Interview with Janée J. Baugher, author of The Ekphrastic Writer: Creating Art-Influenced Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction
The Ekphrastic Review: You’ve written an intensive ekphrastic writing workbook. What is your personal attraction to ekphrasis? Give us some background on your passion.
Janée J. Baugher: Writers must find their subject. After I’d shelved my juvenilia work in anticipation of entering graduate school, I was seeking ways to extinguish the personality (i.e., the conscious mind, the ego). I longed for something tangible on which to linger while I let the world fall away. As I evolved as a writer, I discovered that art was that tangible thing from which I could imagine beyond that present moment. Beauty enraptures, so it’s an easy thing to find art that is alluring, to cast the eye about for what’s there (the known) and what’s not there (the unknown). Deep-looking is a creative act, though some people might refer to it as mindful meditation. Beyond loving the museum experience, I also have an interest in technical knowledge. I suffer from artist envy. Because I lack the skills of a visual artist, I sought to learn everything that I could about their processes, tools, and techniques.
Did art ignite your curiosity to write, or did reading ekphrastic writing spark your love for art?
Art definitely ignited my curiosity to write. For a long while, art-viewing and my creative writing resided on parallel tracks. On spring break from college, I visited an artist friend in New York City and there I experienced an art-walk for the first time. Neighbourhood galleries open after hours wherein artists were on hand to discuss their work, while we sipped wine from plastic cups and listened in awe! A few years later I traveled through Europe, and while I did visit a dozen major museums, I did not write creatively. Furthermore, that a person would write poems, stories, or essays to art was as foreign to me then as a carnival on Mars. More years elapsed and while in graduate school I returned back to Europe and was finally poised to explore more than what I was seeing by allowing my pen to dictate to me what was beneath the surface of looking. Only after I’d written near 100 ekphrastic poems did I finally discover another writer who also wrote art-influenced poems (the term “ekphrasis” wasn’t common then)—Peter Cooley. His collection of poems, The Van Gogh Notebook, was an absolute revelation to me.
Why does art matter?
Is this a trick question? Art/design is omnipresent—look around you: the design of your automobile, the structure of your home, your company’s logo, the cut of your shirt. Art is important to me, so that’s what matters, I suppose. Seeing a product of “art” necessarily means that there was a creative person behind that artwork. And, to be creative means being imaginative. Everyone has the ability to be creative, but not everyone has a life in which art plays a central role. Carl Jung wrote, “The creation of something new isn’t accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct acting from inner necessity. The creative mind plays with the object it loves.” Writers love words, so its through the journey of word play that innovations happen. Albert Einstein said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Are there some artists or styles that you find particularly evocative to your own ekphrastic practice? What artists or perhaps genres of art inspire you most, and why?
Initially, I was solely drawn to realism. My artist mother made realism art, so that form was familiar to me. However, everything changed during my 2000 trip overseas. One morning I was sitting on a bench outside the English-language bookstore Shakespeare and Company and I was chatting with a Canadian fellow about my travels. Another boy was eavesdropping on the conversation and when he heard that I was headed to London, he chimed in. “Did you hear about the Tate Modern Museum, it just opened?” I explained my distain for modern art and as I did the Canadian fellow shifted his focus and said to the boy, “Oh my gosh, did you go? Can you believe the abstract art? It’s incredible.” They turned toward each other and proceeded to share their excitement for art that they’d both viewed, mentioning words like “conceptual” and “installation,” “mixed media” and “surrealism.” Days later I was climbing the steps to the Tate Modern, and within minutes of my arrival I was a convert. It’s embarrassing for me to admit my narrow mindedness, though I can see now that since it’s impossible to predict what will or will not appeal to us aesthetically, it’s imperative to investigate all types of art in order to figure that out.
Do you prefer ekphrastic writing that adheres to traditionalist definitions of ekphrasis- describing art? Or do you share The Ekphrastic Review’s vision of expanding ekphrasis to “writing inspired by art”? Why do you feel the way you do?
As someone who values the precision of language, I have strong opinions about “ekphrasis.” The scope of my own writing, as well as that of The Ekphrastic Writer is art-influenced creative writing. It’s true that “ekphrasis” comes from the Greek meaning “to describe.” Additionally, I endorse James A. W. Heffernan’s definition of ekphrastic writing as, “verbal representation of visual representation.” It’s interesting to note, though, that some art-influenced creative writing dispenses with description entirely (the term I coined for this approach was metaekphrasis).
Describe your own ekphrastic practice. Do you follow prompts from your book, from online communities, or create your own with books, the Internet, or local galleries? Do you wait until an artwork draws you in, or do you explore works at random to see what you might discover? Tell us what works for you.
Until a writer has settled on her creative process, it’s advisable to try as many methods as possible, hence the importance of attempting years’ worth of writing prompts. In my book I list nearly 30 conventions of ekphrasis, all of which I’ve tackled intuitively over the last quarter century. To answer your penultimate question, I both wait and work randomly. What’s imperative to writing successful ekphrastic poems, stories, and essays is the freedom of choice. If you yourself choose an artwork, then you have a better chance of writing organically something that’s worthy of readers’ attention. So, I myself wait to find that one artwork and then free-write to see what might come from the act of deep-looking. For example, recently a museum commissioned me to write a poem. I scoured their website and found three images that stirred in me a desire to leap to the blank page. Ultimately, I wrote three poems that I’m proud of; however, if I had been handed one image with the request, “Please write a poem on this,” I would have failed.
You’ve been teaching creative writing for a long time. What have your students taught you about ekphrastic writing?
One year at the Association of Writing & Writing Programs conference, I heard a panelist say, “I’m not a teacher who writes. I’m a writer who teaches.” While these statements also describe me, I’ll add that I’m a writer and a student who teaches. Because I wanted to showcase ekphrasis in the classroom and because there were very few instructive resources, I was frustrated. So, I began creating my own multi-genre ekphrastic curriculum. Unknowingly, my students were helping me to perfect my ekphrastic tutelage. One important lesson that I learned early in my teaching was that the writing process is a mystery to most people. Hence, The Ekphrastic Writer focuses on creative practice and the process of writing, rather than writing as a product. As a life-long student myself, it was my privilege to have taught courses such as Children’s Literature, Multicultural Literature, Poetry and Society, Research Methods, English Composition, and all genres of creative writing, as well as team-teaching with visual artist teachers. Every class that I have taught, from the first class on a psychiatric unit to my current class called “Literary Description,” informed my book on ekphrasis.
How has your work as a teacher influenced the way you conceived The Ekphrastic Writer? What else shaped the vision and execution of your book?
Teaching, which begins at home, is an act of generosity. My mom is an artist, so we grew up with original art on the walls and the smell of oil paint drying on canvases, and as a psychologist, my father taught me how the brain processes what is seen. Additionally the travel guru Rick Steves with his museum guide, Mona Wink (my constant travel companion) was instrumental in my development as an art-viewer and art-lover. Of course, forging friends with visual artists has enriched my life immensely. Visiting their studios and watching them work, discussing contemporary art, sharing ideas, and collaborating both personally and in the classroom have been enormously enriching.
How do you recommend readers and writers use The Ekphrastic Writer?
Read it from start to finish; delight in the anthology aspect of it; enjoy that it’s a museum in your hands—especially during the pandemic, which has closed most museums around the world; research the 125 artworks listed as “suggested viewing”; read about the tools and techniques of various disciplines of visual artists; attempt all 200 writing invitations; explore the bibliography of 250 other titles; read excerpts of ekphrastic fiction and nonfiction; or focus on chapters that pertain directly to your interests, such as children’s literature or S.T.E.M. The Ekphrastic Writer is a room I constructed for you. I stand with the door held open—you are welcome here. I myself have a sense of what I created, but you will see things differently. Go ahead, fling open the windows, move the furniture, add your own art to the walls, stay forever.
The Ekphrastic Writer
Janée J. Baugher
McFarland Books, 2020
The Ekphrastic Review
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