When you begin to hear voices, it’s often best to see a psychiatrist, but when award-winning poet Ann Fisher-Wirth heard voices while looking at photographs by Maude Schuyler Clay, she knew they were calling her to capture these stories in verse. Actors from the University of Mississippi will bring to life these voices in a free performance followed by a reception Monday night at the Ford Center.
Fisher-Wirth, a Mississippi resident for more than 28 years, is a longtime friend of Clay, who studied with William Eggleston in Memphis, Tennessee, and whose artwork appeared on the cover of Fisher-Wirth’s 2012 book of poetry, “Dream Cabinet.”
Clay began sending photographs of places and things she came across in Mississippi via email to Fisher-Wirth around three years ago. She said that when she initially sent the photos, she had no preconceptions of what direction the poet would go in with the images.
“I was kind of a ‘silent partner,'” Clay said. “It turns out that the images had definite voices, and there was a story each one told.”
“A few of them really spoke to me a lot,” Fisher-Wirth said.
The voices came to her through her subconscious, and the poetry soon started to develop.
“It’s not just a one-to-one correspondence,” she said. “The photographs are not mainly photographs of people, but these characters—some based on actual people that I know or experiences that I’ve had—just started speaking their stories through me,” she said.
Fisher-Wirth wrote the poems by combining multiple points of experience into characters and voices that depict the scene in Clay’s photographs.
“We all know a lot more than we think we know, just from hearing people talk,” she said. “It’s there in your memory, and if something triggers it, it can come out.”
She said she believes the key to good ekphrastic poetry, or poetry based on a visual art form, is to not merely describe a piece of art, but to build connections through it. “There has to be some kind of oblique angle, some type of equally imaginative investment on the part of both art forms,”she said.
Fisher-Wirth said as the voices came to her, some of them were scary to write because of themes like race and violence.
“There’s one that’s in the voice of a very hateful person, and that wasn’t so much so scary to write as it was scary to admit that I wrote it, that I could have that voice in me,” she said.
Once she started to give readings of these poems, she realized that the collection would be a good fit for a museum exhibition, as well as an art book.
“I found Daniel Uncapher in Water Valley, who made these beautiful letter press broadsides,” she said.
After combining the broadsides with the matted photographs, the exhibition was showcased on the University of Mississippi campus in Barnard Hall in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and was also recently shown at the Crossroads Cultural Arts Center in Clarksdale.
The exhibit is currently housed in the Ford Center Lobby and will remain there for a few more months, according to Ford Center director Julia Aubrey.
According to Pulliam, planning for the event began back in October, and the actors, including Pulliam herself, are all students and university community members who have been working on their roles for almost a month.
“These poems have very specific voices, and we’re trying to bring those voices to life, rather than just trying to simply read the poem,” Pulliam said. The actors will be portraying the characters in the poems, while the photographs that inspired the poem are shown behind the stage.”
Pulliam helped to select the 23 poems to be performed and blocked together with the collection of images to be displayed for the show.
“I had to select the poems that had the best voices, ones that would make it easier for an actor to grab on to a character,” she said.
While fewer than half of Fisher-Wirth’s poems will be featured in Monday night’s dramatic reading, the full collection will be published as a book in January 2018 by Wings press, the publisher of Fisher-Wirth’s last two texts.
Before the free performance and catered reception at 7:30 p.m., Clay and Fisher-Wirth will give a short talk about their creative processes.
Clay, who says she has always been fascinated by the combination of literature and art, finds the relationship between photography and poetry is symbiotic and works better than she would have imagined.
“She (Fisher-Wirth) is an intense poet who uses words. I am an intense photographer who uses visuals to communicate, but this worked together, mainly due to Ann’s dedication to the project,” she said.
Fisher-Wirth says she looks forward to Monday night and thinks that the audience will enjoy the photographs, actors and poems.
“I think that the different voices in these poems will spawn different kinds of dialogues among the community,” she said.