Carole Boston Weatherford
The Poet Professor
The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Department has a wealth of primary source images. Many are from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information (FSA/OWI) Collection, a vast pictorial record of American life between 1935 and 1944. The collection boasts 174,000 black-and-white and 1,600 color photographs taken by government-employed photojournalists such as Walker Evans, Russell Lee, Arthur Rothstein, Jack Delano, Marion Post Wolcott, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks.
I first mined this collection in the 1980s—long before it was digitized or available online. Back then, I was researching my book, Remember the Bridge: Poems of a People (2002). I sought pictures to pair with poems that I had already penned. I found the desired images as well as others that spoke to me and begged for poems.
I didn’t realize it then, but I was writing ekphrastic poetry. According to the Poetry Foundation, “An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art.” Romantic poet John Keats’ “Ode to a Grecian Urn” is a famous example.
I have since written more ekphrastic poems—two inspired by iconic images from the FSA/OWI collection. Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America and Dorothea Lange: How the Photographer Found the Faces of the Depression tell the stories behind Parks’ 1942 “American Gothic” and Lange’s 1936 “Migrant Mother.” The resulting verse biographies go beyond describing the images to paint pictures of the photographers themselves.
Parks, a pioneering African American Renaissance man, documented racism in the nation’s capital by photographing Ella Watson, a government custodian who supported her family on $1,000 a year. Lange’s photo of a migrant mother and her starving children shows the misery caused by the Dust Bowl. Newspapers published these powerful photographs, exposing poverty and injustice.
Are you ready to browse the FSA/OWI collection online? Perhaps, start here. Choose one photograph that moves you. A gaze that will not let you look away. A face full of stories. A scene that draws you in. A landscape that transports you. Then, draft your poem. Write from that time and place, in the voice of the subject, the photographer, or a bystander. Read your draft aloud to yourself. Then, revise. When finished, arrange your poem and the photograph on the same page.
Carole Boston Weatherford writes hybrid genre poetry, nonfiction and biographies. BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom chronicles one of slavery’s most daring escapes.
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