Ekphrastic Assimilations

My poem “The Scarf” appeared on the Ekphrastic Assimilations website in conjunction with a stunning art exhibition of the same name at VALA Eastside art center in Redmond, Washington in the summer and fall of 2016. Half of the artwork came from China, the other half from local artists. Chinese and local poets expanded on this synergy by responding to the work of artists from the other side of the Pacific. I was commissioned to contribute a poem, and chose to respond to a photograph, titled “In a Chinese Temple,” by Chinese photographer Li Li (李笠).

The physical joy expressed by the children in the image drew me in, as did the immense calligraphy behind them—as well as the “twoness” of the paintings with the two children in front of them. My understanding (learned after writing my poem) is that the Chinese characters, 孝 and 忠, or together as 忠孝 (zhōngxiào), mean filial piety, with overtones of loyalty, devotion, and obedience to one’s parents. These characters have a similar meaning in Japanese. We can easily imagine the children as being loyal to their parents, their joy stemming from being part of a lovingly supportive family. We may wonder if the temple message is a sort of Chinese propaganda, but these are fundamental Confucian virtues, which the children happily partake in. The two giant brushstrokes reminded me of Kazuaki Tanahashi, a renowned one-brushstroke artist, calligrapher, translator, and Zen teacher who runs the American School of Japanese Arts in California—and for whom I’ve had the privilege of teaching haiku workshops at Green Gulch Zen Center and elsewhere. So my poem’s mention of “Kaz” refers to him, and to a performance I once saw him give at the Exploratorium in San Francisco using a giant mop-sized brush almost as tall as he was that he danced with on the canvas beneath his feet (see this video of Kaz in action, among many online). In Kaz’s spirit of improvisation, I used the Random Word Generator [link no longer works] at the Creativity Games website to help me start my poem. The top word I received was “scarf,” which also suggested “scar”—and my poem tumbled out.       +       +

For the Ekphrastic Assimilations exhibition, I also curated two ekphrastic writing workshops in the gallery space on 16 September 2016 (featuring Dianne Aprile, Janée J. Baugher, Emily Dietrich, and Michael G. Hickey, with artist Deborah Kapoor—this workshop pictured below) and on 25 October 2016 (featuring Duane Kirby Jensen, J. I. Kleinberg, Jared Leising, and Joannie Stangeland). You can view or download the ekphrastic writing exercises they provided (PDF documents). I also read my poetry at the closing reception on 30 October 2016, where I was able to meet the Chinese photographer Li Li, and give him a copy of my poem. I’m grateful to Paul Manfredi, Ryan James, and Dawn Laurant for including me in this stimulating exhibition. Please read my poem “The Scarf.” See also “Visual plus Poetry plus Zines.”

—5, 7 May 2017, Sammamish, Washington