Poetry in the Museum

By
Marlo A. Starr
Marlo Starr is an MFA candidate in Poetry the Writing Seminars at JHU. She received her PhD in English from Emory University in 2018. Her main research areas include postcolonial studies and anglophone poetry, with a specific focus on women’s writing from the Caribbean and Pacific Islands. She co-organizes JHU’s Postcolonial Ecocriticism Research Cluster, an interdisciplinary group that explores intersections between postcolonial and environmental concerns. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Berfrois, Queen Mob's Teahouse, I-70 Review, and elsewhere.

Student poem on view alongside the ancient objects that inspired it.

Introduction to Fiction and Poetry I (IFP I) is an entry-level creative writing class offered through the The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. In addition to readings, undergraduate students write short stories and poems that they eventually submit for peer workshop. For the Fall 2019 semester, students had the opportunity to compose ekphrastic poems about a chosen artifact from the Hopkins Archeological Museum. An ekphrastic poem, in broad terms, responds to another work of art—it might represent a visual object through vivid description or extend its meaning through an imagined narrative.

Previously I worked as an instructor in Emory University’s archive, where I was often struck by students’ innovative readings and approaches to engaging with primary source materials. I observed that tactile confrontations with “real objects” often sparked original ways of looking. After closely examining a piece of ephemera (such as a scribble of marginalia or a string of prayer beads), students took risks by asking bold questions or imaginatively interpreting the historical lives behind the artifacts. After visiting Hopkins Archeological Museum, I was eager to see how my IFP I students might respond to the artistic challenge of re-casting an artifact in poetic form.

Before our class visit to the museum, we read a number of ekphratic poems, including John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Seamus Heaney’s “Punishment” and “The Grauballe Man,” Thomas James’s “Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh,” as well as Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station” (which might be interpreted as loosely ekphrastic). We discussed the writers’ different attitudes about their source material, comparing Keats’s praise poem to Bishop’s befuddled speaker, and also considered ethical questions raised by representing real people and the objects that made up their lives. During our visit, Sanchita Balachandran gave us an overview of the museum’s holdings, which include Grecian urns not unlike what Keats might have imagined. Students then perused the museum and selected the artifact that most piqued their interest. The resulting poems here show an engagement that avoids treating the objects as mere relics or curiosities by considering the lived lives of their creators and owners. For example, Michael Lepori writes about a Roman curse tablet with the intention to “humanize/demystify the lives of ancient people,” and in his elegiac poem addressed to an Egyptian scarab amulet, Isaac Griffin-Layne attributes agency to the object: “When I am stone / I will be still // and listen.”

As a class, we’d especially like to thank Sanchita Balachandran for her assistance this semester, not only for guiding us through the museum but for giving us the opportunity to exhibit these poems.