Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Ekphrasis, with David O'Meara

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Arc Poetry Annual 2011: Poet as Art Thief

What happens when two forms of art are bounced off one another? That's what the 2011 Arc Poetry Magazine's Poetry Annual 2011: Poet as Art Thief wanted to explore. This year, Arc celebrates ekphrasis — the representation of visual art within a literary work, and vice-versa. Through a diverse series of poetry, art, essays and interviews, Canadian artists render a feast for the senses as they meditate on the place of art in poetry.

David O'Meara, who today tells Open Book about the poetry-art chain inspired by his poem "The Throw," will be reading at the Landon Branch Library in London on February 16th and at Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton on February 17th. Visit Open Book: Ontario's Events page for more details.

The complete poetry-art chain created by David O'Meara and his collaborators was commissioned by Arc to explore the "thievery" involved in the creation of art. "The Throw" was given to artist Andrew Farrell to respond to, and the resulting work was passed on poet Gillian Wallace, whose poem was sent to artist Marisa Gallemit, poet Barbara Myers, and so on, until it the project was returned to David for the final link in the chain. Pick up a copy of the issue to see what they came with!

Who knows? With the weekend on the horizon, maybe you'll want to try out a poetry chain or some ekphrastic poetry yourself. To get started, check out these AGO exhibits and hear some of Arc's contributors read the poems they were inspired to write.

And don't miss our previous On Ekphrasis interviews with Arc's guest editor Aislinn Hunter and poet Ruth Roach Pierson.


Open Book:

Arc's newest issue includes a chain of poetry and visual art in which each piece responds to the previous link in the chain. The first link in the chain is your poem "The Throw." Will you describe the ideas you were working with when you first wrote "The Throw"?

David O'Meara:

“The Throw” came about through a confluence of idea and language. I’d had the first line, "Throw a ball up there, into / the open air," in my head for some time. I just liked the sound of it, its causal possibilities. And it rhymed. But one day I was reading a book by Thomas Levenson called Einstein in Berlin, not for the science but for the history, when I came across a passage on how physicists universally measured space and time by using the speed of light as a yardstick, thus enabling them to answer such questions as “how long does a metre last in time,” or “how far is a second?” The answer to the last is 300 million metres, the distance it takes light to travel in a second. Which makes one think about how long a second actually is, doesn’t it? Which made me think of all the possible events that could occur while a ball is in the air. A kind of mundane theory of relativity. But the line and the idea converged, and then I was able to drive the little sucker forward with alternating median and end rhymes.


How did working on this project with Arc change your own understanding of "The Throw"?


That’s interesting because I didn’t write the poem for the chain; Arc’s editors requested it for that use after it had appeared in my latest book. But I think they chose it because it seems to manifest what they were trying to do: throwing an idea up and seeing what happens in the interim before it lands. A little creative hot potato between poets and visual artists.


What was it that most surprised you about the course taken by the poets and artists who were working in response to the previous works in the chain?


I loved how everyone seemed to stick to their own style and interpretation of the preceding link, and yet, in a haunting way, also maintained a particular mood or tone through the whole project. The poets seemed to be articulating loneliness and longing — what Barbara Myers called her “Night Mind” — that the artists were visually representing. And I loved how a narrative developed, how the chain feels like a journey, both spatial and emotional. We start with the topographical play of Andrew Farrell’s acrylic on wood, leave the earth, and return to the image of home in Abi Lyon Wicke’s mixed media, accompanied by the feeling of loss and separation found in the poems.


Do you think you could have (or would have) written the final poem in the sequence, "In the Event of Mood Disaster," without the triggers of the other works in the chain? Can you identify particular aspects of the previous works that found their way into the writing of this poem?


William Safire, as Nixon’s speech writer, had been charged with the task of writing something the president might read in the event that Apollo 11’s lunar module failed, leaving the astronauts stranded on the moon. Part of the contingency plan was to cut off all communication with them for their last hours. Maintaining morale for the space program, I guess. It’s a completely haunting idea. But I don’t know if I’d have written anything on it. Again, like the first line of “The Throw,” I’d been carrying around that story for months. I returned to the idea because of the chain. So the poem is at once about the anxiety of deadlines and that sense of separation from home developed in the lunar theme. I just told the story. But it was both challenging and fun to reference something from all the visual pieces: the ball, the astronaut, the curtains, the ladder and “the empty shape” from each of the paintings. In that way, they very directly influenced the direction of the poem.


What is your experience of ekphrastic poetry? Have you written poems that you would call ekphrastic?


Ekphrastic poems are everywhere; I couldn’t even start to list them. Many great ones. As humans, we tell stories and we remember in images. We respond to visual art in a more visceral and indefinite experience than we do with text. Poets envy this and want to say why. Conversely there’s probably a touch of word-envy in many of the phrases artists use for their titles. I have written about photographs in the past, and only recently wrote a series on Henry Moore’s work, something on Durer’s Rhinoceros, and Damien Hirst. But I’ve mostly been thinking about art theft. The concept, not committing it.

Born and raised in Pembroke, Ontario, David O'Meara now lives in Ottawa and tends bar at the Manx Pub. Storm still (Carleton UP, 1999) was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award. The Vicinity (Brick Book, 2003) was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. Noble Gas, Penny Black, also published by Brick Books, is his third collection.

He will be reading in London on February 16th and in Hamilton on February 17th.

The Arc Poetry Annual 2011: Poet as Art Thief includes work by renowned Canadian poets Stephanie Bolster, Ross Leckie and John Barton, as well as rising stars in Canada’s poetry scene, including Sandra Ridley, Kelly Aitken and Nick Thran. The collection also boasts literary-inspired works by internationally renowned artist Pascal Grandmaison and the award-winning duo Duke and Battersby. For more information about the Annual 2011 please visit the Arc Poetry website.

You can order a copy of this issue from the Arc Poetry website or your local independent bookstore.

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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