Thursday, October 14, 2010

Ekphrasis, Anyone?

I have to admit I'd never come across the term "ekphrasis" until I was browsing through an old edition of Poet's Market.  Listed under "E" was Ekphrasis, a literary journal devoted to poetry based on works of art.  Immediately I was intrigued because unbeknownst to me, I'd been playing with "ekphrasis" for years, not only in my daily writing practice, but in my writer's workshops as well.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition for ekphrasis is:  "a literary description of or a commentary on a visual work of art."  The plural of the word is "ekphrases" and apparently the word's first known usage was in 1715.

Anyone who's been reading my blog will know that I love both art and literature.  I spent two entire years attending art history lectures at the National Gallery in London, sometimes going as often as seven days a week.  I know my Gainsborough duchesses and Mannerist nativity scenes, I can tell you!  So combining my two favorite subjects is a fun and natural way for me to "play."  And while the actual word "ekphrasis" is just fine and dandy for people who like precision, personally I just call what I do "writing inspired by a painting."  Not only is it a fantastic exercise for my writer's groups, it's always been a favorite in my workshops, especially ones I've presented to young writers: high school students and home schoolers.

Here's a couple of samples taken straight from my journals.  They're first drafts, unedited, warts and all, but that's how I like to share my writing here if only to help you break down those inhibitions and just write, don't think.

This first one is based on Goya's painting, "Family of Charles IV":

Our Subjects Hate Us

They want to kill us. 
In turn, Papa, Mama, and
all the others standing here
want to kill their subjects,
if not in blood, then tax them
through the roof:
more wine, more grain, more gold.
There is never enough
for this one starving family
to consume, so we have started
to eat each other.
We have bitten off whole pieces
of ourselves, and finding the taste
disgusting, we spit and vomit and spew
up our lineage all over Europe.
We cannot escape each other.
Like barnacles or mud
On the bottom of a barge,
we cling together.
Members of the same asylum
bound by madness and the fact
that no sane person would

touch us with a pole.

Our madness is contagious, like
swollen joints and bloody noses.
We pass on our tics and stutters,
our narrow vision and faulty hearing.
We pass on our royal blood, so polluted
Even the rats run away from us.

I don't know how accurate my history is there, but I sure had fun!  This next piece is based on a more modern print, "Romantic Stroll," by Brent Heighton.  The picture originally inspired my entire Nanowrimo effort last year, but I also wrote this short piece while doodling on my plot:


We walked a little dog at night,
your hand tucked into the pocket of my coat.
I remember the smell of coal fires,
the smoke curling into the sky like incense,
the kind I knew from those Cairo bars
and the ships we docked at Algiers.

It seemed a hundred years ago, and not
a simple, shortened ten.
You said, “Nothing will ever
be the same again,” and I agreed.
I knew that when the walk was over,
we would return to the crowded flat,
remove our coats, pour out the gin and tonic
into glasses we had already left to chill.
Habits, like walks and dogs, we could not
forego without a sense of loss.
And all the while memories rising
to the surface that could never be repeated:
little girls playing in their starched summer
dresses, the boys in rubber flip-flops,
the sound of birds and monkeys all tangled
up in the soughing of the great green
leaves, their broad plates catching green rain
water and sunlight in one glorious crystalline
riot of coolness on the hottest of summer days.
It left me breathless.
It left me, like so many things, alone.

Tip of the Day:  Look through a book of your favorite paintings, choose one, and start writing.  I experimented with poetry in my examples here, but you might want to go a step further and try plotting an entire novel or screenplay based on a work of art.  And don't just stop with writing.  The collage at the top of the post is a Polyvore set I made taking Gauguin as my inspiration.  Play, have fun, and make something to fill your creative soul.

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