S.A. Leavesley: Photo-poems – Visual Art and Poetry Collaboration for a High-tech Age

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S.A. Leavesley: Photo-poems – visual art and poetry collaboration for a high-tech age

Although my working and creative life has mostly been as a writer, I’ve always loved photography. Over the years, I’ve written many ekphrastic poems and, in 2012, I held a combined-medium ‘An Eyeful of Words’ exhibition in the gallery at Droitwich Library as part of my masters in creative writing. This explored the exhibition space as a poetry experience with some elements of public performance (like spoken word) but also aspects of private lone reading from the page. I used the internet to extend this project’s reach through an online gallery, video and other features on my website, including here. But what next in our now increasingly high-tech world?

‘An Eyeful of Words’ had displayed photos and poems alongside each other. Likewise with my three spectrogram art and poem pairings used on Worcestershire buses as a Worcestershire Arts Partnership/CBS Outdoors/First Capital Connect commission in 2013. Some of my own and collaborative poem and photography publications in Otoliths  and The Ofi Press Magazine  in 2014 and 2015 still had the words and images placed next to each other but separately. However, I’d also started to combine the visual aspects and words together in one image.

As a poet, the initial appeal for me in combining photos and poetry on social media platforms like twitter and instagram was to try to reach new audiences – people who wouldn’t normally read poetry but did respond to visual art or photography. I hoped they might be tempted by the images to read the words. I quickly realised though that such combinations need care, as they don’t automatically suit all poetry.

Some of my poems need the white space of the page, rather than a potentially distracting visual image. This may be because it’s a complex or multi-layered poem, or simply to give it room to breathe and the reader space for quiet thought. For these poems, I prefer simple shots of the printed or typed version, perhaps with a simple interesting but un-distracting shadow falling on the page. I’ve also used short snippets from longer poems combined with a photo to hopefully encourage people to look at the full piece in text form in an online journal or printed book.

Even here though, I later realised that I was still thinking predominantly like a writer – placing emphasis on getting poetry texts to visually orientated audiences, without fully processing what ‘visually orientated audiences’ might want. In other words, I was potentially overlooking the full relevance of the fact that such viewers (and hopefully then converted poetry-readers) are likely respond to the visual before the written word – so the photo shouldn’t be secondary to the text.

My more recent explorations of ‘photo-poems’ as a form are, perhaps, most directly influenced by both Lorine Niedecker’s writing and the haiku in being short and accessible but with a potentially resonating observation or epiphany. My ideal is using words and images that are individually immediately impactful but with a haunting or thought-provoking wake that lodges in the mind or emotions afterwards. Combined as one in a photo-poem, I aim for image and words working together as something that’s greater than the sum of the parts.

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S.A. Leavesley: Three Photo-poems

S.A. Leavesley (also published as Sarah James) is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Author of seven poetry titles, two novellas and a touring poetry-play, she also runs LitWorld2 online photo-poem and photo-flash journal at http://www.sarah-james.co.uk/?page_id=9835. Her main website is www.sarah-james.co.uk and she’s on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/s.a.leavesley/.

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