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!


  1. I shared an ekphrastic a few weeks ago, and another today. The process is much the same for me when I write, except that I often do my writing on the computer. I've learned to copy phrases and sections to new documents and make lists of words that I might want to include on a document. Slipping and sliding words and phrases around, but keeping each iteration helps me in the process and prevents me from losing anything.
    Thanks for sharing your process in this!
    I always enjoy hearing how a poem came to be.

    1. Hi Donna. I love the image of your words and phrases slipping and sliding! Yes, keeping each iteration is part of my process. Thanks for sharing! Now I'm going right to your poem!

  2. I usually work on the computer, but keep an extra doc for words that come up as I look, and look. I like that you composed a story behind those shutters. I've never thought of sketching the picture, although I sketch at other times. Good idea, will slow one down to 'see' all the details.

    1. Hi Linda,I think that's the idea, and sketching does slow me down to notice the details. However, keeping a separate doc to record words, phrases, ideas is also a way slow down to ruminate.

  3. Thanks for sharing your process, Joyce. I've always been fascinated by ekphrastic poetry. I also like your idea of sketching the work in addition to free writing. There is definitely something about slowing down and observing the details that sets your subconscious working.

  4. I love reading about others' process! Thank you!

    1. Nice to see you here, Mary Lee!

  5. Love seeing your process. Mine is similar in some ways. I've never thought to try and draw the picture myself. That should tell you a little about my drawing ability. I often take the picture with me (physically or in my head) as I walk. I always carry my cell phone which I can talk into, either in the not section or sending myself an email, so I can talk the words in as they come to me. Walking outdoors is where many of my poems formulate. Then I come back home and take it to my notebook. Not to the computer until it feels like a draft.

    1. Taking the picture with you on a walk is a great idea. I'll try that. I agree that starting in a notebook feels right. When the poem is a draft, the computer makes changes easy, I save each form the poem takes so I don't lose the ideas. Thanks for commenting, Dori!

  6. What a cool post, Joyce. I loved all of these insights into your process. How funny -- my "swap" poem for Irene Latham was also about an unseen big cat lurking behind a window.

  7. I always love to read about the process of writing. There are so many different ways to approach it, many overlap from one person's list to another.
    I am wondering now, after reading your Popham poem, where you are located. Popham and Reid are my favorite haunts.

    1. Donna,I'm in NH but grew up in Central Maine and learned to love the ocean at Reid! My family also went to Popham Beach, and Lincolnville was a favorite because of my mom's childhood summers there. Now we have a cottage on a Maine lake, and I go to the coast whenever I can. Thanks for commenting and sharing your love of those truly wonderful beaches.


Comments welcome.