The Problems of the Epic Fantasy Fan Poet: Establishing Character Relationships


So in case you were wondering to yourself, “Self, exactly what does an Epic Fantasy Fan Poet do?” because you think you might want to be one when you grow up, I am going to spend the next few days Taking My Blog Audience To Work with me, here in my toasty garret at the top of a high, crenelated tower with the pointed roof and the colorful pennant waving in the breeze. Mind you, this is my mental garret, as my actual garret is the second floor of an apartment building with roommates and cat, but never mind.

I have talked before about what the poet Maggie Anderson calls “important excitements”: those small projects where you take something interesting and look at it from a dozen or so angles. So for example I have at least a dozen poems about the women in some of Hiroshige’s woodblock landscapes of Edo (17th century Tokyo), their relationships, their lives, their extended story—all of this even though it is highly unlikely that Hiroshige saw any relationship among these women at all.

So last February, I thought to myself (as one does), “Self, let’s write a few poems about Xena: Warrior Princess. That’ll be fun! And it will give me a good excuse to watch it on Netflix streaming!” After all, as my colleague Rebecca Thorndike-Breeze says, “If you get writing out of it, it’s research.”

So I went back and watched the first season, which I had seen before via Netflix, but had not actually watched during the nineties; I only discovered Xena on TV at the beginning of Season 3. What I noticed watching this time with Poetry in Mind (with poetics aforethought?) was how little respect Xena shows her new travel buddy Gabrielle for the first half of the season. Some of this lack of respect appears to be the somewhat Yang/Yin nature of their relationship: Xena is almost a foot taller and she is the fighter with all the experience (apparently sexual as well as military), in comparison to the frumpily dressed Gabrielle who keeps telling us she is “not the little village girl my parents wanted me to be” while at the same time proving over and over again that, actually, she kinda is. Sigh.

But as someone who has watched the entire series a few times (no, I don’t have a life; what’s your point?), I know that an equal partnership is coming, although it will take another three or four seasons to fully realize. So I looked for the moment when their relationship shifts and I tried to write a before/after sort of picture. What I found interesting (considering that in episode 1.3 “Dreamworker,” Xena repeatedly tells Gabrielle “Words before weapons”) is that the major shift seems to come immediately after the Amazons teach Gabrielle to fight and then they all go into battle together.


Now this is problematic in a lot of ways, ways that the writers both do and don’t address throughout the six season of the show. On the one hand, Xena’s point that once you lift a weapon you will be classified as a threat and summarily attacked is valid. And a weapon you don’t know how to use belongs to your enemy. And they do say that taking another person’s life changes you dramatically. So to some extent Xena’s repeated refusal to teach Gabrielle to fight seems reasonable. However, Gabrielle points out that being able to defend herself would be helpful, at the very least so that Xena doesn’t have to do all the work. What Xena in her height and combat experience does not seem to comprehend is how terrifying it must be to be Gabrielle: every time a band of bandits attacks the pair, Gabrielle is just one warrior’s death away from a brutal rape and death or possibly slavery.

One warrior’s death: Xena’s. If Xena dies, Gabrielle hasn’t got a fly’s chance in shit of making it out of there alive and well. And although later Gabrielle and the audience knows that Xena doesn’t die (or—spoiler alert—at least not often or irreversibly), in the first few episodes Gabrielle can’t know that and neither can we. So Xena doesn’t look too good, refusing to empower her new friend by letting her learn to protect herself. This ticked me off. That, and the fact that in the episode after the Amazon fight, Gabrielle is fighting back to back with Xena as if she’s had endless practice and experience. In the nineties we could imagine that she’d had a week on the road with Xena (since the previous Saturday afternoon). When we are Netflixing, the next episode could be the next day. Nobody but nobody learns to fight that well in one day or seven.

So, in the section on Season 1 of my epic fantasy fan poetry, I fixed that, and I even got to use Plato. Woohoo!


What We Might Regain: G. Contemplates


Sometimes I wonder what she sees in me.

Sometimes I think of that story Plato wrote

About the people with four legs and two heads

That Zeus got all upset about and split

With lightning bolts, leaving us all asunder:

Only two legs, one head, and half a soul.


If, when Prometheus was rebound and doomed

To have his liver eaten by foul birds,

Day after day, mortals lost his gifts:

Fire and healing. Then what would it mean

If some heroes saved him? What does it mean

That she lets me travel with her, unable


To help with her adventures? It is intimidating,

Sometimes, watching her work like she is

A female Hercules. The sword is one thing,

But backflips and double kicks? I have begun

To write it all down, as Homer did for Achilles

And Odysseus. More people should know of her


Brilliance. Too, I sometimes wonder, if

Saving Prometheus will bring us back our fire

And ability to heal ourselves, what would we

Gain if she ever found that hero, the one

Who somehow in another human body holds

The other half of her enormous soul?


Now since a big part of fan fiction is sorting out the potentially romantic connections between two characters that subtext has hinted at but not directly addressed, I also knew that I was going to have to set up the “before” picture. And anybody who knows anything about old-fashioned TV production companies knows that a show (gasp!) starring two women is going to have to do some foundational work proving that these two Straight Gals are Just Good Friends. Hence the (non-Bechdel test-worthy) initial episodes of Season 1 kept putting potential love interests (male) in both their paths. This serves to prove the gals is straight and that Xena has a lot more experience with such things than Gabrielle, which serves to differentiate the characters more–as if Lucy Lawless being six feet tall in her boots and armor doesn’t do that enough. Fine, I can use that.


X., Jaded, Rolls Her Eyes


Everyone, she thinks, has some great love; she watches

That boy and girl hold hands and tells herself

They have something she is missing, something more

Than the adventure, travel and new people she now

Enjoys with me. I can’t really blame her. Even I

Once made eyes at my brothers’ friends when I was

Young and foolish. Even I had my small conquests

With the village boys before I learned to make

Larger conquests with my gathered armies.


Take that pacifist son of a warlord. Big blue eyes,

Muscles, armor, a big sword, a soft voice.

His reluctance to follow his father’s profession

Makes her think he’s “sensitive.” Maybe he is.

Certainly, the peaceful village farmers don’t

Deserve the rapacious attention of the old man

And his charioteers, the way they torched

The village silo. I never killed women and children.

But nobody would have ever called me sensitive.


And that dying lad she described as “warm and sensitive”

(That word again!) “funny, perfect, smart.”

He called her, she told me, “a rare beauty.” Yeah, he was nice,

I’ll grant you. Helpful, too, in a dangerous situation,

Because, like all of them, he wanted to save her.

They always fall in love with her somehow.

But it’s easy to be nice when you are counting

Your final days. It’s easy to be brave when you have

Come to terms with your own inevitable death.


And let’s not forget Hercules’ sidekick, who I once

Seduced for a week, hoping he would turn

On his friend. I guess I didn‘t tell her that part

Of the story. Maybe I should. Though I suppose

I probably shouldn’t use the word “stamina”

Or “dynamo” to describe him. Maybe instead,

I should tell her about the steam coming up from

The bath and his bright eyes. After all, I wouldn’t

Want her to think he was not sensitive.


Once I have set up the before picture, I have to set up the How It Changed picture, which in this case is Gabrielle becoming (long story) and Amazon princess and being quickly trained to fight with a long staff. Then, after combat, I give Xena an epiphany so that she halts their journey to train Gabrielle properly, as, I would argue, she should have done in the first place. I made this one a kind of dialogue, with Xena speaking and Gabrielle fuming in silence. I imagine a lot of couples start out communicating in just such inadequate ways.


Riding into Combat: G. Flashes Back


The staff still unfamiliar in my hands, I step

Into the queen’s chariot at the head of this

Mismatched army: Amazons and Centaurs riding

Into combat together, on the same side

For the first time either tribe’s sages can

Remember. The rumble of chariot wheels is loud

As we gather speed, but my terrified heart is louder.

Behind me, I hear her war cry and I recall

That with her on our side, we will likely win,

Though that doesn’t guarantee I will survive

Myself. I struggle to keep my feet as we roll

Faster and faster down the hill where we can see

The warlord’s army scrambling to grab

Swords, spears, axes: all the ways I might die

In the next minute or hour. My stomach in

My throat, I nearly gag as the Centaur pulling us

Slows, stops, slips off his harness. The roar

Of the enemy, all men in black leather and purple

Scars, is a chorus of sudden death, but I hear

Her battle cry again and I turn to see

Her grinning as she leaps to meet the first.

If I have to die, then fighting by her side

Is not the worst way to leave this life. I jump down.


Breathing Lessons


X., Out Loud

I saw you in battle. I was impressed. What you lack in finesse, you make up for in sheer ferocity. That will take you far in a short fight or a longer fight with an inexperienced foe. How you didn’t die out there, I don’t know. Maybe Artemis likes you, kid. But beginners luck won’t last and you’ve got bad habits. Tomorrow I’ll find a stick that I can use to practice with you. Meanwhile, you get some sleep, little warrior. You’ve earned it.


G., In Silence

Why does she always do that, call me a kid?

It’s not enough that she towers above me

Even before she mounts her horse. Somehow

She always has to belittle me too. I think

She doesn’t mean to. Her eyes are always kind,

Or mostly. But all those weeks I begged her

To teach me to defend myself and today,

I went into mortal combat with a mere day’s

Worth of practice with the staff. If I had died,

It would have just been more blood on her hands.


X., Out Loud

You keep your stick close to your body, like this, to get a stronger pivot. It’s not the stick that does the work; it’s you, your body weight that gives your strike momentum. Commit yourself fully to each strike. A staff is not a sword. It metes out pain with both ends. Strike the man in front of you with the front end and use the momentum from that blow to hit the man behind you with the back. Try it. Again. Again. Again. Again. Again.


G., In Silence

My bruises from the Amazon battle purpling,

I lie down stiffly, feeling the new ones rise.

She shows me how to rub them out with my thumbs

In a circling motion. Her hands are gentler, now

That practice is over. I’ve never been so tired.

At dawn it begins again. She’s so much stronger

Than me. Even when I block her strikes, some hit me.

But she looks tired, too. Normally she hates this

Sort of thing, focusing on basics, endless basics,

Endlessly explaining it to me, again and again.


X., Out Loud

Breathing now. To hold your own in a fight, you need stamina, and that means correct breathing. If you don’t want to get sucker punched, never let your enemy see you take a breath. Unless you are crying out to terrify the enemy, keep your mouth closed. It’s harder, at first, but better in the long run. In the East, they talk about the energy in the body. I learned some breathing techniques to produce more to protect the organs when you get hit. When you’re ready, I’ll teach you. We’re done for now. Tomorrow we’re back on the road.


G., In Silence

I am too tired to boil over. I ache too much to tear

My bread apart. I stare at the fire and forget where

My crackling muscles end and its golden ache starts.

How many days have we camped here? When did my

Calluses stop bleeding? She sets her saddle near me,

Rests her head on it. She looks at me a long while, says,

“I thought it’d take longer. You’re a quick learner.”

A backhanded compliment for sure, but I smile, my mouth

The one place I don’t hurt. She watches me, worried.

I say, “Yes. Okay. Eventually, I will probably forgive you.”


NOTE: I do not own the rights to these characters, which are held by NBC Renaissance Pictures. I am getting no remuneration for this creative work.

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.

Answering the Call


Well, after a long time away from the Grueling Slog that is submitting work for publication (I had a coaching business and then went and got a second masters degree; I wasn’t just sitting around eating bonbons), I am finally back in the game, and my word, how the game has changed. Ten years ago I was still printing poems out and sticking them in envelopes with a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope for return. How 19th century that feels now. In comparison, the new online submission vehicle, Submittable, feels like a flying car.

One thing that has stayed the same, though, is how I feel about Calls for Submission that are vague or cheeky. “Our only criterion is excellence” is a load of horse hockey; once you get past the beginner stages of creative writing, excellence becomes more and more subjective. What I like better is when they tell you who they’ve published. Also, general calls are less interesting to me than theme-based calls. If somebody says the theme is “storms” then I have a good idea which of my poems to submit, whether the stormy weather in them is real or metaphorical.MUSASHI_MIYAMOTO_by_BARCYD

A recent one that I have been playing with is “elements.” This one is cool because you could take it to mean parts of a whole, the Table of Elements, or any of a variety of cultures’ primary elements, from the four of Western Euro-culture (earth, air, water, fire) to the five of China or Japan or…. For example, the 16th century Japanese sword master Miyamoto Musashi (pictured above) after whom my cat is named (pictured below, photo by Jack Siberine), split The Book of Five Rings into five parts named after earth, air, water, fire, and the void. I wrote a really cool poem about the void that I am sending out (yes, it mentions lost socks). But I can also send out one about the painter Hiroshige, who was a fireman’s son in Edo (now Tokyo) in a time and place when/where a small fire could wipe out whole portions of a city where most buildings were made of wood. I could write about alchemists trying to turn lead to gold, or about Superman’s trouble with kryptonite. The themes not only make it easier to pick out poetry I have already written, but it also inspires me to write more.

Mu with String

And we all want to find ways to write more.

Every Rant Deserves an Exception: Muses I Have Known and Written…

Even before I finish my title, I have to start this blog entry because I can’t choose which preposition to use: for? to? about? All of the above? Over the years, I have had several people who have inspired me to write poetry. I don’t really count the men as muses, because to my mind love poetry is a different kettle of gummy bears. Knowing that people have been writing love poetry for 4,000 years or more is a lot of pressure, and I most often handle it by being a bit self-deprecating or funny. I see a lot of humor in romance. Let’s face it, being in love is a lot like being a little insane, and as Buffy the Vampire Slayer would say, “Love makes you do the wacky.” I am not talking about poetry like that, although it is a good idea for a future post.

I am talking about normal people in my life, friends, teachers, whose way of being in the world or the way they talk just triggers either imagery or juxtaposed ideas or a desire to unpack why they are unique to me. This is more like what poet Maggie Anderson calls “important excitements”: the (usually) short-term artistic obsessions writers and artists indulge in. Think of Monet’s 250 paintings of that lily pond. Like that.

greatwave This happens to me a lot. Usually I get excited about things, rather than people. At some point I will write a post about why I so adore the ukiyo-e woodblock artists from Japan, especially Hokusai and Hiroshige. Or my obsession with writing about characters from popular culture, such as Raggedy Ann, Barbie, Xena, or Amelia Earhart. Or the two months I spent writing incredibly long poems about Jack of the Beanstalk.


Sometimes, though, I meet someone who snags my attention. Take one of my flamenco teachers, Malena. I started to study flamenco dance out of curiosity and stayed out of fascination. It should be said that at no time in those three years did any actual talent for dance on my part ever appear. I learned a lot about rhythm and can now clap in time, even when the time is complex, and I can twirl my hands elegantly (big life skill, that). I appreciate Spanish food and rough guitar music and I can still do a little of the footwork (it helps pass the time waiting in subway stations).

cotton-ruffle-tank-dress_7-hot-dresses-from-marc-jacobsBut more than anything, what I saw was a way women could be both feminine and strong. I normally always associated femininity with pink dresses, a lot of skin, some dumb chick simpering up to a man. Bleah. The women who took flamenco class weren’t like that, and Malena herself was (and is) one tough chick in command of her own body. Flamenco is a fiercely passionate kind of dance, noisy, and in some way very feminine. Empowering. So when I wrote more than a dozen poems about flamenco, whether or not Malena was the topic, she was in many ways the trigger, the inspiration. The following is an excerpt from “The Flamenco Teacher” (for Malena, who is “just a florist”):

Petal, pistil, stamen, stem and root:

beneath your hands, these blossoms toss

heads, moody, beautiful, game for anything.

When you dance, your wrists become veined stems.

Your hands,

like yellow irises,




The key challenge was to express the visual images and the strong emotions with beautiful words, while also keeping with the kind of ropy uneven rhythm of the different dances, most of which are in 12, not 4/4.

I will leave you with a video of the legendary Carmen Amaya (1913 to 1963) dancing awesome flamenco.