Exercise: Poem

The aim of this exercise was to develop metaphorical and visceral interpretations rather than literal ones.


It requires me to select a poem and then interpret it through photographs, not a description of the poem but a response to it.


I chose the poem “The Child on the Stairs”by Moniza Alvi,   it is an English version of the original poem “L’enfant et les escaliers” written by the French poet Jules Supervielle. The poem is copyright and I have reproduced it here with the kind permission of the author. It is published in the book Homesick for the Earth: poems by Jules Supervielle with versions by Moniza Alvi © 2011 published by Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, Northumberland.


The Child on the Stairs

I hear you running up and down the stairs,

but the minute I grab hold of the banister

you turn your face the other way.

I’m convinced you’re my childhood

haunting a favourite place.

You hide from me, embarrassed,

but I was a kind of lodger in your house,

so now I can’t help recognising you,

even though you make yourself invisible.

You prowl around me when no one’s looking,

and hurry away, as from an illicit meeting.

Okay, I won’t let on I know you,

but you must also keep our secret –

this constant patter of my early footsteps

on the present-day stairs.

To me this poem is all about memories of childhood and its elusiveness.

The key words/feelings that it evoked for me were:

  • Secret
  • Childhood
  • Past in the present
  • Stairs and noise
  • Activity of childhood
  • Elusive

The poem explores evanescent feelings of times past and how they occur in the present. Images to evoke the meaning of the poem need to be adult responses to memories of childhood. I have tried to produce images that give a dream-like or transient feel in the same way as the memories are evoked in the poem. Because memories are so intangible and not always firm or clear cut I have tried to do the same with the photos so, for example, with the image of the Teddy on the stairs I chose a long shutter speed but hand held the camera to get the effect that I wanted. I used such methods or post capture processing on all of the images to try to create a more dream-like overall effect.


My photos to try to summon up the instinct of the poem are shown here:




What I tried to do was to think of the things that remind me of childhood and to photograph those, so I have photos of toys, games, holidays by the sea and streams for playing in. I didn’t include any people in my photos because they are my memories and feelings and therefore there is something of me in them. I have presented them in black and white because for me this enhances the concept of them being memories of times past.


What did I learn from the exercise?

This was a fascinating exercise. Before taking this course I would have probably have approached this exercise by taking a photo of a child on a staircase as a literal interpretation. I feel quite liberated by the approach demanded in this exercise, it has shown me how to think about producing images of feelings or memories, you don’t have to take the obvious route.