The Ekphrastic Review: Tell us briefly about how Cutting a Sunbeam came together for you, about its inspiration and evolution to a finished collection.
Lennart Lundh: In need of a publisher whose layout aesthetics and distribution practices matched mine, I sent a prose-poem manuscript to Karen Kelsay that was released in early 2020. By the spring of 2022, I had more than enough to offer them another all prose-poem collection, this one all ekphrastic.
With one exception, none of my full chaps and collections are thematic or spring from a single inspiration. Whatever organization there might be in Sunbeam is a mix of source image date and when the poems were written. Karen Kelsay and her team have twice trusted my judgement, only asking for tweaks to match their layout standards, and I’ve been equally pleased by their part of the process.
The Ekphrastic Review: What is your ekphrastic process like? How do you choose paintings or other artworks to write about? How do you approach them?
LL: The process is no different from any of my other works: I come across something that my brain sees a story in. (More than anything, I view my poetry as storytelling, or a part of a conversation with the reader.) If a line or two doesn’t get immediately triggered, I move on. I approach the source object as the poem directs: I can follow literally or let my imagination soar on an image-tether. A scarf in an ad can be just a scarf (if you wear this / remember me / as I do you), or it can be the link between the cruelties of 1943 Germany and 2017 America.
The Ekphrastic Review: Tell us about prose poetry. Why prose poetry versus other forms of poetry, or fiction?
LL: I’ve written prose fiction (not to be confused with the fictions in my poetry), and been frequently told it’s too much like poetry; I guess generic prose shouldn’t be lyrical or sensuous, although the late Patricia A. McKillip’s work told me it truly can and should. I’m not formally trained as any kind of writer, beyond the degrees that led to the five books of history I’ve researched and written: Not a single class that dared to move, in terms of craft, beyond Shakespearian sonnets or 19th century American fiction. I write unrhymed free verse and haiku because it lets me focus on getting the words in the right place at the right time. I write more and more prose-poetry because it also gets the words right while it fosters the sense of conversation, and because I really, really, hate line breaks that serve no purpose.
The Ekphrastic Review: You include a number of films and also photography as ekphrastic inspirations. Tell us about your attraction, as a writer, to these forms.
LL: They’re valid, incredible sources for the visual version of The Trigger, every bit as much as art hung on a wall (and let’s not forget sculpture). They’re just as critical in the transformation or translation of visions to words, every bit the lead capable of becoming gold.
The Ekphrastic Review: From the artwork selection and your writing, it is apparent that one of the topics that is often on your mind is war, something you experienced personally in Vietnam. I can only imagine how this becomes a permanent part of your psyche. Tell us what it means to you to contemplate and to create art and poetry about war.
LL: I actually have three overarching themes: love, war, and how the end of any world (big or small) is a very personal thing. I’m jokingly known for almost never telling an audience which are which, and it’s not always a clear or single choice.
To your point, war is certainly imbedded in me. I still have bits and pieces of PTSD hanging around since 1968 and 1969, nightmares on a finally irregular basis, and some physical scars that are more service-related than war wounds (from a shipboard fire and a storm at sea). As a rarity, I left the military as a conscientious objector.
Ultimately, what it means to me to contemplate war and create from it is no different than the other themes: I focus on the personal (not to be automatically assumed as the autobiographical) rather than the larger scale of conflict and its costs. There is almost always a single narrator speaking of personal experience and aftermath; this is true even when the narration reports on what somebody else is experiencing. Of course, keep in mind that I write because of unexpected triggers, rather than from some sense of a daily goal to be met.
The Ekphrastic Review: Do you have a favourite poem in this collection? Choose one that is most meaningful to you and tell us about that piece.
LL: Do I have a favourite child or grandchild? (Great-grandchild is easy, since there’s only one.) In the case of Cutting a Sunbeam, there’s not a single piece I’m dissatisfied with, not a word I question in retrospect. So: Winner of the coin toss with “The other children,” which is informed by the cover image (and didn’t Shay at Kelsay Books work absolute wonders with it?), this time around I’ll point to “There’s a woman” as my pet.
The image is very, very simple, but every word of the poem can be attributed to it without feats of magic or great leaps of literary license-faith. It represents a woman’s abilities and strengths, the heritage she is tied to and the future she’s helping create. It shows the trust between a child and an adult in the face of a sudden outsider. It speaks for the possibilities, created by a chance encounter, of friendship, happiness, peace between strangers and perhaps even different cultures, and myriad levels of future relationships and events. And it’s voiced by the observations of an unknown narrator, who could be any one of us, in a hybrid of prose and free verse.
That’s the trigger and reaction, the vision and its words, that I speak of so often to audiences. I will never question another poet’s voice or their reasons for writing, but this piece is what I strive for, what I believe words are meant to do.
The Ekphrastic Review: What’s next for Lennart?
LL: During April of 2023, I’ll do the 10th of my annual poem-a-day fundraisers for the St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which finances research on cures for childhood cancers. I plan to do this as long as I can.
I’m anticipating a fall 2023 release for my next, and quite possibly last, full-length collection, this one containing about 70 free verse ekphrastic pieces.
I’ve got loads of poetry readings to post on YouTube, and even bigger loads of photographs to weed through for my Fine Arts America site.
My biggest project, and probably the most important I’ve planned, is converting my self-published titles to large-print, e-books, and audio books for those physically in need of them.
Get your copy of Cutting a Sunbeam from Kelsay Books, here.
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