When Pictures Speak—Writing Photograph Inspired Poems
Looking through my mother’s photo albums, I discovered this photo of her sister Marion, posing, Diana like, at a summer camp, sometime in the mid-1940s. The pose and composition evoke Marion’s essence so precisely, I was eager to write about it. Marion was in her twenties when the photo was taken. I was in my twenties when I took care of her while she was dying, in her summer cabin, in her fifties. Writing a poem allowed me to express the emotional pull of the remarkable image of her arrow and her aim. That poem, Monadnock, will be published this fall in Emerge Literary Journal.
Finding Poetic Inspiration in Photos
We’ve all had the experience of hearing the whispers of photographs which seem to have a deeper story to tell. Whether they’re candid snapshots, cell phone images or studio portraits, these pictures arrest our attention and prompt an emotional response we can explore through writing poetry.
Framing Your Approach
A photographic poem frames personal and universal themes a picture reveals to us when prompted by simple questions. By answering the prompts in writing, we’re able to mine the intrinsically rich symbols, metaphors, narratives, and voices which are, consciously or unconsciously, embedded in the original picture. We can generate dynamic description and emotional revelation to frame a brief, elegant story in the shape of a poem.
Questions to Ask when Exploring a Photo
When you’re ready to begin, place your photo where you can see it and have your notebook or blank document ready. Plan enough time to answer the questions spontaneously, in any order. Write without expectations. Avoid the temptation to edit. Trust your instincts. The truest answer is usually an imaginative one. Be open to whatever emerges and the element of surprise.
- Why did you choose this photo? Or, does it seem as if the photo chose you to express
something previously unexpressed in words?
- Be aware of who your intended audience for this poetic writing is or might be—is this
for you, a loved one, a future recipient?
Describe the setting. Is this a place you’ve been? Can you imagine being there?
Describe what you can tell or imagine the “climate” of the photo to be—is it inside or outside? Steamy? Arctic? Stifling?
What feeling is evoked by the scene? Joyful? Melancholy? Romantic?
Can you tell what time it is? Time of day? Time of life? Time of year? Are there elements that transcend time?
- Sound: Is there a sound or noise the photo makes? Describe it.
- Smell: Are there any particular aromas? Describe them.
- Taste: Is taste activated by the photo? How?
Who is taking the picture? Why do you think the photographer took this picture?
Can you tell who the intended audience of the photo is or might have been? Is there an unintended audience?
Explore the people, place, or things in the photograph by reversing roles. Let them introduce themselves to you by “speaking” to you in the first person: “I am. . .” and write whatever comes to mind for each of the people, animate or inanimate objects, following the flow of the interior monologue. If the subject is a scene, like a mountain, let the mountain “speak” in the first person. If there’s a lake, ask the lake a question. If there are two people, see if you can hear what they might be saying to each other.
What seems to be calling to you from the photograph? Describe the emotional hook—how does the photograph make you feel?
Is there a conflict in the photograph, or is there a conflict in your experience of it?
What surprises you about the photo or your response to it?
What isn’t made explicit by the photograph? What do you wonder about?
Create a Spontaneous First Draft
After answering the questions, you may be ready for a break or ready to dive into a first draft of a poem. Once again, this writing should be spontaneously generated, without judging or editing. If you take a break before writing, read your answers before you begin. After you’ve created your first draft, I recommend not sharing it at this point. It’s too fresh for feedback or critique. Rely on your own internal voice and follow your own creative impulses with the poem.
Wait, Revise, Sharpen, Share
You may put the poem away for days or weeks, months or years. Whatever the distance, when you return to it be objective, but be kind. Return to the photo. Review your notes. Circle the parts of the poem you really like—figures of speech, ideas, or language. Look for hot spots—pockets of emotionally charged description that makes you feel something. If you find them, you’re on the right track. Consider changes in perspective and point of view, or past to present tense. Play, have fun. Trust the process. Keep revising until it feels done. Read it out loud, to yourself. Feel the satisfaction of having written it. Whether or not it’s ever shared, be aware of how far the poem has already reached to serve you.
Kelly DuMar is a playwright, poet, and fiction writer who has been facilitating creative writing workshops for three decades. Her plays have been produced around the U.S. and Canada. Kelly’s recent publications include short stories in Sliver of Stone, Open Road Review, Literary Mama, Red Earth Review; poems in Lingerpost, Blast Furnace, *82 Review, Emerge, Apeiron, and Sugared Water; and short plays in Art Age and Foxing Quarterly. Kelly founded and produces the Our Voices Festival of Women Playwrights at Wellesley College, now in its eighth year. She will be presenting workshops on Writing Photo Inspired Poems at the International Women’s Writing Guild Annual Conference, August, 2013, and the Boston Book Festival, October 19, 2013.