One evening at a First Friday Art Trail event, a monthly art fair held in downtown Lubbock, Texas, I stumbled across a venue in which a still life had been set up, and surrounding it in a semicircle were a series of easels with charcoal so that each easel had its own viewpoint. I decided to pick up a piece of charcoal and began sketching the still life, but while doing so a friend walked in and said, “You’re a poet. You should be writing, not drawing,” so I immediately stopped drawing and started drafting a poem based on, and on top of, my still life, which the woman running the venue was nice enough to hang up with other people’s sketches.
However, I would not call the poem an ekphrasis, nor would I call this a prompt to write an ekphrasis. From my experience, when you ask people to write an ekphrasis, oftentimes the poems struggle to leave what is inside the frame. They become reliant on the reader being familiar with the artwork. For this reason, I think it’s important to physically set up a still life on a table in the classroom so that each student has a different view of the same piece.
By looking at the still life rather than a painting or photograph, and by beginning with drawing instead of writing, some students may choose to write about the still life itself in some way, while others may decide to focus on an interesting object within the still life and write a conceit, perhaps based on whatever object they had chosen to draw first. With this freedom, along with the different visual perspectives, the students have fun seeing how each decided to approach the prompt and what specific parts of, if not the whole, still life they chose to write about.
- Prepare students ahead of the class when you plan to do this exercise by asking them to bring physical paper and writing utensils.
- Get to the classroom early enough to set up a sort of still life on a table in the classroom.
- When the students take their seats, have them begin drawing their perspective of the still life for five to ten minutes, and let them know that it’s not necessary to draw perfectly.
- After the five to ten minutes, tell the students to quickly transition from drawing to writing, and allow them to either write about their unfinished artwork or the still life in the middle of the table .
- After ten minutes, encourage the students to share their writings so they can see the different ways everyone approached their writing.
Example of the Exercise
Is it still life
if the figures are dead,
inanimate even—the upside-
down bust lacking legs,
standing on her headless
neck in the corner, absent
as the rest of this box,
quicker than my tongue,
William Brown holds a master’s degree in poetry from Texas Tech University, and his poems have appeared in journals such as Copper Nickel, Crab Creek Review, McNeese Review, and elsewhere.