Creating poetry is more than just sitting down and writing “stuff” in a particular form. “Stuff” rarely materialises like manna, it must be found from somewhere.
Finding “stuff” to write about can be difficult. The notions of “writing what you know”, “write what you see around you” and “write from experience” are all good in principle, but when these sources seem exhausted, dry or repetitious and unchallenging, it can be useful to take a break and borrow material from somewhere else. I do not believe that everything should be written from direct experience and as a scientist, I would be peculiarly stunted if I started experimenting or theorising based only my own experience.
Other artists provide a useful source of material, usually “pre-sorted”. I suspect few artists create work from material they think unimportant, so looking at a piece of art gives an already considered source. I often chose paintings and photographs as a source, often for an exercise rather than with the deliberate intention to write a poem. Interestingly, I choose the work, I am not forced to a given work. I tend to approach this material in different ways, sometimes taking them at face value, sometimes with a more cynical eye. Sometimes my approach changes during the exercise.
The choice provides more than a source, it also provides constraints to the writing. The style of the source is often reflected in the writing style, for example, the impression of simplicity in Spencer’s “St Francis and the Birds” is reflected in the simple style of the resulting poem. Constraints may be subverted when the source acts as a catalyst to a wider ranging piece as in “So we all find the shore before sunset”, based on Turner’s allegorical “War.The Exile and the Rock Limpet”.
Although it is dangerous to mix sources, I find contrasting pieces, often in different genres, can provide a mid-ground that provides valuable thinking space. The poem “Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère, Édouard Manet, 1882″ was originally based not on the painting itself, but on Copolla’s film “Lost in Translation”. The painting provided the material, the film the constraints.
Sometimes it is not the image that provides the material, but the technique. My Marilyn poems are often based on photographs, but one in particular “The digital enhancement of photographs of Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio” is based not on the image, but the enhancement techniques.
Ekphrasis has moved on since the days where it just involved detailed description of other artists’ work and this progress makes it a valuable resource for writing. By providing already processed material it provides constraints but also different approaches for the writer and even new ways of thinking.
Added 14/07/2015: Ray Rasmussen refers to and extends these ideas in Contemporary Haibun Online.