The Written Image: The Poets Series

From the January/February 2018 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Poets have long drawn inspiration from visual art, from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” to Robin Coste Lewis’s “Voyage of the Sable Venus.” Canadian painter and poet Melanie Janisse-Barlow is turning the tables on this tradition with her Poets Series project (, a collection of painted portraits of contemporary poets. Inspired by Ann Mikolowski, who painted portraits of poets in Detroit, Janisse-Barlow started her project three years ago and has since painted nearly eighty poets from North America, including Hoa Nguyen and Christian Bok (both pictured below), as well as Matthew Rohrer, Jordan Abel, and Claudia Rankine. Each poet selects an image to be painted—a traditional headshot or a broader interpretation of a portrait; for example, poet Anna Vitale sent a photo of the school she attended in Detroit—and Janisse-Barlow then reads some of the poet’s work before painting the portrait. While she initially chose her subjects, Janisse-Barlow now asks each poet she paints to choose the next poet for the series. The result is a map of portraits that trace a network of poetic influence and friendship. “I wanted the series to grow itself and expand and form along its own trajectories,” says Janisse-Barlow. “I have nothing but respect for the beautiful and challenging work of making poetry. Who better to celebrate than those who dedicate themselves to the reachings of language and ideas?”