A while back I mentioned the term Maggie Anderson uses for poetic obsessions, important excitements, but I could not find where I had read her talking about this. Then, looking for something else, I picked up Robin Behn and Chase Twichell’s book, The Practice of Poetry. And there, nicely dog-eared on page 160, I saw Anderson’s contribution to the book: Important Excitements: Writing Groups of Related Poems. She suggests writing about a dozen poems that are related in either form, content or both. With the name, she takes a phrase from Gwendolyn Brooks and expands on it.
“The specific technical skills that an exercise like this can teach are as idiosyncratic as the choice of format and are intricately connected to each individual poets obsessions, whatever ‘importantly‘ excites you. If you choose, for example, to write a group of sonnets you will undoubtedly learn much about rhyme and meter through the consistent practice of it. If you choose to write a group of poems about seashells, you will probably learn some things about objects in space, about enclosures and coverings, about marine detritus, and about who-knows-what in yourself that has generated your interest in shells.”
So, for example, I wrote about some of Hiroshige’s One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. I had noticed that several of them seemed to have an older woman and a younger woman walking together, and I decided to write a series of poems that would reflect the kind of mentoring that women of different ages often do for one another. So what follows is a story of women’s lives, told primarily through monologues by the younger woman, the newlywed, and the older woman, her neighbor. There is one about middle age that I still have not gotten around to writing, perhaps because I have been too busy living it, but there are the titles of the ones I have written so far, many of which have been published in the journal Ekphrasis.
The First Pilgrimage
Beneath Immovable Falls, the Neighbor Speaks of Birth
At the Theater District of Saruwaka, the Newlywed Speaks of Death*
The Neighbor Mourns Her Lost Sons
The Newlywed Considers Poetry
The Daughter Contemplates Time and Her Mother
The Mother Takes Her Teenage Daughter to Chiyo’s Pond
Two People, One
The Newlywed at 80 Looks Back
Writing these nine poems taught me about how to do ekphrastic verse (poetry about art) in a way that was not simply describing a picture. (Because of course that is not what Keats does in his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” which conveys ideas about the momentary nature of love and life in contrast to the hopefully immortal nature of art.) Also, given that those landscapes are about 150 years old, set in a culture very different from the one I am writing from and to, I needed to both explain to my audience what they do not know about the culture, language and geography, preferably in a way that is unobtrusive, but I also had to try to draw universal truths/experiences out in a way that makes us feel like we are all in this human thing together without comodifying another culture.
Oh, and it should be pretty. No sweat.
Anderson continues, “In either case, you will almost certainly learn something about your own imaginative process: your habitual gestures, your extravagances, and your reticences; the places where you give up and the places where you push ahead.”
This understanding of your own writing process and the pushes and pulls going on behind it is, I believe, crucial for all working writers, whether poets, novelists, screenwriters or dissertation writers. The more we understand about what is going on beneath our mental hood, the more we can keep the spark plugs sparking and the engine running smoothly.
Behn, Robin and Chase Twichell, eds. The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
*Hiroshige. Night View of Saruwaka Machi. 1856. Woodblock Print. Brooklyn Museum, New York.