Responding to the visual arts

Friday, December 15, 2017
Bella Li interviewed by Amy Adeney

"All obsessions are intensely personal and often obscure in origin," says tutor Bella Li. Ahead of her upcoming workshop, we talked to Bella about what draws her to ekphrasis, and what she loves about the dialogue between writing and the visual arts.

For people who are interested in your workshop but are unfamiliar with the concept of ekphrasis, can you explain what it is in layman’s terms?

The definition of ekphrasis has changed over the years, but in contemporary times it usually refers to the practice of writing in response to a piece of visual art.

Participants in your upcoming workshop will learn how to enrich their own writing practice through an active engagement with the visual arts. Can you give us an insight into how this works in your own writing practice?

The visual arts have always been a strong influence, whether as a source of inspiration, specific subject matter, or stylistic analogue. I also make collages and take photographs, and these sit alongside the textual elements of my work. I find the dialogue between different forms, as well as the gaps, wonderfully productive—each teaches you a little about what the other can and cannot do.

Your work often deals with historical subject matter, and you have expressed a fascination for explorers as well—what is it that draws you to writing about particular periods of the past?

All obsessions are intensely personal and often obscure in origin, and I think if I knew exactly what it was I would probably be done with it. The only answer I can give is a very general one, which is that I’m drawn to the unfamiliar and the unknown—the periods of the past that I’m interested in are far removed from my current circumstances, as are the experiences and psychology of explorers. I like imagining what it’s like to be somewhere and someone else.

You often write in the prose poetry form, which you have called ‘both liberating and challenging to work with’. What do you love about writing in this form?

I love that it’s a hybrid form, that it occupies a grey zone. Though you can spot a prose poem through its presentation (often a single text block or paragraph), it’s difficult to say exactly why it’s a poem, rather than a short story, piece of microfiction, micro-essay, etc. Sometimes it’s all of them at once. You could say that in poetry anything goes, but it’s always more interesting to think about where boundaries might exist, and why, even if they are loosely constructed and prone to falling down.

Your workshop will cover how to recognise examples of ekphrasis in literature—are there examples which you would recommend for writers wishing to learn more about ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis is such an old tradition, and one that shows no sign of lapsing into disuse, that examples abound. The description of the shield of Achilles in Homer’s 'The Illiad' is cited as the first known example in Western literature, but there are myriad more everywhere you look.

About Bella Li

Bella Li is the author of 'Maps, Cargo' (Vagabond Press, 2013), shortlisted for the 2014 Wesley Michel Wright Prize, and 'Argosy' (Vagabond Press, 2017)—a book of poetry, photography and collage—commended in the 2017 Wesley Michel Wright Prize and shortlisted for the 2018 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards. She is a managing co-editor at Five Islands Press, a co-editor of The Slow Canoe Press, and a co-curator at Photodust, as well as a recent guest editor of 'Cordite Poetry Review' (Issue 55: Future Machines). Her poetry and artwork has been published in a range of journals and anthologies including 'Meanjin', 'Best Australian Poems', 'Cordite Poetry Review', 'Peril Magazine', 'Archives of American Art Journal' (USA) and 'The Kenyon Review' (USA), and is being exhibited at the Triennial of the NGV in 2017–2018. She has taught workshops on poetry and visual art for Writers Victoria and Express Media, and has lectured and tutored literature and creative writing subjects at the University of Melbourne and RMIT.

About Amy Adeney

Amy Adeney is a Writers Victoria intern. She is a primary teacher and founder of Busy Bookworms, a bookclub for preschoolers.