More on Important Excitements


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.

Anderson writes:

“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.

Inspiration Tip: Revisiting Old Friends #2

chiyo pond hiroshige

When I want to write and have no ideas for topics, I often turn to visual art, particularly, as I mentioned a while back, Japanese woodblock artists like Hokusai. A few days ago, as I was digging through old journals that I was published in, I found a poem I had forgotten about that was based on one of Hiroshige’s pictures that I could not remember. So I went and dug up my Hiroshige books, couldn’t find it and so, of course, requested some books from the library. And I fell in love again.

Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858) worked part-time for many years as a firefighter at Edo Castle, so those of us who are artists with day jobs shouldn’t feel too alone!

Greatly influenced by Hokusai, whose landscapes were wildly popular, Hiroshige produced Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji and Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road, but it is the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, that he did towards the end of his life, that I like best. (Edo is the old name for Tokyo.) In this series, he used bright colors and vertical orientation, often with some larger piece of what I would normally think of as background in the foreground and large, like a tree branch or a banner, so that you have to look harder to see the people and figure out the story that is playing out. The following poem appeared in Ekphrasis and was nominated for Pushcart Prize XXIII: Best of the Small Presses in 1997.

The Mother Takes Her Teenage Daughter to Chiyo’s Pond

(Hiroshige, “Chiyo’s Pond in Meguro,” 1856)

Little One, we fold too many stories

between silk and our hot skin, we coil

too many expectations in our hair,

pinning them with pointed lacquer hopes.

Long ago, Lady Chiyo made this pond

her final resting place, doused the coals

of love for her husband, killed in battle.

These cherry trees did not grow here back then.

Had their pink branches rustled above her

slow steps, they might have taken her to task,

displayed limbs wrapped in feminine hues,

and whispered, Here we stand in the bright air,


resplendent and giving ourselves despite

the approach of wilting summer and the falling

rains. Look at their smoky reflections

on the pond’s surface, rippling cherry wisdom:

Night comes, soon enough, we disappear.

And you, with your young warrior now gone,

have lost, you think, your future blossoming.

Why not, you ask me, simply float and fade?

Look up! See the water throwing itself

down into its own wet element in steps

clear white and frothing as the very day.

Your aunt, walking behind us, would say, This


water is your starting place. Begin

to wash out expectations, not drown hope.

Your brave one is dead, but another walks

somewhere, teeth flashing, not knowing he waits.

Still water does not suit you. Remember him,

but throw yourself, my daughter, into life.

Spilecki, Susan. “The Mother Takes Her Teenage Daughter to Chiyo’s Pond,” Ekphrasis (1997) 1:1.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer


In the end, we all write alone.

As a performing introvert, sometimes I revel in the solitude and sometimes I get edgy and want to talk to other people about the things I am writing about. Not imaginary people, like editors of journals and their subscribers. Real people with faces and names and opinions. At least, that is what it feels like.

I don’t know a lot of poets these days. Working in academia, I know a lot of fiction writers, scholars, science writers, bloggers and at least two recovering journalists. This is usually enough, as the issues we all face in terms of writing process and simply putting down the right words in the right order are ubiquitous regardless of genre. Having some writer friends is not only helpful; I would argue that it is necessary for your long-term happiness as a working writer. There are some things that only other writers understand:

  • the habit of leaving a notepad in the bathroom for 3 am inspirations
  • the frustration with having thought of the almost-right word (no, that is not good enough, dammit)
  • the victory of writing 1665 words a day for more than two weeks in a row
  • scribbling the lyrics to a new song idea on the inside of your Dunkin Donuts bag, sometimes before you get around to eating the donut
  • those white-noise days when you stare at page or screen for hours and produce nothing
  • the feeling of “Damn, I’m good!”* when you finish an exquisite bit of writing even you didn’t know you were capable ofdamnfinemug

You can experience the joys and pains alone, but it is exhausting, especially when you are also submitting work to those imaginary editors out there in Journal Land and receiving form rejections back in a much higher proportion than the acceptances. And, alone, you can solve the obstacles in your writing—the clunky transitions, the fifth draft ending that still sucks—but it will go faster with a friend.

When I think of this, I think of otters, who sleep on their backs on the water, holding hands so that they don’t get separated. Sometimes, you just need a buddy.


* A college friend of mine had a mug that said this. I have always thought it would be a great mug for a writer. George Eliot at the least would have found it invaluable.

Inspiration Tip: Revisiting Old Friends


One way I rev the engine of creation when I am stuck in neutral gear is to go back to one of my favorite poets, often Marge Piercy, Billy Collins, or Nancy Willard, but occasionally someone less famous. A while back I was updating the Publication section on my Curriculum Vitae, which entailed digging through contributer’s copies. During the 1990s, I published a lot of my poems about art in a then-new journal called Ekphrasis, which means–get this–poems about art.

It is still around, a great little journal, and one of the best things about it is that it publishes some really cool poetry/poets. One of the poets I discovered there was Simon Perchik, who writes these skinny little poems with lines that just blow my mind. His line “or perhaps your shadow overflowing again” (from “D111”) inspired a poem about a panic attack; “today is missing/the ground is missing” (from “D180”) inspired a poem about an anxiety attack on a hot summer day. I cannot find some of the other poems; they were not all about mental health!

The ending of one of my favorite Nancy Willard poems was put on postcards several years back in a Poetry in Public sort of program. This is from “The Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God.”

“In a world not perfect but not bad either

let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,

caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,

and signs so spare a child may read them,

Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands, they can work wonders.”

Willard, Nancy. Water Walker. New York: Knopf, 1989.