Ekphrasis, the British Library and Alice in Wonderland


Lewis Carroll: ‘Alice’s Adventures Under Ground’
British Library Add. MS 46700, f.19v
Copyright © The British Library Board
A high-quality version of this image can be purchased from British Library Images Online. For more information email imagesonline@bl.uk


We are delighted to announce that our next Ekphrasis event will take place in conjunction with the British Library and the Alice in Wonderland exhibition.

2015 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice in Wonderland and the year will culminate with an exhibition opening in November, which will be exploration of the book itself and the themes it explores in the main foyer of the British Library. Very excitingly our evening event will also take place in the main foyer of the British Library on March 4th 2016 and it will be a cabaret of poetry and song written especially in response to the work on display.

We are inviting poets and songwriters from all over the country to take part but this time we also wish to compile and publish a full anthology of Alice inspired poetry and will commission poets to write their own poem in response to the exhibition or to any aspect of the book.

We will also, as before, invite poem submissions from everyone inspired in some way by Alice, two of whom will be invited to join us on stage in the evening, with the publication of a further three other winning poems offered within the anthology.

It is hard to imagine a world without Alice. Reading it today, it still seems fresh and alive. And so we invite you all to consider your own response to this classic, thinking through any of the very many ways Carroll has shaped or freed our imagined world, our perception of childhood, even our very use of language.


Emer Gillespie, Abegail Morley and Catherine Smith, together we share a passion for creating a dialogue between the arts.

‘It’s the exciting bit, really….how arts practitioners in one sphere can take something created by an arts practitioner in another sphere and see something fresh and inspiring in it,’ Catherine Smith

‘I find that what I see and read sets off a chain of thoughts in my own head that can lead to a poem I would never have thought of writing in the first place. The poem furthers my communication with a work of art, I can talk back to it, talk back to the artist who created it, or explore the resonance it creates inside me,’ Emer Gillespie.

EKPHRASIS provides an evening of conversation and exploration inviting collaboration with some of the most original voices working in poetry today.

Exhibition details will be posted up on the British Library site shortly.

Previously we worked with The Royal Academy of Arts:


Emer Gillespie’s shed



If I had a shed, it would be a cold walk down
a frosty garden, filled with white, feathered grasses,
leaf mulch in flower beds, to the far corner
and a door with a lock and bolt, stiff to slide open
with my gloved fingers, the house behind
calling me back. Pushing on into the gloom, I would
turn on the gas on that camping stove I’ve had for years,
strike match after match, until the flame took,
blue with yellow at its heart, and put the water on.
Getting used to the smell of mildew and the lack of light,
I’d look around, find, leaning up against the wall,
that bookcase filled with books I’ll always keep,
take in the table, the skewiff chair, the open notebook
and the pen, quickly glance down, as if avoiding
some old friend I can’t bring myself to talk to on the street,
I’d place a teabag in the old, chipped mug, sink
into that button-backed armchair I had as a girl,
threadbare now, sagging where it should, keeping my coat
wrapped around me, tight against the cold, listening
to the slow rumble of water coming to the boil,
breathing out, watching my breath, blowing rings,
look towards the window, ice that patterns the cracked glass
creating a haze beyond which the garden hibernates,
a phone rings somewhere else, steam rises,
gas flames and the ice begins to melt, soften, disintegrate.
The page won’t go away. The pen rolls across the table.
If I had a shed, I’d stand, cross over, straighten up
that skewiff chair, take off my coat.

Emer Gillespie is co-founder of Ekphrasis with Abegail Morley and Catherine Smith and currently researching a PhD at Kent in Poetry and Translation working with Dante’s Commedia.

Her first collection, THE INSTINCT AGAINST DEATH, was published by Pindrop Press in October 2012.

Robert Peake

Robert Peake Featured Poet

Robert Peake is one of the poets I asked to be part of the EKPHRASIS event responding to the Sensing Spaces exhibition at the Royal Academy in March. I heard him read Still Life with Bougainvillea which was commended in the Troubadour International Poetry Prize 2013 and after getting home from the event I did some digging around to read more of his stuff. He’s kindly sent the two poems below and I’ve included links to various things on his site. In case you’re not quite sure, yes he is that “Transatlantic poet-guy”, as someone I know once called him (I think she might have prefaced it with … “Oh WOW he’s… ).



Million-Dollar Rain
for E.K.
It is hardly there at all,
this feather-rain, suffusing
the air with casual descent

pooling in crevices of husk
and trickling down the yellow stem,
dampening the topsoil sponge.

It is the antidote to drought, but also
to floods of Biblical scale, this
Providence and proof of tenderness–

each droplet a tiny silver dollar
skating the side of a piggybank,
reclaiming the mortgaged barn.

How strange to discover it here,
leashing an eager Retriever for his
pre-dawn hike through a London park,

four thousand miles and an ocean away
from where the saying first took root
in your keen farm-girl’s mind.

Strange how what is hardly there
is there all the more for its gentleness,
dampening the head of your blonde companion,

who, when you unclip his collar, races
as fast as ever through clay and mud
toward doves he will never catch.

The neighbour dressed in misery still won’t
return your smile, unaware he’s breathing
money-mist, shaking gold-dust from his hair.

So you walk with this secret knowledge,
burning like a gas lamp inside, while all around
the land is soaking, gently, soaking.
(First appeared in Harpur Palate)



London Blues
A tune is playing in the tambourine streets.
In the streets, they shake out a jingling song.
Since you left, the only lyrics I hear are “gone.”

The people on the bus wear their faces like masks.
The mask-faced bus people wear smiles like a shield.
Without you, now I know how that armour feels.

Underground, the trains are galloping along.
The train humps along the track somewhere deep down.
Since you’re gone, “goodbye” is my favourite sound.

On the pavement, people cluster waiting to cross.
Clumping like a school of fishes, watching for green.
I stand there in your absence, not wanting to be seen.

Since you left, all the songs say “long gone.”
And without you, now I know how a soldier feels.
When that train leaves, “goodbye” is all I hear.
I am nowhere, and you are everywhere, a song.


(First appeared in South Bank Poetry)


Robert Peake is an American poet living in England. His newest short collection is The Silence Teacher (Poetry Salzburg, 2013). His previous short collection was Human Shade (Lost Horse Press, 2011). His full-length collection The Knowledge is expected in early 2015 from Nine Arches Press.
Robert’s poems have received commendations in the Rattle Poetry Prize, the Atlantic Monthly Student Writing Contest, the 2007 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2009 Indiana Review Poetry Prize, the 2013 Troubadour International Poetry Prize and three Pushcart Prize nominations, and was long-listed for the UK National Poetry Competition. He created the Transatlantic Poetry on Air reading series to bring poets from both sides of the Atlantic together for live online poetry readings.


My writing process blog tour

Robin Houghton, the woman behind the excellent blog, Poetgal invited me to join the writing process blog tour. Her post telling us about her process is here.

1)      What am I working on? 

This week it’s the event at the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly.

Emer Gillespie, sensingCatherine Smith and I founded EKPHRASIS at the end of last year and have been working with galleries setting up links between art and poetry.  I think by engaging with something beyond ourselves we set our creativity loose in a way we do not when we work alone. Exploring and experiencing other people’s art, focusing totally on them, takes us to places we couldn’t even imagine.

I have spent the last month putting together the pamphlet for the evening event (this Friday – 7th March from 7pm) and it has been fantastic seeing it evolve. We commissioned a number of poets to write poems based on the exhibition and I had the joy of collating their work and being the first one to read it as a collection. Setting the pamphlet and working with poets has been incredible and I wonder if this might open up new directions. We’ve half set up a small press, who knows what might happen next?


2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is not new of course. Pascale Petit does some wonderful courses at the Tate, Carol Ann Duffy’s project Thresholds had poets in residence in the University of Cambridge’s museums and collections. What’s different about EKPHRASIS is that we commission poets for a particular exhibition at a chosen gallery. The ‘Sensing Spaces’ exhibition has drawn on seven architectural practices from six countries and four continents.

Some of the most creative architectural minds have come together to give a new perspective on architecture and transform their Main Galleries with a series of large scale installations. So we selected poets with the most creative poetical minds to respond.

3) Why do I write what I do?

GeorgeIn my last collection, Eva and George: Sketches in Pen and Brush I was moved so much by the Big No exhibition of Grosz’s work that I had to tell his story. I suppose this project is similar. I did focus on the exhibition as a whole – the more I peeled back the exhibits the more enchanting it became. I entered a fairytale landscape up spiral staircases and imagined a world of witches, wolves and all things magical.

What I have noticed since my commissioned piece (can one commission oneself?) is that my writing has taken a totally new direction. It’s as if I am exploring new territory, moving away from the mad teacup and Snow Child. It is like re-inventing myself but the inventor isn’t me. I bet that doesn’t make sense. All I can say is I write because I have to and am currently being steered by something beyond myself.

4) How does your writing process work?Frost

To quote the overused Robert Frost quote, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” That’s how it feels to me. I read something and am moved to write. I feel something and the words start to take shape. I’ve currently had a run of having the title before the poem. I know what I want to come from it, but am surprised by the route and final destination. Oh, I sound like I go on some hippy journey… I go where I’m pulled.

If you would like to follow the blogging tour, you’ll find the links to four diverse and dynamic poets below. They’ll be posting about their writing on Monday March 10th. Enjoy the trip.

Ayesha Chatterjee: http://www.ayeshachatterjee.com/

Ayesha Chatterjee was born and raised in Kolkata and currently lives in Toronto. Her debut collection, The Clarity of Distance (2011) is published by Bayeux Arts. She studied English and German at Smith College and spent her junior year in Hamburg, the year the Wall came down.

Kathleen Jones: http://www.kathleenjonesauthor.blogspot.co.uk/

Kathleen Jones is best known for her award-winning biographies, but has also published poetry, feature articles and short fiction. Her collection, Not Saying Goodbye at Gate 21 was the winner of the 2011 Straid Award.

Emma Lee: http://emmalee1.wordpress.com

Emma Lee’s poetry collection Yellow Torchlight and the Blues is available from Original Plus. She reviews for The Journal, Sabotage Reviews, Elsewhere and London Grip magazines.

Gillian Prew: http://gillianprew.com/

Gillian Prew’s collection, Throats Full of Graves, has been published in 2013 by Lapwing Publications. She has a collection forthcoming from Oneiros Books in 2014. She lives in Argyll with her partner, children and cat.


EKPHRASIS at the Royal Academy

Sensing Spaces: Wandering Words


Friday March 7 2014 7pm – 9pm

Seven internationally influential architects transform the main galleries of the Royal Academy of Art in London, ten poets respond to their work in an exciting evening of peripatetic poetry.

‘Imagine, feel, share, explore, touch, reflect’ – where we are shapes how we feel, what we hear colours our experience… We are delighted to announce our first event in collaboration with the Royal Academy.

The poets contributing response to Sensing Spaces are:

Patricia Debney Sasha Dugdale Ian Duhig Martin Figura Vanessa Gebbie Emer Gillespie Helen Ivory Maureen Jivani Edward Mackay Abegail Morley Robert Peake Catherine Smith Tamar Yoseloff


Two members of the public will be invited to read as part of the evening alongside established poets. If you would like to take part, please send your work to info@ekphrasis.org.uk

Tickets for the event can be booked on the main RA website.

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Reimagined

25 January — 6 April 2014



Abegail Morley, Catherine Smith and Emer Gillespie, together we share a passion for creating a dialogue between the arts.

‘It’s the exciting bit, really….how arts practitioners in one sphere can take something created by an arts practitioner in another sphere and see something fresh and inspiring in it,’ Catherine Smith

‘I find that what I see and read sets off a chain of thoughts in my own head that can lead to a poem I would never have thought of writing in the first place. The poem furthers my communication with a work of art, I can talk back to it, talk back to the artist who created it, or explore the resonance it creates inside me,’ Emer Gillespie.

EKPHRASIS provides an evening of conversation and exploration inviting collaboration with some of the most original voices working in poetry today.



PAOLOZZI_1I’m currently working with my students looking at Eduardo Paolozzi: General Dynamic F.U.N which is the Hayward Gallery’s touring exhibition and we’re doing a combination of found poetry, using texts about Paolozzi and his life, and  responses to his work. He’s described as a compulsive collector, a jumbler of icons and a pioneer of Pop. We’re somehow creating poetic photo-montage.

A while ago I wrote a piece about ekphrasis and thought I’d post it here. It’s a summary really – a bit about other exhibitions and books, and a bit about definitions. It was written as an introduction to ekphrasis – an ekphrastic painting-by-numbers.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary ekphrasis is “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art” and hails from the Greek, ek and phrasis, ‘out’ and ‘speak’. So in this instance it is a poem that comments on another art form, for example a photograph or painting. It flourished with the Romantics; ekphrastic poetry has been around forever and is very much alive and kicking today. In 1996 Blake Morrison wrote Pendle Witches, collaborating with the artist Dame Paula Rego to produce a large format book of poems and 12 etchings published by Enitharmon.

metamorphosis-poems-inspired-by-titianAn excellent collection published by The National Gallery, Metamorphosis: Poems Inspired by Titian has 14 leading poets’ responses to three great masterpieces by the Renaissance painter, Titian: Diana and Callisto, Diana and Actaeon and The Death of Actaeon. There’s a diverse range of poems from poets including Hugo Williams, Jo Shapcott, Seamus Heaney, Carol Ann Duffy, George Szirtes and Lavinia Greenlaw, each illustrated with full-colour details from Titian’s work. It demonstrates how strongly art speaks to writers and how it can be interpreted 500 years later. A nice tie-in is the readings by the poets on the gallery website.




A fantastic collection, What the Water Gave Me is published by Pascale Petit who runs “Poetry from Art” courses at the Tate. It is a fabulously rich and powerful book. Scottish poet and author Jackie Kay describes the poems as “fresh as paint… [that] make you look all over again at Frida and her brilliant and tragic life.” Kay’s book, Reality, Reality, is just out from Pan Macmillan. What’s interesting about this collection is that you don’t necessarily need to know that much about Frida Kahlo’s work and life, it’s all there in the poems, but it does make you want to hunt out the gallery exhibiting her work.


It’s books like Petit’s that made me really interested in the idea of cross-media work. When I wrote Eva and George – Sketches in Pen and Brush the project snowballed and grew into a collection with illustrations by the artist, George Grosz, alongside the poems. I got swept away by his work and felt as if I inhabited his skin, or rather his wife’s, as the whole collection is written entirely using her imagined voice. Plunging yourself head first into someone else’s work can have an astonishing effect on your writing.

Formerly- coverIn this year’s Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry Tamar Yoseloff’s collection of sonnets illustrating Vici MacDonald’s photographs of London made the shortlist. Formerly is a memorial to a disappearing city and Yoseloff spent hours looking through thousands of photos in order to select the 14 she needed for the collection, each supported by a sonnet, irregular and anarchic. Why the sonnet? Yoseloff explains, “I decided early on that my poems should be sonnets, the classic form for elegy, but also the appropriate length for a small glimpse”. The collection is 14cm x 12cm and fits into your pocket (well, almost) and there’s something rather nice about knowing it is there – a bit of London and a collection of sonnets in the back pocket of your jeans.

First published in newbooks magazine.


Launch of Eva and George

The Young Plan: 1929cover eva

Whiteman, your King of Jazz,
dazzles you. Germany cannot pay.
We watch as banks slump,
benefactors bankrupt; you paint
body parts recumbent:
a thigh out of place, a torso
limbless, a breast of lace.

Tonight you play the banjo
and we remember our forgotteness:
Germany pivoting on its wheel
in the darkness and you crossing
through granite to pick and pick
at its city, extracting life
from crystal seams.


Widmung an Oskar Panizza

In this infernal abyss you paint your psychiatrist
and lunatics, bleed them on to paper: Liebeskonzil
syphilis, hellscape. Here in your red world,
the grim reaper rides the coffin, takes a slug
of spirits, drops the dead in some pitiless pit.

There’s no mercy with your marauders, your whole street
clambers through chaos and somewhere in it
you’re trapped opening and closing your sketchbook
like it’s a pair of wings desperate to leave.


Copies now available from

Pindrop Press

“These are fine hard-bitten poems with the imaginative strength and resonance to stand alongside the work of George Grosz without    being in any way diminished by it. The realisation of Eva Peter’s voice is a triumph, and introduces Abegail Morley as one of our most impressive and rewarding poets.”   Peter Bennet

“Abegail Morley’s sequence Eva and George: Sketches in Pen and Brush, marked by both  authenticity and originality, impresses with startling imagery and the striking juxtaposition of the private and the public. Her poetic  account of George Grosz and Eva Peter’s life in the Weimar Republic is at the same time a compelling panorama of a whole era characterized by struggle, violence and radicalism.” Wolfgang Görtschacher, Poetry Salzburg Review

“Morley skilfully captures the rawness of George Grosz’s acerbic images of despots and outcasts in post WWI Germany,while tenderly evoking a portrait of the man behind the art. In lucidly-voiced poems spoken by his wife, Eva Peter, she explores the passion and compassion that drove him. In doing so, she reminds us of the casual and calculated malice we are capable of inflicting on each other in daily living, and that ‘We are those passers-by’.”

Heidi Williamson


Emer Gillespie

Emer Gillespie: Featured Poet


Plant me underneath this tree
when you think I’m dead. Don’t
bury me standing, or flat in a box.
Instead, place me straight into the ground,
on my side. I want to become this tree,
feel it become me.

By then I’ll be tired of rushing,
it will do me good to lie still for a while,
wrap myself around the roots,
seep into the sap, enjoy the calm solidity
of its slow beating heart.
When my flesh has gone, fed the earth
I lie in, leaving only bones behind,
then I’ll take a branch line to the sun.


Emer Gillespie is an actress, novelist and award-winning scriptwriter.  She lives in London with her family and other animals.  Poetry is her passion but only very recently has she begun to send out her own work.  Last year she was one of the finalists at Live Canon.