April 12, 2016

Monday, January 21, 2013

Poetry Postcard 13 & A Guest Postcard Poet

Deep into the 44 Postcard Project, several poetic themes are emerging. There are poems about birds, poems about marriage and relationships, and poems that allude to myth.
Osiris and...
Odysseus both have cameos
in the postcard poems.
Poems 12 (Paul Klee, see post here), 13 (photo of Georgia O'Keeffe, poem below) and 17 (painting by Sulamith Wülfing, post to come) are all ekphrastic. Each poem was written in response to a work of fine art featured on its postcard.

Maryland poet Michael Ratcliffe is visiting today to tell us about another postcard poem project. This one was run by the Paris journal Do Not Look at the Sun in 2011. (Mike's poetry blog is here.)

Thanks for visiting Author Amok, Mike!

Paintings, Poems, and Postcards

My poem “Thoughts While Viewing Van Gogh’s Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer” ties in nicely with Laura’s postcard poems project and her discussion of ekphrastic poems.  I wrote the poem for a friend who, when I mentioned I was going to the Netherlands and planned to visit the Van Gogh Museum, told me the painting was her favorite. 

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
She liked the rich colors of the fishing boats, and said she felt a sense of sadness when viewing the painting. So, there I was, in the museum gallery, viewing her favorite Van Gogh without her. The poem came out of my engagement with the painting, and wishing my friend was with me to enjoy it. Most of the poem came to me quickly; the ending took longer to find. After several drafts, it seemed right to move from viewing the painting to imagining being in the painting, and to end by asking if she would be in one of the boats sailing away, or standing with me on the beach.
A month or so after writing the poem, I ran across the quirky Paris-based journal Do Not Look at the Sun. The theme of the Spring 2011 issue was “Postcards from Paris,” with poems printed on postcards and mailed to various addresses around the world.

Until that time, I hadn’t considered publishing the poem, but the journal’s theme intrigued me, and I had a postcard of the painting to offer if needed. Why not have a bit of fun when publishing a poem? The poem was accepted, and copies mailed on postcards to random locations, including one to my friend.
The message/poem on Mike's postcard. Posted with permission of the author.

Do Not Look at the Sun continues its quirky themes and distribution methods.  The Spring 2012 issue’s theme was “Paper Plane Poems;” my son and I engaged with poetry in a new way by flying paper plane poems at the Inner Harbor in Baltimore. The video of our flights on You Tube at

The theme of the next issue is “Stories Sent to Sea.” I have had a poem accepted, but the issue apparently is delayed.  If it does come out, I will be sending out poems in bottles from undisclosed locations along the Potomac, Patapsco, or Chesapeake Bay.

And, by the way, my friend’s response to the poem’s concluding questions was that she was in a boat on the beach waiting for me.

Thanks for sharing the poem, Mike.

Michael Ratcliffe is a geographer, who after years of writing memos, academic papers, and Federal Register notices, started writing poetry again. His poems have appeared in Symmetry Pebbles, Loch Raven Review, Little Patuxent Review, Do Not Look at the Sun, Poetry Quarterly, The Copperfield Review, Three Line Poetry, Dead Beats Literary Blog, The Beatnik, and You Are Here: the Journal of Creative Geography. When he is not writing poetry, he manages geographic programs at the Census Bureau and teaches population geography at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 

I love how the postcard page at Do Not Look at the Sun is set up. If you hover your mouse above a postcard, you can flip between the front (art) and the back (poem). I hope you'll have time to check out the other postcards/poems at the journal's website.

There are many directions one can take with an ekphrastic poem. Some of them are:

  • finding a personal connection, as Mike did in  “Thoughts While Viewing Van Gogh’s Fishing Boats on the Beach at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer;”
  • speaking in the voice of a figure in the image (remember Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George?);
  • using the visual elements of the artwork to express emotion.

I took the third approach with Postcard 13. It is a famous image of the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, taken by Alfred Stieglitz. (Find the photograph here.)

As I've mentioned, I have to a tendency to over-do visual images, and this photograph is filled with small details. Composing the poem was a matter of asking myself which details best tell the story, as I see it.

Thinking about Georgia
After Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918, Alfred Stieglitz

dressed in his bulky sweater,
thin cushions at the edge of --
not really a garden --

more a bed, leaves
dark as spades, her skirt
white as teeth in a face,

she looks right or
somewhere else, not at his lens --
a sketchpad, her boots, a tray

he takes it all into the frame,
corner of the house,
watercolor paints

on the dirt path beside her
a fluted, ordinary glass --
already, the water is muddy

by Laura Shovan


Michael Ratcliffe said...


Thanks again for the opportunity to guest blog. I had planned to write poems about other paintings in the museum, but never got round to it. I've still got my notes from the hours spent in the museum. You've inspired me to set sail on that ekphrastic adventure.


Diane Mayr said...

This is a great post, Laura. I'll have to spend some time at Do Not Look at the Sun.

a fluted, ordinary glass --
already, the water is muddy
is a line that tells us what is important to Georgia O'Keeffe--not the photographer, but the work. Nice ending.

Linda B said...

I love the idea from the Paris journal, 'Postcards from Paris', and the others like paper airplanes. I have visited our art museums through the years with my poetry group, encouraging them to 'sit inside the painting' to see what might happen in their imaginations. To me, that is what Michael & you both did, adding your own connections to what is shown. Both lovely thoughts of that particular time. Your postcard world is expanding, Laura! Thanks for both.

Author Amok said...

Mike, thank *you* for guest posting. It's always fun to feature another poet's voice and creative insights on the blog.

Diane -- I like your take on that last line. My mother is an amateur painter (lifelong) and I think it is because of her that I noticed the glass of water, used for cleaning brushes and working with the paints.

Linda, I'm glad to hear that you have a deep love for ekphrastic poetry. Art and poetry in conversation seems to raise up both media.

Tabatha said...

Great poems, both! And yay Ravens! I thought about you on Sunday :-)