So the past couple days, I took an ekphrastic poetry workshop at the Farnsworth Art Museum. It was taught by the poet Arielle Greenberg, whose book someone gave me last year out of the blue. So when I saw that she was leading it, and miraculously I was free all three afternoons, I figured it was fate. Okay, not fate. But a lovely opportunity.
Ekphrasis is fun. Basically, it means using one artwork as inspiration for another artwork. In our case, we were using paintings in the museum to inspire us to write poems. It’s not translating–though I think it would be intriguing to imagine translating from paint to paper. It’s more like the art is a springboard to think in a way you usually don’t think.
Ekphrasis is also funny, in the sense of being complicated, equivocal in some ways. On the one hand, I think of Elaine Scarry’s wonderful succinct insistence that “beauty begets,” that when we behold something beautiful, it encourages in us the impulse to create. Beauty wants to make more beauty–and sometimes we are the agents of its reproductive urges. On the other hand, I think of Mark Doty’s lovely observations about still lives, his emphasis on their capacity to remind us of the strangeness and singularity of every thing. Which doesn’t mitigate AGAINST being inspired, of course, but does suggest that the thing created might bear very little link, finally, to the thing that did the inspiring.
I wish I could insert a little jpeg here of the painting I was using, but alas, that cannot be. My springboard painting was by Alex Katz, and is called “Wildflowers #2″ (1956), so if you spot a legal-to-use jpeg of it and want to send it my way, I’d be grateful.
In the meantime, here’s his website so you can get an idea of what it might look like: http://www.alexkatz.com/print_archive
And here’s the poem:
The summer I learned how to swim far,
I followed my mother each morning
across Lake Ellis—she in a gray
rowboat (it had been cornflower blue,
once, way back before we kids were born),
and me in the tannin-pickled pond.
We’d rise at dawn and wriggle into
the black racing suits we reserved for
real swimming. Easing the screen door shut,
creeping free of the squat brown cottage,
we’d sneak away before the others
woke. Even on fog-blankened mornings,
when towels hung limply on the line,
our bare feet were thick with dust before
we reached the beach—the flaking dory
and rough oars always exactly where
we’d left them, tucked behind some gangly
alders in a nest of wild mint.
Wasting no time, we’d head for the far
shore. She faced backward, my mother, and
pulled hard. Her tanned arms drew the oars close.
As she eased them free for each next stroke,
their tips would scar the surface, roiling
everything. I swam for the eddying
rings, cupped fingers straining to reach them
before they faded back to flat. “Pace
yourself,” she’d intone, and drive harder.
One morning, out past Davin’s dock, loud
splashing snapped our tethered attention—
too big for loon, too clumsy for trout.
Soon, the turbulence settled into
the shuh, shuh, shuh of seasoned swimming.
And minutes later, we spied its source:
broad shouldered, black-capped, a lithe stranger
shuttling smoothly toward the dory.
My mother tacked, easing us away;
the man deftly followed suit. Drawing
alongside, he fell in to my pace.
My mother dug her blades deep, deftly
sliced the watery slab, gathering
too much speed. Brusquely torqueing the boat
about, she signaled me to tumble
in. “Your lips are blue,” she muttered and
tossed me her towel, before rowing
us back toward shore, the lesson over.
Not too terrible, but so fascinatingly unfamiliar to me, its ostensible maker. We made a poem a day, each with a different piece as a springboard, each with a different poetic flavor. Looking at them together, it’s hard to believe the same writer made them within 72 hours of one another. Ekphrasis unsettles old habits, set me meandering down new paths. Whether I stick with any of them, I don’t know. But it was a blast to wander.