Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Ekphrasis, with Ruth Roach Pierson

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Arc Poetry Annual

Open Book:

Arc Poetry Magazine's remarkable new issue, Poet as Art Thief, collects poetry and visual art that work in response to each other. As a poet who sometimes writes in response to visual art, how do you define the term ekphrasis?

Ruth Roach Pierson:

As I wrote in “Reflections on Ekphrastic Poetry,” given the task of presenting to a panel on ekphrasis at the League of Canadian Poets’ 2010 AGM, I went looking for and found historical and academic-literary definitions. These included Wikipedia’s “the graphic, often dramatic description of a visual work of art” and the literary scholar James A.W. Heffernan’s succinct “the verbal representation of visual representation.” What I found personally interesting was that I had been writing “ekphrastic” poetry from the very beginning of my poetry writing — only learning much later that the term “ekphrasis” applied to this genre of literary/poetic writing. I was also unaware, until I did the research for the panel, that I had been using a number of classic ekphrastic devices developed and used repeatedly over centuries. All I thought I was doing in those early poems that turned out to merit the term “ekphrastic” was responding to a piece of art (in my case, most often a painting) that had caught and held my attention, worming its way into my conscious/subconscious mind and issuing on the page in the form of a ruminative, associative reaction.


In the essay you mentioned — "Reflections on Ekphrastic Poetry," included in Poet as Art Thief — you describe what you call the "mystery of interaction between poet or writer and work of art — especially in the sense of the poet feeling 'chosen' by a particular work." Are you able to identify what it was about Louise Berliawsky Nevelson's Night Zag IV that triggered a response in you and inspired you to write the poem you contributed to this issue of Arc?


It is difficult for me to identify/articulate what exactly it was about Louise Berliawsky Nevelson’s Night Zag IV that called out to me, as that calling out and so much of the initial response occurred at a level of consciousness deeper than what we might call the rational or logical or cerebral. I had just been informed that I was not going to be able to use the poem I had written on Betty Goodwin’s Memory of the Body for Kelley Aitken’s September 2009 ekphrastic poetry event at the AGO, because the work had been taken down and put away in storage.

So, as I remember it, I was walking through the works then on display on the AGO’s fourth floor when I turned a corner and confronted Nevelson’s dark sculpture. It stopped me in my tracks. I stared at it, up close, at a distance, and while walking back and forth in front of it. Before I knew it, I was sitting on a large cushion not far from the sculpture and scribbling into my notebook — many of the phrases preserved in the final version of the poem. It did feel to me, as I commented in the Arc piece, like something akin to automatic writing. But, of course, much critical editing followed as I wrote and rewrote the poem, giving it shape.


You say that the process of writing ekphrastic poetry gives you a sense of freedom that allows you to write almost unconsciously, or at least with less editorial interventions than you would normally impose on yourself. Why do you think this is?


Excellent question, and I’m not at all sure I have the answer to it. Some poets enter a meditative state in which they experience a suspension of the rational, critical mind when they put themselves in contact with nature, especially with what Don McKay calls the wilderness, that part of the world uncontaminated by the effects of technology. Coming into contact with art seems to have a similar effect on poets, the result of an artist’s often imaginative, free-wheeling engagement with form, image, colour and texture touching something primordial in the poet, freeing the poet from the usual societal constraints of propriety, convention, logic, ordinary syntax, reasonableness.

In the best interactions, it is as though the “id” is let loose or at least the super-ego silenced. The work of art allows us to get in touch with the “wilderness” within. But I don’t mean freeing exclusively in the sense of tapping into the subconscious. I think the freedom extends to opening the gates of our minds to long-forgotten memories, dream fragments, unarticulated, censored feelings, or, as I say in the Nevelson poem, “repressed desires.”


Reading this collection of ekphrastic poetry, I feel compelled to look up the painting or sculpture that inspired each piece so that I can see what might be described as the other "half" of the poem. At the same time, I enjoy imagining what the original artwork might look like. Do you think that an ekphrastic poem needs to be absorbed together with the artwork that inspired it in order to be fully appreciated?


Once again, an excellent question. Human curiosity being as compelling as it is, I conjecture that many readers want to see the work of art that has inspired the ekphrastic poem. To satisfy this curiosity in this day and age usually involves looking up a reproduction of the painting or photograph or piece of sculpture in an art book or on the web. But seeing such a reproduction is often disappointing, certainly much less satisfying than being able to gaze directly on the objet d’art, something possible for only a small minority of people with enough time and money to travel to distant art museums. But even then I’m not convinced the visceral understanding and emotive resonance of the poem are necessarily enhanced by seeing the work of art.

Perhaps in some cases, it is helpful to have an understanding of the spatial relations between and among the images in the work. But does one need to have run a finger over lichen-covered bark or heard the roar of a cataract in order to be moved by a poem responding to and invoking such images? I hope my Nevelson poem elicits an emotional response regardless of whether its reader has seen the sculpture. And it is possible someone who has read the poem and then sees the sculpture might exclaim: “I don’t at all see what she has seen!” On the other hand, at the AGO’s ekphrastic readings organized by Kelley Aitken, the audiences seemed to have enjoyed hearing the poem read in proximity to the painting or photograph or piece of sculpture. For many, it did move them to look much more closely at the work of art.


As you mentioned, while you prepared to participate in a panel discussion about ekphrasis, you realized that you had always been writing ekphrastic poetry — without always being aware that that was what you were doing. Would you say that your poetry is often or always responding to other art? Will this be a focus in your next collection?


Yet again, an excellent question — does my poetry often or always respond to other art? If we extend “other art” to include other poetry, then definitely I would answer that question with a resounding “yes.” I have written many poems from within a mood that came upon me while reading a poem by another poet. I have been, of course, especially drawn to those poets whose work has that effect on me. Recently I was inspired to write a poem from within the daze induced by reading W.S. Merwin’s most recent book The Shadow of Sirius. Similarly, a poem that will appear in my most recent collection, Contrary, came into being when I found in the clutter on my desk a scrap of paper on which I had jotted down a statement by Georgia O’Keefe after seeing an exhibit of her work in Vancouver in 2007. Then, that morning’s “Thought for the Day” on Wordsmith’s A.Word.A.Day site happened to be from Anaïs Nin. The coming together of those two quotations caused a kind of alchemical reaction in my brain and a poem was launched. To your second question, will ekphrastic poetry be a focus of my next collection, the answer is again “yes” — to the extent that approximately a fourth of the poems in that book are ekphrastic. But at its core the book is about the dying and death of my older brother.

Ruth Roach Pierson, professor emerita of OISE/UT, is the author, co-author, and co-editor of numerous academic works including “They’re Still Women After All”: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood (McClelland & Stewart, 1986) and Nation, Empire, Colony: Historicizing Gender and Race (Indiana University Press, 1998). Since retiring from academe, she has published three poetry collections, the first two with BuschekBooks: Where No Window Was (2002) and Aide-Mémoire (2007). The latter was named a finalist for the 2008 Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry. Contrary, her third book of poems, will launch this coming March 13th with Tightrope Books.

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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