Loosely defined, ekphrasis is “art in response to art.” The word “ekphrasis” comes from the Greek: “Ek” meaning “out” and “phrazein” meaning “to speak.” For me, surrealist paintings work as a trigger for my writing: art in response to art. I may not know what I want to write until I stare long enough at a painting. Even then, the first draft may not tell me much. But eventually, after seeing and re-seeing, the poem shapes itself, part memory, part history, part painting. Ekphrastic writing gives me permission to reshape memories and try on different voices. I can speak as myself, as the painter, or as one of the figures within the work of art. I can speak directly to the work or place myself within the painting. I think that by providing a visual for the reader, an ekphrastic poem can provide context for the poem. Though a poem shouldn’t rely on its triggering piece, the image could be an added bonus, lagniappe.
In the summer of 2013, my month-long residency at the Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee began right after I spent a few weeks with my family in New Jersey. As we dealt with my father’s newly-discovered cancer and the subsequent radiation treatments, my mother began to tell me details about the process of my adoption. Though I always knew I was adopted, we never spoke about it. I didn’t think I’d ever hear her speak so descriptively about my birthmother, the hospital, the older brother I didn’t know I had. I was overwhelmed, piecing together a new family photo album in my head as the solidity of my past broke apart. My family was still struggling and my father was still in rehab as I began my residency 700 miles away. Though I managed to delay it for a few weeks until I was sure my father would recover, I felt guilty—even stupid—for leaving them, yet privileged to be an artist in the park and grateful for the escape and the time to process.
From my cabin, I could hear a nearby waterfall. I’d wake up to find turkeys on the lawn. Everything was so lush, so green, so alive, and yet I felt an odd disconnect from that environment. Nothing around me reflected the ambivalence I was feeling. Eventually, I found myself looking at a book of Dali paintings more than I looked out the window. The surrealistic pictures within these frames triggered some kind of memory; somehow, the strange elements reflected my mood more closely than the landscape.
We often turn to images for memories. Pictures can trigger thoughts, but in writing those thoughts, we re-create our memories, solidifying our stories. In her essay “To Really See the Dragon,” Rachel Hadas says, “Writing down what one sees not only forces the viewer to focus and to make choices, but facilitates remembering.”
What if you don’t have anything to look at? What do we do when there is no family photo album, when there are no visuals to support your past? In my cabin, that book of dream-like paintings gave me a sort of mirror reflecting my new set of memories back to me and helping me discover what I wanted to write.
The surreal sceneries painted by artists like Salvador Dali, Kay Sage, Yves Tanguy and others reflect an emotional landscape. Looking, seeing, trying to put these paintings into words: the act of writing becomes an act of memory, of filling in the gaps. Turning to what visual artists have done to represent their memories has helped me fill in the gaps in my history: images from the paintings stand in for unknown details. The result is a surreal sort of memoir: part memory, part intuition, part study of the canvas.