Up Front

Poetry for All

Festival seeks to open poetry to a wider community

An exhibit of poetry-inspired art on display at the Portage District Library shows what visual artists can come up with when asked to create a piece based on a poem.

Exhibit curator Elaine Seaman had writers contribute poems based on the theme ”A Sense of Place,” then paired them up with artists charged with creating works inspired by the poems. The resulting exhibit consists of 22 pairs of poems and artworks in various media, including watercolor, oil, photography, fiber, glass, metal, collage and mixed media.

“The artwork and the poem hang side by side so the audience will have the full measure of the two pieces and have a better understanding of both,” says Seaman, former assistant registrar of collections at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts.

The exhibit opened last month and runs through April 30. A reception and poetry reading are scheduled for 2 p.m. April 27 at the library.

The concept of combining poetry and artwork has guided other exhibitions in the area.

Several years ago Seaman organized a group exhibition titled Second Sight—Insight, for which poets wrote poems in response to artwork, or what’s known as “ekphrastic” poetry. She says the show was popular and “the poetry enhanced the art.”

Water Street Gallery, in Douglas, had a similar show last summer, and other recent exhibitions have combined art and poetry created independently of each other. For last year’s The Hours at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, 34 artists and writers created works inspired by the medieval tradition known as a Book of Hours.

The current show involves 44 artists and writers. “This idea of group shows is rather popular right now,” Seaman says. “It’s a friendly gesture. It’s a way to connect with the community.”

Seaman worked with Marsha Meyer, adult services librarian and program and events coordinator for the Portage District Library, to plan the Sense of Place exhibit to coincide with the Kalamazoo Poetry Festival, April 4-5. The two women considered the precedent of ekphrastic poetry and asked, “Why not flip the idea and have artists respond to poems?”

The idea of using “A Sense of Place” as a theme came quickly, according to Seaman, who is herself a poet and a quilt-maker and has a poem in this show. “It seemed like it was a wide enough topic that it would attract a wider group of people, but because everyone has a specific place they would be thinking of, we would have a very intimate view of places too. And they do vary.”

Poets wrote about places near and far, familiar and exotic, natural and urban. Some places are quite general (the desert, lakes) while others are very specific (Prague, Norris Road). “Some (poets) took it more as a metaphor,” Seaman says.

Similarly, artists took different approaches in responding to the poems. For her mixed-media sculpture Shooting Angels, Elizabeth King studied the images, both literal and metaphoric, in Margaret DeRitter’s poem Mendon, Michigan. “For my own inspiration, when a phrase in the poem caught me for the third or fourth time, I knew it had to be a symbol in the artwork,” King says.

Maryellen Hains says the rural winter scene in Lynn Pattison’s poem Not to speak of fence posts … is quite different from her own childhood memories of winter in Brooklyn. Her response, a work of clay titled Winter Landscape, is “more abstract” and “colder” than the poem, in which the imagery “has a sense of place, of human observation and hence almost a warmth.”

“Yet the images have a universal connection,” Hains says. “It is that deep structure that engaged me.”

Hains says finding a personal connection to another work of art, whether it’s a piece of writing or a visual artwork, is essential if you are going to be able to create a work with its own artistic value. “You do not want to do an illustration of it in another medium or to interpret it in a narrow sense and create something that can wind up didactic.”

King says it’s a balancing act to reflect something of a poem while creating her own work of art. “I begin by wanting to respect the author’s intent,” she says, “but eventually I have to let that go and forge my own interpretation.”

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