Ekphrasis – noun. A literary description of, or comment on, a work of art.
Yeah, I’d never heard of it either, not until I became involved with the Writers of the Mendocino Coast. Last year the Writers hosted a collaborative art show whereby local artists painted pictures and local writers were chosen to write a poem or short story about the paintings. By way of application I submitted work for this year’s production and two days ago I was notified that I have been chosen as one of eighteen writers to participate in the show.
The way this works, as far as I understand it, is that at the July meeting we will gather, writers and artists together, to receive a completed painting from one artist to one writer, wrapped in paper, which the writer will then steal back to their creative abodes where the painting will be unmasked and the writer will compose their ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is a Greek word combining ek “out” with phrasis “to speak,” and so the word literally means to speak out about a piece of visual art. The definition is further understood to mean that which through written word enhances the visual work on a new and profound level. This is to say that the ekphrasis does more than describe the painting. Rather it illumines the visual work in some way that is emotionally, spiritually, and/or aesthetically enlightening.
I am excited about this opportunity. I was accepted on the merit of a poem I wrote recently about an experience I had by the sea. The poem follows:
Des fruits de mer
I knelt beside a tide pool, cold,
the brackish water swirling black,
and studied there a fragile skirt,
a disembodied jelly head.
And I in giving nothing much
toward purchase price of this event,
paid my respects to that great sea,
its living things, as well as dead.
Then at once the abandoned shell
of a red abalone snail
blushed brightly in the dragging surf
and took me near the water’s edge.
This I gathered to carry home.
And there with treasures standing by,
one in the hand, one in the mind,
I thought upon the bounty that
the sea had given me that day –
a shell, the surf, a spray of mist,
salt on my tongue, the sting, the taste.
But best of all, with its great eye,
did judge my worth, no more, no less
than any other passerby,
and blessed with memory instead,
a tattered hood – a jelly, dead.
I don’t really know what the selection process is for the project, but I chose to submit “Des Fruits de Mer” because I thought it was a good example of what art often does: it replicates life. This is what we mean by mimesis, and the irony of art struck me in considering the possibilities of the ekphrasis because of the following. Paintings often depict nature in an attempt to capture something wonderful about the world. By copying the organic world in an image the painter is doing what Stendhal said is the work of the novel: it holds up the mirror to society and records what is there. The painting is not the world, nor is the writing the world, but both are a mimesis of the world. Ekphrasis then is the mimesis of mimesis – a synthetic elevation of a synthetic representation. This epiphany (for me, not necessarily for you) is exciting! What does it say about the creative practice? I think for the student of art, of writing, and/or of life, ekphrasis is an opportunity to dig deep into the art of representation and explore what is both in the world and in the interpretation of the world at the same time. Likewise it is an opportunity to make and understand connections between concrete and abstract impressions, at times dispelling the illusion of mortal life and at others confirming it. Try it for yourself. Choose a random painting, preferably something you are not familiar with, and compose a poem, short story, or an essay about the work that brings the painting to a higher level of aesthetic value. In the process I daresay you will learn more about the creative process and connection with the world than in almost any one lecture or, even, one incredibly interesting blog post!
I will update you all in the coming weeks on the ekphrasis project. I am also waiting for good news on a recent story submission. As for July, and online teaching, expect to see some posts about the exercises we’re doing in class. I anticipate a lot of new discoveries in July, things stimulating and wonderful about the craft of writing. I’ve already discovered a bunch of new stories I can’t wait to share. Stories by Annie Proulx, David Foster Wallace, Louise Erdrich. So many things to learn – it’s good to be a writer, don’t you agree?