The Picture Poem: Blend of Image With Words

The Picture Poem: Blend of Image With Words

 By Christopher Wood

The Attic_300dpi_Christopher Woods

I have been teaching creative writing for twenty-five years, and for class assignments, have always used images to engage the imaginations of class participants. We each see an image differently; when we look at a photograph, we are looking at something literal, but how we interpret an image depends on many factors: our individual pasts, age, cultural background, regional attitude, sexual identity and probably a thousand other influences.

Here is one assignment: What comes to mind for you when looking at the photograph? Which morning would you write about? Write a poem or essay about a morning when everything was different for you, or for someone else:

It is only recently that I have begun incorporating my own images into my writing; for most of my life, my true obsession has been with words. Over the years I have written poems, stories, plays and non-fiction. Some ideas have spanning power, and by this I mean that words and how they might be arranged, can work in one or several forms of expression. Years ago I taught a course, “Experimentation In Form,” in which students learned to express the same ideas, or to present the same characters, in a variety of ways – in a poem, dramatic stage monologue, as fiction or non-fiction, simply by adapting the original idea to a new form.  It is important for a writer to experiment with different ways of expressing the same idea. While you might be a very fine poet, how can you know that poetry is your best form unless you have tried a short story, or a piece for stage? The more you experiment with form, the sooner you will discover which form agrees with you most.

I began that incorporation of images while undergoing chemotherapy treatments, when my wife, a photographer, handed me down one of her old cameras. I had always loved looking at photographs, and the best ones tell stories. The art of photography isn’t so far from writing, is it? But I had been so involved in writing for so many years, I was a bit suspect about taking photographs. Wasn’t writing vice enough? Of course it was. Did I have room in my life for another vice? I didn’t think so, but as it turned out, I did. So, little by little, one photograph after another, I began utilizing this new form of expression. I began publishing my photographs in various journals.

It wasn’t too long before it dawned on me that I could blend the two forms of writing and photography. Hadn’t I taught a course about this? So I began making picture poems. Some have other names for them, but picture poems works for me.

In one, I took a picture of an old shack in a rural area in the South. Given the area location and the history, I had a good idea that this shack might well have been inhabited by slaves at some point. If not slaves, then surely sharecroppers. So I wrote a very brief poem about the people who once lived in the shack:

Sharecropper Songs_5x7_300dpi

In Photoshop, it is easy enough overlay an image with text, or to use the canvas tool to create additional space for a desired text, add the words, compress the layers, then save. A simple process, but one which can blend these two forms of expression into one as a new fresh statement.

When adding words to photographs, it is best to consider what kind of text to use. For me, brevity is always best. I might write something hopefully well-suited to the image, or resort to borrowing a few lines from a previously written poem, story or essay. The combinations of words and images are truly endless. At least in this way, I can combine two vices into one, as in this picture poem, “The Attic” :

The Attic_300dpi_Christopher Woods

Currently I am compiling a collection of picture-poem assignments that I have used over the years. One thing I have noticed is that, as I change, the picture poems and the assignments themselves seem to have changed. They haven’t changed, not really. But I have. We all do.

So when we write about a given place or time, remember that it is very possible to write about them again later on, probably with different results. In a way, we too are different each morning. If we are wise, our creative expression will reflect this.

See Christopher Woods’ work in The Woven Tale Press
Visit Christopher Woods’ website.


5 Responses

  1. The photographs and the words are beautiful, and your suggestion well taken. Photos do influence writing in so many ways. I just finished Mary Coin by Marissa Silver, a novel inspired by the photo,The Migrant Mother,, an iconic picture from the depression. Thank you for sharing your art.

    1. Linda,

      Many thanks for your comments. I certainly know that photograph, “The Migrant Mother,” taken by Dorothea Lange. She and Walker Evans, and to a lesser degree, Eudora Welty, captured those desperate times, people and landscapes so well.

      Good luck with your own work.

      Chris Woods

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