An interview with Janée J. Baugher on ekphrastic writing

By Midge Raymond,

  Filed under: On Reading, On Writing, The Writing Life, Writing prompts

Poet and teacher Janée J. Baugher is the author of two collections of poetry, The Body’s Physics and The Coordinates of Yes, and her new book, The Ekphrastic Writer, is an amazing text filled with art, poetry, prose, and inspiration for all writers. I’m thrilled to have had this email chat with Janée about her new book.

Q: With so many museums being closed due to the pandemic, are there any virtual spaces you’d recommend for ekphrastic writing inspiration?

A: I have a friend who lives in Chicago, and when he told me that on July 31st the Art Institute of Chicago was opening I raged with envy. I immediately opened that museum’s website and beheld an incredible article called, “Protecting Art in An Empty Museum.” Isn’t it curious to know that while many of us are jobless, distanced from our family and friends, and spending too many hours before the newsreel that fuels worry and fear, there are countless numbers of tireless museum stewards working around the globe to ensure that works of art remain safe? If you cannot experience art firsthand, museum websites are the best option. So, to answer your question, here are some resources:

  1. This website allows you to click on the world map, which brings up a list of museum website links for that particular region.
  2. The Smithsonian Art Museum, though still closed, recognizes that people remain hungry for art-viewing experiences. Since COVID-19, the organization has revamped its homepage—“Experience American Art from Home.”
  3. The Getty Center is also still closed, but their internet presence is just stellar. Visit the website and you’ll see information on art conservation, research, education, and, of course, you’ll be able to enjoy tens of thousands of images from their collection.
  4. Technology has certainly allowed for an easier way to weather the pestilence, and museums have embraced groundbreaking methods for virtual art engagement. You can search “virtual tours” and “art museums” on the internet, or you can simply visit your favorite museum’s website and see if those types of features exist. Are you lamenting your canceled trip to Paris? Now’s your opportunity to visit the Louvre virtually. What’s the good word from St. Petersburg, Russia? The Hermitage Museum is open! Can’t get there? Yes, you can.

Q: You recently participated in an art project for the City of Shoreline in which you wrote poems in response to scenes in the city’s parks. A lot of people are spending time outdoors during the pandemic. Can you talk about the possibilities within nature and ekphrasis?

A: Years ago I had a revelation about the similarity between writing on nature and writing ekphrastically. With both categories (objects in nature and objects d’art), the journey begins with aesthetics, reverie, and mystery. In my book I write, “Writers write concretely of the things they see, feel, and can name. Art of any type can be an extension of reflections on what you are looking at and how you are processing what you are seeing” (page 46). The possibilities within nature as it pertains to ekphrasis are infinite! While you’re spending time outdoors, keep in mind that public art is always open, and many museums boast sculpture gardens as part of their collection—most of which are still accessible for viewing and experiencing. Here’s an article that was highly informative to my chapter on nature writing: D. W. Meinig’s “The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene,” which is available online. Read this article and then venture out into a landscape and you’ll see it through an entirely different lens, which can be a stellar start to ekphrastic writing.

Q: In your book, you wrote that you first “committed ekphrasis” in 1995. How much of your own body of work is based in ekphrasis? What is it about ekphrasis that captured you and continues to inspire you?

A: One summer during graduate school while I was drowning under the pressure of writing a book, I went to Europe in the hopes that I could find the poems there. Within two days of arriving I found myself in a Berlin museum swooning over a little Dutch painting. I opened my notebook on the spot and out poured a ekphrastic poem. The process was systematic—the poems, I discovered, were at museums, so I visited a new one every other day for six weeks. And the approach to writing was easy—if I just freewrote while in the presence of art, the poems composed themselves. By the time I returned home, I had 100 poems, half of which were ekphrastic. Ultimately, that trip resulted in my first collection of poems. Most of what I write now is ekphrastic. My current work-in-progress is dedicated to a single artist, Andrew Wyeth, which is a new challenge for me in that it’s an opportunity to deep-dive into one artist’s complete oeuvre and to see what connections can be made among his many paintings and drawings. My original impetus for turning to the visual arts is the motivation that holds true for me today: I seek to extinguish the personality. Ruminating on an artwork is, for me, a mode of transcending the quotidian experience. In other words, in the spirit of writing imaginatively, the approach I take to squelch the ego is meditating on an object of beauty.

Q: Which of the twenty-six types of ekphrastic writing from the first chapter of your book—from personifying the artwork to addressing the artist to considering historical context—do you most often employ?

A: In compiling a list of conventions for this book, I studied scholarly articles, as well as read hundreds of ekphrastic prose pieces and poems, including analyzing my own work. Some of those conventions include #3, narrating the artwork; #17, writing the absent; #19, adopting the artist’s artistic style; and #26, transcending description. Unless it were an assignment, I don’t suppose that any of us is truly conscious of what convention we employ as we’re in the drafting stage of writing. It would be a worthwhile exercise for a student of ekphrasis to take one artwork and attempt all twenty-six conventions. For me, the desires I have for my poems take a backseat to the desire of the muse. It’s only during the revision process that I look closely at whatever convention is at play and then work towards consistency therein. For my third collection of poems (on Andrew Wyeth), I write in the first-person point of view, giving voice to Wyeth’s thought process as he paints and draws. That is to say that I’m currently using convention #8, giving voice to the artist.

Q: If you could make one recommendation to a beginning ekphrastic writer, what would it be?

A: The best ekphrastic writing is born from a writer whose aim and delight is to look deeply and for whom there’s some feeling associated with the artwork they’re engaging with. In other words, writing to an artwork for which you’re apathetic will result in a piece of writing that’s dead. Additionally, if you’re too close to a work of art (you’re the artist, for example, or your lover is the photographer), you might be unable to plumb the depths of its mysteries. To rephrase, if you gravitate towards an artwork for which you feel something, and it’s an artwork that you’re willing to scrutinize deeply and well, and through which there’s space for your imagination, then perhaps you’re on the journey to making an ekphrastic writing of literary quality. Even if you have no literary aspirations, writing freely to any type of art is a blast.

Q: And lastly: Would you be willing to choose a writing invitation from the book to offer to readers?

A: Yes, there are 200 writing invitations in the book, but here’s a new one—Since most of us can’t currently access museums and galleries, let’s take this opportunity to start ekphrastic writing at home. What art exists in your home? For example: original art hanging on the walls, posters, postcards, or images of beloved art in a book? Select one piece and place it on a table. Cover the entire artwork with a sheet of paper. While the artwork is cloaked, spend a few minutes remembering its details. What’s the medium? Who created it? What mood does it evoke? What do you most recall about the piece? Next, move that sheet of paper (on the horizontal or the vertical) centimeter by centimeter thereby slowly revealing the image. Take notice of the lines, brushstrokes, hues, shapes, forms, and negative space. Once you’ve truly looked deeply at the artwork, perform a 10-minute freewrite. Afterwards, spend 5 more minutes writing about why that artwork exists in your home. How did you acquire it and from whom? What are your personal associations with it? What’s its significance? Lastly, involving family members in this exercise can be an interesting way to explore others’ relationship to the art that you share.

Janée and Midge at the Northwind Arts Center in Port Townsend, Washington.

For more information on Janée and her work, visit her website. Also, be sure to check out this interview in Boulevard Magazine, and her upcoming classes in October and November.

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