Friday, May 27, 2005

Teaching Tips: Ekphrastic Poetry Writing

An interesting set of emails fluttered through the WOMPO women poet’s listserv last week, all about ekphrastic poetry—that is, poetry based on works of visual art. Here are a few of the suggestions that were offered, which seem apt for classes and workshops at just about any level!

  1. Take your workshop to a museum and write there.
  2. Make a collection of art on postcards, and have each student choose three pictures they like and one they don't. Include something from each card in their poem (You can get art postcards at any museum--usually inexpensively. Also Dover has many you can order online.)
  3. Hand a random art postcard to each student and have them begin "In the _________I am the _________": e.g., “In Picasso's "La Joie de Vivre" I am the double pipe."
  4. Create a dream poem by having students begin to write something easy like "I want to tell you . . . " or "Outside the window . . "Ask them to write non-stop. Give each one a postcard to start with and then every 60 seconds give them another for 6-10 minutes. They are to incorporate something from each card as they receive it.
  5. Use the same idea with a "journey motif"--e.g. Going to Lvov, the ______ etc. (details from the postcard).
  6. If you don't want to spend a lot of money on postcards, try these free sources: art galleries use them for advertisements; libraries throw away art magazines. (Magazine pictures work just as well--but are harder to store, handle); the internet--goggle Picasso. for example. Then print out images and paintings from the Web onto postcard paper and cut them to size. Images come from scrolling through online museums, art stores online, etc--the National Gallery has a great online (check out their Online Tours for some "backstory", the Rothko one is terrific).
  7. Take in a pile of art books, have students look until they find something that attracts (or repels) them--then begin writing, beginning with a detail.
  8. Ask your writers to imagine the story tucked into or behind the artwork. I get tired of ekphrastic poetry that simply re-iterates the artwork like a shopping list! Instead ask students to write not only what is in a picture but what is not or what is beyond.
  9. Use models of ephrastic verse--there are so many! Comparing how two poets handle the same artwork, like Buregel's "Fall of Icarus"--Auden's MUSÉE DES BEAUX ARTS, and WCWilliams's "Landscape with the Fall of Icrarus" can be interesting too.... have fun!
  10. Rennie McQuilkin has a brand new book, Private Collection, which might be just perfect for your needs. Description on Antrim House website: "This volume contains poems written over a period of forty years in response to works of art ranging from known masterpieces to crayon drawings, graffiti and household objects. The book contains 30 pages of notes presenting topics for writing and discussion as well as personal notations and ways of gaining internet access to artworks on which the poems are based." For more information or to order see Antrim House website.
  11. Or consider Make-Believes: Verses and Visions, poems by W.D. Snodgrass and paintings by DeLoss McGraw (Eatonbrook Editions, 2004). These two have been working together a long time. There's a statement by McGraw on their collaborations -- particularly the Death of Cock Robin poems and paintings -- in Steven Haven's collection, The Poetry of W.D. Snodgrass. Favorite poem/painting title: "W.D. Meets Mr. Evil While Removing the Record of Bartok and Replacing It with a Recent Recording by the Everly Brothers in Order to Create a Mood Conducive to Searching for Cock Robin."
  12. Also, you might check out this spot:, where a fellow named David Wright has assembled a bunch of images and poems for his creative writing class, plus definitions and references and good links -- in particular one to a Miss Calamity Jane blog that opines on the differences between male and female ekphrastic projects. Worth a snoop.
  13. If you do a whole course, you can have your writing students pair up with art students and have each do an ekphrasis on one another's work. The artists create work based on poems and the poets created poems based on artworks. (This reminds me--Eric--of Sam Reed's "We Wear the Mask" project, which I talked about a few weeks ago.)
I'll post more resources on ekphrasis as they come to me--and of course, feel free to post them here as comments, too!


Rachel said...

Surfed here from your other blog, unsurprisingly. :-) One of the first workshops I taught for Inkberry was on ekphrastic writing, and it was a ton of fun. We did it at a local nonprofit gallery, and I think it was neat for regional artists to have the experience of seeing creative literary responses to their visual works...

There's an excellent book about ekphrastic writing out from the Art Institute of Chicago -- I can't think of the name right now, but it's fantastic. It's a coffeetable book, which pairs visual works (from the AIC's galleries) with the written works that arose out of them (Wallace Stevens' poem "Man With A Blue Guitar" alongside the Picasso painting, e.g.) It's a great teaching tool, plus a pleasure to read on its own...

dw said...

Glad you found the site useful. The book from the AIC is Transforming Vision ( And it is a really marvelous book.


Anonymous said...

Anyone interested in getting hold of the Snodgrass/McGraw book, "Make-Believes: Verses and Visions," should know that it's available only through the publisher--Eatonbrook Editions, P.O. Box 73, West Eaton, NY 13484--for $25.00, shipping included.