Friday, December 11, 2015

The Eight Step Ekphrastic Poem

Venice Facade, William Merritt Chase, 1878
This dormant season is perfect for germinating poems, isn't it? I've been germinating a poem for the Winter Poem Swap. Tabatha offered a Monet painting for participants to use as a prompt if we chose to write an ekphrastic poem. I love this sort of challenge and, for me, the process is definitely akin to germination. It can take weeks! I offer this post as a peek into my process, which is of course not the only process.

The poem (not the Winter Swap :Poem) that evolved from living with this painting  by William Merritt Chase is very different from anything I usually write! But for me, that's the gift of allowing a piece of art to inspire me. I often find myself in new territory.

Shuttered Windows
         response to Venice Facade

Behind shuttered triptych windows,
a mystic ushers in her lion.
The cool still air caresses silence
like a nun dusting a sanctuary.
She brushes tangles from his mane,
and with the flask filched in her novice days,
bestows a drop of oil.
This ritual is all that remains.
No crucifix, no candle.
Just jumbled faded tarot cards
and incense wafting away the smell of age.
She covers her head with turquoise gauze,
gazes into a ball and chants
to lovers lost and the lover found.
Her lion reclines on a cot having
discarded his hair shirt.

                       Joyce Ray © All rights reserved

So here's my process. 

Step 1: Plant the seed image. Print image and post prominently so my subconscious can begin work.


Step 2: With pencil, sketch image in a sketch book (it doesn't matter if drawing is not your forte! Writing is!)

I sketched Venice Facade at the Colby College Museum of Art in Waterville, Maine.







Step 3: Try stream of consciousness writing about the image. 

Or record words and phrases that rose to surface while drawing. The following notebook images illustrate work on last year's Winter Poem Swap.






Step 4: STUDY ORIGINAL IMAGE, looking for clues and missed details. Ask, what is the artist trying to say? How can I bring my experience to the image?


Step 5: Begin fitting phrases together and watch for the poem seedling to peek through. Sometimes I do this in my sketchbook, sometimes on laptop.  REJOICE when the seedling pokes its pale face through the page to greet you!


Step 6: Type a draft. No judgement zone! Try different poetic forms and free verse. In which direction is the draft stretching?


Step 7: Read the draft aloud.


Step 8: Revise for sound, excessive words, word choice. Strengthen the poem seedling so it can stand alone.

I’d like to know how others go about responding to art.

Tara has the Round-up over at A Teaching Life . Drop in. There may or may not be other ekphrastic poems today, but there'll be poems galore!

Friday, December 4, 2015


Welcome to Poetry Friday where you will find a field of poems waiting for you at  Buffy's Blog.
In the spirit of thankfulness, spilling over from last week's gathered blessings, I'm sharing a poem I found at The site offers contemplative tools, instructive videos and some lovely e-cards to mail.

I love how this poem by Patrick Donnelly transports me out of my usual culture of Thanksgiving in which chickpeas and garlic are most likely absent. Our call to prayer is our table grace, not the call of an Imam. 

Donnelly's poem makes me think that preparing a meal is a prayer in itself. May our days of thankfulness extend beyond the annual day we set aside for thanks, and may they include room for traditions different from our own.

On Being Called To Prayer
While Cooking Dinner for Forty

When the heavens and the earth
are snapped away like a painted shade,
and every creature called to account,
please forgive me my head
full of chickpeas, garlic and parsley.
I am in love with the lemon
on the counter, and the warmth
of my brother’s shoulder distracted me
when we stood to pray.

The rest of the poem can be found here.

Patrick Donnelly is the Poet Laureate of Northampton, Massachussetts.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Of Athena, Greece and Olives

It’s Poetry Friday and Keri is hosting at Keri Recommends. Thanks, Keri!

Athena, New Acropolis Museum, Athens
I’m popping in with a poem inspired by my recent trip to Greece. For a long time, it has been my dream to walk in the homeland of my grandfather John Brousaides, who emigrated to Boston in the early 20th century. He fled to avoid conscription into the Turkish army where he would have been forced to fight against his Greek countrymen.

My husband Bob and I crossed off this bucket list item as our 50th wedding anniversary celebration. And our family and friends came along!

I didn't get as far north as Mount Parnassus, but came within sight of the Muses' mountain at magnificent Delphi. I'm still awash in the memories of olives, feta, Greek yogurt and honey, the many hues of Aegean blue, and the outpouring of hospitality from the Greeks we met.

Olives growing in Athens - my photo

This poem with Greece personified in Athena surfaced on the plane ride from Toronto to Athens. Pantoums always seem like a good place to start when I don’t know where I want to end up. Believe it or not, the biggest challenge for me here was the choice between dreamt and dreamed! Any votes for either one?

Many thanks to David John at My Favourite Planet for permission to post his lovely photos of Athena's statues. If you're a traveler or  researcher, check out My Favorite Planet for amazing photos and commentary.

 Athena, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

In Search of Athena

The Greek goddess beckons me
to cross my own boundaries,
to reach back and grasp the hands
of kin who dreamt among the olives.

Crossing my own boundaries,
I hear stories pouring from Parnassus
of those who dreamt among the olives
rich with the oil of belonging.

Stories pour from Parnassus
of brothers who fled their homeland,
denied the oil of belonging
cold-pressed from Athena’s tree.

Brothers fled their homeland
leaving behind the olives
cold-pressed from Athena’s tree
for other fruits and new dreams.

Leaving behind her olives,
the Greek goddess beckons me
to taste the fruits and share the dreams
of those who reach to clasp my hand.
                                ~ Joyce Ray, 2015 All rights reserved

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Nanny's Violin

I've been absent for ages, but I'm happy to be popping back in with a poem inspired by my latest challenge. Buffy hosts today, so pop over for more Poetry Friday offerings.

When my children surprised me by refurbishing my grandmother's violin on the sly, I took up the challenge and signed up for lessons. Not that my writing isn't challenging enough, but that old violin had sat in our closet for most of my childhood, its strings snapped and horsehair hanging off the bow. I never heard my grandmother play the violin, but I have a picture of her in a girls' string orchestra and another of her as a young woman cradling that instrument like it's pretty important to her.

Velma Collemer Brousaides played in one of the Boston orchestras started under the WPA in the 1930s. At least once she played in the Hatch Shell along the Esplanade beside the Charles River.

How could I let her beloved violin remain silent? So here I am, two months into private lessons. My optimistic teacher says I'll be a fiddler by the fall. My calloused finger tips think I'm a fiddler already, but my fingers (which don't cross strings easily) and my bowing arm (which still produces plenty of scratchy notes) think otherwise.

But my persistence (which I learned by writing!) has led me from "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to some simple fiddle tunes (slowly, still). When I can't manage to tune the violin, my accomplished cellist granddaughter rescues me so I can continue to enjoy this bond with the grandmother I remember.

This poem is in the style of the "Say" poems by the wonderful poet Nikki Grimes in her book Words with Wings. I love using "Say" poems to encourage kids to pile on words!

Say “violin”
and my fingers try not to grip the bow,
my wrist tries not to go begging for G
with my elbow too high or too low,
and when the SCRATCH says begin again
I picture my grandmother on the Esplanade 
playing this violin, and I relax, 
let the bow glide down and up
over the sweet spot, my fingers arched
over the neck playing "Sweet Betsy from Pike"
for Nanny and for me.

                                Joyce Ray