Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Writing Prompt Wednesday: Writing from Art, Part One

Bikes on a Florence, Italy Street.  Image © Lori Gravley
 I wrote a chapbook last year inspired by the photographs of the great and prolific American photographer Elliot Erwitt.  I love writing from photography.  I also love writing from art, and I have  collection of postcards of art I love on my desk to inspire me if I'm feeling uninspired. Someone asked me recently how I do it.  How do I take a static two-dimensional image and bring it to life?

It was a good question.  I've been writing ekphrastic poetry (poetry inspired by art) for as long as I can remember.  And my ekphrastic poems are frequently accepted for publication.  I've noticed that there are a number of ekphrastic challenges posted online.  Poetry Magazine recently published a beautiful section of art and poetry inspired by art honoring Latino/a artists and poets.  But not everyone knows how to start writing in response to art.  

So, here are some thoughts on my process. 

First,  I enter the scene.  Even if I've never been there or if it's from something in the past, I try to imagine the sounds, smells, and tastes I would encounter.  The sights and textures are already there.  In the picture above, I hear voices in Italian, traffic sounds echoing off the stone wall.  I feel the texture of the uneven stones beneath my feet.  I imagine how uncomfortable the peeling bike seat would be.  I imagine, perhaps, two people walking away from the locked bikes down to a cafe at the end of the street.  The smell of cheese and bread, perhaps coffee, drift up the street.  

Have the riders stopped because the tire is flat or were these bikes left here years ago, weeks ago? I imagine the sound the bikes would make as they too off down the street.  The simple gears and rusty chain make an unmistakable sound.  The brakes likely squeal as the hardened rubber tries to catch the edge of the rusty wheel.  The cobblestones here would bounce the rider up and down uncomfortably and the seats look hard enough already.  Why would someone ride a bike this old?

Notice how I moved from sensory detail into questions about character in the paragraph above.  Sense is the way I get to character. If I let my mind spin out imaginings without shutting it down or getting distracted, I create a lively scene in my head.

Then it becomes easy to picture the object in three dimensions and move around in the photograph or painting.  If I stood next to the bikes in the picture, what would I see waiting just outside the frame.  The photographer or artist can become invisible at this point, or they can take center stage.  What else is happening in the scene that you can't see?  Are the bike riders arguing, kissing, opening the door to their apartment?  

When there are figures in the photograph or painting, I bring myself into the minds of those figures.  I wrote a poem about two paintings in one of the saloons at the National Gallery in Washington, D. C.  In the poem, I move from a painting by Picasso to a painting of Chaim Soutine and think about the way the figures in the paintings interact.  Here's an excerpt from that poem, "The National Gallery."

Maybe it’s because in The Family of Saltimbanques
the woman is separate, alone,
the focus of everyone’s gaze
that I think about how art can
keep us out, give us beauty or terror so grand
we must rest on the other side of it. . .

Here the figures themselves are the inspiration for my thoughts and maybe that's why I work hard to enter into the art work I'm writing from.  I wouldn't have noticed the interaction between the performers in the Picasso painting if I hadn't been willing to imagine myself in the frame.  And imagining myself within the frame of the earlier painting made it easier for me to be hit with a moment of lust as I looked at Chaim Soutine and saw in the painting his not paint on canvas, but a breathing person in a vivid room.   

As poets and storytellers and essayists, we're continually looking to express the experience of the other, and for me, the practice of writing from art helps me hone the ability to walk in another person's shoes and into a flat world that opens up for me when I step beyond the frame. 

The prompt today is to look at the photograph above, and let it inspire in you a poem, an essay, or a story.  I'd love to see what you come up with.  

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