Deep in the heart of another Victorian lockdown (can’t remember which one, all a blur) I was contacted online by Margin Alexander who is an international composer, currently based in New York. He had come across one of my old poems via Instagram and it had inspired him to write a song, and he was wondering if he could use it for a concert in Manhattan. Now, I have to be honest, I was in the midst of homeschooling a 9 & 7 year old, caring for a 4 year old who couldn’t go to kinder, trying to do a PhD, finish my poetry manuscript, plan my post PhD career, run my holiday business through covid, renovate an early Victorian home and just generally survive, so I thought this must, surely, be a scam.
But it wasn’t, and I’m thrilled to announce that my poem has been turned into a beautiful piece of music which will debut this week in New York. My words will be read by an actor, and I’ll get the chance to watch online. Tickets are available here
This time around things were a little bit different. The poets wrote their pieces first – they needed to be 12 lines and on the theme ‘They are Us’. At the time I was battling through the PhD, my mind was in the 1940s and 1970s, and initially I had no idea what to write about. Eventually a few seeds grew. I was interested in the idea of the force of weather and how, in the face of storm and fire, humans are no more able to control nature than animals are (climate change aside of course, just from a day to day perspective). I ended up trying to capture the moment of an eye catch, between a human mother and a kangaroo mother as they try to protect an offspring in a bushfire. At the heart of it is essentially the fight for survival. But the work, titled Mother’s Day also plays to themes of motherhood and the physical elements of ‘They are Us’ between mother and child. I wrote my 12 lines and sent the work off in May, 2019.
We then found out that the exhibition wouldn’t launch until February 2020, and I do recall scoffing at the idea that the artists were given months to produce a work, while the poets were given a few weeks. I usually like to sit on my poems for a while, take a break from them and come back with fresh eyes but the timeline didn’t allow this and I was nervous about the quality of the poem without the chance to rest it. (There are actually a few things I’d change if I had my time again)
What I also didn’t take into account was that an Australian summer would fall between the writing and the public reading of the poem. Of course the summer of bushfires that occurred over 2019/2020 was horrific, and with my mind focusing on that I’d really forgotten all about my 12 lines of fictional poetry. To be honest I didn’t even re-read the poem until I was at the opening night of the exhibition, and I was blown away by the art work that had been created.
Abigail Robertson had crafted an amazing bronze sculpture from her interpretation of my words. My quickly swept lines, easily forgotten, had been modelled into bronze. And after the summer that had been, the loss of life, of homes, of livelihood and of wildlife the sculpture and the poem together created such an impact. I cried when I saw Abigail’s work, and she cried when she saw me crying. We discussed motherhood, which was how she connected with the work. She explained to me how she had made the sculpture, the detail that was involved and I nodded along pretending that I hadn’t had a tantrum about the level of time the artists had taken to create their work. She introduced me to her best friend and they told me a story – her friend had seen the statue and decided that it looked like a trophy that a mother would get for Mother’s Day. Abigail had been amazed, because her friend had not read the poem, and didn’t know that it was called Mother’s Day. I love that idea. And that night I bought the sculpture, and every year on Mother’s Day I plan to hold it high over my head!
I was really blown away with the process and the idea of another creative soul taking the time with my words (longer than I had) to create something so beautiful and so lasting. Words are ephemeral in many ways, and seeing them interpreted into bronze was an amazing experience and one that I will treasure. My kids didn’t really like my poem but they think that the sculpture is amazing.
The exhibition ended early due to Covid19 restrictions. When I went along to collect the piece I bought home the nameplate and I now have the mounted poem as well. So for a little bit of isolation fun I’ve arranged them in my house like they are still on display (I won’t be leaving them like this but I needed something fun to do!)
Last month a poem I wrote for the Nillumbik Shire Council ekphrastic poetry award was judged ‘highly commended’.
I wrote a poem, How to paint a sigh, in response to an untitled landscape by David Moore. All the winning and highly commended poems have been published onto postcards and can be found at various locations around the Nillumbik area. They are also available online with the judge’s report. I recommend that you read the judges report if you are thinking of entering next year, it’s a great resource. This year’s judges were Helen Lucas, Steve Smart and Karen Throssell. Their comments were:
I loved the title of this poem from the start – how does artist evoke a sigh? Both artist and poet create a wonderful serenity; the poet develops this by references to the senses, imagining the soft sound of the artist’s brush on canvas, the scent of the eucalypts. This work is an excellent example of an ekphrastic response.
Copy of Nillumbik S.C. Postcard via file:///C:/Users/user/Downloads/Ekphrasis_2015_DL_postcard.pdf
The awards evening was beautifully run. There was a small gallery of the work which was a great opportunity for some of the writers to see the art works for the first time (most of us viewed the works online). All of the poems were read by actress Debra Lawrance (Home and Away, Please Like Me) with images of the artwork projected behind. The awards were presented by Nillumbik Shire Council Mayor Cr Helen Coleman.
Melissa Watts with CR Helen Coleman. Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.
This was such a shock, and a great boost to my confidence, given that I have had a ten year gap in writing poetry and only took it back up for the Ballarat Writers ekphrastic poetry projects. (In fact when they first started I opened the opportunity to submit vignettes as well as I was too nervous to write poetry.)
The night was a bitter-sweet night for me, I kept thoughts of my fellow Ballarat Writers ekphrastic poet Pamela Miller close by. Pamela had passed away earlier that week, she was such a great writer and participant in all of the Ballarat Writers ekphrasis projects.
Melissa Watts with artwork – David Moore, Untitled. Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.
The competition is open each year to writers all over Australia so keep your eyes peeled for next year.
Nillumbik Ekphrasis Poetry Award Ceremony 2015: Melissa Watts (commended), Lyn Chatham (2nd Prize), Sandra Renew (commended), David Kelly (commended), Jo Wilson Ridley (commended), Helen Bradwell (3rd prize), Helen Lucas (judge), Mayor Cr Helen Coleman, Steve Smart (judge), Karen Throssell (judge), Debra Lawrance (special guest reader). Photo via Nillumbik Shire Council.
Writers have been asked to select an item in the Ballarat Botanic Gardens to write an ekphrastic poem about. I’ve selected the beautiful Eucalypt in the sensory garden.
I love these projects for a few reasons. Ekphrasis is such a rewarding style of writing. I enjoy focusing on the work of others and trying to capture that in a new light, then articulating it clear enough for an audience to understand my interpretation as well as the original work of art. In my case this year I am interested in the design of the gardens, in particular the sensory garden.
The poetry will be compiled into a book available for sale over the weekend, or at the visitor information centre after the weekend.
The readings will take place on the Saturday, Sunday and Monday at 11am and 3pm. I’ll be reading my work on the Monday.
You can read more about the other ekphrastic projects here and here.