Call and response: poetry transformed into art

While you’ve probably heard of the sonnet and the limerick, have you ever heard of an “ekphrastic” poem?

The term is used specifically for a poem which is inspired by another work of art. John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a famous example.

Poet Kathryn Kysar, along with several artist friends, is turning around the concept of the ekphrastic poem, and instead using poetry to inspire works of art.

Kysar says the idea in part came out of her struggle to move beyond the typical poetry reading circuit.

Poetry does not easily make its way into the world, and I am not much of a performer. I was looking for ways to get my poems off of the page and into the artistic and literary community, a way to reach an audience in a more exciting way than standing at a podium and reading poems in a monotone voice.

Love Poem from Jes Shimek on Vimeo.

An exhibition of artwork inspired by Kysar’s poetry collection “Pretend the World” opens tomorrow night at Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts. It includes video, sculpture, paintings and photography, each inspired by specific poems.

Artist Jan Elftmann says the experience pushed her in two different directions: to create art literally about a poem, and to use a poem as a place from which to leap:

Using Kate’s poetry was a little challenging for me in the beginning. I read “Pretend the World” many times, even taking it to bed it with me at night. Often times it was a few words of poetry that spoke to me and other times a greater meaning of the whole poem.


Jan Elftmann’s “White Horse,” created in response to Kathryn Kysar’s “Early Spring: Dark Lake, 1997”

Jan Elftmann’s sculpture “White Horse” was inspired by Kysar’s poem “Early Spring: Dark Lake, 1997.”

With the “White Horse” piece, Kate’s poem, “Early Spring: Dark Lake, 1997”, I took the image of the horse in her poem into my mind and the feelings of winter colors. I encrusted the horse with small, white and silver objects. The process was painting with objects, thinking of shape, color value and texture. I also added words from the poem. Words have never been a large part of my art before, so that was definitely an inspiration from Kate.

Kysar considers the exhibition a sort of “call and response;” she’s even contemplating creating a body of new poetry in response to the exhibition.

Ultimately, I hope the show is a conversation between image and text, writer and artists. The viewers will be able to see the different interpretations each artist had of the book. I am excited about the diversity of the show, which includes photographs, paintings, videos, installations, and sculpture. Working on this project has been a wonderfully fun experiment.

“Pretend the World” runs through September 30.