AGNI: In issue 81 of AGNI, you both wrote striking pieces—very different pieces, but both examples of what I think we could call ekphrastic prose. It’s not a term that gets tossed around the way “ekphastic poetry” does, but maybe it should get thrown around—you wrote pieces that, in prose, engaged with non-written art. What do you think the opportunities and challenges are for prose writers, in writing ekphrastic prose? Put another way, why do it, and what’s hard about making it work?
Elizabeth Horneber: Good art will raise questions, and when I write ekphrastic prose, it’s because it seems a way of considering those questions or asking new ones. It’s a way to join the conversation. One challenge, of course, is to communicate the essence of the piece in new medium. You never quite feel you’ve done it justice. But I don’t think the goal is to somehow replicate the art. These days, a reader can easily look up the song, or Google the painting, or in the case of “A Frame Also Is Like Love,” watch Chungking Express for themselves. The prose should have its own mission.
Dorothy Allison, in her essay “This is Our World,” says that though we may watch TV or read books imagining we are experiencing them the same way, we aren’t. The way we react exposes something in us. She says, “If we were to reveal what we see in each painting, sculpture, installation, or little book, we would run the risk of exposing our secret selves, what we know and what we fear we do not know, and of course incidentally what it is we truly fear. Art is the Rorschach test for all of us, the projective hologram of our secret lives.”
Perhaps what is difficult in writing about art, then, is that you must reveal yourself. Work to understand what drew you to the piece, what you see that perhaps not everyone sees. I saw Chungking Express when I was feeling displaced, uncertain about things I’d been certain of for most of my life. As isolated as the film reminded me I was, it placed me in the company of others—a whole city of alienated people. There was something comforting and unsettling in this. My work was to explain this, to communicate not just the experience of the film, but my experience of the film.
But in doing so, I had to make new art. Here too was a challenge—to retain enough of the film to be true to the experience, but also let the essay be true to itself. To figure out a way to transfer its essence to a completely new medium using a different set of tools and still leave room for the writing to stand on its own feet with its own purpose. For me, that meant cutting pages of plot description and instead looking for what the film and the essay could have in common in terms of craft—ways of building, layering, and collaging. Then, I focused on the strengths of prose itself—lyricism, juxtaposition, its freedom and flexibility. The project was a bit of an obsession for a little while—but what else should you write about if not the things you obsess over?
Mara Naselli: I wonder if writing about art is thought to be difficult because some assume art stands alone, to be experienced only through its own medium, which is to say, without words. To bring language into the mix would seem to somehow flatten the experience. But if a work of art leaves one without words, there has been a failure somewhere, either in the artwork or the viewing. Or at the very least a missed opportunity. As my husband likes to say, language is a form of perception. By bringing language to the experience we put ourselves into a position to look more closely, more carefully. We enter into a dialogue. Our attention is heightened. Then I think we can be open to not just what we are looking at but how we are looking. That’s when art really has the power to change us.
There is an added layer that interests me. Whose interpretation am I writing about? Is it my own interpretation and experience of the work? Is it the artist’s? Or is it someone else’s entirely? There’s a good measure of imaginative work and responsibility involved in trying to articulate how someone other than the narrative “I” sees a particular work of art, but it complicates things in interesting ways. We are not just talking about one subjective experience and interpretation. We are talking about how different interpretations converge, diverge, and conflict.
I couldn’t shake George Stubbs’s Hambletonian Rubbing Down, the painting I write about in “Bodies in Motion.” I was seeing something interesting in the knot of motion in the horse’s body, but it wasn’t immediately apparent to me what it was. I consulted other sources, but the curatorial explanations didn’t jibe with what I saw.
In the eighteenth century, sporting art—portraits of horses, dogs, and prize livestock—functioned as trophies, emblems of ownership for the landed gentry. If you are looking at Hambletonian Rubbing Down as just another racehorse portrait, you are probably not expecting to see a commentary on the human-horse power dynamic. Art historians argued Stubbs had depicted the horse exhausted and brutalized by the race. The race was brutal, but the horse in that painting is not exhausted. Perhaps scholars weren’t looking for this kind of subversion in this kind of painting. They unwittingly cultivated a blind spot and missed the fact in plain sight: Hambletonian is baring his teeth.
Language and the work of training sentences keyed my attention to the flexion of muscle, the impossible gait, the obdurate stasis pressing onto the horse. Ekphrastic poetry and prose create something neither the artwork nor language can achieve alone: a new aesthetic experience.
Both of the essays discussed here can be found in AGNI issue 81.
Elizabeth Horneber was raised in upstate New York, studied in Greece, and taught English in China. She earned her MFA in creative writing at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, Hunger Mountain, Grist Journal, Monkeybicycle, and others. She is a 2015-2016 Loft Mentor Series Winner and teaches creative writing in Mankato, Minnesota.