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Jane Armstrong

Introduction to the Ekphrasis Issue

When we put out the call for ekphrastic work, I expected to receive maybe one or two hundred responses from habitual gallery dwellers--people like me who’d rather stare at paintings and think about paintings and maybe write about paintings than do just about anything else. I was overwhelmed by what I received: 607 submissions (more than 1500 poems) not only responding to my rather narrowly conceived call, but also describing and interacting with sculpture, film, dance, theater, opera, photography, advertising logos, road signs, architecture, all manner of visual production. I was surprised to find that what I had considered a private, somewhat secret pleasure was being done regularly and publicly by…everyone. Often by writers who didn’t even know there was a word for what they’d been doing.

As I read through the submissions, I wondered about the power of this enduring literary tradition. What compels authors to employ one medium to describe that which so clearly found its best expression in another medium? How can words possibly capture the physical immediacy of a brush stroke, the curve of a marbled face, the direct pleasure of seeing a work of art? How can words convey the ineffable?

The selections presented here implicitly or explicitly express the difficulty of the task. Through words perhaps less elegantly expressive than the artist’s original medium, these poems, stories and essays express elegance. Through lexical characters less attractive than paint-on-canvas, they show us line, color, and movement. Their words hold us thrillingly in a place where the original visual work of art is simultaneously diminished and enhanced—art through art, re-created and seen anew.

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