Poet Kendra Kopelke, who directs the M.F.A. program in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts at the University of Baltimore, encourages her graduate students to play and work — or “plork” — her coined word for the unique process of setting ambitious work goals but allowing oneself to experiment boldly, to learn to think freely (much like game-creating children) about writing and the visual design process involved in cover-to-cover book-building. In a logical extension of the plork model, Kopelke’s own work is often ekphrastic in nature, an intuitive and meditative written response to visual art she early on admires and/or resists, then begins to talk to.
Kopelke’s beautiful 2009 book, Hopper’s Women (Ampersand Press), is a series of poems that dramatize the lives of genius of light Edward Hopper’s female subjects. Want to learn more? Tonight, June 6, Kopelke’s Hopper-inspired work comes to theatrical life at the Student Center Vernon Wright Theater at UB. The free show runs from 7-8:30. Images of Hopper’s amazing paintings will provide a backdrop to poetic performances by Kayla Jones, Kelly McPhee, Latonia Moss, Meredith Purvis, and Joan Weber. MFA grad Kimberley Lynne directs. Musical performance by Jeffrey Hoover, director of UB’s Integrated Arts program.
The event is part of the Emerging Voices Project.
I spoke to Kopelke, who happens to be my teaching colleague at UB, about her writing process, her relationship with Hopper’s complex art, and what she’s working on right now. Check out one of her Hopper poems, “Eleven a.m.,” after the chat.
Could you tell me why you’re drawn to these paintings and to the idea of exploring Hopper’s women as poetic characters?
I spend part of the summer each year on Cape Cod, where Hopper spent his summers. One summer, we happened to be staying in Truro, just down the beach from his house, which I hadn’t realized until the day before we were heading back to Baltimore. I walked what seemed like forever down the beach on a very hot day until I came upon it, up on the cliff. It was like a vision! There was the famous north window, where Hopper looked out onto the bay. There was the big wooden porch. I was thrilled to be part of his world, sharing his view.
When I came back to Baltimore I wanted to spend time with his work. I had never really looked at his paintings of women, and when I looked at the nude in “11 a.m.,” I had a complicated reaction. I was taken aback by the way he had painted her body, her skin, and then, of all things, painted shoes on her. That got me started. (Back then, I often started writing poems when I felt a disagreement inside me.) I wrote and wrote about her, in third person, she is this and she is that. Then, one day, I heard her voice coming through me, correcting me for some of my judgments. “Don’t jinx me. Just look,” she said. I paid a different kind of attention from that point on, trying hard to stay out of my own way.
I learned so much about how to look at art during this time. I had the Hopper book in my lap and I would open to a new page and take notes. It was early in the morning, sometimes before the sun was up, and before anyone else was awake. I taught myself how to see, how to slow down, how to experience a work of art, rather than judge it. And it changed my writing completely, too. I became a poet who wanted more than anything to see and describe in as deep and sincere a way as I could. I learned how to stay quiet and look, and listen.
What will live performance add to the written work?
Having actors read the poems is very exciting to me. They have their own voices and styles, they look nothing like the figures in the painting, and the poems mean different things to them than they do to me. I’m interested to hear the way they change the emotional experience and meaning behind the poems. Poets aren’t used to hearing their work read by other people, at least I’m not, and it will reveal different aspects of the poem that I wasn’t necessarily aware of before.
How will Jeffrey Hoover’s music be incorporated?
Jeffrey will play his sax between poems, creating a musical response to the words, adding depth and energy. I love the idea that music and poems have a conversation, as I think that poetry and music are kin, more than poetry and prose. Poetry is a musical art, just as music is a poetic one. They speak the same language. And now we have four art forms coming together–painting, poetry, theatre and music.
Are you writing from/about visual art currently?
Yes. Art is a powerful muse for me. It forces me and nudges me awake. This summer, it’s Matisse. I want to spend time inside his world, with his colors. And maybe hear what the Cone sisters have to say.
“Eleven a.m.” –Kendra Kopelke
Don’t jinx me.
to be here.
And the window,
to receive it.
Ignore the noise
in your head.
That was then.
The light will not
wait for you to
grow up. Hopper
says who needs
and I love that
my hair alone
falls over me,
and how the light
from my skin,
the tops of my feet,
the way it makes its own
movie, with its
cast of shadows,
and my hands
clasped in reverie,
housing their touch.
Tell me when
you feel it too,
when your seeing
has gained all feeling
like the lamp
deepening the foreground,
tell me when you are
truly standing here
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