Written by Alycia Butler
On Jan. 27, the Frick Pittsburgh virtually arranged “Ekphrasis: Poetic Responses to Victorian Radicals” over Zoom, where poets from Pittsburgh were able to create poems based on Victorian art being showcased in the museum. They had the opportunity to explore the museum and choose their art piece.
Lisa Viscusi, the host and manager of adult learning, asked the readers to give self-introductions to empower them and promote diversity. She also spoke about the importance of interpretation. “It just means so much to me to bring artists and poets together because I feel that there is a language spoken that isn’t necessarily spoken in other places or that people don’t hear,” Viscusi said.
S. Brook Corfman, a 30-year-old white woman, discussed “The Delivery of Israel out of Egypt” by Samuel Coleman, which shows the parting and collapsing of the Red Sea. Corfman’s poem, “The Red Sea”, spoke about how Sam struggled with choosing her art and the details. Their interpretation spoke about the sun and how the art incorporates a contrast in visibility. “Think of your phone’s camera, tapping on different parts of the screen to change the focus, and how this darkens or brightens the view as a whole, and quite differently,” Corfman said.
Michelle Stoner, a white woman, spoke about “La Donna della Finestra” by Donte Gabriel Rossetti. Stoner talked about how she was “haunted” by the painting because it was unfinished and felt complicated feelings over it. She spoke about wanting to finish the art but how the art was perfect the way it was. Stoner incorporated a unfinished line in her poem, “The Sonnet for Jane Morris Unfinished.” She wrote, “just ________/ and light to the very edges.”
Veronica Corpuz, a Filipino woman, spoke about a bed cover by Mary Jane Newill. Corpuz wrote two poems, “After Walking Through the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts Cristiano” and “Ode.” Corpuz’s first poem repeated “gallery after gallery” and “floor after floor,” lines that called out how she felt in art museums because of repeated portraits. Her second poem sends respects to different aspects to the bed cover in lines like “ode to the fingers and the thread/ ode to the fingertips that might have blood/ode to the chainstitch.”
Cameron Barnett, an black man, wrote about “The Pipe Bearer” by John Frederick Lewis. He was drawn to the painting because of the black representation. Barnett said, “…what’s not present in the painting is and is present in my poem is a lot of the conversation around the creation of the exhibit, all of the pieces, the materialism, the craft, the sensibility of the era. I was really trying to take in everything that I was experiencing but really bring it back to this one painting that I couldn’t escape.” He split his poem, “Second Look,” diagonally to reflect the separation of the people in the painting.
Amy Marvel, a white woman and school-psychologist, spoke about “Morgan Le Fay” by Frederick Sandys. Morgan Le Fay is a character in many King Arthur legends who attempts to kill her half-brother King Arthur. Marvel stated, “…it seems that as more men got ahold of her to tell her story and to retell her story she became this villain, and this seductress, and this witch.” Her poem, “An Incantation of Fire,” is an interpretation of what she thought Morgan Le Fay would say about her painting and a way to “take back” her story.
Danielle Obisie-Orlu discussed “The Stonebreaker” by Henry Wallis. In the painting, the stone breaker shown is deceased. Her poem captured how lovers and families of lost stone breakers. She begins by saying, “a lot of men leaving their households and then you have women headed households. And they always wonder what happens…in the women headed households so now I was really interested in taking this painting from the perspective of… somebody who was this stonebreaker’s beloved, asking questions and basically speaking out his eulogy.”
Vanessa German, a black woman, read last. She was presenting from North Carolina, on Cherokee land. She discussed “Day Dress” and of the inspiration she received from her mother. Her poem spoke about some of the experiences and feelings she had, the memories it relocated, and the understanding of her mother’s work. She wrote, “a girl can get lost in a simple box if you let her / keep it up / my mother is teaching me how to read the story of the life of the fabric… my mother says / see: your fingers know what is happening.”
The Victorian Radicals exhibits ran from Nov. 6 2021, to Jan. 30, 2022. These exhibits can still be viewed on the Frick Pittsburgh website. Recordings of the poem responses can be found on The Frick Pittsburgh’s YouTube channel. On Apr. 30, 2022, a new exhibit called “Romare Bearden: Artist as Activist and Visionary” will be added to the museum. Future poetry reading events in Pittsburgh include Steel City Grand Slam, The Madwomen in the Attic (programmed with Carlow), and Phenomenal Open Mic – The Underground.