Ekphrastic Poetry and Student Involvement

The following lines are part of a poem that I wrote in collaboration with a photograph found in the UNM Art Museum “Luz Restirada” exhibit.

                       This is what longing
for a place does, it carries a sound,
we can only fill.    – from “Seco”

During the first year of my MFA progam at the University of New Mexico, I became interested in the UNM Art Museum. I felt nostalgic, remembering the first time I visited the downtown museum back at my alma mater, UCR, where I had loved to go when I was an undergraduate.

Shortly after my arrival at UCR, a curator from New York began an internship for undergraduate creative writing students in which we were asked to respond to at least two works of art in the Riverside Art Museum. I quickly discovered that this was a unique way to engage with visual art. When writing ekphrastic poetry, the writer responds to the work of art by taking into consideration both what the work depicts literally and what it expresses metaphorically, which allows the work to be reimagined through words. I enjoyed this process because exploring and giving a dialogue to a work of art challenged me to both try out a new style of writing and to appreciate visual art more thoroughly.

Remembering my experience with ekphrastic poetry—from attempting the form for the first time to interning twice to write poems for the art collections at the Riverside Art Museum—made  me want to give students at UNM the same opportunity. Writing ekphrastic poetry gives students the opportunity to see how art can provide a different lens for writing poetry.  It also deepens their appreciation for the visual art found on campus while providing an occasion for self-expression.

I proposed to curator Sara Otto-Diniz that we provide ekphrastic workshops at the UNM Art Museum. She was thrilled about the idea of incorporating writing into the activities at the museum, and agreed that it would be a great way to provide a written voice for the exhibits while allowing participants to incorporate their perspective about the art with poems.

There is something truly captivating creating poetry in the present from a work of art that is frozen in time. For these workshops Sara brought in a good perspective about visual art, while former BMR EIC, Samantha Oceana, and I taught the writing portion.We offered two workshops this past spring and had students study at least two works of art in the museum.

We gave the students a simple breakdown of how images constructed in poetry can work in connection to looking at a work of art. They learned how to take into consideration all five senses and to think about how the works can be interpreted. The students explored the ways poetry depends on images and how images depend on poetry.

I was also given the opportunity to respond to two photographs in the exhibit “Luz Restirada” curated by Christian Waguespack, a Graduate Curator Intern at UNM. This experience allowed me to put into perspective the challenge of writing ekphrastic poetry and to collect a more ideas about how to teach ekphrastic writing to students. Both poems are printed in the UNM Art Museum, and will be available throughout the Fall Semester.

If you’re interested in reading ekphrastic poetry, check out  “Abstraction IX, 1916” by Joseph Heithaus in Issue 28.

Melisa Garcia is a second-year MFA student in Poetry at The University of New Mexico. She is the Poetry Editor for Blue Mesa Review