Saturday, September 18, 2021

Valerie Miner on the Novella

I heard the writer Valerie Miner give a fascinating talk on the novella form, and I asked Valerie to talk about her experience as an author and reader of novellas. Valerie’s latest book of fiction, Bread and Salt, features a wonderful novella.


Valerie Miner


Could you explain what a novella is? When does a work of fiction go from being a short story to a novella, or when is a novel brief enough that it is considered a novella?

 

Valerie Miner: I sometimes imagine different forms of fiction like the music of string instruments. I hear the short story as a winged, breathless violin scherzo. The novella sounds like a cello sonata, rich and round and deep. The novel reminds me of the seasons of a string quartet. Of course, there are no rules about length. But my stories are usually between 5-25 typed pages. In writing a novella, I aim for 60 to 120 typed pages. My novels tend to be 250 to 500 pages.

 

What is the appeal and/or advantage of writing a novella? Are there disadvantages to writing a novella?    

 

I enjoy the flexibility and length of a novella. It can reveal more than a personal epiphany but usually less than the whole map of an individual adult life. I find the form ideal for exploring friendship. Jane Smiley thinks that marriage is a good topic: “...few marriages and even fewer love affairs are worth three hundred pages—but a hundred? Great loves can go a hundred.”

 

I enjoy reading and writing novellas in much the same way I enjoy other anomalous forms—the prose poem, the novel-in-stories, microfiction—because their very irregularity provokes my imagination. The shape of this less familiar form disturbs my ability to maintain expectations about character and plot development. Also fascinating are those cross-genre projects mixing fiction and memoir. Neither the novella nor these other “unconventional” forms are endangered species, and hybrid forms are steadily gaining audiences. Just as writers breaking linguistic and other stylistic expectations often have to establish a critical framework in which their own fiction can be appreciated, practitioners of “odd forms” like the novella need to alert readers to the novella’s idiosyncratic rewards. It’s the idiosyncrasy of the novella form, its perversity and disruptiveness, that stirs ideas and changes literary appetites.

 

The disadvantages of writing a novella are perhaps most related to reception. It’s difficult to publish them in literary journals. I’ve had the opportunity to judge novella contests for Quarterly West and Evergreen Chronicles, but most journals are looking for something shorter.

 

Unfortunately, most people haven’t yet developed the habit of reading novellas as they might read one short story a day over breakfast or in bed, or as they might savor a novel on a week’s vacation. For many, the novella clashes with daily routine. Habit is what holds back the popularity of the novella. We carry expectations about stories and novels regarding degrees and kinds of emotional response or intellectual stimulus. But novellas—what are they? Less intense than a story? Less profound than a novel? Or something altogether different?

 

In your recent collection of fiction, Bread and Salt, you end with the title piece, which is a novella. How and when did you know that this idea would take the form of a novella?

 

My favorite form is the short story. So why have I published only four story collections and nine novels? Perhaps because I’m too curious about characters’ back stories and their futures, so I keep writing and the piece grows.


“Bread and Salt” started out as a short story. I was caught up with two complex people, Caroline and Anouar. I always begin writing with questions. In this case I wanted to think about the difference between glancing appearance and reality. I wanted to explore Caroline and Anouar’s identities as travelers and their distinct experiences with colonialism. And given all this, the story had to take place on three continents. It’s hard to write briefly about places I love, like Paris and parts of Tunisia. So, the more I wrote, the more questions I considered, and the longer the story became. I believe stories find their own shape. In this case, the narrative became a novella.



“Bread and Salt,” is a love story about a North American woman and a North African man that takes place over a period of almost 30 years. The novella is set in Tunisia, Paris, and Boston. What were the challenges of taking your characters through such an expansive time period and geography in only 42 pages?

 

I don’t set stories in places I don’t know. But “knowing” and “knowing enough” to fully evoke a place are two different things. The more I wrote about Tunisia (where I did a Fulbright in 2004) and Paris (a place where I’ve worked and visited since my early 20s), the more details I needed to include. Since the novella takes place over a number of years, I had to remember, imagine, research these places during different decades. The novella took about ten years to write.

 

What are a couple of your own favorite novellas, and why do you think they work well in that genre?

 

Just a couple? I’m a fan of Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley, Thea Astley’s Vanishing Points, Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, and Cris Mazza’s Therapeutic. I imagine that each of these authors took a winding route similar to my own, one that posed more questions, demanded more answers and wound up taking them to the length of a novella.

 

One thing I love about the novella, and literature in general, is that it is a portable and, in some senses, more intimate medium than film or opera or theatre. We carry books with us into our most private rooms, dressed—or undressed—as we like.

I encourage my students to play with the novella as readers and writers. It might stimulate short story writers to discover what would happen if they gave themselves more space. The novelists might find it a useful exercise in distillation or excision. We see what the novella teaches us about other forms as well as discover whether it’s a form in which we want to write for a while.

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

When to Use Punctuation in Poems and When to Leave It Out

Leaving Punctuation Out


One of the most innovative sides of modern literature is that many poets have swept all punctuation out of their work. But the question of whether poets should use punctuation is not just about semicolons and dashes. It’s about when punctuation works best in poetry, and when it gets in the way of expressing something very different from prose.


Some of the poets of the U.S.A. best known for unpunctuated verse are e.e. cummings (who also did away with capital letters in some of his writing), William Carlos Williams (but only in some of his poems), and W.S. Merwin.  


In modern poetry, not punctuating verse first became a common practice in France in the early twentieth century. Guillaume Apollinaire threw down the gauntlet to traditional poetry and culture in his groundbreaking poem “Zone” from his collection Alcohols, published in 1913.


Guillaume Apollinaire

Apollinaire started “Zone” with these memorable lines: In the end you are weary of this ancient world This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd Weary of living in Roman antiquity and Greek (translation by Samuel Beckett) By eliminating punctuation, Apollinaire also allowed words to group themselves in ways that did not conform to grammatical sentences. Even if you wanted to add punctuation to the line “This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd,” how would you do it? In his poem “Zone,” not only did Apollinaire throw out the convention of writing with punctuation, he tossed out the conventions of time and space, zooming from the ancient world to the modern, and leap frogging from one country to another: Here you are in Marseilles among the water-melons Here you are in Coblentz at the Giant’s Hostelry Here you are in Rome under a Japanese medlar-tree Unpunctuated poetry can provide a high-speed train for moving among ideas and settings, reflecting both fast-paced technology in the external world, and the fast-paced internal world of stream of consciousness that psychoanalysis opened up in Apollinaire’s time. That is one of the strengths of unpunctuated poetry: it can be really fast. It can grab those moments that happen so spontaneously or rapidly they’re difficult to catch. Here’s part of an unpunctuated poem by the French surrealist André Breton that begins “I dream I see you endlessly superimposed upon yourself.” The writer recreates the quick movements of the unconscious by describing a lover simultaneously at various times in her life: Little girl Caught in a bellows of sparkles You jump rope Long enough so that the one green butterfly that haunts the peaks of Asia Can appear at the top of the invisible stairway I caress everything that was you In everything that’s yet to be you     (translated by Bill Zavatsky and Zack Rogow) Without the obstacles of periods, commas, and exclamation marks, Breton’s poetry flows right from the writer’s subconscious onto the paper. It’s as if he’s dreaming onto the page. The result: a hallucinatory cascade of ecstatic images. Interestingly, unpunctuated verse not only allows for a more fluid pouring of words onto the page—it also can create the opposite effect. Unpunctuated verse can involve a more discrete use of language where each phrase vibrates on its own. In unpunctuated poetry, the words can be suspended in a borderless space that makes certain phrases resonate like a final chord played on a piano. Here’s the opening of a poem called “October Thoughts” by the French writer Jean Follain: How one loves this great wine that one drinks all alone when the evening illumines its coppered hills (translated by W.S. Merwin) These words radiate pathos because they are not contained within the sealed lead boxes of punctuation. W.S. Merwin famously wrote, “Punctuation nails the poem down on the page. When you don’t use it the poem becomes more a thing in itself, at once more transparent and more actual.” Imagine if Jean Follain had punctuated those lines: How one loves this great wine, that one drinks all alone, when the evening illumines its coppered hills! How banal and overstated these lines seem with punctuation; without punctuation, how mysterious and filled with awe. One curious side note: we think of unpunctuated verse as an invention of modern poetry, In fact, all poetry was unpunctuated in classical times. All writing was originally unpunctuated in ancient Greek, Latin, Old Persian, Hebrew, Chinese, and other languages that produced some of the earliest bodies of written poetic texts. Putting Punctuation In When e.e. cummings first started not to capitalize letters, it was revolutionary: “next to of course god america i love you By not capitalizing words that readers were used to seeing in majuscule letters, such as “God," "America,” and “I” (not to mention his own name!), cummings prompted a reexamination of those sacrosanct ideas, even the idea of the self. Cummings produced stinging satire even in his use of punctuation and capitalization.

But once unpunctuated verse became almost the norm in modern avant-garde poetry, there was an inevitable reaction against it. Here’s why: art hates norms. When a practice in literature becomes expected, its impact is immediately blunted. As soon as a great many poets were doing the same thing as cummings, leaving out punctuation became an affectation, in some cases. It could easily turn into a cutesy, self-conscious move that was just the opposite of cummings’ unpredictable use of language. There was also something coy about not writing with punctuation and capitalization, as if poets were not willing to declare themselves emphatically enough to end a phrase with a definitive period or exclamation mark. Not to mention that taking out punctuation and capitalization could conceal laziness on the part of a poet who did not want to make choices.

In the 1950s and 60s in North America, poetry split into two different practices with regard to punctuation. There were poets who greatly admired the French- and Spanish-language avant-garde and generally preferred to scrap the formality of punctuation. These poets included Lawrence Ferlinghetti and W.S. Merwin, and quite a number of African American poets, such as Ntozake Shange, and (at times) June Jordan and Ishmael Reed—just to name a few. On the other hand, in the work of the more traditional poets of that period, punctuating poems and using full sentences in poetry made something of a comeback. Those poets included Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath. For those writers, there was a sense that returning to the sentence could add clarity, crispness, and sophistication to poetry. Apparently Lowell was so concerned about the punctuation in his poems that he paid for poet Frank Bidart to fly across the Atlantic to fix the punctuation in one of his book manuscripts. Using traditional punctuation well in a poem can be an art in itself. I’m thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle, “One Art.” Here are the first and last stanzas:     The art of losing isn’t hard to master;     so many things seem filled with the intent     to be lost that their loss is no disaster.         —Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture     I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident     the art of losing’s not too hard to master     though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster. Bishop pulls out all the stops of punctuation here: semicolon in the first stanza; dash, parentheses, comma, and exclamation mark in the last stanza. She uses short, punchy phrases, intensified by punctuation marks. Bishop made punctuation lively, fun, elegant, and unexpected. Many of the poets of the 1950s and 60s in North America wrote confessional poetry, which by its nature, is somewhat like memoir, a narrative prose form. No surprise then that their verse used punctuation. Under the influence of that generation, unpunctuated poetry has experienced a partial eclipse in North America in the decades since then. If I had to say where we are on that continuum now, between using and not using punctuation in poetry, I’d say the pendulum has swung way to the side of preferring punctuation. At least many editors favor it. My own feeling is that some poems want the sharp edges of punctuation to define their shape. Other poems crave the looseness of unpunctuated text to allow their phrases to float on the page like islands in the sea. The difficulty is that most editors expect consistency from a poet. If you don’t have a set style, which includes the use of punctuation, many editors think your manuscript lacks coherence and a literary brand. But looked at another way, if you’re too set in your style, are you really channeling the emotion that impelled you to write the poem in the first place? If different poems in a series or a book can have different forms, different stanza lengths, why can’t you use punctuation differently, if the poem calls for that?

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, May 22, 2021

Giving Yourself the Benefit of the Doubt as a Writer

Many writers begin their literary careers with more enthusiasm than finesse or depth. There are a couple of reasons it can take years or even decades to hit your stride as an author. Sometimes writers need time to excavate their souls to find their true subject matter. That’s not as easy as it sounds, because it involves burrowing toward the truth about one’s life, which often necessitates several wrong turns and painfully acquired life experience.

 

It can also take you many years to polish the craft of writing. I know that phrase gets thrown around a lot, to “polish your craft.” But it’s true that the art of writing is not something most of us are born knowing. It takes practice, and learning from your mistakes and from role models. You gradually grow to see where your work succeeds, where it needs improvement, and what you can do that no one else can. To write consistently well, you have to develop self-awareness about your own strengths and weaknesses, and that can take perspective, and perspective usually requires time.

 

For all those reasons, you have to give yourself the benefit of the doubt as a writer. You may not start out writing the work you were destined to write, or you may not have the skills when you start out to execute the types of projects you have in your mind and heart.

 

I recently read Hilary Holladay’s biography The Power of Adrienne Rich.




Holladay talks about how Adrienne Rich was already a lauded poet when she was an undergraduate at Radcliffe College and won the 1950 Yale Series of Younger Poets award for her first book, A Change of World. Rich went on to win many other honors as a young poet, but it wasn’t until she published Diving into the Wreck in 1973, her eighth book of poems, that she really came into her own as a writer. It was in that book she emerged as a leading feminist and social critic, and she continued in that direction for the rest of her astonishing and wonderful career.


Adrienne Rich
 

If Adrienne Rich had judged her own potential as a writer only by the output of the first two decades of her career as a poet, she might have given up. It was by allowing herself the time to grow as a poet and thinker that she became the great artist she was.

 

In fact, as Holladay points out in her biography, Rich was surprisingly grateful to the poet Randall Jarrell for his criticism of her work in the Yale Review when she was still producing her youthful volumes of poetry. Jarrell saw the potential behind the preciousness and formal neatness that sometimes diluted the power of Rich’s earlier books: “she lives nearer to perfection (an all-too-easy perfection, sometimes…) than ordinary poets do…one feels she has room to live in and grow out into; liking her for what she is is a way of liking her even better for what she may become.” He challenged Rich to become the best poet she could be.

 

What can we learn from Rich’s decades-long quest for her own purpose and majesty as a poet? We need to be patient with our own development as writers. That doesn’t mean becoming lazy or complacent. Adrienne Rich was the opposite of that. She worked unbelievably hard to become the writer she grew into. It does mean allowing yourself the time to produce the works that you were meant to bring into the world.


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Monday, May 10, 2021

Writing Historical Nonfiction: Interview with Gwen Strauss, Author of The Nine

Gwen Strauss is a nonfiction writer as well as an award-winning children’s book author and poet. Her newly published nonfiction book The Nine is currently in development for a TV series. Strauss’ other titles include Trail of Stones, The Night Shimmy, Ruth and the Green Book, and The Hiding Game. She lives in Southern France where she is the director of the Dora Maar House and Hôtel de Tingry, an artist residency program and cultural center.

Gwen Strauss, author of The Nine

Zack Rogow: The core story of this book, the escape of nine fearless women Resistance fighter prisoners from Nazi Germany, takes places in only a few days. The women also have backstories and “front stories” about how they came to be arrested, and what they did after World War II. How did you weave the front- and backstories into the narrative of their escape? 

Gwen Strauss: The actual journey of the escape takes nine days and there are nine women, so from the beginning I thought this would be a great structure, if I could pull off pairing one woman’s story with each day. I ended up mapping it out with index cards the old-fashioned way, on a cork board. I had to maneuver things to keep the story moving, at times shifting to the backstory of the woman that chapter was dedicated to. I realized I couldn’t tell the story in exactly nine chapters, so I had to be more flexible with my structure. I also needed to tell what happened after the war. And for the final drafts, I had the excellent help of my editor Elisabeth Dyssegaard—I owe a lot to her. She was rather ruthless cutting sections, but I realized she was right about keeping the momentum of the story going forward.



Q. One thing I learned from this book was the key role that women played in the Resistance to the Nazis. Could you talk about that?

 

Yes, I had a lot MORE about women in the Resistance in earlier drafts—whole sections about amazing women like Milena Jesenská, Danielle Cassanova, Geneviève de Gaulle-Anthonioz, Germaine Tillion, Odette Rosenstock. I could have just written about all these somewhat forgotten heroes. It’s important to realize that women in France got the right to vote only in 1944, because of the contributions they made in the Resistance. De Gaulle realized they had to be recognized as citizens. Women had a certain freedom during the occupation—more than the men. They could move around. A young man would be stopped and asked why he wasn’t in Germany working for the German war machine. And so little was expected of the women—the Germans didn’t think they were capable of sabotage and undercover work. Marie Madeleine Fourcade, who ran the largest network of agents, kept secret for a long time that she was a woman from both the English she was working with, and of course the Germans.

 

Q. You are personally involved in the story of The Nine through a family connection. Could you talk about how that story finally emerged after many years?

 

My great aunt Hélène told me her story one day quite casually over lunch. She was nearing the end of her life and was ready to talk about it. Because I was a somewhat distant relative, she felt she could open up to me. She hadn’t even told the story to her own daughter. This was something I found again and again as I met the families of these women. They told their grandchildren or nieces or nephews, but almost never did they speak about the experience of the concentration camps to their own children. And most spoke later in life. Immediately after the war there was a general understanding that it wasn’t to be spoken of; everyone was trying to put the dark past behind them. Many women spoke up much later when there started to be Holocaust deniers. The women couldn’t stand by and let history be erased, and many said it was for the women who had died in the camps that they finally spoke up.

 

Q. I understand the book is going to be made into a TV series scripted by the renowned playwright Ella Hickson. What was the process of turning a nonfiction book into such a different medium?

 

I knew nothing of this process, and it has been a huge pleasure to work with Ella. First, we just talked for hours and hours about the women. She asked me questions and I could talk forever—so much information is not in the book. Then later she had a rough map of how she might write the script. She came back to France where I live and we spent a few weeks together. In the morning we met and talked through each beat and episode, trying to figure out how to structure it, what stories would work, what wouldn’t. In the afternoons she wrote. We took lots of liberties with the factual story. Ella really has a sense of this as a playwright—how to tell a story through scenes and dialogue. I absolutely admire how she thinks and works. She wrote a treatment and submitted it to the production company. They had notes and we did another round of edits and brainstorming. So that’s where we are now. The treatment is quite different from the book. And it very much Ella’s voice. I love it. I really hope we can make it into a series. What is fun is seeing how the stories evolve, what is essential stays in. I trust Ella, and that’s a great feeling. I love working with someone I know is a really great writer.

 

Q. At the point where you decided to write this book, how many of The Nine were still alive and who were you able to interview directly? How did you incorporate other sources while keeping a consistent narrative voice?

 

Sadly, when I really started to write the book, all nine had died. I discovered the identity of the last one and found she had only died a few months earlier. It was like chasing a retreating wave. I only spoke with Hélène, my aunt. I spoke with family members or friends of all the others except Josée. I found no one to speak about Josée. I did find written accounts from three of the women and several hours of oral testimony from one of them. Then I found other women who wrote about the same experiences who were with them. In all, I was able to piece together the different accounts.

 

Q. It would seem as if a concentration camp would be the most unlikely place for acts of kindness or solidarity, but your book includes extraordinary examples of these among the women prisoners of Ravensbrück. How did you discover these stories, and what impact did these have on you?

 

Yes, these acts of solidarity were amazingly moving for me. I found that women were more prone to work together as a group, to see that as a tool of survival, then the men were. Maybe men were conditioned to think of “every man for himself.” Women tended to form camp families and take care of the weakest. I also have been thinking that vast organized cruelty is a sort of function of power and the state—whereas true humanity and compassion can only happen on the individual level. It’s a kind of muscle that has to be engaged. I can’t say it enough, people in extreme desperation did extraordinary acts of kindness. I don’t want to forget this. I found a quote from the musician Nick Cave recently that sums it up: “At the heart of grief, and midst of mayhem, carnage and deep sadness, people do beautiful things.”

 

Q. You not only give an account of the historical facts, you create the characters of The Nine, and their relationships with one another. How were you able to get a handle on the more psychological, less fact-based aspects of the story?

 

This was tricky. I struggled with this until I gave myself permission to imagine my way into their story. It’s not a strict historical narrative. I argue that it is nearly impossible to do that when you are writing about people marginalized in the historical archive. It’s also a problem historians confront with African American enslaved narratives. How to give voice to the voiceless? I was inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments. I was also inspired by a Jamaican artist named Jacqueline Bishop who has searched the archives for actual quotes from enslaved Caribbean women. There are only fragments, but she embroidered these fragments onto sackcloth that was the fabric they were given for their clothing. She uses this beautiful needlework (again something women did, not valued or considered real art) and uses that act to give voice.

 

Q. You used many different kinds of sources for this book—interviews, journals, memoirs, archival information. How did you create a consistent narrative voice?

 

This is a hard question, because I’m not sure. Writing and rewriting over and over and having a good editor. I easily wrote 50 drafts.

 

Q. When you visited the site of the women’s journey in Germany, what was that like as an emotional experience? What did you learn from that trip?

 

Yes, very emotional. I did two trips to trace their route. One just as I was beginning, before I really knew I would write a whole book about it. And the second one, a few years later, when I was deep into the story. On the second trip I had a better idea of what had happened where, and that was really moving. I was with my sister. I realized with a shock how little ground they covered each day. They were exhausted and so broken during the nine days of their escape. They needed food and rest. Some days they only covered only five kilometers (three miles). Seeing the bridge, or really the Mulde River they had to cross on a broken bridge—I found the repaired bridge and it was impressive to imagine.

 

Q. Of the nine women who are the focus of the book, whose stories particularly resonated with you?

 

I really admired Nicole. I think she was able to take what had happened to her and transform her life. She said that after, without having gone through what she went through, she never would have had the career she had after the war as a feminist. And I also grew to really like Mena. Mena didn’t have a very great marriage and she died young from cancer, but I liked the way she lived passionately. I think if she had found the right husband, or if she had come from another social class, she would have been an artist. I would have loved to read the account she would have written. But I think I found something in each of them I really admired.


Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.


Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Inside the Frame: Ekphastic Poems: guest blog by Steven Winn

 This post is a guest blog by poet and art critic Steven Winn.


It was, so far as I remember, the first ekphrastic poem that made its mark on me. It was a good one, indeed a famously good one – W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” From its invocation of The Old Masters in the second line to its masterly conjuring of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, the poem is a shining fulfillment of the ekphrastic form – which, to put it loosely, is a poem or other piece of writing that references a specific work of visual art.


Steven Winn

 A full discussion of the origins and variations of ekphrasis, a term which dates back to the ancient Greeks and is not strictly limited to writing about visual art, is well above my pay grade. A passing point on the matter, to suggest how broad and deep the topic is: Is Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box ekphrastic art? Are the industrial Brillo boxes on which they are made a kind of found art, or do they become so by virtue of Warhol’s deadpan reinvention of them?

 

As it happens, that aside raises both the allure and challenges of ekphrastic poems. At the heart of the matter, it seems to me, is the paired questions of how the poet uses, adapts, transforms, transcends – or possibly misuses and corrupts – the artwork and how the reader receives the finished poem. To put it simply, it’s complicated.

 

Back to Auden’s “Musée” for a moment, and my powerful reaction to it. The poem is glorious in its own right, independent of the reader’s knowledge of the Bruegel painting – a meditation on memory, suffering, the joy of living and our transitory experience of it. But if you happen to be familiar with Icarus, as I was, a kind of chiming chord goes off. You “see” the painting in your mind’s eye, and register Auden’s seeing of it through the details and language he chooses (the ploughman, those “white legs disappearing into the green/Water”, that “expensive delicate ship”) that seem to alchemize paint on a centuries-old canvas into a kind of inner sight – an insight, as it were, into the poem’s deep interior space.

 

I did not, until much later, go search out the Bruegel painting in an art book. I enjoyed the parallax view of my own memory of Icarus and the one Auden had placed in conversation with it.

 

Now, of course, the history of art is in our pockets. No one has to go the library and pull a heavy art history tome off the shelf. Read an ekphrastic poem, and you can find the artwork in a matter of seconds on your cell phone. Inevitably, when someone brings an ekphrastic poem to our writing group, the phones come out and the painting, sculpture, or photograph is there in everyone’s hand. Many ekphrastic poems, especially those published online, appear adjacent to the visual art that inspired or induced them.


I’m of mixed mind about this. No doubt an ekphrastic poem invites the comparison and scrutiny. By its direct reference to a work of art, whether in a head note or in the body of the text, the poem has an obligation. Did the poet get it “right?” Did she faithfully capture some essential quality about the object? Did he do it justice? Do something more than simply describe? Make their own work of art out of the material of another?


Then again, there’s something reductive about that kind of response. It’s as if the poem were being fact checked or submitted to some kind of means test. Yes, we do this as readers with other kinds of poems – ones that allude to myth, history, other poems, etc. But there’s something different about poems based on a specific artwork, a tendency to place the art and poem in a more immediate one-to-one relation to each other.

 

What can happen is a kind of cognitive dissonance, a reading of the poem that’s too heavily informed by the reader’s external, perhaps cursory “check” of the artwork. I’m not suggesting that readers should remain in blissful ignorance. Only that they keep an open mind – and eye – to the fruitful liberties, departures, eccentricities, and transcending visions ekphrastic poets employ.

 

Great examples abound, from Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Anne Carson’s Van Gogh-inspired “The Starry Night,” Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” to lots of poems based on Edward Hopper paintings. Many poets make the allusions explicit; others embed the artwork so deeply it becomes a kind of submerged river or groundwater.

 

I’ve written ekphrastic poems of both types. Several are overt homages to Paul Klee. Others cite less well-known artists. (In general, I think, the degree of difficulty goes up when an artwork is very well known; a Mona Lisa poem better be damn good.) At the risk of playing favorites among my own work, I remain attached to “In Thessaly,” a poem that came about after a visit to the tomb section of a museum in Thessaloniki, Greece.

 

I like to think that it both is and isn’t an ekphrastic poem. In my mind, at least, it occupies that double-vision space of what I saw and remembered and what I made of it. There’s no reason for a reader to know any of that. But I do – an ekphrastic secret I hope the poem contains without ever quite confessing it.

   

IN THESSALY

 

If you’d been rich

and Byzantine

you never would have

lain alone,

with wife, lithe boys and concubines

to keep

you company,

not to mention

servants bound to serve

when breathless night or wine-

raked thirst or tunneled

webby dreams closed in and

left you

in the darkness

on your own.

That would have passed, of course,

and soon, as sweet murmurs,

inquiring looks, offers of cool

water and consoling hands were

fitted around you

like a barrel-vaulted tomb,

where, along with paintings

of your wife and children

holding hands,

of giant birds, stubby trees

and braided vines,

an image of yourself

would loyally stand guard

above your resting form.


Steven Winn is a San Francisco poet and arts critic.  He writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Francisco Classical Voice, Opera Magazine, and others.  His poetry and fiction have appeared in Antioch Review, Cimarron Review, Colorado Review, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Southern Humanities Review, and Verse Daily.   

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