Author reading doesn't quite cut it. Last night's event at The Scarab Club (in the main gallery) in Detroit was titled, Ekphrasis: Poetry & Art in Conversation. I was planning on looking Ekphrasis up but the creator of the event was kind enough to do so---it's a Greek word for poetry about art. And that's what last night was--five poets had a few months to come up with poems about, or inspired by, artworks of five artists.
<all photos below have been borrowed from the website of the artist--please click on the links to see more representations of their art>
To start, this even was PACKED. Counting the number of rows of chairs, and the numbers of seats per row, and a side section and the number of people standing, I can safely say a minimum of 80 people were present at one point or another during the evening. I haven't really seen a crowd like that in a long time--it was fantastic to see. And most stayed around after everything was over to look at the works of art, to talk with the poets, etc.
First up was Rhonica Dhar, who was paired with the artist, Michelle Johnston, who works in commercial entomology---which does not at all seem like a cool enough description of what she does--click on her name to visit The Insect Shoppe, and learn much more. It was maybe not the way the evening was planned as these two artists actually knew each other, maybe not as well as they do now, months after being put together for this show, but they were well aware of each other and the other's work when they were paired up. All that really seemed to mean though is that perhaps Rhonica had had a little more time than the other four poets, to find some common ground for her work with the work of Michelle. Now, I missed the first poem or two due to said crowd size and the need to park four blocks away, but the poems that I heard were playful, both personal and worked in conjunction with specific works of Michelle's and were pretty universal--an impressive feat. And Michelle's works were really cool--little, almost terrarium-like enclosures with tons and tons of natural Found items used to create her art.
Next up was poet, Christine Darragh, also the proprietor of Dark Oak Bindery. She was paired with the artist Mandisa Smith, owner of Detroit Fiber Works, and one who creates with felt. Unfortunately, during this portion of the reading, there was a high volume of traffic coming in the front door, which coincidentally is near the back of the room, where I was standing, and so it was very difficult to hear. If I heard right there was a poem or two about the idea of the color white and light (as some of Mandisa's work had the felted creation sitting on/over a light so that it would shine through. So, sorry, poor reporting on this 20% of the night.
In the middle we had Matthew Landrum, who also set the evening up, paired with sculptor, Leah Waldo. Matthew introduced each of his works, frequently noting that he's still working on poems inspired by specific pieces of Leah's art, but not quite nailing them down to his satisfaction prior to last night's show--and that maybe more of the works that he read last night were inspired by the idea of guardianship, which he sees in Leah's sculptures. This led to an interesting conversation as it wasn't always a specific piece created by Leah that Matthew was writing to, or about, but her overall aesthetic conversing with that idea of guardianship that Matthew has within many of his own poems.
The fourth pairing was that of poet Marlin M. Jenkins and painter Angelo-David Sherman (actually Mr. Sherman also sculpts and draws--but what Mr. Jenkins was writing about last night were paintings). The link when you click on Marlin's name takes you to the recent publication of the poem inspired by the painting titled Jimi, which you can see to the left. Other poems were inspired by the paintings you can see at the Sherman link titled Head of a Negro, Revolution, and a painting that Marlin thought was unnamed (and is not currently on the Sherman website)--we found out during the artist Q&A after the readings that this poem was left untitled, AND was shown upside-down, as Sherman wanted to see how Jenkins would see the poem without any nudge from the painter via a title. And it turned out he nailed it, as that painting was meant to show people encased, in glass houses (poor paraphrasing from me here) and Jenkins saw the eyes as being under glass. Jenkins referenced other poets, and poems, and artists and made it very clear that to be personal is to be political and vice versa. His poems were full of energy and entertaining. Which was necessary to match the power and energy of Sherman's paintings.
Last up was Christina Kallery, who was paired up with Justin Milhouse, a photographer. Christina took a slightly different approach, concentrating on one single work and allowing it to inspire her to write a single poem. She selected the photo Justin has titled, While You Were Sleeping (the photo that can be seen here). What Christina saw in this photo was the snow, and the idea that snow is one of the few things that can literally change how things are overnight. She then pushed, pulled and stretched this idea into a triptych of a poem, where the first section was about just that--how snow can change things overnight. Then there was section two, back to age 16 in the Upper Peninsula when a boy she once thought too cool to notice her took her hand and went for a walk and kissed her, and how it fits the idea. Section three hits very hard--the loss of a parent, in this case her mother. Christina has mentioned prior to reading the poem that something about working on this poem and subject allowed her to actually complete something on a topic she'd previously been unable to and hearing this poem--powerful, brave, fantastic--alone would have made the trip downtown worthwhile.
After the poets read we got to hear from the artists (all but Justin Milhouse who was unable to attend) themselves--about what they thought of the idea, of the particular poems created based on inspiration from their own work, and how the work from the evening compared to their own typical work. In general they were really excited by the idea, by their pairings, and by the work that was created. Most of their works being looked at last night were pretty in-line with their typical work, though Michelle Johnston had created one final piece that brought elements that she was not overly familiar with into play. And Leah Waldo brought some cement into her sculpting which was not overly common to her work previously.
Overall, just a really great evening. A great idea, with great artwork that inspired some poets to do wonderful work--it truly felt like there were conversations between the arts going on. And again, to see a crowd that big having something to do with poetry? With art not up on a big screen or with sound? It was very impressive. Let's hope it's just the first of many.