photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson




November 2005

"I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully fixed, printed."
    Christopher Isherwood, from "the writer's world," Shoptalk: Learning to Write with Writers by Donald M. Murray (Boynton/Cook Heinemann)

Searching for a Subject Until It Finds You

Dear Reader:

I read the list of future topics from my first on-line journal (September 2004) and saw "Where do poems and/or paintings come from?" It is a question posed most frequently at readings and openings, and it is usually asked in the spirit of healthy curiosity. However, my fondest memory is of one friend I had known for many years, but who had never read my poetry. One day, she finally did and asked the question, adding quickly, "You look and act so normal!"

I like Christopher Isherwood's above quotation because it is an apt description of the constant search for a subject in poetry or art until it finds you. How do certain images, impressions, and experiences from each day and night sort themselves out and end up becoming subjects in poems and/or paintings? Why do some images linger or haunt? An oversized three ring binder holds all of my poems, which are at several stages of the drafting process. I have eight booklets with pictures of over 300 paintings, also at several stages of the painting process, but were resolved enough to warrant documentation. I will focus this month's journal on the origin of my poems; a future journal will be devoted to the question, "Where do paintings come from?"

To begin the search for the origins of my poems, I looked at my bulging black binder, which is divided into tabbed sections. The sections were a major clue. I returned to poetry writing after many years and had accumulated a few dozen in a folder. One day, I was curious to see how I could group them. This is a behavior associated with a common graduate school condition known as "sorting (and resorting) your data to see what you can learn." Over the years, I have added and deleted categories, while poems migrated into other sections or disappeared. If writing is a way "to find out what I am thinking about," (Edward Albee, "why write" from Shoptalk) then the contents of the binder might reveal the pattern of my inspiration. Here are my current tabbed categories.

ONE - Poems about "the world out there" are inspired by the news; the majority come from the newspaper, usually print, but sometimes pictures take on the power of a haunting. These are the stories or pieces of information that get caught in my emotional net, and won't go away until I write something. I no longer have to go to an old red binder where clippings were stored. Now I get to the word processor fairly quickly to begin a draft. A few subjects I have written poems about are Bosnia, Iraq, a flood in India, serial killers, Pol Pot, September 11th, the homeless, and a local bank robbery.

TWO - Poems about "the pull of nature" are inspired by experiences, conversations, observations and imaginings connected to people interacting with lightning, gardening, storms, anthills, birds, cold weather, astronomy, bee behavior, and lilacs.

THREE - Poems about "family and personal history" form a category that is widely shared by poets and writers who believe that we should "write what we know." To paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, if you manage to survive childhood, you have enough to write about all your life. Death and illness, as well as everyday struggles and successes, become motifs in these poems because we are in so close to the action. The challenge is to step away enough to have it "developed, carefully fixed, printed," as Christopher Isherwood said.

FOUR - Odes are the slimmest section of the binder. If there is pure joy out there and I find it, I write an ode. So far, poetry, love, writing, and jewelry are the subjects that have allowed me to fly above bleaker landscapes.

FIVE - Ars poetica is a poem dedicated to answering the question: "Why write?" Every once in a while, I try to explore that question in a poem. I think there might be a bigger problem if I stop trying to answer it.

SIX - Don't be put off by the name of my last category, ekphrastic writing. It is simply writing about art. The largest and oldest genre of ekphrastic writing is poetry, and it is the thickest section of my binder. Sometimes I write about my own paintings (Judy's Journal February 2005). Because my life's ambition is to visit every museum in the world, I will always be in the presence of a potential poem. I go, I look, I may connect, I write. The ekphrastic poem needs to be more than a physical description of a work of art; it relies entirely on the connection the poet makes. Recommended reading: James A. W. Heffernan's Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery (University of Chicago Press).

The subject of December's journal will be the Istanbul Biennial. I will be visiting and luckily, the Biennial will be on. I'll be there with open eyes, ears, mind and notebook in hand. If you have any comments or questions about this or any journal entry, you can email me at I'd be happy to hear from you!