The National Gallery of Art is hosting the symposium “Poetry is a country” on Saturday, September 23rd as part of the annual John Wilmerding Symposium on American Art and Community Celebration. The symposium brings poets from across the nation together to premiere original poetry inspired by works in the Gallery’s collection, and it and will open with a keynote address by U.S. Poet Laureate Ada Limón—who wrote a poem, “In the End, Everything Gives” in response to Andy Goldsworthy’s sculpture Roof.
The following is a Q&A with Emily Pegues, assistant curator of sculpture and decorative arts at the National Gallery of Art, who conceived the symposium.
Rob Casper: I read that this symposium was inspired by a virtual reading. Can you tell us more about this?
Emily Pegues: The festival title was inspired by a conversation between Victoria Chang—one of the poets that will be premiering her work at the event—and Dana Levin, hosted by Women & Children First Bookstore in Chicago. They discussed feeling “at home in poetry.” Professor Chang explained how “language is a country,” a thought which Professor Levin explored as “a place that becomes yours . . . a place that you get to hold.” The National Gallery of Art’s vision is to be “of the nation and for all the people,” and one of my wonderful colleagues came up with the symposium title “Poetry is a country” as a way to bring these ideas together.
RC: “Poetry is a country” is the seventh annual symposium in the series. How does it compare to previous symposia, especially in its focus on poetry?
EP: Previous Wilmerding Symposia have featured poets, such as Elizabeth Alexander, Ross Gay, and Robin Coste Lewis, who gave keynote presentations. Last year’s programming, held in conjunction with the National Gallery’s Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition, had an almost equal representation of visual and literary artists—including Erica Buddington, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Clint Smith III. This ekphrastic poetry project created the ideal opportunity to host a full lineup of poets.
The community celebration offers interactive activities for all ages to discover poetry throughout the museum. Local artists will lead writing and bookmaking workshops, and artmaking in the galleries will explore the poetry of colors, shapes, and sizes. Typewriter poets will transform visitors’ discoveries about works of art into a personalized keepsake haiku, typed up the old-fashioned way.
RC: There is a long history of ekphrastic poetry (i.e., poetry that describes works of art) in Western culture, leading back to Homer. How does “Poetry is a country” speak to, deepen/extend, or maybe even challenge that history?
EP: Adrienne Rich wrote that “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.”
As long as there has been art, people have responded to it with poetry. To describe something is to look at it closely, to pay attention, to notice. Ekphrasis is a way of close looking and taking the pulse of how art makes one respond. That individual, personal way of deep looking is something we hope for our visitors to experience for themselves, and something we wanted to prompt by inviting these writers to help us see this art anew. We would love for the poets’ work to set off a chain reaction where our visitors are inspired to craft their own responses to a work of art that speaks to them. Ekphrastic poetry extends the conversation begun by visual art.
When you read one of these poems you can’t help but briefly inhabit that poet’s way of seeing or feeling—and that kind of imaginative empathy is both a private joy/human pleasure and a greater societal need.
We were curious to see what works of art the poets would choose: they had their pick of anything in the East Building’s installation of modern and contemporary art. We didn’t give the poets any instruction, just turned them loose on the collection. It was exciting to see which art spoke to each poet and how they answered back.
The first poem we received came from Naomi Shihab Nye, who chose Max Beckmann’s Falling Man for reasons which included the astonishing fact that her mother had studied painting with Beckmann! But even before we knew that or had even read her poem, we thought what a brilliant choice of painting, because Beckmann’s painting of a man tumbling through the air recalls the falling figure of Icarus painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder described in the most famous ekphrastic poem of all time, W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux-Arts.” Auden’s poem deals with suffering and the loss of a son—as does the new poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. So while her poem is its own separate expression, it has this echo back to an earlier landmark in the long tradition of ekphrasis. These layers of the personal and the private brought into conversation with the universal are so powerful.
RC: Ada Limón is featured in the symposium—tell us about her role, and what spotlighting the current Poet Laureate of the United States means to the National Gallery of Art.
EP: As Poet Laureate, Ada Limón serves in a role that raises the arts to national consciousness–a mission shared by the National Gallery. I was privileged to attend her inaugural reading as the 24th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress along with hundreds of others in person and thousands online. Her performance was transformative and joyous, with standing ovations throughout. Second in line at her book signing, I mentioned the National Gallery’s wonderful experience collaborating with Vaughan Fielder, Ms. Limón’s representative honored in the reading as her twin “without whom I could not do this at all.” I also introduced the possibility of this symposium, and she was kind enough to express enthusiasm. Ms. Limón’s love of ekphrastic poetry gave us momentum to realize this project 17 years after it was first conceived. The poems that she and her fellow poets have written for the nation’s art collection represent a wonderful contribution to the nation’s literature.