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The Art Of The ‘Selfie’: St. Louis Group Seeking Self-Portraits To Illustrate Poetry

Poetry Scores, an organization translating poems into different media, is asking St. Louisans to picture themselves through the lines of a Greek psychoanalyst.

On the Metrolink, in bars and even at funerals, cell-phone photographers are capturing selfies -- self-portraits -- usually bound for Facebook, Instagram and other social media. But now, they now have a more poetic destination.

woodcut titled embirikos
Credit Dana Smith

The term "selfie" was proclaimed “word of the year” by the Oxford dictionaries in 2013. This year, the locally based Poetry Scores organization is collecting them as part of its mission to re-imagine poetry as music, visual art, film and even a barbecue offering foods named in the poem.

The newest selfie commission focuses on a translation of “Phantom of the Dreams’ Origin.” Written in 1935 by Greek psychoanalyst Andreas Ebirikos, “Phantom” opens with, “Her sand is incredible. Her face joyous and each leaf on her boulevard at a standstill.”

Photo of Chris King
Credit Courtesy of King
Chris King

Can you picture it? A few already have, and Poetry Scores coordinator Chris King hopes more will. “Not everyone can write a song, not everyone can make a painting,” King noted.

But anyone can take a selfie.

“It doesn’t take much time but what it does is engage people with the poem,” King said.

‘Where The Magic Happens’

To be accepted, “Phantom” selfies must conjure up a ghostly image, in keeping with the language of the poem, posted on Poetry Scores’ website. Titles must be a quote from the poem. The photos will be published at Poetry Scores’ blog and possibly included in a future art exhibit.

photo of Gina dill-Thebeau
Credit Courtesy of Dill-Thebeau
Gina Dill-Thebeau

“Phantom” selfie photographer Gina Dill-Thebeau of Affton said she “worked backward” to name her photos. An interior designer by trade and painter by avocation, Dill-Thebeau snapped pictures, then perused the poem for phrases such as “her eyes' calmness was troubled” to name them.

“That kind of spoke to what the picture looked like,” Dill-Thebeau said.

For Dill-Thebeau, the project was rewarding without being time-consuming. She took the photos at her workplace, which boasts room after room of furniture including glass-front cabinets that gave her reflected image a ghostly flair. Next, she photoshopped them.

“That’s where the magic happens, where they become art as opposed to some picture that is nothing,” Dill-Thebeau said.

A Different Understanding Through Music

Poetry Scores partcipants have also translated poems into both rock and classical music, including a musical interpretation of “Phantom” by UMSL professor Barbara Harbach. She was inspired by words in the poem such as “despair” and “desolation.” But the end result wasn’t completely dark.

“The music turned out to be quite happy,” Harbach said.

photo of Barbara Harbach
Credit Stephanie Zettl
Barbara Harbach

During the process, Harbach read the poem two dozen times, experiencing it as a series of feelings and images.

“I think I may never understand it all, but that’s alright,” Harbach said. “That’s poetry -- to keep a little bit of an enigma going, a little bit of fascination.”

Her composition -- recorded for a CD to be released in April -- will also call up a diversity of experiences among listeners, according to Harbach.

“When you hear something beautiful, you are inspired to think about a scene that may have happened in your past -- a happiness or a sadness,” Harbach said. “Or it might inspire something you’ve never thought of before.”

"Phantom" selfie submissions can be tweeted to @PoetryScores, uploaded to Poetry Scores' Facebook page or emailed to King at brodog@hotmail.com.

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Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.