Focal Ekphrastic: An Interview with Hedy Habra

19 mins read

Hedy Author Photo
Hedy Habra has authored two poetry collections, Under Brushstrokes, finalist for the USA Best Book Award and the International Book Award, and Tea in Heliopolis, winner of the USA Best Book Award; and a story collection, Flying Carpets. She was a six-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Her work appears in Cimarron Review, Bitter Oleander, Drunken Boat, Gargoyle, Nimrod, Poet Lore, World Literature Today, and Verse Daily. Her website is

Jon Riccio: The many gorgeous ekphrastic passages from Under Brushstrokes have me rethinking poetry’s relationship to visual art. One of my favorites is “The bride and groom listen all night long/ to the blue notes cascading over the red-tiled roof” (“Under the Crescent Moon”). What’s your definition of writerly beauty?

Hedy Habra: The concept of beauty is complex and evades specific definitions. Some artworks may lack harmony but will trigger deep aesthetic emotions in the viewer. In the same vein, a poem may not offer a harmonious, or coherent image, but should incite readers to appropriate it and reconstruct the inter-artistic dialogue in search for meaning.

I use the image as a point of departure for an oneiric or surreal recreation departing from the original. It is at times an attempt at transforming a two-dimensional representation into a three-dimensional, almost cinematic rendition that involves all five senses. I also aim at offering an imagined version of what might have happened before or after the portrayed scene, oftentimes from the point of view of one of the characters in the paintings.

JR: A good deal of these poems are written as prose. Now that I think about it, the prose form provides an ideal (and metaphoric) frame for writing about art. How else has prose served the project at hand?

HH: I agree that the shape of an ekphrastic prose poem evokes a framed tapestry or an artwork presented visually on the page. By translating visual images into verbal images we create a new version or an entirely new painting. As a result, the original will never be viewed in the same way. In Under Brushstrokes, my responses to visual art seemed to have a will of their own, some poems requiring line breaks and pauses, like stills, whereas others wanted to flow with a cadence of their own.

The visual impact of a painting is immediate, whereas a poem can be imbued with a sequence of images, or offer a juxtaposition of scenes that allows to play with time and space…

Most are persona poems that delve into the speaker’s interiority, unraveling at times a stream of consciousness, in which case a fluidity of movement is required. Several poems consist of a single sentence, offering a certain liquidity that allows for a faster pace. Others engage in a dialogue with the artist or represent an interaction between the artist and his subject. The visual impact of a painting is immediate, whereas a poem can be imbued with a sequence of images, or offer a juxtaposition of scenes that allows to play with time and space, all of which can be projected on the page, within the framed form of the prose poem, like on a canvas.

JR: The snail-protagonist of “Musical Score in Pearly Layers” encounters notes that “rise, spiraling through the coiled corridors of the voluminous shell, oblivious of the bike left to the care of the tall cello case standing like a Swiss guard.” In what ways did classical music influence Under Brushstrokes?

HH: I listen to classical music a lot, especially while I’m working. But it is only after you’ve asked this question that I’ve realized to what extent music and musical instruments were present throughout my work. As I reviewed the collection, I noticed that several poems make musical references, either to instruments or melodies, and couldn’t keep track of all of them within the frame of this exchange.

Some of the instances are “Mozart’s Rondo all Turca,” a piano piece I learned as a child, “Mozart’s Requiem” and Degas’ “Rehearsal of a Ballet.” The voices of the persona poems often come as songs: the “Desert Song,” the mother’s song in “Nocturne,” the lover’s “Magnificat,” the moon’s “secret tune,” “A Song from the Viennese Whispered to Klimt,” birds’ songs, alongside numerous allusions to marking the beat. It is the music of words that has always been the most present for me, yet the influence of classical music, though real, was unconscious.
Hedy Book Cover Image

JR: Though the cover design is by Paul Sizer, the cover art bears your name. Is there a story behind this painting? Is any other art of yours featured on additional book covers?

HH: I have been practicing Chinese ink brush painting for several years, and it has challenged my perception about visual art. I used to work with oils, in which case, superimposed brushstrokes convert the canvas into a palimpsest imbued with mysteries to unravel. But the absorbency of rice paper is unforgiving: it is a hit or miss that gives the painting a poetic quality since it is the expression of the moment’s emotion. For the Chinese, poetry and painting are one, and I can understand why as I have been practicing both disciplines. I guess that must be the reason why I chose Under Brushstrokes as a title, along with the cover art, which illustrates a woman bathing in the midst of lotus leaves and flowers, with empty spaces that correspond to silences in poetry.

I have also painted the cover of my first poetry collection, Tea in Heliopolis. It is a watercolor representing the terrace of the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, which used to be a famous landmark in Cairo. When Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, came to power in the sixties, it was converted into his Presidential Palace. This Grand Hotel symbolizes Heliopolis’ bygone era during which I grew up. I am grateful to Paul Sizer, who has beautifully designed both covers in a way that enhances my paintings.

JR: “After the Storm” progresses from “Dead trees erect as Dalí’s crutches” to “nature’s/ Petri dishes, grounds for rippled/ mushrooms writing their own memoir/ in the hidden calligraphy of their folds.” Which species of flower is best suited to serve as humankind’s biographer?

HH: Flowers are part of nature’s cycle and symbolize birth, death, and rebirth. It is hard to select one species, as they all remind us of our ephemeral condition but also of the hope of an inner renewal associated with the change of seasons. Lotuses and water lilies always fascinated me. They offer a vision of beauty and perfection as they elegantly emerge from murky ponds. I find it interesting that they open in the morning and close at night, replicating our daily cycle. For ancient Egyptians, the lotus flower was associated with the rising sun and symbolized rebirth. In Buddhism and Hinduism, they represent purity and spirituality. They seem to offer a message of transcendence as they rise unsoiled from the mud. Their resurgence illustrates humankind’s struggle to come forth despite the circumstances, a constant fight of the mind and spirit against basic instincts and desire.

JR: Your list of art and visuals used as inspiration contains more than 40 entries ranging from Hokusai and Bosch to Goya and Chagall. How many of these have you seen in person? Did you begin the compositional process on viewing, or was there a waiting period between gallery visits and drafts?

HH: I have a passion for art and have always spent a lot of time visiting museums whenever I’d travel. I also have a collection of books about art. I have seen a little more than half of these artworks in person, but explored the work of contemporary artists through books and the Internet. I remember stumbling upon a Dalí exhibit in Florence or a Chagall exhibit while in Barcelona. I would spend hours at the Prado every time I’d go to Madrid and enjoyed Bernini’s sculptures whenever in Rome.

I have rarely started writing upon viewing the artwork, but it would remain impressed in my mind. I would take lots of notes that eventually became drafts over a long period of time. Over the years, I researched extensively the work of the artists I greatly admire, such as Goya, Dalí, Schiele, Klimt, Degas, Bosch, Van Gogh, and Chagall, but I avoided to do this with newly discovered artists. I wanted to respond to the artwork itself with a flight of the imagination without any exterior influence.

JR: Thank you for including a variety of paintings by such women as Leslie Sealey, Kathleen Kinkopf, Rosita Cornuda, Gail Potocki, and Maria Gust. Do you hope to give a greater visibility to female artists through your work?

HH: Aside from the artists you mention, in Under Brushstrokes there are poems inspired by Ulla Gneimer, Dorothea Tanning, Alexandra Elder, and Jaclyn Alderete. I was attracted to their abstract and surreal work, but haven’t made these selections in terms of gender. It is interesting that you would raise this question, because I am more than halfway through another ekphrastic collection that will feature a majority of female artists, mainly surrealists, such as Remedios Varo, Juanita Guccione, Dorothea Tanning, and Leonora Carrington.

JR: Three lines from your book have led me to coin the phrase ‘easel omniscience’: “As I press the tip of the brush, I hear them think in Braille.” and “ With the tip of your brush,/ you slow their heartbeat.” Has painting developed your writer’s sixth sense, or is it the other way around?

When I paint, I verbalize my brushstrokes and there has been always a visual quality to my writing. I feel that whilst painting, the space of the canvas, or rice paper, becomes a sort of mandala that leads to meditation.

HH: This is a thought-provoking question. It is certain that for me, painting and poetry are inseparable. I have come to write poems inspired by my own paintings. When I paint, I verbalize my brushstrokes and there has been always a visual quality to my writing. I feel that whilst painting, the space of the canvas, or rice paper, becomes a sort of mandala that leads to meditation. It parallels the manner in which the act of observing intently a given artwork, may transform it into a sacred space awaiting to be deciphered.

JR: As a literary critic, you’ve focused on Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa. What qualities of Llosa’s were most helpful to your writing?

HH: Mario Vargas Llosa has influenced my fiction and poetry in numerous ways, mainly by highlighting the importance of imagination. He uses elaborate techniques, juxtaposing scenes and dialogues occurring at different times and spaces. His characters’ interior monologues are extremely visual and cinematic. In a couple of his novels in particular, In Praise of the Stepmother and its sequel, The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, his characters have extended lyrical and erotic fantasies inspired by art. In his novel about Gauguin, The Way to Paradise, he delves into the creative process of the fictional artist and makes us participate in the elaboration of his masterpieces. I have discovered the work of numerous artists, such as Egon Schiele, from reading Vargas Llosa’s novels and learned new ways of interpreting art.

JR: You close with “Aftershocks in Fukushima,” one scene being a newlywed who saw her spouse “drive/ up the hill, saw flooding waters rise.” another an “old woman…so cold she stopped/ feeling her toes. Even her rice cake shivers/ wrapped in a frozen aluminum sheet.” When is the relationship between catastrophe and creativity strongest? 

HH: Some artists or writers can respond right away to traumatic experiences and transform their pain into art. They would then react with the intensity and immediacy of the experience. This would function as a cathartic and healing effect. Others need some distance before being able to convert these circumstances into a creative expression. I have experienced both processes, though I have rarely composed a poem as an immediate response to a crisis, loss or pain. I write regularly in my journal and this allows me to reflect upon the situation, whether experienced or observed. But when I am finally able to write about it, the intensity of the situation is relived as though it had just happened, so I don’t know which response would be strongest, only that it is always a sort of alchemical transformation.

This conversation brings to my mind a quote from Jorge Luis Borges. As he neared the end of his life, he said: “The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in man’s memory. That is our duty. If we don’t fulfill it, we feel unhappy. A writer or any artist has the sometime joyful duty to transform all that into symbols. These symbols could be colors, forms or sounds. For a poet, the symbols are sounds and also words, fables, stories, poetry…”

Jon Riccio is a PhD candidate and composition instructor at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers. Current and forthcoming work appears in Corvus Review, Jazz Cigarette, Permafrost, Sick Lit Magazine, Steel Toe Review, and Vine Leaves Literary Journal. The poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review, he received his MFA from the University of Arizona where he served as a poetry reader for Sonora Review.