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On Ekphrasis, with Aislinn Hunter

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Arc Poetry Annual 2011

What happens when two forms of art are bounced off one another? That's what the 2011 Arc Poetry Magazine's Poetry Annual 2011: Poet as Art Thief wanted to explore. This year, Arc celebrates ekphrasis — the representation of visual art within a literary work and vice-versa. Through a diverse series of poetry, art, essays and interviews, Canadian artists render a feast for the senses as they meditate on the place of art in poetry.

To get a better handle on what ekphrasis really is, Open Book will be profiling three contributors to this remarkable issue. Today, Arc Poetry Annual 2011 guest editor Aislinn Hunter tells us how visual art inspired her to write, and explains why she sees such rich possibilities in the act of ekphrasis.

Who knows? With the weekend coming up, maybe you'll want to try out some ekphrastic poetry yourself. To get started, check out these AGO exhibits and hear some of Arc's contributors read the poems they were inspired to write.

Open Book:

Why were you interested in guest-editing this year's Arc Poetry Annual, which called upon poets to submit work that responded to visual art and visual artists to respond to poetry?

Aislinn Hunter:

I’ve often attributed my own sense of "becoming a writer" to two experiences: living in Ireland when I was 17, 18, and my art history education at the University of Victoria a few years later — all those notebook jottings that were a mix of proper lecture points and rough drafts of poems. Elaine Scarry writes about this kind of experience via the idea that beauty brings copies of itself into being, stirs up in us a desire to describe or draw it. I’ve long had a sense of how my own engagement with art made me want to write, but I was curious about how that compulsion or relationship to art or beauty might be understood or articulated by other writers.


Did your work on this edition of Arc change or expand your understanding of ekphrasis?


I think it expanded my understanding of the complexity of the ekphrastic act. What I love about the issue is that it doesn’t explicate as much as it demonstrates. In the end it sort of shows forth what this act of translation, or derivation, or insistence is. The chain of art and poetry (which was Anita Lahey’s idea) is really wonderful — it demonstrates how artists and writers right here and now are reading, seeing and rearticulating each other’s vision. I have to admit that as someone who spends a fair bit of my museum and gallery time abroad I sometimes forget how vital ekphrastic art is right here and now in 21st century Canada.


What is it about the dialogue between written and visual arts that you find so rich? Can you point to a couple of poems in the issue where you see this exemplified particularly well?


When ekphrasis is done well I think it exhibits an extra dimension — not just art / poem or artist / poet (or all of those) but also reader and world — a supplementary context. My favourite poem in the issue is probably Nick Thran’s "David" because it exemplifies this so beautifully and in a way that seems, at first glance, simple. We get the poem addressing the painting, the poet referencing the artist, but then we get this glide into context or meaning that adds the world the reader lives in and knows a bit about. I love the Anne Simpson "Flood" poems on Betty Goodwin’s art for a different reason, for how much space (or canvas) they leave for us readers to put our own world in.

I’m using the magazine as a textbook in a first-year creative writing class at Kwantlen University where I teach. The "David" poem the students can discuss pretty easily — even though the discussion is complex; the "Flood" poems affect them just as much, but they feel them more than they can say them. In this way some of the poems in the issue seem to me to be about external dialogue — like the "David" poem or the playful poems by Gillian Sze — and some about internal, less articulated confluences and ruptures, like the "Flood" series and Jan Conn’s lovely poems. Expression, impressionism in a way.


Do you engage in ekphrasis — which you describe as an act, a gesture, not a genre — often in your own work? How does it change the writing process for you?


Both my books of poetry reference art or artists — Monet, Goya, William Morris, Jack Yeats, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Seán McSweeny. There’s a poem set in the Louvre, one set in a natural history museum. One of the characters in my short story collection, What's Left Us (Raincoast), is an artist who paints. There’s a chapter in my novel Stay set at the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin where a Yeats painting is the vehicle for meaning. I have a whole piece in my book of lyric essays on Samuel van Hoogstraten’s 17th century “Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House” from which my book takes part of its title.

Art, as I tend to write about it (and understand it), carries meaning or gestures forth, which is why I think of ekphrastic acts and experiences as occurrences and not as finite models or fixed modes. I’m in the throes of a novel now and it’s set in a museum in London, so a lot of these engagements are thematically at the forefront of my thinking and process.

I’m also halfway through a PhD at the University of Edinburgh on resonance and beloved objects. So it’s not "art" just now but "things" that I’m thinking about, though the questions and curiosities are the same: how do things resonate? what is resonance? what is the thingness of the thing? what modes of "giveness" (to get all Heidegger-y before noon) are inherent to the thing itself? One of the repercussions of this line of engagement is that the material world in the museum of my novel matters more than it would normally. It’s not a backdrop — objects "world". The struggle in attempting to write this way is that maybe the characters suffer, aren’t busy enough. I’m looking at that in revisions.


You write fiction as well as poetry. Do you feel that fiction — either a novel or a short story — can work as ekphrasis as well, or is there something about how we experience a work of visual art that is best mirrored through poetry?


That’s a really rich question. My immediate gut response is to suggest that ekphrasis and poetry have a special kind of conductivity that prose can’t access. I’d imagine that it has to do with the degree to which one is permitted in the lyric to move in and around the unsayable, a mode of creative operation that seems to come from a different kind, or register, of awareness. We now know that people read poetry and prose with different regions of the brain.

I think the usual narrative constraints or forms that we operate in mean that prose — more often than not — engages less with complex non-linear apprehensions than the lyric. Lyric poetry often insists on or revels in a kind of metaphysic. Prose that does this tends to be difficult — think of the demands of, say, Gertrude Stein or Jacques Derrida. As far as novels go, the lovely ekphrastic bits in John Banville’s The Sea come to mind, exquisite paragraphs where he evokes Bonnard’s work — but even those dwellings come surrounded by the necessary mechanics of the novel form. Heidegger would probably disagree with me. In his essay “Language” he states “Poetry proper is never merely a higher mode (melos) of everyday language. It is rather the reverse: everyday language is a forgotten and therefore used-up poem…”.

So maybe we could ask the question differently, by not starting with the vehicles (prose versus poem) but by starting with the use we make of modes of language and the concepts we put onto the medium — be it painting or language. Maybe this is how we choose to ground ourselves — by letting prose do one thing and poetry another?

John Barton, Stephanie Bolster and Anita Lahey in their conversation in the issue talk engagingly about transcendence, existential exhortations and the idea of art as a portal. Perhaps we need “He stood in the gallery, looked at the painting and thought about…” in a novel to balance "Once life alit in villages" or "The eye gentle as light / everywhere and no," which are lines from Stephanie Bolster’s haunting poem “Two Doors” (on Christiane Pflug’s Kitchen Door and Esther).

So with that in mind I’ll say anything is possible in relation to art and language. What I think this issue demonstrates is something like that: the lack of fixity in apprehension, the beautiful slippage between seeing and saying; how form and language are really just winter coats for what is felt or gleaned, for what comes forward and recedes.

Aislinn Hunter was guest editor for the Arc Poetry Annual 2011. She is the author of two books of poetry, Into the Early Hours and The Possible Past; a story collection, What’s Left Us; a novel, Stay; and most recently, lyric essays on resonant things — A Peepshow with Views of the Interior: Paratexts. She lives in Vancouver. Visit her at her website,

The Arc Poetry Annual 2011: Poet as Art Thief includes work by renowned Canadian poets Stephanie Bolster, Ross Leckie and John Barton, as well as rising stars in Canada’s poetry scene, including Sandra Ridley, Kelly Aitken and Nick Thran. The collection also boasts literary-inspired works by internationally renowned artist Pascal Grandmaison and the award-winning duo Duke and Battersby. For more information about the Annual 2011 please visit the Arc Poetry website.

You can order a copy of this issue from the Arc Poetry website or your local independent bookstore.

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