Two Northwest Teachers Read Published Poems

Humanities and French teacher Françoise Canter and Humanities teacher Suzanne Bottelli read from their published books of poems before a full audience at Elliott Bay Books on Capitol Hill on December 5, 2017. Françoise read from her recently released book of poems, Les Voix Liminales, and Suzanne shared new work as well selections from her chapbook, The Feltville Formation, published in 2015.

A third published poet, Shin Yu Pai, who is poet laureate of the City of Redmond, read from a suite of poems responding to the transformation of a special collection space within the Chicago Art Institute that is devoted to Asian Art. She read a work called “The Sixteen Pillars of Tadao Ando," which was featured in the journal Full Bleed.

Each poet’s work was distinct in subject matter and form but also connected by the reading’s unifying theme: ekphrastic poetry. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a work of art. Through the poet’s imaginative reflections on elements in the painting or sculpture, the meaning of the artwork is amplified and deepened.

Françoise’s poem, “San Geronimo Translates”, was inspired by a painting of Saint Jerome by Sebastian des Llanos Valdes in the Museum of Fine Arts in Seville, Spain. Saint Jerome was known for taking on the heavy and overwhelming task of translating the Bible. According to Francoise, des Llanos Valdes’ painting drew her in by evoking an “amazing tenderness.”

“Usually, depictions of Saint Jerome have him holding the crucifix high with his hand. But In this painting, the crucifix is cradled and carried as a baby,” explains Françoise. “The humanity and hope in that gesture is a beautiful representation of translation.”

Françoise translated the poems in Les Voix Liminales herself – she writes in both French and English and translates back and forth from one language to the other equally. She considers the dynamic of translation to be part of her creative process.

I live my life in translation,” says Françoise, who grew up in France and moved to America 30 years ago. “It’s not a comfortable place to be, this place of two images, two presences, two ways of being, but it brings an incredible richness to my life. It is not a fight – it’s a tension that brings new ways of seeing the world.”

Similarly, Suzanne Bottelli shared a poem inspired by another painting residing in Seville, Spain: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s portrait of Saint Catherine. The artwork moved Suzanne to write “Murillo’s Saint Catherine, c. 1650, Hospital de los Venerables, Sevilla”, a poem published in January 2017 in the online journal Scoundrel Time. In addition, Suzanne read a poem responding to Vermeer’s “Head of a Girl” from her unpublished full-length collection, A Visual Glossary of the Physical World.

“(When writing ekphrastic poetry) you are trying to convey the experience of looking at the image – it’s not just what the image is about but what it evokes,” explains Suzanne. “Something is triggered by the image.”

One of Suzanne’s poetry assignments to her students every year is to write an ekphrastic poem about a photograph. The exercise develops descriptive vocabulary skills and at the same time “cultivates a quality of paying attention.”

An interesting side note to this story: Although Suzanne and Françoise were in Seville at the same time in 2016 and spent time together there, they did not discover they were moved by paintings in different parts of the city until they read each other’s published poems.