An Interview with Barbara Crooker About Ekphrastic Poetry, by Ronnie Hess
Barbara Crooker is the author of many books of poetry, a frequent contributor to the The Ekphrastic Review, and the winner of the 2006 Ekphrastic Poetry Award from Rosebud, among other honours. Some recent books are Some Glad Morning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), The Book of Kells (Cascade Books, 2018), and Les Fauves (C&R Press, 2017). Although Crooker writes about many subjects – love, loss, disability, illness, death – she returns again and again to painting and painters, in a sense redrawing their art with words. Here she shares her ideas about ekphrastic poetry with Ronnie Hess, whose book Tripping the Light Ekphrastic has just been published by Kelsay Books.
Ronnie Hess: You’ve written so many ekphrastic poems, Barbara, dozens of them on the The Ekphrastic Review’s web pages, and of course in your books, especially Les Fauves. What is it about painting generally that draws you to speak of them or through them?
Barbara Crooker: I think it’s somewhat random, in that I’m not exactly sure what it is that draws me to a particular painting, only that it does, that it’s urgent, and that I need to explore my connection in a poem. With Les Fauves, I was on a writing residency in the southwest corner of France, and so I gave myself the assignment to write about Fauve paintings. I had some favourites in mind beforehand (Matisse, for example), but fell in love with some others as I started working, particularly Raoul Dufy. I got to have two residencies there, so some of those poems also appear in Some Glad Morning. And I had two residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Co. Monaghan, Ireland, where I wrote The Book of Kells, which turned a series of ekphrastic meditations on The Book of Kells (among other things), including the materials used, the inks and pigments, the calligraphy, and the various images appearing in the illuminated manuscript.
Ronnie Hess: There’s something about the light and colour in the south of France that drew the Impressionists, the Fauvists, but also draws you. Are you partial to French painters?
Barbara Crooker: I think I’ve used so many French painters partly because of my travels. My husband worked for a French company (Elf Aquitaine), so we had many trips there together, plus the aforementioned residencies, where I started out with him on vacation first, going to Collioure where Fauvism got started. So, I’ve worked many of the things I’ve loved in my French travels into these poems. And you’re right, the light and colour of the south of France are also compelling.
Ronnie Hess: I don’t find many abstract paintings referenced in your poetry. Is this for a reason?
Barbara Crooker: So, that’s a really good and really interesting question. I think some of it is because of the random nature of how I work, and also because, with the two French residencies, I took calendars with me for the art, and Impressionist and Post-Impressionist work is figurative. But I chose abstract art for two of my book covers (More, cover by Marilyn Banner and Some Glad Morning, cover by Kristin Herzog). And when I worked on a creative ekphrastic project, I was paired with abstract painter Claire Giblin. This was a really interesting project; we started by selecting something from each other’s websites. Then I did a poem based on one of her paintings, while she did a painting based on one of my poems. Then I did another poem based on her painting, and over and over like an accordion fold. We got to exhibit these together, plus the poets read in a gallery in front of the art. You can find our pairings by scrolling down on her website, www.giblinart.com
Ronnie Hess: A few of your poems are sonnets. I’m tempted to say that it’s not just an accident or an appreciation of the sonnet form, but that you want to write a love song.
Barbara Crooker: Well, it’s never an accident when I turn to form, but rather, my sense that the poem wants to “dance in a box,” as Rina Espaillat says about the sonnet or wants to explore “the fine art of repeating yourself” in a villanelle (Marilyn Taylor). I try to let the poem lead the way, rather than do something predetermined. I hope that all my poems are love songs.
Ronnie Hess: I also get the sense from your ekphrastic poems that the paintings provide not just an impulse, a trigger, or an inspiration but a refuge, even a consolation. Certain lines stand out: “Our days in the sun are brief,” “all the things of the world are about to vanish.” (From “Still Life with Aubergines,” after Matisse, and “Iris,” after Van Gogh.)
Barbara Crooker: I think of most of my poems as meditations so refuge or consolation are good descriptors. Again, once inside the world of the painting, I try and stay out of the way of the poem and let it lead me to discover these images and lines.
Ronnie Hess: Your poems always reference the painting, and yet there are other poets’ ekphrastic poems that don’t reference the art at all. Rather the poems focus on the emotional response exclusively, or an event in the poet’s life, the art jogging a memory. In short, how would you define ekphrastic poetry today?
Barbara Crooker: Poetry’s mansion has many rooms, as does ekphrastic poetry! In other words, there’s no right or wrong way to write an ekphrastic poem. For me, but this is just me, I want an ekphrastic poem to go beyond simply describing the painting or other work of art, but rather, to live in it, and then take us someplace else, a journey of discovery. And ekphrastic poems that don’t reference the art at all are, again, just for me, not especially interesting . . . .
Ronnie Hess: I imagine there have always been ekphrastic poems. Writer/Journalist Martin Earl has said, “Painters and poets have been wed from the beginning. Language itself has pictorial roots….Poets are attracted to the symbolic and pictographic traces of their own language in painting.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet-books/2009/06/poets-and-painters
Barbara Crooker: Thank you for this article. In the first couple of paragraphs, one of the things that draws me in (pun intended) is how painters get to use all these great tactile materials: oils, watercolours, brushes, palette knives, etc., while all we writers have are words. . . . Then it discusses pictograms, rebuses, etc.—haven’t we returned to this now, with our emojis and gifs? Where [Russian artist Alexander] Rodchenko declares all painting can be reduced to “pure red, pure blue, pure yellow,” my take is how surely all literature can be reduced to love and loss. And yet there are so many ways both in painting and poetry that we can experience this.
Ronnie Hess: Have you had any training in art – in college or later in life? Is there any experience in your life that solidly established a connection with art? [For me, it was in high school in New York – we were required to do a series of museum reports where we chose an artwork, described it and why we liked it.]
Barbara Crooker: I have a minor in Art History from Douglass College (once part of Rutgers University) in my undergraduate degree. We were a $2 bus ride from NYC, so I went in often to museums (I had a student membership to the Museum of Modern Art, galleries, etc. I have absolutely no studio training. Once, someone sent me a review they were writing about one of my books, in which this sentence appeared, “As a visual artist, BC really understands the painting process . . . .” I had to write back (fortunately, this review hadn’t been published yet), and set them straight. Clearly, they had never played Pictionary with me!
Ronnie Hess: Do you collect art? What artwork or prints might be in your house?
Barbara Crooker: I’m not sure “collect” is the right term, but I have a number of prints from museums (I’ve been a member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art), plus ones from visual artists I’ve spent time with at the colony I go to, The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts: Kristin Herzog, Mary Page Evans, Marilyn Banner. Some were gifts, some were purchases. And then a random bunch of things I’ve picked up at yard sales.
Ronnie Hess: Is there one piece of art that never tires you, no matter how much you look at it, that always gives you more to think about. Or is there any exhibit that you would travel the world to see, barring COVID, etc.
Barbara Crooker: For me, this would be like picking my favourite poem (or picking my favourite child). And I’m so eclectic in my tastes, so all I’ll say is that if I were travelling somewhere, a trip to a museum would be part of my itinerary. I WAS going to St. Petersburg last June and looking forward to visiting The Hermitage. We were worried about Covid; who knew war was on the horizon?
Thank you, Barbara, for taking the time to share your ideas about ekphrastic poetry, not to mention your poems, with us!
“If you want to know all about Andy Warhol,
just look at my films and paintings and me.
There’s nothing behind it. That’s all there is.”
It is all surface, isn’t it, the thin blue silk of the sky, an oak leaf’s chlorophyll
production line, the unblinking eye of the pond? When I was as shallow
as an undergraduate could possibly be, I peeled off from a field trip
to Soho galleries to visit The Factory; my friend and I
nearly identical in our veneers: ironed hair, wheat jeans, black
sleeveless shells, our unwavering scorn of the outside world . . . .
It was dazzling, every surface painted silver: the walls, ceilings,
tables, chairs, bathroom fixtures, like walking into a roll
of aluminum foil. And Andy—thin, spectral, white blond hair,
black sunglasses, nearly wordless. Mostly, he just was, the zen
of non-being, the art of perfect detachment. And we were mute,
too, inarticulate in our youth. We knew what it was we didn’t
want, but not what we did.
Now, all these years and lives later, the twistings and turnings
of many roads— some macadam, some asphalt, some stone—
I can’t remember her name, just how straight her hair was,
how it hung down her back like a bolt of cloth.
In the untidy closet of my heart, I think about what we put on,
fashion, facade, how many layers we need between our skin
and the rest of the world.
This poem first appeared in Line Dance (Word Press, 2008).
Click here to read many more works by Barbara Crooker in The Ekphrastic Review.
Read Ronnie Hess's poem here.
Check out books by Barbara Crooker or Ronnie Hess below.
The Ekphrastic Review
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