I’m still working hard at attempting to understand the differences between photography and poetry. After years on the subject, the one, and one of the few things, I’m convinced of is that there aren’t as many as you think. One is supposedly a visual art, the other a literary art; at least that’s what most people would say. But they would be wrong! You see a poem and you read a photograph.

My undergraduate degree is a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Photography from Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. I was taking photographs before I began writing poems, and not just to make money. I wandered through days and weeks with a camera to my eye through four years of the army, sometimes pretending that some of the photo I took were actually art. Back then I consciously thought of myself as a poet who didn’t write poems but instead photographed them. Eventually, I became a copywriter, and then a poet. Photography took up less and less time in my life*. There was a tipping point, after that I thought of myself as a photographer who didn’t take photographs, instead wrote out his photographs. Though my nostalgia for all things photographic infected my poetic life in an unexpected way. I wrote The Myth of Photography*, a book-length poem that re-examined – and at times, re-imagined – the history of photography; and let the result mingle with memoir.

Photography is a primitive form of time machine. Poetry is always in the present tense, though it is often written in the past tense. The emotional experience of reading a poem is immediate. Just because they are called still photographs doesn’t mean they can’t move.

People should pose for poems in the same way they pose for photographs. As of yet I haven’t hired a beautiful woman to sit naked in a large red chair in front of me so I could write a poem but I have every intention of doing so. A hand gun laying beside a folded newspaper, half-eaten apple and five bullets scattered about, morning light pouring in through the window – this will be the first in a series of still life poems I plan to write.

Imagine the entire world, each and every tree, person, building and cloud in one photograph. Now begin taking things out. Take out billions of things. Keep removing until you’re left with a woman standing under a streetlight at night. She’s smoking a cigarette. Her arms are folded just under her chest. Behind her is a 24 hour Laundromat. That’s a how a photography works, edit out everything except your subject. Outside of the view finder the rest of the world might exist but outside the photograph there’s nothing. Elliot Erwitt said “photography is simply about seeing.” See something interesting and press the shutter release button. Poetry works the same way. Imagine each and every word in the dictionary forming the uncountable amount of images and thoughts that make up the world** . Now start to remove things, remove words, and then remove more words. What you don’t say in poem is as vital as what you do, well, almost.

I find it comforting to discuss a poem as if I were discussing a photograph and vice versa.

*Today I again think of myself as a real photographer, shoot with a Canon 5D and print with an Epson 2880.
**Sections of the poem have been published in the Southern Review, Washington Square, Main Street Rag, Lake Effect and Agni (online).
*** The world available to poetry is much larger than that available to photography in that poets can write about the past in a way that photographers cannot photograph it.