Monday, October 24, 2011

The ultimate reality show

An authentic experience.

That is what ArtsWestchester’s CEO Janet T. Langsam told me the arts lover is looking for today, perhaps favoring grassroots workshops over performances at big cultural institutions.

Recently, I had the pleasure – and I might add, the privilege – of such an experience when I attended an ekphrastic poetry workshop orchestrated by Poets and Writers Inc. as well as the Greenburgh’s Arts and Culture Committee in the person of its executive director, writer Sarah Bracey White. For the uninitiated, ekphrastic poetry is poetry based on artwork. (It comes from the Greek words meaning “out” and “speak.”) Among the earliest examples is the description of the shield of Achilles in Homer’s “The Iliad.” But my personal favorite is W.H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” in which Pieter Bruegel’s  “Landscape With the Fall of Icarus” (circa 1558) becomes a metaphor for the peculiar nature of suffering that renders many of us oblivious to it.

Karen Rippstein conducted the workshop, striking just the right balance between gentleness and constructive criticism, which is so important for us writers, a fragile bunch if there ever was one. (Forget life. I think writers are like a box of chocolates, seemingly hard on the outside with that melting, gooey center whenever we have to put our work on the line.)

So it was with some trepidation that I read my poem, inspired by one of the works in Sam Taylor-Wood’s “Crying Men” photographic series. If you’ve been a reader of this blog in the past, you know that I have been obsessed with these photographs, for which Wood, having been diagnosed with cancer, asked male movie stars ranging from Hayden Christensen to Paul Newman to cry on camera. What began as an exercise in how women see men and the relationship between real emotion and artifice deepened – for Wood and the viewer, too – into a meditation on loss and grief, two subjects that have been my companions of late.

Since attending that workshop, I’ve written another poem and a short story. It was as if a creative dam burst.

But then, that’s what an authentic experience can do.

Attached is a link to the “Crying Men” series -- as well as my poem. I hope you enjoy both:

“Thoughts on Sam-Taylor Wood’s ‘Robert Downey Jr.’”

In the photograph, he lies on a bed,

Offered like an odalisque,

An arm tenting his face.

His is a sparse room,

Adorned only by a diffuse light

That betrays nothing.

Is it the dread dawn, the twilight terror –

Those netherworlds of half-remembered anguish?

Or is it just another moment in an ordinary day?

He will not say.

Nor can we read his face,

Though we know it is painted in tears.

Does he weep for himself,

Or for the camera’s eye, the moon to his Endymion?

Does it matter when the tears still flow from the wellspring of the soul?

We marry this scene,

Locate his pain in our own

And marveling, think,

This, then, is grief:

To be framed and naked in our fragility,

To recognize the dawn of despair,

To lie awake, uttering after Hamlet,

“Oh, God. God.”

Visit the Arts and Culture website,, to find out about the rest of the workshops in the year-long series. And enjoy WAG at