The Ekphrastic Writer’s Column
Welcome to the second installment of the Ekphrastic Writer’s column. As the author of the first comprehensive guidebook on multi-genre ekphrasis, The Ekphrastic Writer, I’ll be posting monthly musings, fielding your questions on ekphrasis (and beyond), and fostering a conversation on contemporary practices in visual-art-influenced creative writing.
Here are excerpts from some letters that I received in January:
Dear E.W., Having been encouraged to “show not tell” by friends on various poetry forums, I find that ekphrastic writing has steered me away from exposition. We live in a society dominated by imagery. Few people these days have enough patience to sit and read acres of description and explaining. Imagery isn’t the heart, but it is a way to the heart of things, or so I think. For me, ekphrastic writing, at its best, leads to insights, discoveries that I might not have made otherwise. I keep coming back to The Ekphrastic Review for this reason.—Signed, David B.
Dear David B., One of the obvious byproducts of using the visual arts as fodder for your own writing is the enlivening of your visual sense. Creative writing that’s devoid of imagery is DOA. I encourage my students to experiment with all modes of imagery during the drafting stage. What types of imagery do you often employ and which imagery do you avoid? Take a gander at your previous ekphrastic work and evaluate your imagery. Years ago I studied a hundred issues of The New Yorker poems and discovered that 80% of the poems therein utilized auditory imagery. Whether or not Paul Muldoon was conscious of this particular proclivity, there was something in the portrayal of auditory senses that he as an editor found compelling.
Dear E.W., I’ve had a couple of ideas that might open a door to experimentation: (1) responding in the same piece to two or more works of art and connecting or relating them or relating to them. The second idea (2) is responding to the art with images and then writing about those images. So that, the work becomes a nested ekphrastic experience. In general, when literary magazines say they are open to “hybrid” work, they mean “hybrid genre.” They don't mean “hybrid disciplines.” I’m in this for the latter. I’m a Pina Bausch admirer, Katie Mitchell, Anne Carson, Peter Greenaway, people who join disciplines. The most difficult and most tantalizing is dance. How to join text and dance. —Signed, Christy S.
Dear Christy S., First, when a writer selects two or more objects d’art for a single piece of writing, the poetic possibilities are endless. A writer can create a dialogue or a chorus of voices, a battle ground of competing perspectives, a shifting between spatial settings, a treatment of temporal dimensions, etc. Though, this approach might be difficult to thoroughly develop in a short poem, it could be quite useful in a piece of writing that spans many pages. As for your second point, it’s worth mentioning that terms are often confused. For example, what we call “collaborations” are often just “art exchanges,” and what we call “interdisciplinary” is often just “multi-disciplinary” or “cross-disciplinary.” As you’ve described yourself and your artistry, you’re most definitely an interdisciplinary artist (i.e. one person who integrates knowledge and methods from different disciplines, as in your expertise as a visual artist and your expertise as a creative writer). While literary journals might not be a great place to feature your work, venues such as universities and arts collectives love championing work of teams of creatives whose work falls in the “new media” and “interdisciplinary” categories.
Dear E.W., These days virtually any words put to paper are considered by many to be some form of poetry. I think The Ekphrastic Review “small prose” recruiting effort could be helped a great deal by good information on design and technique. Anything you could do to furnish (or point people to) resources that would strengthen understanding of the small prose format lexicon, expectations, how-to’s, don’t do’s, award standards, etc. I think would be a huge help. There’s another void that I also think is worthy of your consideration [is] perhaps submitter dialogue. —Signed, Portly B.
Dear Portly B., As a longtime poetry editor, people are often surprised when I share with them my approach to evaluating the submissions. If the title prompts me to read the first line and if that first line prompts me to read the entire piece, I first ask “is this a poem?” Poems with literary quality (i.e., attention to craft elements) are what I’m seeking. Sometimes, the submissions I see read like pieces of flash fiction or nonfiction but with forced line breaks. Until you’ve read “On the Function of the Line” by Denise Levertov and until you understand lyrical rhythm and until you understand sonic associations, perhaps you’re mis-designating your writing. The magic of visual-art-influenced writing is that it’s open to all possibilities. Don’t have preconceived notions that your finished product will be a poem. Perhaps the artwork spurs in you an interesting character…write a story. Perhaps the artwork reminds you of something from your past…write an essay. Don’t try to make a poem. Write freely before an artwork and see where the words take you. Chiefly, though, the ekphrastic mode is a journey of your imagination. If your creative mind isn’t titillated by the object d’art, find something that does. As for your second point, perhaps you’re lamenting inaccessibility to other creatives willing to provide feedback on your work? Workshopping a piece of writing prior to sending it for possible publication is imperative. Nowadays, finding virtual writing groups is relatively easy. Check out your local literary houses, independent bookstores, and Meet-up groups. If you wish to create your own group, I suggest adding a free event on Event Brite.
If you wish to join the conversation, send your letters to E.W. at ekphrasticwriter(at)gmail.com.
Ekphrastically Yours, E.W.
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 ekphrastic 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’s an assistant editor at Boulevard magazine and the 2021 poet-in-residence at Maryhill Museum of Art. www.JaneeBaugher.com
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