Ekphrastic Poetry as Feminist Call-and-Response

by Suzette Bishop

Nancy Miller in her essay, “Arachnologies: The Woman, the Text, and the Critic,” identifies a feminist way of reading and making meaning as a weaving like a spider’s web. An example of such a feminist weaving is Ntozake Shange’s collection of poetry and prose responses to visual art titled Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings. Ekphrastic responses situate Shange less as a critic or interpreter of meaning and more as another maker, opening up the possibility for the reader to make his/her own response. Shange herself does not call her responses to artwork interpretations but “conversations.” And these conversations carry personal, subjective, and intimate associations and views of the art presented in the visual, oral, and musical language of poetry.

Shange’s feminist approach dismantles the idea of reading to uncover hidden meaning and that the critic controls the work’s spin in the process. Shaping her responses into poetry takes the dismantling further as a logical, linear approach to presenting an interpretation is replaced with the discourse used to make another art object, poetry. Additionally, Mary Daly in Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism suggests a metaphorical and informal rhetoric often signals a resistance to patriarchal discourse. So does an oral call-and-response style, as several essays in The Black Woman: An Anthology convey. Critic Barbara Waxman adds to this understanding of African American women writers’ work when she quotes Deborah McDowell who urges critics to highlight “‘the ways Black women writers employ literary devices in a distinct way’ and to “‘create their own mythic structures’” (Waxman 105). Shange engages these approaches, and, less like a “critic,” she becomes more like one participant in a weaving, encouraging the reader to engage in his/her own art making.

For the reader of Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings, Shange outlines the personal circumstances that led to creating her ekphrastic poems and prose pieces based on contemporary painting, sculpture, photographs, and works of mixed media. In “A Note to the Reader” at the start of the collection, she points out her father was a painter before becoming a surgeon. Once he became a surgeon, he turned to photography, and images, “leapt out of his hands at all hours of the day and night, whenever he opened that door. I saw color and I saw a story” (Shange xi).   Her mother’s readings of Dunbar, Shakespeare, Cullen, and Hughes became interwoven with these startling photographs emerging from her father’s darkroom. As Shange grew older, she surrounded herself with “images, abstractions that drew warmth from me or wrapped me in loveliness” (xi). By outlining this childhood background, Shange lets the reader know her reflections on the artwork she includes in the book are subjective, deconstructing the assumption that an objective, impartial reading is possible: “This is my life, how I see” (xii). Waxman argues, “[s]ome African American women writers seek new ways of expressing the multiplicity and complexity of black womanhood through innovative texts that transcend traditional genres” (93). She calls these innovations “hybrid-generic” and points out, “[c]reating these new structures or genres is an act of ‘rhetorical self-definition’” (Gates qtd. in Waxman 94). The impact on readers is the “new genres encourage readers to find new ways to make meanings about race and gender, to read these texts with greater flexibility” (94).

From childhood on, visual art and literature would be interrelated in Shange’s own work.  Viewing artworks is an opportunity not to explicate their meanings but to make new metaphors, to Shange. She explains that the impulse to see and to challenge others to see is what visual art and literature share, as she expresses, “[p]aintings and poems are moments, capturing or seducing us, when we are so vulnerable. These images are metaphors . . . visions” that allow us to “converse with one another” (xii). Shange is explicitly telling us she has no intention of explaining, defining, or controlling the artwork she has chosen to include in the book. She wishes for a more relational encounter, being on an equal footing with the artwork and the reader. This conversation as she calls it is one to which Shange openly brings her emotions and beliefs, indicating she could not begin to pretend to impartially uncover meaning. But that conversation will elicit more metaphors from her and us in an eternal weaving, “an elaborate, extended metaphor” (Lane 311).

There was an urgency to writing the book, too. Shange had moved from the Lower West Side of Manhattan to Houston. She felt like a “blind woman” “wandering” around Texas (xi). Out of this exile and blindness, Shange wished to create a dialogue with other artists. Ridin’ the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings was published in 1987, pre-dating the Internet and its virtual promise of connections despite great distances. The move Shange made was likely a difficult one. The San Francisco arts scene of her youth encouraged poetry as an “open” space and a place to “‘mix it up’.” Northern California in the 70’s was generally, “a place for fruitful and unusual collaborations, intellectual and cultural cross-pollination, and lively heterogeneity” (Damon 156). The dialogue Shange seeks to distract herself from loneliness is a call-and-response, an act of reading and conversing with visual art, and from that dialogue her own metaphor-making emerges. And ours. This is what she does to survive a new place. Moreover, the genre Shange refers to as “word paintings” are created out of the conversation she describes between two art forms as like friends talking in a dark house on a stormy night, a call-and-response structure she is likely borrowing from African American music. More is bridged, however, than literature and the visual arts, as narrative and lyric, prose and poetry, visual art and art criticism, and literature and literary criticism are also linked. Waxman delineates:

African American women authors . . . write texts which dissolve literary borders, generic

boundaries. Moreover, they nudge readers to relinquish distinctions between the personal

essay and lyric poetry, between poetry and performative drama, between analytical and

affective writing, and between literature and music / choreography. (Waxman 93)

The prologue to Shange’s collection is a prose piece based on a watercolor by Laura Caghan titled Night Lightning. In the prose piece, “Prologue: Night Lightning,” Shange details her sense of exile and longing in Houston, or as she calls it, “tornado watch, flood watch, hurricane watch” (3). She has left her home in New York City and misses the visual artists whose works surrounded her. With this loss of a community of seers comes her desire to write pieces in conjunction with visual art. In some visual works’ attempts to record or leave behind a remnant, she sees her own worry she lives in “a hurricane zone: everything might disappear” (3). She even feels the painter and painting understand her fears and that she can “speak” to either as she would, “to a friend over coffee or champagne” through the night while “the house shakes & the lights go out” (3). In turn, her speaking becomes more metaphor-making in the dark, an interconnected discourse. Shange pointedly states, “Ridin’ the Moon in Texas is not an explanation of a visual maze” but a part of the “glory of the discourse of seeing” (3), a conjuring “technique of using visual art as a takeoff for creating the substance of her verbal images” (Lane 311). Both the painting and Shange’s response to it light up the sky momentarily in slightly different configurations from each other and in different places in the sky, even touching down to earth occasionally. This keeps the artwork in motion, in relation, changeable rather than static, fluid rather than frozen, and interwoven into and out of Shange’s poems.

Thus, Shange’s poems are both creative and interpretive writings, as her prologue establishes with her responses to Night Lightning. By being explicit about the personal nature of her response to the painting, she subverts the illusion of an objective understanding of art. In addition, Shange admits to being blind and lost. This admission implies uncertainty, vulnerability, even sightlessness, comprise her approach rather than certainty and control. Jane Gallop in Reading Lacan discusses this kind of relation with texts. She describes her own relationship with texts as one of a reader not in command of the material, not in a certain epistemological relation, keeping the proper, unambiguous distance between subject and object of knowledge. Along these lines, all foundations are broken down in the poem: the house rattles, trees are pulled up, roofs fall, flower vases and children are buried, water seeps in. Shange’s interpretation of the painting has little to do with making or understanding foundations. Similarly, Shange writes from an unsettling confrontation with how to view visual art, one which relinquishes a position of mastery for a subjective and vulnerable position, living in a hurricane zone. The painting acts as a mother or friend, keeping her company and comforting her, the two linked relationally, not separate actors, critic and art object. Out of that relation emerges Shange’s own metaphor-making, closing the prose poem with her final metaphor for lightning, “Oh, thunder & lightning is not the devil beating his wife, it’s the sky bleeding flowers” (3).  Shange has not defined the painting’s meaning but subjectively responded to the painting through the lens of her personal anxieties about broken foundations, exile from her last home, and her need for companionship in a new place. In the process of this subjective response to the painting, she creates her own text, her own evocative metaphors.

This blending of interpreting and creating is evident in all the poems. Another example is “Who Needs a Heart” which is based on an acrylic painting of the same title by Linda Graetz.  The poem is divided into three sections, each section giving an alternate reading of the painting. The first section of “Who Needs a Heart” describes a girl in Soweto who is forced to eat cardboard. The girl “makes believe it’s bread & meat” (line 4). There is

. . . no one around to hold her

call her name (11-12)

or to tell “her a story” (13). In the poem, the girl decides to be a “four-legged creature” because it is preferable to being the white men “with cattle prods & rifles” “watching apartheid as if it were another all-night movie” (16, 18, 21). In this description of the horrors of apartheid, Shange gives one of her responses to the abstract painting with its blood-red color dominating the canvas. She seems to view the color and the question the painting’s title poses as related to the heartlessness of apartheid. And Shange is at the same time answering the question the title asks. A child, an innocent victim of apartheid is who Shange feels needs a heart. The white men Shange imagines suggest another answer, too. If they ask the question, “Who needs a heart?”, we can hear the dismissing of why anyone would want or need a heart. The white men have become as abstracted from the destruction they cause as the abstract painting is from its subject; they can watch apartheid like a movie. To be this distanced from the heart is to be dead.

What is perhaps most significant for Shange is having a dialogue with the painting. One side of the talk is the poem describing apartheid, racist oppression that would likely be on her mind as a woman of color. She invests what she sees in the painting and what she hears in the question its title asks with her own meanings, and, in the process, constructs new meanings. As a result, her poem implies we can look to other art forms, reformulating what we find there to make something new, in this case, a poem.

Letters from the alphabet are scattered across the intersecting shapes in Graetz’s painting.  In the second section of her poem called “Pages for a Friend,” Shange reinterprets the letters to be letters written between distant women friends. The section begins, “letters from friends used to be an art form” (1). Letters, like the ones on the canvas, used to be elevated forms, moving from one distant place to another and intersecting. Shange returns letters to an elevated position, describing them in relation to the exile of the frontier woman, interpreting the painting through the lens of her own move to the Southwest and her wish to receive letters from women friends. Letters helped frontier women survive the loneliness, waiting for letters, “lingering by her fire in a sod house” (6). This time, the answer to the painting’s question, “Who needs a heart?” is the woman who has moved to an unfamiliar, rugged place who is, “dying for someone to loom over the horizon” (19). The heart comes over that wide horizon in the form of a letter from another woman.

While Shange attempts to answer the painting’s question, “Who needs a heart?”, the number and variety of her answers suggest there is no “correct” interpretation of the painting. Similarly, as in a response in a conversation, the answers are not objective but loaded with personal and emotive reactions. The speaker, like a pioneer woman, finds herself in a wide open, empty place, and she has no one to talk to. She becomes unsure if she even remembers how to read and is afraid she will “become silence” itself if she doesn’t talk to someone soon, even the stranger she addresses at the end of this section (30.) The emptiness of the prairie, the possibility of being swallowed up, lead her to longing for written communication with other women, allowing her to both read and reply. Writing letters keeps her from becoming mute, but they are tenuous forms, the speaker realizes. Loneliness “stalks,” and in flight from loneliness, the poem depicts:

pages for a friend fluttering off

in the wind. (17-18)

There is no certainty the ghost-pages will make it to their destination, and waiting for a reply gives even more shape to the pauses, silences, and distances. In desperation, the speaker turns to a quiet stranger and the reader, “anyone / come talk / please come talk to me / now” (20). Speaking, reading, and writing counteract silence but can also highlight its very presence.

Still, letters, especially between women pre-Internet era, are an important, affirming discourse for women as also expressed in many women writers’ work, such as “Letter to a North Vietnamese Sister from an Afro-American Woman” by Pat Robinson and Group and Woolf’s Three Guineas. Karla Holloway notes of Shange’s novel, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo:

[s]peech that is circumvented has come to be a discrete feature of African American women writers’ canon. The result of this frustration, this struggle towards articulation, is that voice in these writers’ works is manipulated—inverted from its usual dimensions and re-placed into non-traditional spheres (layers) of the text. In this formulation, speech is often liminal, translucent, and subject to disarray, dislocation (in the Freudian sense Verscheibung), and dispersion. Only the thematic emphasis on the recovery of some dimension of voice restores the balance of the text between its voices and those collected into its rearticulated universe. (622-623)

Part of that restoration of voice for an African American woman in “Pages for a Friend” is a call for what letters can provide, “[w]omen’s sharing of their most intimate and creative language with each other,” something Holloway identifies as integral to Shange’s work (620).

The last section of the poem series, “Walk, Jump, Fly,” focuses on the need to counteract silence with language and loving encounter. Shange returns to the point of view of a child, except that in this section, the child speaks:

mommy can i tell you something

mommy can i share you something

mommy can i tell you something. (1-3)

This part of the poem is constructed from a litany starting with “mommy.” The child insistently seeks the mother’s attention. The mother’s attention gives the child a sense of presence and importance:

can i tell you something / i got

27 valentines / everybody at school loves

me / me / mommy. (20-22)

The hearts, or valentines, are visual proof of love, and telling about it, showing the valentines to her mother, validates the love. The painter and writer rely on the same proof and validation from an audience.

But that validation doesn’t always happen. The mother is silent in the poem. What does come from a need to speak and be heard is more imaginary metaphor-making. At the end of this section, the child says:

mommy i just wanna ask you one more

thing / mommy can you fly? (35-36)

In the child’s eyes, the mother is a creature who can fly. Out of the conversation between mother and child, text and reader, arises a new metaphor. Thus, this section of the poem suggests two ideas about the text and reader relationship: that it can be like the relationship between mother and child, and that the significance of this relationship is not the exchange of meaning, but the very relational character of the encounter which then leads to a new construction, a new metaphor.  As Timpane points out, “Shange’s most characteristic gesture is . . . toward possibility rather than closure; her works evoke the complexity of human relations rather than the completion of given actions or characters” (310).

The creating of new metaphors as suggested by Shange’s reflections on the painting Who Needs a Heart could be as endless as the child’s litany. Writer and painter merge together and move off into other metaphors the way the shapes in the painting intersect and move apart. The shapes in the painting are the same red color as the background so that empty space and shapes are barely distinguishable from each other. Such indeterminancy, the sheer plurality of responses and the kinds of close links these allow between reader and text celebrate a nonauthoritative and empathetic approach. For Shange, the letter appears to also be a metaphor for how the reader and artwork might communicate. In an interview, Shange says, “I really truly believe that subliminally language, whether you understand it or not, hits certain nerves, as if somebody touches you, and you feel better, or you feel pain” (Shange qtd. in. Anderlini 94).

The interweaving of text and reader is most tightly established in Shange’s poem written for Vicki Miller. The elegiac poem is based on Shange’s own painting, The Vicki Series #1, and is a eulogy for Vicki Miller. An epigraph gives the date when presumably Shange performed her poem, and the place, fittingly at the Rothko Chapel. The prose poem describes Miller’s life, her death, and expresses a wish to reach Miller. This wish echoes the red color in the lower half of the painting as the color attempts to move through the black line dividing the canvas. The upper half of the painting is yellow which becomes fainter and nearly white as the color moves up the canvas. Both the poem and painting are responses to Miller’s death. In the poem, Shange recalls their friendship and conversations as keeping them both from the “loneliness of being single parents whose families were far off somewhere” (37). The poem expresses how their friendship continues and attempts to address Miller’s spirit: “i am praying that her spirit / her high-spirited reckless soul / hears us finally & rests knowing that we’ve gathered together in her name” (37). Is Shange interpreting her own painting? Do the painting and poem stand together like a diptych, two versions of her grief for the loss of her friend? As in her other poems in the collection, Shange is both reader and poet, critic and painter. The boundaries between these roles have already been broken down.

In all the poems, Shange’s language is conversational, oral in nature. She uses abbreviations such as “till,” “&”, and “tween.”  In the last two poems I discuss, she rarely uses capitals and refers to herself in the lowercase “i.” All the poems employ slashes that create pauses and rhythms like speech. Such stylistic devices resist a formal and authoritative approach to the artwork or reader. She employs oral, African American Vernacular English, too, which Gates argues is a technique of indirect argument or persuasion, a language of implication.  Moreover, he states, African American texts are “speakerly” in character, calling them talking books (632-638).  About for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Waxman describes Shange’s use of language as combining “slang diction,” “unconventional spelling, and non-capitalization” which can “signal to readers the vernacular quality of the language and the ordinary, candid, human cast” of her characters’ speech. These convey the characters are “conversing with us . . . We sense an urgency in the woman’s communication and feel an intimacy with the communicant” (99).  Ania Spyra takes issue with Gates’ emphasis on mirroring spoken language by using Edouard Glissant to point out Shange’s language is instead a “‘synthesis’ of written syntax and spoken rhythms,’ of ‘acquired’ writing and oral ‘reflex’” (787).  Holloway makes a similar point: “[T]he African-American woman’s literary tradition is generated from a special relationship to words, the concerns of orature and the emergence of a textual language that acknowledges its oral generation” (628-629).  Shange employs her language to a similar end but also ties her language closely to relationship and subjectivity rather than argument or persuasion, to her identity as an African American woman joining a web of creating. By talking aloud to the art work and the reader, she creates space for the reader to talk back, to join the weaving of texts. The reader is also not instructed on how to see, and Shange’s style supports this notion by being musical and oral. It encourages closeness, familiarity, creating a safe space to add imaginings about the art and poems, to spin out new threads in the spider’s web. Even at the micro level of language this happens as the “virgule, after all, is used to show that several alternatives may be appropriate simultaneously . . . alternatives are always present, always in conflict or tension” (Timpane 310).

Shange’s use of space, indenting, line breaks, slashes, and lack of commas are evocative, allowing the reader the freedom to reconstruct images and phrases. For instance, she describes:

over the fire / the ladle too hot to handle

loneliness stalking the

farmyard a warring Comanche

pages for a friend fluttering off

in the wind / lost breaths wishes. (lines 14-18)

The line breaks and white spaces in this section of  “Pages for a Friend” invite the reader to imagine the hot ladle in the sweating prairie woman’s hand, to wonder what will follow “the” in the second line, to see the movement of the “Comanche” in the indenting of the line, and to follow the pages of the letter as our eyes cross over the space between the stanzas. The lack of commas in this section, as in all the poems in the collection, creates unbroken links between words such as “breaths” and “wishes.” This same device switches up the meaning of phrases so that both loneliness and the farmyard could be described as a “warring Comanche.” Both are threatening, fierce, and dangerous for the pioneer woman. The “o” and “l” sounds in this passage echo a lamenting, longing feeling as the letter is sent off to cross distances:

language escapes the written and wants to be alive, present, embodied—danced, sung,

punched, and lived . . . Shange calls for a language based on presence, one that escapes

the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign of Ferdinand de Saussure’s project. She turns to the

physical to suggest the presence of the communicating voice as opposed to its absence.  (Spyra 803)

Like the woman wandering the tall grasses of prairie looking for someone to talk to, Shange seeks a relationship with artists and artworks and between the artworks and her poetic responses, an alternative to a detached relationship. Whether talk, letter, or poem, the verbal response is personal. The artworks call for a response, and Shange delivers, and rather than rent apart, the two become interwoven, linked in the way they counteract silence and separateness. This response allows for, “contradictions, partial meanings, inconsistencies, qualified agreements, etc., to remain, one may make possible a relationship between writer and reader (or between text and reader) based on congruences, intersections, encounters” (Miller 220). Shange says, “I remember vaguely, but intimately, a Mapplethorpe nude, a Pindell tapestry, a Conwill pyramid, a Puryear ellipse” (3). In relation to a painting, she says, “I drew. I built. I painted. I danced” (3). Such encounters attempt to resist the “binary opposition that maintains the oppression of women,” Miller argues (220).

Shange’s poetic and oral language compliment her feminist reading and making process, allowing her to refashion the artworks for herself without forcing these understandings on her reader or claiming certainty. Instead, she conveys her subjective, vulnerable interweaving responses, a concern not with uncovering meaning but with making and voicing, leaving room for the reader to join in. A reviewer sums up the book as a “collection of prose and poetry [that] calls forth so many images that the reader will see him/herself in every page. It becomes an exposé of the reader’s psyche” (Lane 311). In the context of African American women’s literature, Holloway urges critics to understand how this approach calls us to “participate” “in the ‘layering’ that is intrinsic to the texts” (629). At the same moment Shange says thunder and lightning is “the sky bleeding flowers” (3), the generous space Shange created in Ridin the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings gives me room to say these flowers have become a star-filled night, a glimmering, black-carved bowl. And you?


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edited by Thomas Votteler and Laurie DiMauro, vol. 74, Gale, 1993. Literature Criticism Online, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/JJMGCG259856107/GLS?u=txshracd2563&sid=GLS. Originally published in Black American Literature Forum, vol. 24, no. 3, Fall 1990, pp. 578-580.

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Currently, Suzette Bishop teaches at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, in the areas of creative writing, American literature, and composition.  Her first book of poetry, She Took Off Her Wings and Shoes, won the May Swenson Award and was published by Utah State University Press. Her second and third books of poetry are Horse-Minded and Hive-Mind.   She also published two chapbooks, Cold Knife Surgery and Jaguar's Book of the Dead. Prose publications include a a critical essay, "Death Is Just the Limo Driver: Re-envisioning 'Because I could not stop for Death' After Gazing at Emily Dickinson and Kate Scott Turner Gazing at Us," a creative nonfiction essay, “Spirit Versus Body,” at Humans of ME/CFS, solvecfs.org, a book review, “Spun and Frayed into a ‘Shimmering Capture’: A Review of Molly Bendall’s Under the Quick,” in Octopus Magazine, and a flash fiction story, “Kayaking on Big Sur,” in The Four Seasons Anthology.  In addition, she has been a freelance researcher and editor of Oxford Dictionary of Military Terms and given speeches and papers at creative writing and composition symposiums, conferences, and workshops.
Bishop's poems have appeared in many journals, including New Texas: A Journal of Literature and Culture, The Antioch Review, 13th Moon, Aries, Borderlands, Eratica, Fugue, Concho River Review, The Journal of Texas Women Writers, and The Little Magazine and in the anthologies Imagination & Place: An Anthology, The Virago Book of Birth Poetry, and American Ghost: Poets on Life after Industry.  Another poem was an Honorable Mention in the Pen 2 Paper State-Wide Creative Writing Contest sponsored by the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities. A poem from her first book won the Spoon River Poetry Review Editors’ Prize Contest, while two other poems have been nominated for the Pushcart and AWP Intro Journals Project Awards. I Bishop was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters in 2015.