The art of looking and writing

How do you write about another art form? Can you really convey the visual in words?

Poets use language to evoke a visual image for the reader all the time.  But somehow, writing in response to another art form has always seemed a little problematic to me. I was not sure why one would do it. If the reader has not seen the work of art you’re writing about, how is the writing meaningful to them?

Ekphrasis (the term used to denote writing that responds to another art form) is an old practice. The Chicago School of Media Theory’s glossary says this about its origins:

Initially, ekphrasis was a rhetorical term like many others taught to Greek students. Teachers of rhetoric taught ekphrasis as a way of bringing the experience of an object to a listener or reader through highly detailed descriptive writing. …  The student of ekphrasis was encouraged to lend their attention not only to the qualities immediately available in an object, but to make efforts to embody qualities beyond the physical aspects of the work they were observing.

In contemporary practice the meaning of ekphrasis is stretched further, becoming a sort of conversation with a visual work, and eventually leading toward a poem that goes beyond the original image.

That approach to writing about visual art proved quite fruitful for a group of us who attended a workshop on ekphrastic writing sponsored by the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture at the University of Manitoba. It was led by Winnipeg poets Sally Ito (who just finished a term as Writer-In-Residence at the CCWOC) and Jennifer Still.

Our source material was a new exhibit at the U of M School of Art Gallery called Re-Configuring Abstraction (still on till January 11). Sally encouraged us to take a meditative approach— to encounter rather than study a piece of art, to sit in front of it for a good long while and pay attention to what we noticed. The result was a focus, not so much on what we were supposed to see, as on the association the works evoked, the resonances they awakened, and the questions they brought forth.

For me, the workshop answered the question of why a poet would write about a work of visual art. It’s the same reason I write about so many other things: because I’m captivated by it.

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