Miniatures of reality : an inter-photo-textual investigation of ekphrasis of photographs : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Creative Writing at Massey University, Manawatū, New Zealand

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This creative thesis comprises a critical study of contemporary ekphrastic poems about photographs and a manuscript of original ekphrastic prose poems that focus on photography or are inspired by photographic technique. The balance of the thesis, approximately 60/40 in favour of the critical study, reflects how the creative manuscript was informed by my investigation of critical theories of ekphrasis and photography. Ekphrasis, commonly defined after James Heffernan as “the verbal representation of visual representation” (3), is a relationship traditionally cast as a struggle for dominance between image and word. However, this thesis is inspired by contemporary poet Cole Swensen’s challenge to this perspective in her essay “To Writewithize” (2011), in which she expands the term to cover works in which the encounter between poet and artwork is of “fellow travelers sharing a context” (70). In this mode of ekphrasis, art is no longer sequestered in a museum or gallery but has become an element of the poet’s world, providing them with “a model for formal construction” (71) for their work. In the critical portion of this thesis I argue that the visual turn of the twentieth century, and the invention of photography in particular, has contributed to developments in ekphrasis that Swensen identifies. Specifically, I argue that the context sharing that Swensen describes is particularly productive in prose poem ekphrasis of photographs, an intersection characterized by aesthetic and theoretical synergies. A sequence of lyric ekphrasis by Carol Snow, whom Swensen identifies as a “writewithist” poet, provides an introductory case study for my research, and provides a lens through which I consider Natasha Trethewey’s lyric ekphrasis of photographs in Bellocq’s Ophelia and a further sequence from Snow. These case studies provide a reference point for my exploration of the aesthetic intersection of prose poetry and photography via close readings of prose poetry ekphrasis in Mary Jo Bang’s A Doll for Throwing and prose poem selections from Kathleen Fraser’s Discrete Categories Forced into Coupling. The creative component, Miniatures of Reality, is a collection of prose poems that presents the life experiences of an implied speaker via ekphrasis of photographs. In writing these poems, I set out to creatively explore the questions raised in my critical component by producing “writewithist” ekphrasis in which the poems demonstrate aspects of the aesthetics and theory of photography in both form and emotional content. The poems, largely presented in linked sequences, consider aspects of the speaker’s life story as memories transformed by a “camera vision” which shapes the way these experiences are recounted. An underlying subtext to all the sequences is the notion of “hidden motherhood” inspired by Victorian “Hidden Mother” photographs. Notions of hidden motherhood occur throughout, e.g. in poems about the speaker’s grandmother who died when the speaker’s mother was a child or in poems suggesting the speaker’s ambivalence about motherhood and mothering. A further creative imperative is represented by my use of the prose poem as a form to represent what Fraser describes as the “the average female’s habituated availability to interruption” (Fraser, “Hogue Interview” 9). This notion of gendered experience contributes to both the internal structure of the poems and to the structure of the collection as a whole as the speaker revisits events from her life through the medium of photography and often retells them from differing perspectives.
Listed in 2022 Dean's List of Exceptional Theses
American poetry, History and criticism, Ekphrasis, Photographs, Photography, Poetry, Prose poems, New Zealand, Dean's List of Exceptional Theses