AWP2015: Ekphrasis Goes Prose

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMOn Day 2 of an impressively large writing conference, I went to the Convention Center early in the morning to look at art. Long before the din of the crowd filled the corridors and  the name-badged and tote-bagged masses started lining up for coffee, I was in solitude looking at the acrylic works on canvas that lined the cavernous second floor hallways. I enjoy looking at art any day, but this morning my art viewing was partly in preparation for one of the first panels of the day called “Ekphrasis Goes Prose.”

 Moderator J’Lyn Chapman began her remarks with an apology for a technological glitch. The panelists wouldn’t be able to show art photos on the projection screen as planned, and she encouraged the audience to move up closer so the presenters could hold up books instead. Collectively we moved forward and leaned in.

 Ekphrastic writing has traditionally been associated with poetry and poetic imagery, yet has begun to find a new home in prose. Each writer on this panel discussed the relationship of visual art in text as well as the role of the image in story.

 With most of the crowd assembled in the first several rows, Chapman discussed the evolving concept of ekphrasis by explaining it as an “encounter with actual images or notional images within a text.” The dictionary definition of ekphrasis means ‘to describe a work of art,’ but this creative group of writers pushes the boundaries of mere description in their work through the use of visual art as co-creator and muse for the written word. Panelists Danielle Dutton, Lucy Ives, and Amina Cain discussed process and read from their work illustrating how art and image can both inspire and inhabit text.  It was a treat to listen to each author read and experience the way that visual image both shaped and illuminated her work, often in unconventional ways.

 Aside from referencing their individual work the panelists also discussed the power of image for both writer and reader, and the complexity involved in accurately describing what exactly image does in a narrative.

  They discussed how images in prose hold power. Images have the power to interrupt, disrupt, as well as illuminate text. As readers we can be captured by image and descriptive language within a text or story. There was a lot to reflect on and I jotted down quotes that seemed to approach the crux of the work that images do, both within a text and as outside inspiration.

 “Art is there for characters to have a way to think and be. It enlivens their perception and attention.”

 “Ekphrasis can provide a commentary on the experience of writing and reading.”

 “Visual art can hold the place in the text of something just beyond words—something that remains un-translated.”

 “The job of art is to wake us up to the world”

 In response to a question at the end of the presentation, Danielle Dutton commented on a frequently mentioned writers lament; writing can be a lonely and solitary process. Working with art she said, is like having a collaborator.

This panel was a great source of information as well as inspiration. I’d recommend checking out the work of Danielle Dutton (S P R A W L), Lucy Ives (The World Killers) and Amina Cain (Creature, and I Go to Some Hollow) for more information on their original creative work. It was also an invitation to explore art and image as writing prompt, narrative inspiration, or as a tool within the text itself.

 After all, you’re going to pass a lot of art in those hallways on the way to your next AWP panel.

Molly Hill likes to visit art museums. She lives in the Twin Cities and writes grants, as well as short fiction and CNF.


Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

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