to repair the future. . . We are here for the storm
that’s storming because what’s taken matters.
(Claudia Rankine, “Weather”)
for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”)
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention. . . The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention.
Tell about it.
(Mary Oliver, “Sometimes”)
As a nexus among students, faculty members, and poets, Poetry Matters has pursued different projects every season. This year, we are partnering with the McGill Writing Centre, currently launching a group of new courses in creative writing, to develop a suite of extracurricular workshops on the craft of poetry, guided by the theme of ekphrasis. Our supporting research engages the question of how "poetic attention" might relate to forms of "ethical attention."
Modes of attention
As environmentalist Bill McKibben observed last year, “It’s hard to imagine a better prescription for this fraught moment than: pay attention.” Shaping these workshops is our network’s new research on how engagement with poetry, from both creative and readerly perspectives, can play a significant role in fostering forms of what media theorist N. Katherine Hayles calls “deep attention” (2010) and what cognitive neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf theorizes in Reader, Come Home (2018) as “deep reading.” The initial stages of this project were presented at the American Comparative Literature Association (2021) in a coauthored paper from the Poetry Matters project entitled “Deepening Attention, Changing Minds” (M. Hickman, J. Perkins). This project joins contemporary work on attention with historical research on the work of pioneering British literary critic I.A. Richards: in the aftermath of WWI and the influenza epidemic of 1918, a moment that resonates with ours, Richards addressed how close attention to poetry could affect restorative work at the neurological level, transform minds, and support post-war culture in regaining what he calls “equilibrium.” Workshops will explore such a transformative and reparative force of poetic attention.
Participants will have opportunity to reflect on our own modes of attention—in this era of online, onscreen life, what N. Katherine Hayles calls “hyperattention,” intensified by pandemic, how can we become more aware of patterns of attention prevalent in our daily lives? How can we draw upon chances afforded by poetry to cultivate forms of sustained “deep attention,” the “slow time” of Keats’s ode, Wordsworth’s “quiet eye,” for greater awareness of and intentionality about habitual practices?
Stepping onward from the received understanding of ekphrasis as writing responsive to visual art, we construe it more broadly as intermedial creative practice developed out of intentional attention to works of art, artifacts, and other objects. Accordingly, our workshops for 2021-22 aim to address forms of deep, transformative attention entailed in close description of work in one medium in the language and terms of another.
Our focus is especially upon the ethical valences of ekphrastic process, sited in both the mode of deep attention involved and the turn outward from the self this process entails. We also start from the premise that the experience of the pandemic has generated conditions conducive to innovation and transformation of habitual practices with ethical potential. Cued by Susan Sontag’s reading of “attention” as fundamental to both the writer’s work and the moral life, we maintain that intentional attention can in turn serve what we imagine as transformative “ethical redirections” of habitual assumptions and patterns of attention and reading. To this end, we engage a range of resources at McGill on decolonization and anti-oppression, through the Indigenous Studies and Community Engagement Initiative and beyond, to think actively and critically about the ethics of ekphrastic attention.
Collaborations and community partnerships
To design and facilitate these workshops in light of our network’s recent research on poetry, attention, and ekphrasis, we are collaborating with poet Sarah Wolfson of the McGill Writing Centre, and McGill’s Visual Arts Collection (VAC). Designed in consultation with McGill’s VAC, workshops feature work by Indigenous artists in Canada such as Caroline Monnet, Sammy Dawson, and Norval Morrisseau, as well as Canadian artists such as Marian Dale Scott and Marcel Barbeau. Although covid-related restrictions have obliged us to step to some virtual sessions, the primary commitment of this year is to develop a suite of small-scale in-person workshops, conducive to creative attention.
This year, we are also working with Earth World Art Collaborative, a network of composers, musicians, philosophers, and writers; as well as KIN Experience and the Anticafé, coworking spaces in Montréal seeking to promote work in the arts. Workshops will draw upon art and artifacts—available to students on the McGill campus and elsewhere in Montréal—as points of departure for reflective exercises in how we pay attention and guided exercises in creative writing.
We would also like to thank the following people for consultation in the initial stages of designing these workshops: Gwendolyn Owens (McGill VAC); Hannah Deskin (McGill VAC); Jana Marie Perkins (PhD program, SIS, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign); Karis Shearer (UBC Okanagan); Marianne Stenbaek (McGill, Department of English); Michelle Macleod (McGill VAC); Mirabel (MA program, Linguistics, McGill; Montréal-based poet and journalist); Robert Lecker (McGill, Department of English); Sara Dunton (University of New Brunswick); Sarah Wolfson (McGill Writing Centre); and Shane Neilson (McMaster University, University of Ottawa).
Opportunities for students
Workshops allow students to explore ekphrastic process through staged writing projects. Participants pursuing several workshops will have a chance to develop portfolio of several poems honed through work in ekphrastic attention. There is opportunity at McGill to submit work to the Imagist Literary magazine, Scrivener magazine, and the Montreal International Poetry Prize.
Please stay tuned for events culminating the season’s work, as well as a lecture and workshop by poet Dr. Medrie Purdham of the University of Regina. (Little Housewolf, Montréal: Véhicule Press, 2021).