Wonderful Words—Exploring Abstraction through Poetry

On Saturday, December 9, D.C.-based poet Danielle Badra led Firsthand Experience: Responsive Poetry at the museum. The day started with an exquisite corpse group activity: Using artworks as prompts, each participant wrote one line of a poem and passed it to their neighbor. As the poems traveled around the room, each person could only look at the most recent line before contributing. The final products of these collaborations were surprisingly true to their inspirations when read aloud.

After the warm up, the group visited Magnetic Fields: Expanding American Abstraction, 1960s to Today in search of inspiration. Badra led the group in creating analytic dictionary poems, starting with an extensive list of words from the exhibition. Participants each selected one that reflected their response to a chosen work, served as the poem’s title, and provided a guide for the other words included.

For the final activity, Badra and participants wrote ekphrastic—descriptive—poems, based on Magnetic Fields. While often deeply personal, each poem resonated with its source material, taking readers on emotional, rhythmic, and visual journeys. Read a few samples of poems from the workshop.


Brenna Youngblood, YARDGUARD, 2015; Mixed media on canvas, 72 x 60 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Tilton Gallery, New York, New York; © Brenna Youngblood

Pindell - Autobiography

Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto), 1982; Mixed media on canvas, 70 1/2 x 70 1/2 in.; Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York; © Howardena Pindell; Photo courtesy Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

Thompson - Magnetic Fields

Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1991; Oil on canvas, 70 1/2 x 150 in.; Courtesy of the Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia; art and photo © The Mildred Thompson Estate, Atlanta, Georgia

Poem: “Red,” by Danielle Badra
Inspired by: Brenna Youngblood, YARDGUARD, 2015

Evokes disaster.
Aura of violet ink
rising over sheetrock.
Elegant Katrina—her
aggressive eye. A spatial,
spattered triptych emerging
as ritual.

Poem: “Moonscape Memoir,” by Deborah Hefferon
Inspired by: Howardena Pindell, Autobiography: Japan (Shisen-dō, Kyoto), 1982

Aerial view of a land afloat
stitched in time and place
pebbled with grit and textile shards,
yet timeless and place-less,
like a lily pad to catch relics
or make room for future landings.

Shoji screens divide my past lunar phase cycles
with opaque paper and lattice of tender bamboo.
Where am I on this island? When was I here?

Am I an astronaut peering at the earth and orbs?
Am I pure memory? Is it like remembering
my walks among the Shinto temple bells,
the white-robed priest who smiled at me
through the fog of incense?
Have I ever returned home?

Poem: “Magnetic Fields,” by Holly Mason
Inspired by: Mildred Thompson, Magnetic Fields, 1991

How the colors all collide in the center:
a carnival, a Ferris wheel.
I hold onto what the docent says,
“not seeing the force, but knowing it’s there.”
How this applies to so much.
How the snow is falling outside the window—
How it decorates your red coat—
How it’s hard to describe family tensions—
How I don’t know exactly why I cried
watching the middle-school girls’ Glee concert—
How we hold onto external narratives about ourselves—
How damaging words take house in our heads—
How we learn that “letting go” looks different than we thought—
How we realize we don’t have to “let go.”

Visit the museum and explore Magnetic Fields, on view through January 21, 2018. Mark your calendar for future Firsthand Experience workshops on April 28 and May 19, 2018.

—Ashley W. Harris is the associate educator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.