation’s first writer-in-residence program especially for ekphrastic writers. The Dick Scuglik Memorial Residency and Scholarship “is given to a writer with demonstrated skill and interest in ekphrastic writing—writing inspired by visual arts.” Each year beginning in 2020, one ekphrastic writer is gifted with a gratis stay in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, as well as a travel stipend. Additionally, the writer is paired with a Door County visual artist, resulting in both a new ekphrastic work and a new piece of visual art. As the winner of the inaugural award, I’m thrilled to see the new ways in which ekphrasis is gaining traction as a creative writing subgenre.
While in residence (postponed one year due to COVID-19), I’m working on a new collection of ekphrastic poems, tentatively titled, Andrew Wyeth Notebook, but I’m most excited by my upcoming artist talk. Rarely do I get the opportunity to exchange words and images with another artist and discuss, before an audience, the creative process. It was an alien exercise, composing words while being cognizant that my choices should be tracked (annotated) in the service of presenting my painstaking writing process to others. Will it surprise my audience to see how 10,000 words ultimately morphed into two poems of 400 words each? Perhaps as much as it astounds me that everything begins with a blank matrix.
What is your creative process? Is it different when you’re writing ekphrastically? What might you present in an artist talk regarding how the words came to you and how you abided them? I challenge you to organize your own art exchange. Which living artists do you know and admire? Would that artist accept a piece of writing from you as a path to their own blank canvas? Each artist is a door. Find one open.
Join the conversation by sending your letters to E.W. at ekphrasticwriter(at)gmail.com.
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 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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