GASP!Phrastic: Writers (and dancers, and actors, and singers) respond to Alex Katz and sports photo shows at TMA

What they see is what they write.

Ekphrasis or ecphrasis (from the Greek for the description of a work of art produced as a rhetorical exercise): Often used in the adjectival form ekphrastic, is a graphic, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined.

Thanks, Wikipedia. But really, thanks to Keep St. Pete Lit. Three years ago, that estimable literary organization premiered its annual Fantastic Ekphrastic event, which not only introduced many of us to a new word, but also ushered in a new kind of entertainment hybrid. KSPL’s Maureen McDole invited local writers (including this one) to choose from a selection of works by local visual artists, then write a poem, a story, a playlet, whatever we wanted in response, and then [email protected]’s Bob Devin Jones assembled a team of actors to voice what we wrote. Reprised last month at St. Pete’s Soft Water Studios, the performances once again sold out.

With Maureen’s blessing (and participation), CL is adapting the format for GASP! using images from two current exhibitions at the Tampa Museum of Art: Alex Katz: Black and White and Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present. Joanna Robotham, the museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art, chose a selection of works from these shows for local writers to work with, and you’ll be able to hear the results in the GASP!Phrastic room (see map and schedule) from 6-8 pm at the Tampa Museum of Art, Friday, March 31.

The writers’ responses were wildly eclectic. Alex Katz’s haunting “Black Cap” inspired Paul Wilborn to dip into his Ybor memories, providing us an early glimpse of a collection of stories he’s writing about Tampa’s first (and last?) bohemian district. Christen Hailey used Katz’s enigmatic “Christine” as a jumping-off point for two very contemporary rants, and Bonnie Agan packs a lifetime into five minutes in her response to Brian Finke’s photo of larger-than-life cheerleaders. Matt Cowley detects a murder mystery in Katz’s “3 P.M.”; Patrick Brafford finds surprising layers in the woman under the artist’s “Gray Umbrella.” And a Gloria Muñoz poem opens up whole worlds in Lucy Nicholson’s photo of an Alzheimer’s patient playing table tennis.

Tom Schmidt chose to write about one of the most arresting images in the sports photo exhibition, that of Paralympics swimmer Xavi Torres diving into the water, his prosthetic legs resting poolside. But it wasn’t Torres’s disability that moved Schmidt most about the photo; it was the message inherent within it that Torres is “an athlete, pure and simple.”

For Roxanne Faye, the blank simplicity of Katz’s “Rowboat” was what first drew her in. “There was something so immediate about it,” she says. “Such a peaceful, solitary image.” As she began writing, though, she was feeling anything but calm. The current political maelstrom was reminding her of how she felt the day after 9/11 — as if “something in the fabric of the universe was wrong.” The rowboat led her back to “the possibility of that kind of calm” — and the necessity of nurturing it.

I mostly steered the writers away from choosing images that had already been picked, but I’m glad of the duplication that happened when Florida Poet Laureate Peter Meinke and songwriter Tom Sivak both chose Tim Clayton’s photo of an Australian swimmer emerging from the pool encased in a cowl of water. Meinke saw a Frogman, and wrote a poem that finds a stinging moral in an old fairy tale; Sivak wrote an aria for, essentially, the pool — and how she feels when the swimmer dives in. Sivak’s wife, Elizabeth Gelman, will sing it; she and Sivak built a considerable reputation in theater circles in Chicago, where they hail from originally, but Gelman is better known hereabouts as the executive director of the Florida Holocaust Museum.

One collaboration required a little more room to, um, stretch out. Playwright Sheila Cowley wrote a monologue inspired by “Freefall,” Krystle Wright’s photograph of a base jumper in mid-air, and it grew into a movement theater piece that brought together actress Becca McCoy, dancer Crystal DelGuidice and choreographer Paula Kramer. Freefall will be performed in the museum’s North Atrium between 6:30 and 7.

Here’s a complete schedule of the GASP!Phrastic performances, with the writers’ names in parentheses if they’re not the ones performing their own works. Note that in addition to our roster of local literati, we also invited the poets of Heard Em Say Youth Arts Collective to get GASP!Phrastic with us. Right after they read their poems, you’re invited to stick around in the GASP!Phrastic room to watch them compete in a poetry slam.

GASP!Phrastic Room, 6-7

Roxanne Fay: Rowboat *

Gloria Muñoz: Alzheimer’s Ping Pong Therapy **

Jonelle Meyer (Matt Cowley): 3 P.M. *

Bonnie Agan: Cheerleading #81 **

Eugenie Bondurant (Paul Wilborn): Black Cap *

Erica Dawson: Olympics Black Power Salute **

Maureen McDole: Flags *

North Atrium, 6:45

Becca McCoy & Crystal DelGuidice (Writer: Sheila Cowley; Choreographer: Paula Kramer): Freefall **

GASP!Phrastic Room, 7-8 (or 830)

Tom Schmidt: Xavi Torres of Spain **

Debbie Yones (Patrick Brafford): Gray Umbrella *

Sheree L. Greer: Nigerian Relay Team **

Jonelle Meyer (Christen Hailey): Christine

David Warner (Peter Meinke): Australian Swimmer **

Elizabeth Gelman (Composer: Tom Sivak): Australian Swimmer **

Heard ‘Em Say Poets

Casey: Freefall **

Jenesis: Rowboat

Scorpio: Alzheimer’s Ping Pong Therapy

Laura: Christine

Denzel: Black Power

Briana: Gray Umbrella

Jordan: Frank O’Hara *

Taliah: Narrow Escape **

Megan: Shopping Crowd *

Chael: Fencing **

* From Alex Katz: Black and White

** From Who Shot Sports: A Photographic History, 1843 to the Present

GASP!Phrastic Room, 8 (or 830) to 10 

The Heard Em Say Youth Arts Collective GASP! Poetry Slam

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