Art & Poetic Inspiration!

Writing and reading poetry are wonderful ways to start the new year! This past Thursday, DTES writers came out for a Poetry in the Parks workshop at Oppenheimer Park Field House. We had fourteen participants in total (plus some intermittent writing from Field House staffer Rui, who was up and down serving tea and coffee and getting extra chairs and an extra table when more people arrived).

This session was focused on how visual art can provide profound inspiration for writing. At the beginning of the workshop, I passed around a few books of ekphrastic poems (poems inspired by art) as examples, including the recently launched Quarandreams, a collection launched this past fall that was curated and edited by CBC videographer, Maggie MacPherson, who had asked to respond to her gorgeously surreal photographic art during the height of the pandemic. (Two participants attending the workshop, Phoenix Winter and Gilles Cyrenne, had poems published in the book!)

I also set out art postcards that I’d collected over the years on the table, featuring a few of Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract flowers, Hokusai’s famous woodblock print (Great Wave off Kanagawa), Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night, an autumnal forest scene painted by Tom Thomson, as well as more surrealist pieces. Besides Starry Night and the White Rose, other favourites included an image of fox trapped on broken-up ice sheets (from a David Suzuki Christmas card I received), a lithograph of a crow, and a man flying with birds. Participants could also choose to write about any of the paintings and drawings by neighbourhood residents that were pinned on the walls.

I handed out photocopies of a few notable examples of ekphrastic poems by Wislawa Szymborska (Brueghel’s Two Monkeys), William Carlos Williams (Fall of Icarus), and Anne Sexton (Starry Night), and read out a poem (by US poet, Sharon Hashimoto) as well, just to get the creative juices really flowing in terms of form and metaphor.

Twenty minutes before the workshop formally started, the first participant arrived, sat down, asked for a pen and paper, and started writing without pause, without any prompts or prompting, filling two full pages with tiny script. He might have set the stage for everyone else! During the two rounds of art-based writing, the larger group of participants wrote with incredible concentration and focus.

For the first round, each participant chose an image, noted down sensory associations, and then built a poem around those associations. The second round was similar. Everyone was given space to share their work, and almost everyone did.

And the writing was amazing—powerful, vivid and evocative! The art cards definitely served as a portal into the subconscious, into memory, into story, and much more. The creative energy and imagery, the metaphors and symbols, the leaps and turns rose from each person’s page. In wrapping up the workshop, I talked about how each piece of art contains a trace of the artist’s spirit, which can provide a pathway for writers to connect to own creative spirits, as well as the artist’s.

Thanks to all the participants and to staffers Rui and David who helped set up the tables and chairs, made and served coffee and tea, and even brought us a tray of foil-wrapped Christmas chocolates, to Jennifer for giving us the space and making the photocopies and ensuring we had a flipchart, markers and pens, and to Beverly from the Carnegie Centre who came by early to say hello. See you all at my third and last session at the Oppenheimer Field House on Thursday, February 2, 1-3 pm! (Other poet- facilitators will take the baton in the months ahead!)

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