Imaginary Prisons: On Examining Piranesi's Carceri
Part of the fun of adjudicating TNQ’s writing contests is that the process is completely anonymous. Each entry is given a number, and the writer behind the words remains a mystery until after the winner has been chosen. Now that we’ve named our winners, however, we’d like to get to know the writers a little better.
In this interview, Nathalie Sorensen answers Occasional Verse Contest adjudicator John Haney’s questions about the writing of her OV contest poem “On Examining Piranesi’s Carceri,” a poem occasioned by her first encounter with this set of 18th century etchings depicting the shackles of the mind.
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The sestina is a brilliant choice of form for this poem, given the strictures of the form, and the subject of the poem. Is the pairing of form and content always so central for you as a poet?
The inspiration for my poem “On Examining Piranesi’s Carceri” was an exhibition of the etchings which I saw at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton in July, 2005. I had just taken part in Robyn Sarah’s poetry class at the Maritime Writer’s Workshop at the University of New Brunswick. I had only been writing poetry for a short time at that point, and I took to heart Robyn Sarah’s advice to try writing in the traditional poetic forms as a way to strengthen our work. The sestina was one of the forms she suggested we try. I have written a number of sonnets, some rhymed quatrains, and other traditional forms, and of course I do consider the fit of form and content. Most of the poems I have written so far are in free verse.
I was deeply impressed by the Piranesi images, which I had encountered long ago in an Art History course. As I walked around the exhibition I knew I would write about them. I don’t remember how soon I realized that the sestina form would be a good fit, but when I finally had a block of time in which to write—during a trip I took in October of that year—I brought a book of the Piranesi etchings with me and I knew before I began that I would write a sestina.
I'd love to know the where/when/how of your seeing this work—these etchings. I guess I'd love to know more about the "here" in the first line. I found the poem a wonderful departure from/entry into a work of art; can you speak to that? I realize this is a triple-barreled question!
My father was a painter and a teacher of art history: I have spent a lifetime looking at pictures. Piranesi’s Carceri etchings, like all great art, have the power to evoke more than can be readily expressed. My poem speaks about what some of their imagery—the high arches, the stairs leading nowhere, the chains and pulleys, the huge animals—set in motion for me. What is particularly striking is that the spaces are so fantastical, yet we feel as if we have always known them. My hope is that, like Piranesi’s images, the poem calls forth in the reader visions of his or her own particular prisons and the meanings they carry.
This is a contest for poems that celebrate/ponder/remember an occasion. The judges all talked a fair bit about what constitutes an occasional poem. Tell me in what way this poem deals with occasion? In as narrow or as broad a sense as you’d like.
The title of my poem, “On Examining Piranesi’s Carceri,” is a reference to Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” If readers catch the echo, my hope is that some of the sense of wonder at seeing a new world that Keats creates in his great poem will rub off on mine. That is the sense of occasion that I see in my poem, the amazement, the “wild surmise” of discovering a wholly new realm undreamed of before. Occasions can be anniversaries, moments of recognition as when being given an award, and so on, but I think we remember even more the times when we have made a discovery, found something new. Though his world is dark, that is what I feel when looking at Piranesi’s etchings.