Barbara Wanamaker: What drew you to Van Gogh and what inspired you to write a poem about his painting Starry Night?
Jillian Ross: I was fascinated with the concept of “nightscape” and captivated by his bold use of color to convey emotion.
BW: Your poem seems to emerge as more of an inspirational response than an ekphrastic response. Rather than reacting to the work solely, you delve beneath the canvas to address the artist’s demons. Was this intentional or did the poem take this turn as it came forth?
JR: The painting seems alive. The sky moves, there’s an element of turbulence—a chaos—that pulls me in. Simultaneously, there’s the undercurrent of deliberate design in the rhythms, and a pure sense of hope in the exaggerated brightness of the stars and moon.
If I didn’t know the backstory of his struggle, I’d have interpreted the painting differently—as an expression of fantasy, maybe the visual equivalent of the genre we call “magical realism.” There’s a child-like exuberance to the night sky, as if it’s a playground that comes alive for him while the rest of the world sleeps. In this night sky, Van Gogh created an entirely new world, and perhaps the stars in that world were actually portals to the afterlife.
Knowing Van Gogh’s history—and the fact that Starry Night was painted during his stay in an asylum—drew me toward interpretation in terms of that reality. The urgency seems to depict the beauty of a manic episode—soaring bold, bright, confident, larger-than-life. Unfortunately, the corresponding depression that follows mania can plunge one lower than is even humanly imaginable. I marveled at the brilliance of a mind that could capture, combine and portray these elements so exuberantly, and then I mourned the tragedy of his suicide. So yes, the poem’s journey was deliberate.
BW: Do you believe it is possible to write about a Van Gogh painting without addressing the artist’s troubled life?
JR: Art is self-expression, so the artist’s life is embedded in his work. If genius borders on insanity, then that borderline is a trembling high-wire without a net. If Van Gogh’s genius was in his sense of sight—in his perception of light and his ability to convey the images he saw—then try to imagine how the darkness of depressive episodes affected him. How must he have felt when the light disappeared?
BW: You refer to Van Gogh as “the pastor’s son” in the second line of your poem. Was this fact important to you in revealing the man who lived behind the guise of an artist?
JR: As a writer, I reacted to the painting in terms of “story.” Knowing the backstory of his childhood in the Netherlands as the son of a minister, the church steeple and the cypress seem to represent things he might trust and hold onto as “terra firma” in his swirling world of mental anguish. So the solid, structural elements of the work seem to be taken from his life experience.
I believe that the faith we are raised in has an everlasting influence on our lives—it’s impossible to “unlearn” these truths, although it is possible to ignore or abandon them. I chose to believe that Van Gogh’s early religious training permeated his being with an enduring sense of faith and hope, despite the torment of his illness.
BE: “Elixir—a green glide through/aqua sky to amber field./Stained hands clench/the revolver aimed inward.” In these four lines, you describe beautifully Van Gogh’s addiction and subsequent suicide. Can you share with us any allusions of addiction and suicide apparent to you within Starry Night?
JR: His medical diagnosis is unclear—psychosis, epilepsy, alcoholism are all mentioned—but Van Gogh was hospitalized more than once, and episodes of “maniacal” behavior (including cutting off his ear) were well documented. Today, he might be categorized with co-occurring disorders. He painted Starry Night while voluntarily institutionalized—he had both a room and a studio in the asylum. But the “view” from his window as depicted in Starry Night did not exist. Unlike his other work, Starry Night was apparently created from “memory” and “imagination” rather than from on-site observation. Three months after his release from the asylum, at age 37, he apparently shot himself in a wheat field. His death was not instantaneous—the bullet didn’t kill him, death resulted from infection because the bullet could not be removed. That’s the storyline, and I couldn’t tell the story without including the agonizing reality. I chose to relay the events in terms of color as homage to the artist. Absinthe (known as “The Green Fairy”) derives its glorious color from chlorophyll, wheat fields glow amber, aqua is blue tinged with chartreuse-green.
BE: Do you feel Starry Night is the one work Van Gogh created that best illustrates his personal struggles?
JR: I do. I appreciate the sunflowers, the black crows in the wheat field. I love the cypress series. But as a writer, I’m drawn to story. In Starry Night, I found the story. My response included extending the story as we know it with his soul’s final journey through that Starry Night with his eyes wide open, letting him see the glory of light and color as he moved toward his final destination.
Barbara Wanamaker holds a B.A. in English and Art History from Fairfield University. She subsequently earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Fairfield in 2013. She has worked as assistant editor for Dogwood, poetry co-editor for Mason’s Road and as a reader for Spry. Her work appears in Mason’s Road, Spry, Ebullience, What Next? A Guide to Life After the MFA, Time for Singing and is upcoming in Penwood Review. She is the author of ekphrasis iii – a poetry response in Haibun form to selected cast pieces in Fairfield University’s collection displayed in the Bellarmine Museum.