By Suznne Rose
I read the lines of poet Langston Hughes to the beat of the water as if keeping musical time to a metronome.
One of the best perks while taking a class at the Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay is having access to bunking in Jens Jensen’s cliffhouse. This private cabin, for registered guests, is the ultimate retreat. Because of the limited access over the years, it has maintained its sacredness.
It is a rare space of humble meditation. With no cell reception, electricity or running water, lodgers have the luxury to unplug entirely.
Moments like this, in Jensen’s cliffhouse, perched high up in the Ellison Bay cliffs among the cedars, I intuitively turn to poetry to enhance my experience.
Preserved places are our breathing spaces, where we can exhale…exhale so completely that we feel lighter when we take our next breath.
In these moments, while communing with nature in solitude, we can re-awaken our senses.
When poetry is added, this awakening is expedited.
When serendipity occurs, and a stanza of poetry perfectly pairs with a moment—it’s simply sublime:
“The sea is a desert of waves,
A wilderness of water.”
– Langston Hughes, “Long Trip”
These awakened moments cultivate creativity. Instinctively, I apply the ideas triggered by the written word to my photographic practice.
An integral part of including poetry in your photographic process is giving the words a chance to resonate. Taking time out to quietly ponder the poem, making notes, letting ideas rise and take hold, is paramount.
This type of daydreaming, or as defined in photography by Ansel Adams as “pre-visualizing,” is a time to organize your thoughts and transform them with your mind’s eye into images.
Metaphor and Symbolism
“But he that dares not grasp the thorn,
Should never crave the rose.”
– Anne Brontë, The Narrow Way
Metaphorical thinking is essential in how we understand and define ourselves and others.
Metaphor deeply drives poetry. It is an excellent source to discover remarkable figures of speech. A rose, for example, has long been considered a symbol of love and affection.
Visually, it is a powerful means in communication to deliver fresh and significant purpose when making photographs.
It can shape an artist’s approach and decision-making when shooting—this is evident for all skill levels—using Smartphones to pro digital single-lens-reflex (DSLR) cameras. Discovering your visual identifiers in the landscape can lift your work to a higher plane.
Reviewing past work and discovering common themes is an excellent place to start, like identifying subject matter you regularly capture, say old abandoned houses, long-running fences or even just shadows.
Make a list, then self-analyze what your symbols possibly mean to you.
Visual metaphors carry varied meanings depending on historical and cultural context. Houses have traditionally been symbolic of one’s dreams; if the house is abandoned, it could represent discarded goals or even letting go of the past.
Fences, clearly, are boundaries, healthy, necessary or otherwise.
Shadows, because of their elemental nature, carry vast and contradictory meanings, from the absence of God to our alter ego.
Shadows and shadow selfies are a personal favorite, and I define them in my work either as the soul or as the inner landscape of the subject.
Once you have established a “demystified key” to your sub-conscious and deliberate decisions, use this information to photograph mindfully and with focused intention.
Prompts and Catalysts
Just like in school when we are given a “writing prompt” as an assignment, poetry can assist in inspiring delightful ideas in photography. Poetry can tell you where to point your lens.
Let language give you a nudge; poetry can also serve as a catalyst for visual self-discovery by triggering a long-buried memory or sparking an original concept.
“fine as any / ever seen / you step out / your door / breathe / smile /
at your / good fortune / to be alive”
– Sharon Auberle, Door County Poet Laureate, “Autumn Morning”
It is a fruitful fall here in Door County with regards to poetry. Words on Water: The 2018 Washington Island Literary Festival kicks off in September.
If you are eager to take the next step and create your own poems to pair with your photographs, consider signing on for a writing workshop at Write On, Door County, Björklunden or The Clearing.
The pièce de résistance of the season is that Tracy K. Smith, 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, will visit Door County. Smith is the author of three books of poetry including the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars.
A Poetic Crossing
“The flowers along the roadside I miss most of all.
The colors fade fast.”
– Norbert Blei, October 13,
Rose-Hips from “Door Steps”
Norbert Blei, the late writer-in-residence at The Clearing Folk School, a position he held for 40 years, once told me that my photographs are visual poems – concentrated simplicity with Haiku sensibilities.
Upon visiting my solo exhibition at the Miller Art Museum in 2012, Blei, a consummate wordsmith and generous mentor, made these bighearted comments via email. He had the capacity to share profound observations in conversation and through his writing. Norb wrote, on that hot July day, referring to the cyclic subject matter in my images, “Bring on the rest of the seasons. But for now, this moment, bring on winter.”
“Often it is a moment rather than an event that makes a poem,” says Tracy K. Smith. In an interview on “The PBS News Hour,” the she shared wisdom that, “A poem requires you to submit to something else.”
This experience that both Blei and Smith refer to is shared in photography. And when a photograph is inspired when you read a poem; you try on someone else’s experience.
Both poetry and photography have a unique way of inscribing a wide range of poignant responses, and both are glimpses into an artist’s emotional landscape.
When poetry is intentionally introduced to your photographic practice, a synergy builds, and both are enhanced. Incorporating the act of reading a poem that sparks an idea, then seeking out that idea to record visually, is a powerful workflow.
In the introduction to the book The Hour of the Land, author Terry Tempest Williams notes to the reader, “Collaboration is the only way forward.” She is referring to the joined forces with the poet Jorie Graham. The poem “WE” by Graham was a line-by-line inspirational guide for the foundation of Williams’ book on 12 national parks.
As photographers, we can follow suit and visually interpret a poem, be inspired by or even discover an offshoot idea. Poetry has the profound ability to spark our creativity.
Partake in an experiment of a dynamic interplay between your creative self and the written word. Let the concentrated language and insightful ingenuity of poetry be your guide in making, dare I say, a poetic crossing.