KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 10: Fall 2018
Craft Essay: 1,650 words

Ephective Ekphrastics:
A Guide to Verbalizing Art

by Jack Cooper and Clare MacQueen,
co-editors of KYSO Flash
 
Creating poetry involves choosing words that communicate a vision so that readers can create related images.

...[M]any people read poems and stories in order to visualize. Well-written literature offers a ‘set of instructions for composition’ for the mind, much as a musical score tells instrumentalists how to create music....
—Laura Otis, PhD, in “A New Look at Visual Thinking:
Creative ideas emerge when visual thinking meets verbal
communication” (Psychology Today, 16 February 2016)
 

 

Those of us who primarily think verbally often have a deep-seated need to express in words our reactions to emotional experiences, thought-provoking pictures, and irresistible beauty, whether they be the death of a loved one, the rising of the moon, or a Grecian urn, as in the famous ode by Keats.

Artworks of every kind, paintings in particular, are a primary inspiration for writers who love creating poems and stories in response to the visual images and their implied, if not explicit, situations. Such poems and stories are called ekphrastic works as most of you may know.

You rarely find the opposite, except in children’s book illustrations and some poster and calendar art. It’s almost as if certain artworks beg to be verbalized, to be re-rendered, you might say, in words—think of gallery tours or exhibit catalogues. Hard to imagine a room of poems filled with people walking around trying to make visual sense of the metaphors on sketchpads.

Dozens of ekphrastic works are submitted to KYSO Flash every year, but our team declines more than half of them; not for lack of space, since the online issues of our journal could accommodate many more, but because they’re all too often not what we think best exemplifies the form.

Some even contain factual inaccuracies about the artwork, which can be a deal breaker for us. Accuracy seems especially important in ekphrastic works, because the reader is observing the same scene, something not true of dreams for example.

We thought it might be helpful to all you verbal artists to know what we’re looking for and what might improve your chances of seeing your dedicated works in KYSO Flash online and possibly in the annual printed anthology. So we’ve put together a few tips for creating what we call Ephective Ekphrastics:

  1. Of course, you don’t need permission to write about a work of art, but when you submit ekphrastic works to us for consideration, you need to include a link to the works that inspired yours, and the source of any quotations you’ve used. This will save us the time and effort of tracking down the art ourselves or emailing you for details.

    We don’t always have to publish the artwork that inspired yours, but we prefer to have that option, which means that it should be in the public domain, or you must be able to provide a copy of the written permission to reprint from the artist or from the current copyright holder. If not, then we will still consider what you’ve submitted, but other submissions that meet our preferred criteria may take precedence.

  2. The quality of the artwork does matter, which means, admittedly, that our aesthetics are also involved, not just yours. Aunt Betty’s still-life from her beginner’s class at the senior center may not work for us, unless your writing is so compelling, so revelatory, that it overrides the unsophisticated artwork. Nothing, in other words, is ever rejected by us out of hand.

  3. Presumably, your ekphrastic writing, whatever the genre, arises in response to a piece of art that you find intriguing or haunting, or that “Knocks Your Socks Off,” which of course echoes our mission. That’s a great start. We then suggest you focus less on extensively describing every physical detail of the artwork and more on the emotions it evokes and the insights gleaned from experiencing the art.

    In Ellaraine Lockie’s poem in Issue 10, for example, the first verse leads with an emotion:

    • When the sun goes down every day
      the dark of guilt rises
      As impossible to repress as the moon

    The artwork, an untitled photograph by Alexis Rhone Fancher, haunted Lockie for a year until her poem The Animal Inside came to her. Her insights into the emotion underlying the work are found in subsequent verses.

    Emotion comes center stage in paintings by Edward Hopper, one of those artists that poets particularly love because his work is so moody, so evocative of poetic solitude. As Alexis Rhone Fancher writes re Hopper’s Morning Sun, 1952:

    • No one paints loneliness like he does. (White Flag)

    See also Fleda Brown’s remarkable poem Edward Hopper’s Automat at Poetry Daily. (If that link is no longer valid, then you can find the poem in her book, The Woods Are on Fire.)

  4. If physical details interest you more than anything else, be sure to get them right as we mentioned earlier. If there’s a donkey in the picture, for instance, don’t call it a horse. If there’s something prominent, say a burning spire in the background, don’t just ignore it. Give us a reason, even an imaginary one, to believe it’s not there by accident.

    Consider using this pair of tanka prose by Charles D. Tarlton as models:

    Alternatively, you might spin an entirely imagined narrative about characters, objects, and/or situations in the artwork, as these authors have done:

  5. We especially like hybrid genres and unconventional ekphrastic works. Here are a few of the more unusual we’ve had the pleasure of publishing:

    Heidi Czerwiec: 5 by (N°) 5: CNF/prose poem after an iconic perfume

    Drew Pisarra: Beware of a Holy Whore: Prose poem after a film

    Kimmo Rosenthal: Mon Ami Pierrot: Creative nonfiction after a painting

    Adelaide B. Shaw: Out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1847: Haiku sequence after whaling scenes in a movie

    Charles D. Tarlton: The Miletus Torso: Tanka prose

    • (We nominated Tarlton’s work for Best of the Net 2018 as Creative Nonfiction, calling it an educative essay which artfully blends prose and poetry to analyze two iconic sculptures.)

    Harriot West: Picking Sunflowers for Van Gogh: Haibun story

    • (We were thrilled when this charming piece was selected as one of 55 winners for reprinting in The Best Small Fictions 2017 anthology.)

  6. Feel free to be whimsical. After all, many artists—the surrealists come first to mind—certainly are. Issue 9 of KYSO Flash includes some of the best examples of ekphrastic whimsy we’ve seen, in the delightful works of Elizabeth Kerlikowske, which were inspired by Mary Hatch’s paintings. The writer seems to be having more fun than the artist did, and in some ways, that may be her point.

    “Phantoms” is a fine illustration:

    • Her job is buffing the pink onto flamingoes, a temporary punishment for riding on under-inflated bike tires and carelessly ripping an eye from a small mouth bass, hurrying to get back to the boys and the bonfire. She works only the flamingoes, who arrive like all birds at the Aviantiquarium, gray as the ashes of Pompeii. They don’t want be buffed any more than she wants to buff them but only the pelicans are allowed to escape gray. Flamingo tears ping against the wall like pop beads, their screams off-key, a bad barbershop quartet. She can buff three an hour, if no one bites.

  7. Finally, keep in mind that the art and the ekphrastic can, and often do, stand on their own as separate works. The art, of course, could hang on a wall or sit on a pedestal forever with nothing but a label noting the date, the name of the artist, and the materials used in its creation, and even those details are not required. The artwork doesn’t need your personal remarks or revelations to make it whole—though, ideally, your writing and the art do great things together, a kind of “bromance or womance” if you will.

    Toward that end, your writing should have depth and substance and be fascinating enough to capture, and hold, our attention from the title and first line. Four examples follow:

    “This is the blue hour, when the blackbird drinks its fill of fading stars.”

    • (Opening sentence from But to Each Other Dream by Claire Everett, after Isabella and the Pot of Basil, a painting by William Holman Hunt, and a poem by John Keats, “Isabella, or The Pot of Basil”)


    “Her parents made their chauffeur promise to keep himself between their daughter and her date, and he’s doing a damn fine job of cutting in, cutting up, disrupting the flow of the evening.”

    • (Opening sentence from The Back Office by Elizabeth Kerliowske, after a painting of the same title by Mary Hatch)


    “With you pinned up in the sky
    like a scarecrow in a field of apples”


    CARMODY: I don’t mind looking. Where’s the harm in looking?

    BLIGHT: She said you’d be skeptical.

Coda:

As we consider submissions to our journal, awards such as the Pushcart, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net loom over the decisions we make. When we find both fresh writing and fine art that happen to form an ekphrastic friendship, or even a romance, we’re delighted. Of course, following our guidelines for “ephective ekphrastics” above is neither a sure-fire formula for success nor a guarantee of acceptance by our team. In fact, you just might thumb your nose at our opinions and still break through with something so original, so wonderful, that, like an O’Keefe or a Bouguereau or a Dalí, it will rattle our bones, blow our minds and, yes, knock our socks off.


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