Afternoon craft talk leads students to write creatively about photos

Rachel Lee October 20, 2017 0

You’re making the painting speak, the sculpture speak,” poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf said during her craft talk Thursday, Oct. 12, in the Bowers Writers House. Spicher Kasdorf spoke about the relationship between poetry and image.

Poets have been writing in response to images and photographs for years. Spicher Kasdorf told the audience about the Imagist movement of the early 1900s and explained how many Imagist poets were friends with painters.

Spicher Kasdorf went on to talk about ekphrasis, a type of written description created by the Greeks. Its name means “speak out,” and its goal is to create an image of the thing being described in the reader’s mind.

Then, Spicher Kasdorf handed out copies of a black and white photograph of two men loading a gurney into an ambulance. A blanket covered most of the stretcher, but there were women’s shoes sticking out at the end. The men’s arms strained with the weight.

“What do you notice? Just quick. Just shout it out,” Spicher Kasdorf said to the audience.

Audience members described the photograph and, at Spicher Kasdorf’s instruction, flipped it over. On the back was “The Death of Marilyn Monroe,” a poem by Sharon Olds. The poem described the photograph.

“The poem is meaningful without the image, but it is more powerful with the image,” Spicher Kasdorf said.

According to Spicher Kasdorf, the poem is powerful because it gives the photograph context. The photograph captures one moment in time, and the poem expands that moment to explore how Marilyn Monroe’s death might have affected the ambulance men’s lives.

Spicher Kasdorf’s second example of the relationship between poetry and image was “The Kiss,” a 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt and the poems, “Short Story on a Painting of Gustav” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and “The Kiss,” by Marta Tomes.

Both poems were written in response to Klimt’s painting, but each have different forms, tones and interpretations. For example, Ferlinghetti wrote his poem in third person, and Tomes wrote her poem in first person.

To end the event, Spicher Kasdorf passed out a box of postcards. Audience members chose a postcard and did a freewriting exercise in response. They wrote without thinking. In the last five minutes, Spicher Kasdorf told them to read what they had written, to choose an interesting part and to write a poem from there.

Many Elizabethtown College students attended the event as part of EN 280 Creative Writing – Poetry, Prose. Junior Courtney Comer and first-year Courtney Jones are taking that course, and they felt the craft talk taught them more about the relationship between poetry and image.

Their favorite part of the craft talk was the postcard freewrite at the end. Comer’s postcard had a picture of Mennonite women with different facial expressions.

“I really liked when [Spicher Kasdorf] handed out the postcards and gave us free range to go off anything we felt from the postcard,” Jones said.

Director of the creative writing minor and professor of English Dr. Carmine Sarracino teaches EN 280 and also attended the event.

Like Spicher Kasdorf’s exercises, Sarracino began the course with an ekphrastic assignment in which students chose an image from a collage they had assembled and wrote about that image.

“Julia’s craft talk made it very clear that written text is not superfluous to an image (such as a photograph or painting) that the text might accompany,” Sarracino said. “For instance, text can supply historical context that the image itself, by itself, does not contain.”

Professor of English Dr. Louis Martin also attended the event. His favorite part was seeing the Klimt painting and the related poems by Ferlinghetti and Tomes. For Martin, the event was a reaffirmation that the English department had designed the creative writing minor correctly.

“For me, personally, it was this great realization that when . . . we allowed students [in the creative writing minor] to take courses in drawing or photography or art, we could see the usefulness of putting image and text together, but I don’t think I realized how much that is coming to be more and more important in the modern world,” Martin said.

Spicher Kasdorf has published three collections of poetry with the University of Pittsburgh Press. Her most recent collection was “Poetry in America.”

Her poems were awarded a 2009 National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship and a Pushcart Prize. She is also a professor of English and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University, where she teaches poetry writing classes and directs the creative writing program.

Spicher Kasdorf has also published a collection of essays, titled “The Body and the Book: Writing from a Mennonite Life,” and a biography, titled “Fixing Tradition: Joseph W. Yoder, Amish American.”

She has worked on new editions of Joseph Yoder’s 1940 “Rosanna of the Amish” and Fred Lewis Pattee’s 1905 “The House of the Black Ring.”

The next Bowers Writers House event is an evening reading with author and “Mrs. Doubtfire” actress Lisa Jakub Saturday, Oct. 21, at 6:30 p.m.

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