“A photograph is a secret about a secret, the more it tells you, the less you know.” — Diane Arbus
I don’t know how many times in my life as a writer that I’ve said “I want to write a book of ekphrastic poems,” but not followed through. I would look at the work of favorite artists, and wonder about how to find a way “in” to the painting or the photograph.
Eventually, another project would consume me, and I would file the idea away, hoping that one day, the time would be right. I sometimes tell myself that such a project shouldn’t have incubated this long; in 1998, I won first prize in a college writing contest for a poem about Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. My first non-student publication was about another Hopper painting, New York Movie.
Other ekphrastic poems followed those through the years, but I could see no theme in them; nothing that would coalesce into a whole. I don’t remember when I started to fixate on the work of Diane Arbus as a way into an ekphrastic collection. My first idea, to create found poems from what writings were shared in the book Diane Arbus: Revelations (a book that became essential to my project), did not yield much. There were diary entries, subject lists; random scraps from an artist who stepped into her subjects’ lives for a short period, or sometimes coming to know them intimately. Like a medium, I waited for the spirits I saw in her photographs to speak to me.
The first time that this happened, with the poem that begins my micro-chapbook, How Darkness Enters a Body, “Contact Sheet,” evolved after looking a contact sheet of some of Arbus’smost iconic photographs: a pair of young twin girls. The contact sheet was not limited to one set; she had taken pictures of two or three. But the image that stood out to me was one that was upside down: the girls already have this haunted quality in their expression, and here they are, suspended in matching velvet dresses. I wrote about them sharing a secret language, even before birth. Of sharing hands and tongues. It read better than any of the found poems that I had attempted using Arbus’s words. I did not write another right away. I borrowed Diane Arbus: Revelations multiple times from different libraries, along with another book, Diane Arbus: Magazine Work, which focuses on the work that she did over the years for various publications; portraits of the famous (Norman Mailer, for example) to the relatively anonymous. I think the only guideline that I set for myself was to avoid, if I could, photographs that have, over time, become famous. I didn’t write another poem about the twins, or about the photograph of the giant at home with his family. I asked myself “what, in this extraordinary body of work, do I want to write a poem about?”
My desire to write a book of Arbus-related poems became more urgent after seeing the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Diane Arbus: In the Beginning, in 2016. It was the first time that I had seen her work “live.,” as opposed to reproductions in books. I kept hearing the call of “you have to write about this.” There were photographs taken in darkened movie theaters. A picture of Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland, rendered mysterious and forbidding, taken after dark with only a few lights on. But even after this encounter with her work, I did not start right away.
For the first six months of 2017 (and perhaps before) I experienced a prolonged episode of major depression, an illness that I have lived with since adolescence. The urge to create was almost non-existent. I was having trouble imagining a future with more books besides the ones that I had already written. There was a day in either May or June that was especially bad. I could not find a way to distract myself from the endless loop of self-negating thoughts. I did, however, look around me. Once again, I had borrowed Arbus related books. I won’t say that I heard her voice telling me to do it now; it was probably my own voice, urging me to write when I least wanted to, if only to stop thinking about how to self-destruct.
I wrote almost all of the poems that ended up in How Darkness Enters the Body that day. I submitted some of the poems out immediately, ones that did not make it into the final manuscript. I sent a version of the manuscript out to a journal’s open reading period at the same time. Individual poems were turned down. I began to doubt the work. In July, Porkbelly holds an open reading period for micro-chapbooks. I had nine poems, and I had cut the ones that were less successful. I was asked if I would be willing to change the title and to cut a poem that might fit better in a longer work. I agreed. Contact Sheet (the original title) became How Darkness Enters a Body, the title of a poem written about a photograph of a movie in a darkened theater. It was not my intention to use a writing project as a kind of therapy, but that is what it became. Art, in all its forms, has saved my life many times: as a reminder that there is beauty in the world, or, as what happened here, as a reminder to keep going in the face of an illness that doesn’t care about what I do or don’t create. It would rather I didn’t. Writing How Darkness Enters a Body was a moment out of so many thousands when the depression didn’t win.
Sarah Nichols How Darkness Enters a Body is available now from Porkbelly Press.