Object Lessons

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our current series, Object Lessons, we’re thinking about the relationship between the experienced and imagined world. We have asked our editors and invited poets to present one of their own poems in combination with the object that inspired it, and to meditate on the magical journey from object to poem. 
Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt which we hope you will find useful in your own writing practice or in the classroom.

Eric Pankey on “Ash”

The central object in my poem “Ash” is a sculpture by the Chinese performance artist, painter, photographer, and sculptor, Zhang Huan. The work is a large Buddha cast from the incense ash “imbued with the prayers of untold worshippers collected from temples around China.” * As visitors approach the sculpture, the vibration of their feet on the gallery floor, their movements, even their breathing, lead to the slow crumbling and collapse of the work itself. The figure takes on a sense of the sublime and of the divine not so much from its scale, but from its impermanence. Its object-hood, its this-ness, is at every moment in the process of disintegration. If the ash is “imbued with prayer,” what about the smoke released from the joss sticks? Is the ember imbued with prayer that turned it all to ash and smoke? Are prayers released as the ash Buddha gives way under its own weight, gives into gravity? Is there a moment—in its fresh-cast-ness or in its emptying—when the Buddha is more wholly Buddha? My poem attempts, I hope, to confront these questions, not answer them.

*Zhang Huan

Writing Prompt

Write a poem of ekphrasis. Have one-third of the poem be a description of the work of art and have the other two thirds be a meditation on or around the work of art. How does the poem change if the description comes first? In the middle? Or at the end?

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Eric Pankey

Eric Pankey

Eric Pankey is the author of fourteen poetry collections and recently a collection of essays, Vestiges. A new collection of poems, Not Yet Transfigured is forthcoming in 2021 and a chapbookThe Future Perfect: A Fugue, which was selected by John Yau for the Tupelo Press Snowbound Chapbook Award, is forthcoming in 2022.