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Ekphrasis

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.

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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.

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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.

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Advice from a poetry judge: Pascale Petit interview

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This year I was delighted when Pascale Petit agreed to judge The New Writer Poetry Competition. She has five collections, and her sixth, Fauverie is due out from Seren in 2014. Her eye for detail (she was editor of Poetry London for 11 years), expertise (she is a co-founding tutor of The Poetry School), and string of awards (including being shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize three times!) make her the perfect competition judge. Entering competitions can be costly, so it is important to get it right. Here are some suggestions from Pascale.

AM: What was the first competition you entered?

Pascale_Petit_credit Kaido VainomaaPP: This is so long ago that I can’t remember! But I do remember entering the South West Poetry Competition in 1993. I entered it because the judges were Peter Redgrove and Penelope Shuttle. There was the shock of the phone ringing to tell me I’d won and would get a cheque for £500, which was a lot of money then. I asked which poem they’d chosen because I’d entered several, and when they said ‘Eisriesenwelt’ (set in the Ice Giants’ Cave in Austria) I said to myself, “they’ve made a mistake”. I’d also entered a poem called ‘The Frozen Waterfall’ and thought that was better. It was instructive to reread my winning entry through the judges’ eyes after it had been severely criticised by a magazine editor. I must have stuck it in the batch just in case that editor was wrong. Five years later both poems appeared in my first collection Heart of a Deer.

AM: If a new poet wants to enter the competition market what advice would you give?

PP: Follow the rules carefully. Submit your best poems. Edit them until they are their best, proofread them with a ruler, to catch all typos, so as not to appear careless. But before you enter any competitions, read contemporary poetry widely and deeply. See what your peers are doing, what’s possible, how they use language, construct a poem. Read contemporary and classical poetry in translation as well – see what other cultures are doing with poems. Think about what you have to offer that is yours. Then check that each of your lines is, as Robert Frost said, “a fresh look and a fresh listen” at your subject. Keep a record of what you send where, a logbook helps.

AM: Do you think entering competitions is a good way of becoming recognised?

PP: It can be, though luck is most of it. It’s harder to win competitions than get published in magazines, because of the sheer volume of entries, but the advantage is that you enter anonymously, so your reputation or lack of one is irrelevant.

AM: What competitions have you judged and what did you get out of them?

PP: I’ve judged a few, including the InterBoard Poetry Community (IBPC), the Guardian workshop, the Café Writers, and this year I’m judging the Poetry London competition. When I was poetry editor at Poetry London I used to be one of the sifters for the thousands of entries to find the top 500 for the judge. Judging gives me an insight into what makes a poem stand out, though it would be hard to define what that is, and each winning poem often extends my idea of what that might be. The final shortlist of ten or twenty are the ones I live the longest with, trying to decide which gets what and why.

AM: Should an entrant swot up on the judge’s work before entering their competition?what_the_water_gave_me_cover

PP: I don’t think an entrant should enter poems that they think are closest to the judge’s tastes. I do notice a lot of people seem to do that! I see many poems that are ekphrastic or ‘confessional’, just because I’ve been labelled as those things. My tastes are broad and I’m not really looking for poems like mine. I want to be surprised.

AM: Is it best to begin by entering small local competitions or hop straight into the biggies?

PP: Probably, as there’s more chance of getting a prize, fewer entrants, fewer published poets entering. But why not try the biggies as well?

AM: Thank-you!