Lately I’ve been thinking about the things we keep returning to as writers. Our obsessions, I heard an old novelist call them once, speaking to a group of students. You all have them, he said, you just may not know it yet.
I guess this started because a friend invited me to contribute to an anthology she’s putting together of poems about ______. (A quick Google search doesn’t turn up the title, so I’ll keep this cat in its bag.) And I’ve learned ______ is something she’s really very interested in, both personally and as a writer. Whereas I’d really never written or thought too much about ______. But I am also not one to say, “Oh, no thanks,” when someone asks me—not that they ask so often, but it happens—to write something for their anthology or journal or website. (See, here I am guest-blogging right now.)
So after glibly saying, “Yes, of course, I’d love to,” I spent the next couple months worrying and wondering, trying to find my way into this subject I’d never much thought about before. How would I do it? Where’s the door, or at least the window, I could slip through to get into this poem?
Whereas if someone asked me to write a poem about New York, or about food, a poem that works in a jazz reference or two, or plays on internal rhymes, well, I’d be on my way.
So what did I do? I wrote a poem that deals with ______, but by way of New York, food, jazz and internal rhymes.
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The flip side of obsessions, in a way, is re-invention. Like Miles Davis going from Birth of the Cool to Kind of Blue to In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew and on and on and on. Or like my mother-in-law. “Try something new!” she says to my wife and me when we go to a Chinese restaurant. But then 90% of the time we end up wishing we’d ordered our usual kung bo gai ding or mapo tofu.
Recently I saw a terrific documentary, Under African Skies, about Paul Simon’s trip to South Africa to record the earliest tracks of what would eventually become Graceland, and about the political fallout and controversy that trip generated.
One very interesting moment in the film comes when he says that because his previous album, Hearts and Bones, had been a flop commercially, he didn’t feel any pressure or expectation about what he’d do next. The record company executives weren’t calling to check up on him, so he felt free to just explore what interested him and make the music he wanted to make – which turned out to be, well, arguably the best album of his career. (And of course there are in fact some terrific songs on the generally underrated Hearts and Bones, starting with the title track.)
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I like bold departures and reinventions. But I also admire poets who do something again and again, playing all the variations on a theme or a form. Like Baron Wormser in his book Subject Matter, a collection of dozens of 14-line poems. Or Marianne Boruch’s latest, The Book of Hours, in which each poem is composed of four quatrains.
And it’s not just a formal thing. Think of Monica Youn’s Ignatz (a book at least partly about obsessions, by the way) or others that delve into a particular subject or place or theme with an intense focus.
But I also remember Seamus Heaney saying in an interview that when you realize what you’re doing, it’s time to stop and do something else. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader, in Frost’s version.
These things don’t all line up exactly, obsessions, repetitions and reinventions, variations. I’m still thinking through them. But I remember when I finished This Time Tomorrow, a book that includes more than a few longer poems, that involved (for me) quite a lot of research and fact-checking about specific places and people, some learning on the job about volcanoes and Chinese scholars’ gardens, I thought: time for something new. I really wanted to write short little poems that were only about themselves, that made up their own facts.
But what happened? Well, life happened, and I wound up writing a book-length poem set in more specific places (The Bronx, central Jersey, Miyajima, Shanghai) and that involved some medical learning (how we translate thoughts into speech). But now that that’s done as well, I’m writing—yes, finally—those little self-enclosed, un-factcheck-able poems.
Ultimately we write what pulls at us, the things we need to, or feel most satisfied by. Who knows just what they'll be. Maybe you'll hear a cassette someone made for you, labeled in Sharpie "Accordion Jive Hits No. 2," and decide you need to catch the next plane to Johannesburg to find that band and make music together.
As Charles Simic says in one of his wonderful essays, "It took me years to realize the poem is smarter than I am. Now I follow it wherever it wants me to go."