by Melissa Gordon
PY: What drew you to Poor Yorick? Why did you think your piece “Ekphrastic Evolutions: New Paths in Poetry” would be a good response to PY’s mission?
SF: I first found out about the aims of Poor Yorick when running a creative writing workshop with the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, England. The curator told me that editor Melissa Gordon [Poor Yorick’s then editor-in-chief] was interested in what we were doing in terms of ekphrastic writing. (The history of ekphrasis, commonly considered to be writing connected to visual art, spans 3000 years. W.H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts” is one of the most famous examples.) The plan was for participants in the workshop to explore the museum’s galleries to find something interesting, something that lit curiosity and would provoke innovative stories and poems. Poet Ted Hughes believed an artwork ”has to grab you”—and then the creative brain is provoked.
From my own practice as a writer, I know finding an artifact that grabs me in a museum is a way of launching into a story or a poem that probes beyond description and elicits something I wouldn’t normally write. Ekphrasis opens up opportunities to step into past cultures, and it struck me that my research and poetic practice fit well with Poor Yorick’s mission statement. With this in mind, I went on to write “Ekphrastic Evolutions: New Paths in Poetry.”
PY: I am curious about your ekphrastic roots. Could you talk about how the connection between visual art and writing formed?
SF: My fascination with explorations into text and image began in childhood. I was the schoolgirl doodling and looking out of the window while other pupils sat attentively reciting times tables. Teachers became exasperated with my daydreaming. However, as a result, I was invited to decorate the school corridors with poems and pictures. From then on, the link between pictures and words, and in particular painting, grew ever more intriguing. I painted and wrote stories and poetry, and I came to realize the blank canvas and the blank page offer similar creative possibilities. As time progressed, I started to look at others’ work in the field and began to unravel how this maze of creativity links the past with the present. For example, I researched the artwork, letters, and diaries of Kaethe Kollwitz and wrote a collection of poems, No Man’s Moon, some of which are published In Gangway #39.
I’m currently working with community groups and schools, including The Deaf Academy in Exeter, to create a body of new writing using artifacts from WWI that relate to Devon. Out of my childhood experience, I realize the usefulness of practicing ekphrasis in education on all levels. For example, I also design and facilitate creative writing workshops at the University of Exeter with Ph.D. students from a wide variety of disciplines. Using images of paintings encourages students to stop and really look, mine the details, open up unexpected pathways, link research, and further understand the creative/ writing/editing process. One of the most innovative projects I’ve been involved with recently has been to work with Kaleider on the project “Ancient Sunlight” where artists and young people produced writing and artwork fueled by the notion of “The Last Barrel of Oil.” Pieces from this project have recently been published in a book, Ancient Sunlight, that connects past, present, and hopes for the future.
My experiences as a child, a writer, and a lecturer underpin my aim to offer blank walls, canvasses, pages, and screens to others, in a variety of forms, as well as give contemporary voices the space and opportunity to experiment and fill them—which in turn influences perceptions and always links to the art of the past.
PY: What differences do you find when you respond to a painting in person versus seeing a digital image? Can you talk about some of the pros and cons?
SF: When researching my Ph.D. on ekphrasis, I realized a significant shift was taking place in the field. A virtual world of online galleries was opening up and significantly changing the relationship between text and image. Additionally, a wealth of other information was available at the click of a mouse, such as painters’ biographies. The ease of access to an array of resources served to influence and inform not only my poetry but, as I discovered, the work of other poets, artists, and writers.
In particular, I discovered using images of paintings resulted in different poems being produced than the kind of poems created after visiting and exploring a gallery for inspiration. I began to consider questions of ownership of an image and how this might influence different types of responses. Ease of accessibility to a picture and its existence on a screen in a personal space allow the viewer to return to an image on demand, whereas an actual gallery is restricted by closing times and, sometimes, crowds. However, the minutiae of a painting, the colors and shadows, the texture and the “hidden corners,” cannot be fully realized on a computer screen. Many poems written from seeing the original artwork make some acknowledgment of the painting and the painting process; this may be because the gallery experience promotes a sense of obligation to acknowledge the original creator and a bond is formed that recognizes a shared creative process, what John Berger describes as “the artist’s experience of the visible.”1 There are pros and cons both to a virtual methodology of working and to utilizing an actual gallery. As we know at the museum in Exeter, the act of looking and the writing process were under pressure by the knowledge of closing time, and in some ways, this produced a spontaneous reaction and an intense creative process that cannot be realized in the same way in a virtual world, which offers the opportunity to both linger over and return to the image of artwork on demand. However, the internet connects stories and artworks on an ever-increasing global scale, and it allows people to search at their leisure and make discoveries. Reproductions of paintings can easily enter our homes, be printed, and copied; therefore, mysticism and elitism in the arts are being broken down. What I value about online ekphrasis is its potential to be easily practiced by people on all levels, from schoolchildren to patients with mental and physical health problems to academics in a wide variety of subjects, and to connect and bring objects that remained in the background to our attention as well as those iconic images that resound across time. It helps us question the validity and truth of what we see in new and exciting ways.
PY: I love the line in your essay, “As an expanding discourse between image and language emerges there is huge potential to further link artworks of the past with poems written in the present, and for this practice to establish its own digital authority and hierarchy.” It sounds as though you see ekphrastics as a way to bring the past into the light and connect it to the current culture and that you see the digital age as playing a positive role in this linkage. Where do you see your work in this field headed in the future?
SF: Ekphrasis continues to evolve. It may well free up the poet and the storyteller to explore artifacts, which further helps our understanding of the world. Reproductions of paintings increasingly infiltrate everyone’s lives, and while ekphrasis may be rooted in the challenge to translate and give voice to a moment frozen in time, poets, especially now, have the opportunity to push at the boundaries via technology. (The Tate’s and MOMA’s collections sit minimized on my computer right now.) Future digital explorations and collaborations have the potential to help us understand Poor Yorick’s mission of uncovering “hidden skeletons in our cultural closets” and bring to attention the worth of similarities and differences. There’s no doubt that whether in a museum or visiting an online gallery space, the growth and expansion of ekphrasis is assured; its future looks bright.
1. Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: The British Broadcasting Corporation, 1972, 10.