ekphrastic

John Robert Lee

As part of Canisia Lubrin’s (Dis)Order: The Single Question Series, John Robert Lee answers a single question about his work.

Q: Writing converges different forms of knowing in ways that allow for the possibilities of knowledge to become particularly expansive because this seems to require listening for what is unknown to us. There exists a vitality that moves a thing from language to idea to fully-realized act. We mostly call such a thing vision, which implies form—whether poetry, fiction, stage play, etc.—and an amalgamation of copious other factors. What does this convergence mean for you as a poet—particularly in the context of your newest collection, Collected Poems: 1975-2015?

My Collected Poems 1975-2015 (Peepal Tree Press, 2017) are a compilation of 40 years of poetry. I have often thought, over several publications (chapbooks and longer works) that I have been writing one book.

The Collected Poems are arranged in chronological order of writing and publication. They trace a life history that explores and searches out my experience of writing and the arts, traditional and contemporary cultures of Saint Lucia, the Caribbean, the wider world. Themes include family, friendships, love, loss, death, faith, identity; the forms and dedications reflect also my homage to the writers from whom I have learned (i.e., Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, T.S. Eliot).

Perhaps because I have been a teacher for many years (literature, drama, creative writing, library science, and the Bible) I have always been interested in making interconnections between subjects, ideas, and forms. All art begins with basic principles of content, form, conception, composition, communication, and realization. The history of movements in ideas are reflected in all areas of art as evidenced in the Classical, Realism, Surrealism, Naturalism, Modernism, and Post-modernism eras. Writers, musicians, painters, choreographers, filmmakers, et al. all speak out of, and within their own forms, to the ideas that are fermenting. And there we find the multiple parallels in perceiving and knowing.

So, discovery of convergences is essential to all art-making including of course, writing poetry. And what makes poetry accessible to readers from one’s own culture and those who are strangers to it, is that the writer seeks to find points of conflux, human commonalities (even across time), with which the reader can identify, even though the specific details may be unfamiliar. Seamus Heaney’s poems of rural Irish life can reach the African or Indian who also lived the rural, though different examples are being used of the shared experience. Indeed, the well-wrought local reflection shows forth the commonwealth universal.

Writers, musicians, painters, choreographers, filmmakers, et al. all speak out of, and within their own forms, to the ideas that are fermenting. And there we find the multiple parallels in perceiving and knowing.

In recent years, I have been engaging (not exclusively) with the work of painters, sculptors, and photographers (contemporary and classical) to write ekphrastic poetry. The challenge has been to unearth resonances, convergences, and connections resident in the image with my own perceptions and intuitions to which I can respond with poems. I am not interested primarily in a literal description of the art I am contemplating. Some of these poems are included in my new Collected Poems, though without the art, which then tests the poems to see if they can stand on their own without the image, and still relay something of the power of the original graphic to the reader.

Writing, if it is to orchestrate a harmony of convergences and connections, as it gathers perceptions of truth and makes beauty out of even the grim, does require listening for what is unknown to us. In one of my poems in the Collected, titled “The Art of Faith Canticles” (dedicated to Kwame Dawes) I write:

You must now enter the silence alone and listen. Wait.
Wait for the translation of the first line. Write.
Write with your fingers searching the pigments on the palate
for the essential shading of the right
image.

The visioning into which the writer enters as he seeks to assemble the disparate threads and tracks of knowing which must be woven into a comprehensible tapestry involves of course all the five physical senses as well as the non-physical senses of emotion, intuition, and intellect. I think the best writing, and in particular the best poems, are those which embody the idea, the theme, in physical images seen, heard, tasted, smelled, and touched, which then create the metaphorical power to move the reader to insight and their own vision. I learned this from Derek Walcott, whose descriptive narratives are vehicles of unique metaphor.

In my Collected Poems, reflecting 40 years of work, I have tried to see and shape into a confluence and convergence, the connections I have made between my own knowledge, ideas, and experiences of our shared, communal livings.

To make a final link, I think what I admire about the work of Dionne Brand is how she, too, envisions the relatedness, across time and space, of our histories, common humanity, shared sufferings, converging aspirations. She is an influence on my newer post-Collected work.

John Robert Lee (b. 1948) is a Saint Lucian writer who has published several collections of poetry. He has also published short stories and reviews.  His work has appeared in many journals, print and online, including The Puritan. For many years he produced and presented radio and television programs on the arts in Saint Lucia. In 2017, he published “Song & Symphony,” an ekphrastic poem responding to the work of Saint Lucian artist Shallon Fadlien. His Collected Poems 1975-2015 was also published by Peepal Tree Press (UK). He is now co-editing a book on Saint Lucian culture. He lives in Saint Lucia. Follow him on Twitter @Rlee_fan.

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