Just about every school kid ends up studying John Keats’ 1819 poem “Ode On A Grecian Urn.” It’s one of the best-known poems in literary history, and one of its closing lines, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” is often dissected as a treatise on the purpose of art.
“Ode On A Grecian Urn” is also a prime example of an ekphrastic poem, one that comments on or describes a visual work of art. Columbia poet Al Black is a big fan of ekphrastic poems. Hewrote one himself, a three-part poem about a triptych by fabric artist Susan Lenz.
That’s part of where his inspiration came from for The Ekphrastic Experience. He recruited a group of local poets to put words to a collection of paintings by local artists.
“There was this exhibit,” Black says of an ongoing show at Stormwater Studios featuring 19 local artists selected for this year’s ArtFields competition in Lake City. Exhibitor Janet Orselli was particularly influential.
“[She] was also a poet,” Black adds, “and between the two of us we talked about doing poems to some of these pieces.”
Black spoke with Kirkland Smith, of Stormwater Studios, about the idea, but he wanted to do something beyond creating an event with artists and poets.
“I was thinking that poetry, up until 450 years ago and the invention of the printing press, was carried on by musicians,” Black says. “People didn’t sit down and write poems, they wrote songs. Homer was a balladeer; Sappho was a balladeer. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I have a singer-songwriter do an ekphrastic song?”
With the plan already largely in place, the final piece of the puzzle came when he ran into his friend, singer-songwriter Tom Hall, while watching the Women’s World Cup final earlier this month.
“I told him what I was doing, and he said yes,” Black says. “That’s how it all came together.”
The initial idea for The Ekphrastic Experience was to have 18 writers create poems based on 18 works of art. But Black realized that was a little too much.
“You’d have to get lawn chairs and have people camp out,” he laughs. “It would be way too long. After talking with Kirkland, we decided that we would have six poets, and they could come in and choose which one of the pieces of art they wanted to write a poem to, first come first served.”
The poets Black selected are a deliberately diverse mix that combines established poets with lesser known writers. Tim Conroy, Janet Orselli, Jerred Metz, Heather Dearmon, Mike Marsh and Star Smauldon will all read pieces based on works of art on display at Stormwater. Each poet had around three weeks after choosing their artwork to create a finished poem.
If he’d wanted to, Black says he could’ve found 18 poets pretty easily. He claims, in fact, that he could’ve gotten 50 to 100 of them.
That’s because he’s spent the last decade or so not just working as a published poet but hosting literary and musical events all around Columbia. He runs Songversations at Tapp’s Arts Center, a concert series where singer-songwriters break down their process, hosts events by the Mind Gravy spoken word group, and co-hosts a hip-hop and poetry series called Blue Note Poetry, just to name a few.
“I host about 100 events a year,” Black explains. “If I don’t know a poet, they must be pretty new on the scene. Columbia is just full of talented artists, and we have a very talented community when it comes to the poets I could have chosen from.”
Black hopes the mixture of music, art and poetry will encourage more cross-collaboration between artists of all stripes.
“I love the energy that comes from collaboration,” he says. “The more we collaborate, the stronger our community becomes, because there’s an expanded level of understanding.”
What: The Ekphrastic Experience
Where: Stormwater Studios, 413 Pendleton St.,
When: Thursday, July 18, 5 p.m.
More: 803-661-9357, stormwaterstudios.org