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 Quiet Stories of Japanese Woodblock Art


I lived in Matsuyama, Japan from 1990 to 1992, teaching English and studying kendo, Japanese fencing. Since coming home, I occasionally find myself wandering in the Japanese section of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA). While the kimonos and swords are works of art and poetry themselves, with their elegance and attention to minute detail, it is the woodblock art, ukiyo-e, which grasped my attention and made me want to learn more. Two of my favorite artists are Hokusai and Hiroshige. Today I’ll tell you about the first.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) made many different kinds of sketches and woodblock art, from portraits and still lifes to erotica and illustrations for humorous poems, but what he is best known for is his landscapes, particularly his two collections of Views of Mount Fuji. Most people are familiar with the “Great Wave off Kanagawa” (I even have a T-shirt of this!), but some of his less famous works offer me the opportunity for yet another Important Excitement/Small Obsession. And lots of poetry.

For me, the beauty of his landscapes lies not just in the visual beauty, but in the way he adds people to the scenes, villagers and travelers who are responding to each other, to the view, to the viciousness and beauty of nature. And when I look at these pictures in art books and draw on what I learned as an East Asian Studies minor at Middlebury College, I start to tell myself stories about what is happening, who those people are, what their hopes and dreams are, and what small epiphanies I can open up by telling those stories through poetry. Here is one from my upcoming ebook, Icons and Action Figures (Batteries Not Included):

Mount Fuji Seen from Eijiri

(Hokusai, 1823~29)

Typhoon season begins this way:

with a sudden gust

slamming travelers forward

blasting road-dust against their legs

hat papers leaves becoming birds

flutter and soar, tumble and fly—

the trees lean after their leaves

longing to follow

while the travelers stumble

cursing luck and wind and all

impermanence, the loss of letters

painted by hands of white silk,

the loss of a sloping straw hat that leaves

a poor man vulnerable

to the gushing rains

that wait, like Mount Fuji,

solid and irrevocable against the sky.

Spilecki, Susan. “Mount Fuji Seen from Eijiri.” Verve (1996) 8:1.

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.