What Sparks Poetry

Other Arts

In our series Other Arts, we’ve invited poets to write about their experiences with other art forms and how those experiences have resulted in the making of poetry.

“Explore What Sparks Poetry” is made possible with funding from The Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Liza Katz Duncan on “The Uncles”

“The Uncles” are not actual people but attempts to personalize the tragedy of Superstorm Sandy through memories, anecdotes I had heard from neighbors and read in the news, bits of conversation, and places and images that continue to haunt me to this day. I chose the sestina’s six ending words to drive home exactly what was being lost, and what we continue to lose, both concrete (bay, fence, birds) and abstract (home, ways of knowing). I wanted the reader to experience the same constant presences, the places and events that had become a part of my daily life, over and over again.

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The fire map requires touching – on the best device, you can do everything with your fingertips, no keys necessary. I obligated myself to describe the experience of the map – but the poem surged underneath with resistance, digression, argument, frustration. I find this to be common with poems, which are like my favorite kind of children – give them a job to do, and they’d rather do anything else. But give them nothing to do, and they hate you. A poem ends up being equal parts what you must do and what you want to do, but in a way, with a proportion, inhabiting a mood you can’t predict.

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Being with these buildings, studying them, touching the rough grains of the concrete—it changes something. I learned a new way of seeing. Surfaces stopped receding. I saw the textures, the way that buildings were made. I started looking at architecture, rather than through it. This is one thing poetry can do for you: it can teach you to look at the world again.

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All I know is that I drafted “Rehearsal,” soon after my trip to the park, in a rush of longing that quickly morphed into a sense of wonder at the strange, tender impulse to make anything at all, and at the transience of whatever is made, and about the impossibility, really, of making it alone. Even something as tiny and self-contained and seemingly solitary as a poem.

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Yet, as with each of the blackout poems I wrote for our Missing Department project (twenty-five in all), there were always more resonant and unexpected meanings to explore beyond any words the two texts happened to share. Although I might have been initially pleased to make a connection between the mother’s address in Klamath Falls and the story’s descriptions of a river that ran through the center of its fictional town, for instance, the presence of moving water ended up affording me the poem’s core metaphor.

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In exceeding the frame of visual description, ekphrasis in the expanded field refuses to dwell only on the surface experience of visual art – or film or dance or music. Going outside of the frame and beneath the surface, it engages with another art by reconceptualizing and recontextualizing it: in its historical and cultural and subcultural contexts, its critical reception, its making and materials, the artist’s biography, the poet’s autobiography, the creative process of ekphrasis itself, or any other framework that seems relevant.

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“Home Ward (Seoul, Korea, 2012)” approximates the physical layout of a room. My memory of the real room, one of the last where my grandfather stayed, is marked by the concentration of patient beds in a rectangular space that, if empty, I would have considered a wide hallway.

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I usually only email poems to people so soon after writing them when it feels like I didn’t write them at all but copied them down from wherever they already existed, taking them down from the air.

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