How would you define ekphrastic poetry?

It’s simply an erudite, even pedantic, way of saying that the poem is prompted by a single work of art. If I see a painting by Pablo Picasso, I might be inspired to write a poem based on my feelings about the piece, or to provide an interpretation of the imagery, or to put words into the mouths of the figures. It can stay close to the original image, or it can go far afield. One very common way of explaining it is that ekphrasis involves a “conversation” between two forms of art.

Between any art forms?

Why not? Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Sunday in the Park with George, brings a Georges Seurat painting to life; and one of my favorite songs, “Vincent”, by Don McLean, was inspired by “Starry Night”, the famous Van Gogh painting. I’ve even published several poems that inspired paintings and photographs.

Why did you choose art as your inspiration rather than music or some other medium?

I always loved art, particularly modern art. When I was a high school student, I sometimes cut classes to visit the Metropolitan and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In those days, I thought I wanted to be an artist but soon found, through my teachers’ not-so-subtle comments, that I had no talent whatsoever. They were right, of course, but it never diminished my appreciation of the modern masters.

How did you decide to “marry” that appreciation with poetry?

It really wasn’t all that intentional. In fact, I never heard the word “ekphrasis” until I had written several such poems. For me, it was a natural tie-in. Every creative writing teacher in the world would always advise you to write about something you know and care about. For me, that was art. Through some small miracle, one of the early poems was actually accepted by an online journal. Which led me to write more such poems, leading to more acceptances, leading to a chapbook collection, and then another, and I’m still going. It’s just that I have more to say about art, and feel more deeply about it, than I do about trees and people.

You mentioned that you are particularly intrigued by images that are bizarre and surreal. Why that direction?

I don’t write only about surreal works of art, but even my other poetry takes on a darker tone. You know: death, time, the collapse of the universe. That sort of thing. It’s difficult to say a great deal about abstract expressionist paintings. Yes, they are beautiful (I think), but they represent beauty for its own sake. For me, it’s far more interesting to write about art with recognizable, or even semi- recognizable, images. Such paintings tell stories, even if I don’t completely understand what the story is, which allows me a great deal of poetic leeway; and they ask questions that beg to be answered. What in the world did Dalí intend by his melting clocks? I haven’t the vaguest idea, but it’s fun trying to figure it out in the form of a poem.

It all seems so humorless.

If that’s a comment, you are entitled to it; but if it’s a question, my answer is “no.” In fact, one of the things that I like about surreal art is that it is so often humorous and invites a humorous response. Allow me to refer to Dalí again. Sometimes, he seems deadly serious, but there are times when he, as well as many other Surrealists, appear to be pulling our proverbial legs. It’s hard to take a painter too seriously who conducted a press conference with a lamb chop on his head. The Lady Gaga of art. One of my most eloquent statements was a poem based on Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase”, in which I portrayed the image as a naked, tipsy Hamlet at an opera house falling down a flight of stairs and killing himself. Yes, there’s that death thing again, but it is kind of funny if you give it some thought.

Who are your favorite artists?

Dalí, of course: he provides so much material for poetry. Miró, who always makes me smile. Matisse, Tanguy, De Chirico, Kleee, Rothko, Newman, and Kooning, Even Andy Warhol, sometimes.

And your favorite poets?

My earliest influences were Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, but today I have a special affection for Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Robert Penn Warren, and W.H. Auden. A bit dated, don’t you think.

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NEIL ELLMAN is a retired educator living and writing in New Jersey. In college, more than forty years ago, he was an award-winning poet and editor-in-chief of the school’s literary magazine, but he did not write again until his retirement. In addition to the usual distractions of real life, it is amazing that graduate school in English and years of teaching the subject can so easily diminish one’s creative instincts. Since retiring, however, he has been published throughout the English-speaking world. Most of his published poems are ekphrastic, based on works of modern and contemporary art, most frequently images that are bizarre and surreal. His five published chapbooks include, most recently, works devoted to Salvador Dalí (Dalí’s Clock, Flutter Press, 2010) and, most recently, Joan Miró (Mirrors of Miró: Ekphrastic Reflections of the Art of Joan Miró, Flutter Press, 2011). In addition, he has published many short-form poems—haiku. Senryu, Twitter-length, etc.—which he finds endlessly fascinating and fun to write.

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