Dan Fliegel, poetry editor for TriQuarterly, asks Dane Hamann ten questions about his second book, Parsing the Echoes, a collection of ekphrastic poems (two of which, “Grain” and “Field,” were first published in The Ekphrastic Review).
Parsing the Echoes
Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2023
Dan Fliegel: Did your process or mindset change when you approached writing about some iconic artists (later in the book) and their works (including sculpture) versus writing about the somewhat lesser-known artists from the 2007 special exhibit (earlier in the book)? You state in the notes that these were done from memory; that already suggests a difference to me.
Dane Hamann: Although I viewed images of the art while drafting the poems, each section of the book--Reflections and Reverberations—was written according to the memory of seeing those works of art in person earlier in my life. Memory and portrait are two of the main themes of the book—reflections and reverberations both being echoes of a sort—and this collection was meant to be an examination (or parsing) of them. I think the section titles provide some insight into my mindset when approaching the different artists and their works. The first section, based on a rare exhibit of Nordic landscape art that visited the Minneapolis Institute of Art when I was an intern there in the summer of 2007, was meant to reflect who I was at the time (a turbulent time, personally). The second section was meant to examine my initial impressions of more iconic artists and their artwork and how they continue to influence me.
DF: Here is a related question: Do you think of the process as different between writing in response to a landscape painting versus something abstract?
DH: I think my mental process, at least, was different when I was writing poems based on landscapes versus those based on abstract artwork. The questions I was asking the landscape poems concerned identity and how it was reflected in the art. On the opposite side, the abstract poems were more concerned with imagination and emotional responses. I think these differences are evident in the tone and style of the different poems.
DF: Ol’ Horace writes that we need to consider the reader when we create a poem. With that in mind, how might you want a reader to approach this book: Should one view the painting first, then the poem? Reverse it? Of course, a reader is free to do what they want, but one can only have the experience once of FIRST reading any poem. How do you imagine a reader approaching this book?
DH: This is an interesting question—one that’s probably relevant mostly because I’ve included QR code links to the art for each poem. Most books that include ekphrastic poems don’t also include the art because of the costs associated with printing reproductions of the art, especially if colour is essential. There are some famous artworks in my book, but many of the poems are based on little-known paintings. When I was building the manuscript for this book, I wanted a way to share the artwork easily and quickly with the readers without providing a messy URL.
I don’t think it really matters how a reader approaches the book—poem first or art first. However, I do think that the QR codes will immediately stoke a reader’s curiosity when they turn to a page in the book, so they may end up pulling the image up on their phone first. Hopefully, with the accessibility of the art, the reader can experience both the poem and the art side by side.
DF: The above question also raises a corollary: How much should any ekphrastic poem depend upon the art object? Do readers need to even see the original for the poem to “work”?
DH: This is something I thought about a lot as I was writing and assembling the poems that make up this book. I’m not sure I’ve come to a conclusion. On one hand, I want to challenge poetic forms because I see the artistic value in it; on the other hand, I adore ekphrasis for commingling visual art and written word. As I previously mentioned, art does not often accompany a printed ekphrastic poem. Obviously, it’s easier for online publications to include the artwork, but it’s usually up to the reader to search for an image of the art that’s the subject of the printed poem.
DF: I wonder about the multi-sensory imagery in, for example, “Paper Birch” (the “sweet rot//of old leaves and peatbog,” “leaves ticking/like inconsequential clocks”) inspired by the painting “Summer Night.” It’s documented with neural imaging that human minds respond instantly (in milli-seconds) to language that includes imagery (as from “bacon frying in the pan”). I’m not sure how this works with visual media. Do you think that your own viewing of “Summer Night” automatically triggers a kind of full-sensory experience (the smell of the bog and sound of the leaves)? Or is this something that requires a kind of conscious immersion—TRYING to imagine yourself in the scene?
DH: For my viewing with the goal of writing, I don’t think I had to try to imagine myself in the scene. However, I believe that it was necessary to open myself to the experience of viewing the painting in order to realize and understand all of the sensory elements that it was eliciting. In other words, the full-sensory experience was automatically triggered, but I suppose I simply needed to concentrate to bring it forth to the page. “Summer Night” is an incredibly detailed painting, so the imagery is easily accessible in my opinion.
DF: Related to the previous question, how might we describe the relationship between viewing any kind of art with language? Is the voice silent in your head until you decide to react to art with language?
DH: I think there’s always some kind of mental processing that occurs when viewing art. Whether this emerges from the fog of your mind as words or language, I think depends on how willing you are to concentrate on the art. I tend to be a fast-moving museum-goer. So, my normal in-person viewing experience is to concentrate on the visual aspects of the art. Observing rather than searching for meaning. Only later do I engage with the memory of what I’ve seen and formulate a response to it.
DF: I really like “Grain.” What do you think might be the relationship between visual art and metaphor? You start with the “Tsunami of grain” and include “the bowl/of possibility,” the teeth/of the tallest/grasses,” and “the window/of my body.” In terms of process, did you have to reach for these metaphors by gazing at the painting, or were they there for the taking in your impression while viewing?
DH: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed that one. Although I think metaphor is inherent to visual art, in terms of ekphrastic poetry, sometimes the artist’s intent differs from the poet’s intent. The metaphors that I work into my poems, such as “Grain,” came from my response to the art rather observation of what the art was depicting. My goal was to write poems that were personal and intimate but also accessible to the reader by still utilizing the visual characteristics of the art.
DF: With regards to diction and phonetic features, I wonder was there a conscious effort to link lines and stanzas through the sounds of language, such as the assonance in “Blue”: “taste” with “escape”; “blue” with “food” and “ballooning”; “starlight,” “pines” and “ice.” Or was this just music that emerged in the lines “naturally”?
DH: I really appreciate your close reading of this poem. Those are wonderful details you’ve noticed—though, I admit to no conscious effort to link the lines and stanzas in such an auditory way. This is, perhaps, simply the result of years of writing and studying poetry (as you know), honing it into a craft.
DF: I looked at the painting, “Paths on the Ice” prior to reading the poem—and even the title—“antennas.” First, I’m struck by the similarity of snow, ice, cold between this painting and the previous one [“Cinders”], though also that the feeling is different—mid-day as opposed to the deathly descent of night? And now, the poem: I’m struck first by the difference in emotional tone, and the inclusion of another for the speaker, “our song” “our first thaw,” “We danced.” These pronouns could be read as including the reader, but they seem more to reference something personal. The question that arises for me here is as follows: Were you open to a kind of first-feeling, first-thought approach when writing this or any other of the poems? Or did you, here or elsewhere, linger with the painting, searching for a kind of subject matter to present itself?
DH: I find myself at a bit of a crossroads here—my process was a “first-feeling, first-thought approach,” but my aim for the book was to ruminate on what these pieces of art meant to me at the time of my first viewing them. Naturally, I had to reacquaint myself with them at times while writing the poems, but I really wanted to channel the impressions they left on me as a younger person. I suppose one of the questions I wanted to answer for myself when writing this collection was whether I recognized the self that was forming in the poems.
DF: Is there a relationship between form (line and stanza lengths) and the individual artworks? How did your forms emerge or develop?
DH: There wasn’t a conscious effort to match form with the art. I let the poems develop naturally, but with an eye toward variation in the collection. I’ve always appreciated books that include poems of many different visual shapes. Perhaps there’s a subconscious relationship between the form of each poem and my memory of how it felt to see the artwork for the first time.
Watch Dane speak about Parsing the Echoes and read some sample poems from the book here:
Dane Hamann edits textbooks for a publisher in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. He is the poet-in-residence for derailleur.net, a newsletter/website devoted to professional cycling, as well as author of A Thistle Stuck in the Throat of the Sun (Kelsay Books, 2021) and Parsing the Echoes (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 2023).
Dan Fliegel is a longtime public schoolteacher in Chicagoland. Some of his poems can be found in Adirondack Review, African American Review, Cider Press Review, The South Carolina Review, and elsewhere. He is currently the poetry editor for TriQuarterly.
The Ekphrastic Review
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