I don’t know how many wonderful poets (and fiction writers) have told me they want to write ekphrastic, but can’t seem to “get into” the art. My answer:
Forget about Wikipedia’s entry on ekphrasis, with one notable exception: the word “synergy.” Today’s ekphrasis is far more than “the written description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise.” There is nothing “rhetorical” about today’s ekphrasis.
Disregard Poetry Foundation’s statement that “Through the imaginative act of narrating and reflecting on the ‘action’ of a painting or sculpture, the poet may amplify and expand its meaning.” And I’ll also commit the heresy of saying Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is not ekphrastic; there is no specific piece of art Keats is talking about here, that Keats is engaging in “synergy” with; he’s idealized a Grecian urn and he’s writing an ode about that idealization. He could just as easily be describing a man out for an evening stroll.
So, what does the word “ekphrastic” mean when it falls out of my mouth? Quite simply, the interplay between two artistic genres, whether they be written and visual, music and dance, etc.—in fact, a ballet is ekphrasis between music and dance—and the key word is “interplay,” not “description,” or “narrating and reflecting.” In our case, since we are writers, we will talk about the “synergy” between the written word and, in my case, the visual image. Though I should mention I listen to music while I’m writing (as I’m doing now, the “La Fiesta” track from Chick Corea’s Return to Forever album), so all of my writing is ekphrastic, in the sense that something from the music always bleeds into the piece I’m working on. However, that’s just me, and too broad for our purposes here.
So, how does one “get into” the art? (We’ll use painting for simplicity, though sculpture and photography are all fair game.)
First—and this may seem obvious, but sometimes I find folks trying to write to a painting simply because they think they should be writing to that painting (I exclude “ekphrastic challenges” from this, as they are, well, “challenges”)—find a painting that moves you. To tears, to screams, to laughter, whatever, but a work that says to you, “write me, write me!” It’s amazing how often this first step is overlooked. Don’t commit to something that doesn’t move you in some fashion, emotionally (the best) or intellectually (that’ll do). For our purposes, I’m going to choose a painting by Steven Schroeder, to which I wrote a poem that is in my second, all ekphrastic, book, and one you’ll find in the pages of MacQueen’s Quinterly (Issue 1, January 2020). Steve’s painting is titled: all that is solid melts into air. But we’re going to mostly ignore Steve’s title as we want to springboard off what we feel from the art, with the art’s title only a secondary thought. You should be able to link to it here: http://www.macqueensquinterly.com/MacQ1/Dean-What-I-Remember.aspx.
Second: FIND THE DOOR. I repeat: FIND THE DOOR. If a painting moves you to write to it, there will always be a DOOR. The door is not always the largest object in the picture. In this case, the largest object is the sun, which will come into play later, but which was not the DOOR for me. For me, the DOOR, the way into this painting, is that little brown and black thing that looks like a structure, in the lower right quadrant of the sun. That intrigued the hell out of me. One sees the sun most every day, but not a structure, or whatever that is, so seemingly near to it. After much scrutiny, the brown thing did anchor itself in my consciousness as a structure. Someone else may have seen it differently. But for me, it’s a structure. And then, of course, the question is, what kind of structure? And here is where we co-opt the “imaginative” from the Poetry Foundation’s statement. Not rhetoric, narration, or reflection. Imagination.
For me, the structure is a house. And the house has a porch, and there is someone just barely discernible on that porch, waving. Waving, specifically, at the viewer.
And with that, I’m inside. I’m off and running. And here I do take Steve’s title into the formula: something that once was, is no more, or maybe has become dreamlike. And so the poem opens: What I remember is the sun, and how / in those days, we all lived within / a stone’s throw of it. Of course no one lives within a stone’s throw of the sun, but this becomes a memory piece, and all bets are off, and we treat the sun as metaphor for the way things once were, back when they were solid. From there we get specific memory images—and the specificity of the images is key to making the poem come alive, to unmelt, as it were. The poem refers back to the sun in subtle ways: the warm green irises of her eyes; how the light glinted off his fastball anyway. And close to the end, Steve’s title comes into play again: when we got into our 40s & 50s, we faded out / of each other’s lives. And we work our way back to the sun and that structure, just barely in frame, which is confirmed to be, not just A house, but OUR house, and there I am (I opened the DOOR, so I am allowed inside), waving, the sun still rising.
So, you see, I haven’t stooped to simply describing Steve’s painting, and though what emerges is a narrative, and a reflection, it is not LITERALLY of the painting itself, but what comes out of that DOOR we opened. For DOORS are both entrances and exits. And the result of utilizing those apertures produces something that is more than the sum of the parts. Art + poem = ? (yours to determine).
That is one fairly simple example of “finding the DOOR.” Find a painting that appeals to you, find the DOOR, and see where it takes you (note: there can be more than one door into a painting, just as there can be more than one door into a house).
I hope you love writing ekphrastic as much as I do. Be aware, ask questions, be inventive, but most of all, LET YOURSELF IN, and don’t let anything keep you out.
is the author of two full-length books:
The Aerialist Will Not Be Performing, ekphrastic poems
and short fictions after the
art of Steven Schroeder (Turning Plow Press, 2020), and a poetry collection,
At the Lake with Heisenberg (Spartan Press, 2018). His chapbook, Pulp,
is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press in July 2022.
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2019 and multiple times for Best of the Net, his
work has appeared in Chiron Review; Flint Hills Review; Heartland! Poetry of Love,
Resistance & Solidarity; I-70 Review; Illya’s Honey; KYSO Flash;
MacQueen’s Quinterly; MockingHeart Review; October Hill Magazine; Red River
Review; River City Poetry; Sheila-Na-Gig online; Shot Glass; The Ekphrastic
Review; Thorny Locust; and the Wichita Broadside Project.
A native Kansan, Dean studied music composition with Dr. Walter Mays at Wichita State
University before going on the road as a bass player, conductor, and arranger; he was
a professional musician for 30 years, playing with acts such as Jesse Lopez, Bo Didley,
Frank Sinatra Jr., Vic Damone, Jim Stafford, Kenny Rankin, B. W. Stevenson, and the
Dallas Jazz Orchestra. And he put in a stint with the house band at the Fairmont Hotel
Venetian Room in Dallas. While living in Dallas, he also worked 20 years for The
Dallas Morning News and made the transition from music to writing before moving
back to Kansas in 2007.
Dean is a member of the Kansas Authors Club and The Writers Place, and the event
coordinator for Epistrophy: An Afternoon of Poetry and Improvised Music, held annually
in Wichita, Kansas. He lives in Augusta, Kansas, along with a universe of books, CDs,
LPs, an electric bass, and a couple dozen hats. In his spare time, he practices the
time-honored art of hermitry.
Metal Man, ekphrastic poem inspired by a 1955 photograph of
Dean’s paternal grandfather in the Boeing machine shop; published in
The Ekphrastic Review (28 July 2018) and nominated for Best of the Net.
Two of Dean’s ekphrastic works in MacQueen’s Quinterly (Issue 5,
October 2020): Impression, CNF after Berthe Morisot’s painting Woman and
Child on a Balcony; and
Eyes on You, a poem after Aurore Uwase Munyabera’s painting
Windmill, ekphrastic poem inspired by Dean’s maternal
grandfather; published in KYSO Flash (Issue 11, Spring 2019) and nominated
for the Pushcart Prize. This poem is among half-a-dozen of Dean’s ekphrastic
works published in KYSO Flash (Issues 11 and 12).
Llama, 1957, ekphrastic haibun inspired by Inge Morath’s
photograph A Llama in Times Square; published in The Ekphrastic
Review (13 January 2018).