Poetry: The Found Object

This morning, I discovered the beautiful net fibre sculptures of artist, Janet Echelman, on Facebook, and love the story of how she first started creating them. On a trip to India, her painting materials were lost in transit; turning to traditional sculpture in her new environment, she noticed the various types of net used by local fisherman and began to explore the potential of this new lightweight material.

A found object, completely unrelated to art, became the focus of her work and a source of wonder across the world, as Janet explains in her TED Talk: Taking Imagination Seriously.

I’m already imagining these city-scale suspended art installations as a poem and it also got me thinking about the found object as inspiration for poetry.

When I attended a poetry course with Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill at the Irish Writers’ Centre, back in 2009, Nuala gave us visual prompts to generate ideas for poems; once it was mini ceramic tiles with traditional Turkish designs, another time, art postcards she’d picked up on her travels around the world.

From a bundle of items strewn across a table, we had to pick one and write about it – no ifs, buts or maybes. The beauty of this approach, is that it narrows the focus. Instead of asking, what in the world am I going to write about, the question now is, what in the world am I going to write about this face / tree / object?

A poem is condensed language, detail orientated, specific:

  • Does it inspire an emotion, a feeling, a mood?
  • Does it spark a memory, connect you to an experience or person from your past?
  • Does it require research to discover an idea? What kind of tree? Where does it grow? Does it have associations or connotations with local culture, legends or myth? No? Create them.
  • Does it have a history – a story behind the image that needs to be told? No? Create one.
  • Do the colours have meaning – for you, for the artist, for the culture of the time?

In this way, a thousand different poems might spring from the same source with each poet bringing their own experience and interests to bear, describing the same thing from completely different perspectives. That, in itself, is an exciting idea.

Writing about found objects or items chosen at random teaches the poet 3 valuable things:

  • poems are created through research , compilation and craft, not blind inspiration;
  • to be more playful and less precious when exploring ideas, as there is always a source of new ideas to be found;
  • each found object is an invitation to explore something new, perhaps something unfamiliar, to increase knowledge, interests and skill.

If you’d like to try out this approach, take a look at this collection of old photographs on Pinterest or go to WikiPaintings.

Pick a photo or painting, the first to really grab your attention, then free-write, using the above prompts. Don’t try to make a poem, just put down on paper everything it sparks for you. Put a boundary in place, set a clock timer – 10 mins max.

Rinse and repeat.

Before long, you will have a cluster of ideas: new poems, waiting to be found.

Featured Image: 1.26 Sculpture Project, Denver (2010) – Janet Echelman

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