So many years have passed since these wonderful annual meetings of painters and poets first began back in 2005.To me, the most wonderful aspect of them is the mutual respect established between the artists and writers. People who helped develop the original idea of this amazing cooperative venture included the carers and art therapists at ‘The Abilitiy Centre, Disability Services Commission and the Nulsen Haven with poets and organisers of literary events and poetry publishing, Maureen Sexton and Gary De Piazzi. They have created something amazingly productive with these annual exhibitions and poetry readings in a range of public places in Perth and the Metropolitan area, including a number of major shopping centres. Then there are the beautifully produced anthologies published annually by Creative Connections, with the poems set next to the images of the artists’ paintings on page after page. Collectively disadvantaged persons, the artists may be in a multitude of ways, but the sheer colourful brilliance of their work set alongside some of the best poets in the West has surely caused changes in the attitudes of the WA public to the capability of all such artists. The willingness of those dozens of poets to respond to the artworks allocated to them each year for poetic response is in itself an additional demonstration to the West Australian public that these paintings form a crucial addition to the great body or art and literature produced in the State over the years.
Furthermore, this year’s Creative Connections anthology is correctly described by the organisers as ‘arising out of an aspiration to create exhibitions where artists with disabilities are recognised for their ability, where their creativity can be highlighted and, through this intensive and unrestricted artwork, provide an avenue for poets to discover inspiration and new interpretations from the abstract and conflict often encapsulated in the work of the artist.’ No better example of this avenue might be given than the first and the last poems in the book. For Lisa Bernic’s untitled canvas in brilliant red, the poet Val Neubecker wrote:
I peer down
through the incendiary heat
a churning incandescent mass
a fiery intensity
spitting white-hot particles
I don’t think I’ll dip MY toes in.
The last poem in the book is a response to Michael Chandler’s canvas, also untitled. It was written by Deb Micallef:
Periwinkles growing close to the ground
Want green leaves? Just add a little sunlight.
Leschenaultia, springing up by the side of the road.
Native blue flowers, such a pure delight.
Or blue hydrangeas framed by milky jade leaves.
Changing colour if the soil is right.
Lapis Lazuli, a beautiful honest blue
Threaded through with gold pyrite.
Yes, you guessed it, Michael’s painting does have a dominance of bright blue in it.
Privileged as I am to speak at this exhibition on behalf of the poets (I should say, doubly privileged to be in the midst of the brilliant paintings of our artist colleagues. And this privilege makes me feel an obligation to remind you of how ancient and widespread is the practice of ekphrastic art. This old Greek word ekphrasis originally meant writing about nature, especially in existing works of art, in such a vivid way as to recreate the original images in the mind of the reader. Nowadays it also applies to any work of art which tries to relate to an existing work in another medium. Not so strange really, think of how songs are really poems of a poet set to music by a composer—or prayers or psalms also set to music for another way to present them. But great paintings, especially battle scenes (‘The Fighting Temeraire’) or sculptures (Michelangelo’s ‘David’) have frequently been the inspiration for poetry. We might remember the famous poem of John Keats: ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. So the poets here today responding to our local artists are following a great tradition of ekphrastic art. Such literary works are a response to another kind of muse perhaps. A sort of literary reflux rising up…no, no that’s a tasteless jest about over-eating.
Enough of theory and history, the real results of artistic collaboration are what we have here in our historic Perth Town Hall in this eighth annual Creative Connections exhibition—50 painters and 37 poets. It is really exciting to go through all the poems in the 2015 anthology—such a wealth of amazing responses to all the colourful paintings you see displayed here today. Perhaps the best way is to start leafing through the pages of the book. If we randomly select a page from near the front, let me see, page 3 where we have an unusual art work, Peter Layton’s three pictures in one—a triptych as we call such pieces—quite a challenge to a poet responding to this acrylic painting on canvas with so much to catch the eye. And, yes, the two poets writing about Peter’s work have come up with two completely different poems. Coral Carter has written a poem in three parts each of three lines, using the flight of swallows as the connection between them. It is a formal poem, although not rhymed but is what anyone would recognised at ten paces as poetry. A closer reading brings us the wonderful images inspired by the painting—‘At dusk swallows gather/wing tip to wing tip/measuring day’s light’…
The second poem by Virginia O’Keeffe is titled “Triptych” but is a completely different type of poem. It is in the so-called free verse form. In fact, it has so little visual resemblance to traditional formal verse such as we learned in school to be termed a prose poem. Yet still a highly respectable form of poetry in this modern era. Robert Frost was more traditional and referred to free verse as like playing tennis without a net. But, joking aside, if you think about much of modern art, the abstract mode is more common than not. In fact, if you look around at many of the paintings in this exhibition you will see that they would be described as abstracts. So why shouldn’t Virginia choose to follow their example in the structure of her poem. If we take a line from her poem I am sure you will agree it is every bit as poetic as the lines in any other of the 100+ poems in the anthology:
‘Smell the softening of the day/ as earth sends up her perfumed grasses.’
It was Robert Browning, that great 19th Century British poet who said that the experience that usually begins the birth of a poem is when the writer is ‘stung by the splendour of a sudden thought’. As one of the poets who has always been eager to participate each year in Creative Connections, I must say that Browning’s description is very close to how I come to create my ‘tributes’ to the work of the artists allocated to me for ekphrastic response in verbal form. Of course, I don’t merely describe the paintings for they speak for themselves. To simply translate them into words would be just an act of poetic journalism, as far as I am concerned. What I think most of us poets do when we look at the paintings allocated to us is let ourselves be ‘stung by their splendour’ as Browning puts it, and then, like the scientist who bares his arm to the sting of some rare insect we let the words flow. And as they flow from the pen or the keyboard we give them shape according to the poetic traditions and choices we follow. The painting may provoke related or unrelated visual images, but in many cases they recall a piece of music, some physical action, tastes, smells or of course ideas of a religious, philosophical or historical nature. But most of all, the poem reflects feelings—sadness, happiness, fear or joy. All these reactions are represented in the poems of the anthology. I urge you to read them and enjoy as waiters are wont to say in restaurants nowadays when they serve you your meal.
One last thing, and I say it in awe of the assembled talents of all these celebrated or even uncelebrated (in some cases very new WA poets) writers: be aware that some of Australia’s foremost poets are here in the book for the privilege of your reading. And certainly the cream of our contemporary local poets are listed. Read the bio notes about them at the end of the anthology to see how many have recently brought out their own books of poetry. To those who selected and edited and designed this anthology, especially that mover and shaker Gary Colombo de Piazzi, I give thanks on your behalf as well as mine and thank the artists again for providing the all-important inspiration for our work.
Professor Glen Phillips, Poet