Title: 'Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852' Date: 1887
Title: "Untitled" (Study for Bushrangers) Date: c. 1866
Title: Sick Woman in Dray (Study for Black Thursday) Date: c. 1862
Title: 'Bushrangers, Victoria, Australia 1852' Date: 1887
Choose an image from the slide show (above), and then try a writing exercise (below) that interests you and which you think suits the image.
If you are not sure where to begin, click on the link that appears when you hover over the image; this will tell you more about the artist and artwork.
Or, read through the Samples and try to decide which exercise has prompted each poem. Hopefully this provides some inspiration!
WARM UPS (15 minutes)
Think about how the image engages your five senses. What do you see, hear, feel, smell and taste when you look at the artwork? What would you sense if you were a character within the image, or if you were the artist creating the scene? Spend five minutes now writing a list as fast as you can of every sensory experience you can find in the artwork. Don't worry about making a poem or a story yet - just write a list, in which you are as detailed and specific as possible about how the five senses are involved.
When five minutes is up, read through your list and choose five items (ideally one relating to each sense) that you think express accurately, or surprisingly, how this artwork makes you feel. You now have ten minutes to turn each of these five items into a couplet, and then to arrange the five couplets into a poem about the artwork.
What is the artwork you have chosen to write about made of? Canvas and oil paint? Paper and charcoal? Is it a richly coloured, carefully composed scene, or a series of hasty sketches? Look at it closely and decide what the written equivalent might be. As writers, we, of course, use the medium of words - sounds in our ears, shapes on the page and conjured images.
Your task is to use words in the way that the artist has used his medium. Begin by quickly listing the adjectives you would use to describe the work (e.g. 'dramatic', 'rough', 'measured', 'unfinished', 'realistic'). Now, imagine if these adjectives were applied to a piece of writing. What would it be like? Conversational and relaxed; a dialogue; a letter; a diary entry; a formally perfect sonnet; a lavish extended metaphor? Spend ten minutes now beginning a piece of writing in this style.
Three Ways of Looking
American poet, Wallace Stevens, wrote a famous 'listing' poem called 13 Ways of Looking at a Black Bird, in which he turned the idea of the blackbird around and examined it from many, often unexpected angles. If you haven't read the poem before, read it now.
Your task is to do something similar. As you only have 15 minutes, your job is to find three ways of looking at your chosen artwork. Consider whether there is a history, a story or a character involved; why the artist might have been interested in this subject; what interests you about the artwork; what it is made of; what it reminds you of . . . The list goes on. Once you have found three distinct angles from which you could view the artwork, shape these into three stanzas. Use Wallace Stevens' poem as a guide if you feel lost.
Lost and Found
This exercise may take longer than fifteen minutes - the actual writing (or assembling) will be quick, but you will have to do some reading first. Your task is to hover over your chosen artwork and click on the link. This will take you to a webpage that provides more information. Read the webpage and, as you read, copy down onto a piece of paper any sentences, phrases or single words that you think might be useful or apt in a poem about the artwork.
When you have finished reading the page, and, hopefully, have about five to ten lines copied down, return to the artwork and examine it again. You are now going to use the collection of words you have selected to make a found poem. Feel free to shuffle the phrases you have found as much as you like; they are yours now. Try to find a rhythm or meter in the phrases; to do this, you may need to repeat or add some words. Aim to make a found poem of 10 to 14 lines.
SPRINTS (10 minutes)
This an easy one. For ten minutes straight, continuously write a list of questions that come to mind about the artwork, or, questions the artwork raises - aim to write 20 questions. Don't worry if it seems that your focus is wandering away from the artwork. Just write and see where your questions take you.
Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, has written a whole collection of poetry titled The Book of Questions. Read an excerpt here if you require inspiration.
Scrutinise the artwork carefully for two minutes, without writing anything. Try to memorise its composition, its brushstrokes or pencil lines, its characters and objects, its setting.
When the two minutes is up, avert your eyes from the artwork (close the window so that you won't be tempted to glance back) and now focus on your page. Write continuously for five minutes, describing everything you remember seeing in the artwork. Don't worry about writing in poetry or prose - just describe what you saw as quickly, vividly and precisely as you can.
Now, spend the last three minutes having one more look at the image. What did you misremember, or forget altogether? What did you describe perfectly?
Be honest. What are the first words that come to mind when you look at this artwork? Give yourself 30 seconds to list about ten words that pop into your head while you're observing the work.
Read over your list of words. These are the words that you will not be allowed to use in the poem you are about to write. Strive to find more surprising, original synonyms or alternative phrases to capture your first impressions of the artwork.
*Thank you to British poet, Simon Armitage, for teaching me this exercise.
This 'sprint' requires a little lateral thinking. Imagine that the artwork is not showing itself to you, but is, instead, telling you about itself. What does its voice sound like and what would its message be. In prose (or poetry, if you think the artwork would have a poetic turn of phrase), try to write for ten minutes non-stop from the perspective of the artwork.
LONG DISTANCE (45 minutes)
Points of View
In the 'Speaking Art' exercise above, you attempted to write from the point of view of the artwork itself. This extended task asks you to consider (at least) three new points of view relating to the artwork.
Who is involved in this work of art? The artist, William Strutt, of course. The collector of the artwork, Russell Grimwade. You, as a viewer of the artwork, are also involved. So, too, are the characters within the artwork - both human and animal. Are these characters based on historical figures? If so, then these historical figures are involved too. Now, think laterally - who else might be involved? Consider the curators at the Ian Potter Museum of Art where these artworks are kept. Consider all the different people who, throughout the decades of the artwork's life, have looked at it and been moved by it.
When you have decided on three perspectives on, or from within, the artwork, write what you believe is the most important idea each point of view provides about the artwork. Now, read back through the perspectives and try to arrange them in a 'conversation' on the page. You might find that two perspectives agree with each other, or share similar ideas, while the third is unique and contradictory. The aim of this exercise is to create a poem that shows the reader some of the multiple meanings that the artwork holds.
Carefully examine all of the five artworks. Notice how they relate to each other; some are directly linked in subject matter, while others are connected by colour, style or mood. Notice how one artwork expands your understanding of another. Your task is to write about this 'dialogue' between the artworks. Begin writing a poem, or story, about one work, and use the other to deepen or complicate your description.
Before and After
Paintings and drawings, by nature, appear to freeze a scene or a face in time. In contrast, poems and stories have the freedom to follow a narrative across minutes, hours, days and even years. In this task, you will consider what might have happened in the time leading up to or following the scene that is captured in the artwork. What action is occurring in the space beyond the frame, which you can only imagine? Tell the story of the artwork either in prose, or in ballad form.
One Poem, Two Ways
Begin by writing a short, free verse (unrhymed, without a fixed meter) poem about your chosen artwork. There are no rules now - just write whatever you like, inspired by the artwork. Write for 15 to 20 minutes.
Now, stop writing and read over your poem. Highlight the lines or stanzas you like best. These are the lines you might want to keep in the second version of your poem, which you will now write in a repeating form called a villanelle. Instructions on how to write a villanelle - and examples of this form - can be found here.
COOL DOWN (15 minutes)
So, you think you have observed this artwork as closely as is humanly possible? Look again. After completing one of the 'long distance' exercises, have one more look at your artwork and find something in it that you have not noticed before. I guarantee there will be at least one aspect of the painting that escaped your eagle eyes on the first viewing.
Take one of the pieces of writing you have done in any of the exercises above and follow these simple instructions: halve it! If the poem is 12 lines, prune it back to six. If the story is 500 words, distill it down to 250. The challenge here is to maintain the original idea of the piece - to ensure nothing important is lost.
Writer to Editor
In pairs, swap poems or stories (ideally from the 'long distance' section). You are now going to change identity - from writer to editor. An editor's job is to read a piece of writing carefully, critically and sensitively. Think about what the piece of writing might be trying to do and how it could be adjusted in order to fulfil its role more successfully.
Important things to remember during this exercise:
1) You are critiquing the piece of writing, not the writer.
2) Constructive criticism is specific; provide an example of what needs to be fixed.
3) If you don't understand the piece of writing, ask questions.
4) If you think the piece of writing is perfect, tell the writer (specifically) what you like about it.
5) The results of these exercises aren't supposed to be perfect! Don't be ashamed to share your work-in-progress.