April 12, 2016

Wednesday, January 11, 2012


I would probably never write a thing if I didn't pay attention to my obsessions.

I'm not talking about chocolate, much as I crave it.

He drives me wild.

This is a different type of obsession -- when something catches your eye or ear and you immediately feel, "I want to learn everything I can about that."

Normal people don't let these "catch your ear" moments develop into full obsessions, but doing so is key to how I function as a writer.

Writers have obsessions, and that's a good thing. The more involved we become with an idea, concept, or tidbit from history, the more deeply we can express these things in a poem, play, story, or essay. I know it's a true obsession when I am researching or writing and I go into hyper focus. My kids know not to interrupt me then. It's almost a physical pain to be called out of what I'm working on to help find a missing shoe.

My current obsessions are:

  • The Roc-A-Jets, 1950s all-girl rockabilly band based in Baltimore
  • This painting, by Vincent van Gogh:

All it took was one look at that ocean of a beard, and I thought, "That painting might be a good subject for a poem." It only took thirty minutes of clicking around the Internet to find out that van Gogh had an uncharacteristically close relationship with his subject, postmaster Joseph Roulin, and Roulin's family.

What happens when obsessions collide? I don't have mental space for them both.

I'm writing down as much as I can about Roulin now, when the idea has energy. As long as I capture the initial impulse, I can come back to Roulin and van Gogh later.

Then, it's back to work on my piece about the Roc-A-Jets. Roulin looks like he would have enjoyed a good rockabilly show.

Stay tuned.

One of my favorite examples of a writer clearly obsessed with a subject appears in the novel The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje (here is one blogger's review). Chapter 7 covers Kip's bomb squad training in the kind of attentive detail that can only come from deep research.

Come out to Ahh, Coffee! in Annapolis this Saturday evening and to hear the end result of one of my obsessions. I'll be featured at a reading, along with  my friend Fernando Quijano III. This will be my first public reading of a long ekphrastic poem. It's based on a work of fringe art -- the title of which I can't repeat here. Seriously.


Michael Ratcliffe said...


I know just how you feel. My deep interest in family history has resulted in a series of poems focused on various individuals and events in their lives. In the process, I've delved deeply into details about life in the 1700s and 1800s to be as accurate as possible. Some of the poems have been published in The Copperfield Review at These and others are all part of my Skimino Cycle series of poems-- see my blog at The latest in my series is this one:


Phebe Williams, 1856, as she and her husband, David, and a small group of fellow Mormons travel eastward from Utah to Kansas. They had already crossed the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains the year before, as part of a group of Welsh Mormons migrating to Utah.

David sang in Welsh today—
faced the rising sun and sang;
his voice, so strong and clear,
we stopped our work and listened,
the women by the breakfast fires,
the men hitching up the mules,
even the soldiers escorting us—
all stopped and listened to him sing:
Arglwydd, arwain trwy’r anialwch—
Lord, lead me through the wilderness—
O, his voice, like a sweet fountain flowing,
clear and strong across the prairie.
David sang in Welsh today—
how good to hear him sing again.

He never sang in Utah—
not with the other men
while working in the quarry.
He would not join the chapel choir,
saying he could not sing
while the Saints were in darkness;
would not sing as long as humble Saints
were forced to give their possessions to the Church;
to work first for the leaders,
and then for themselves.
This was not the Zion we expected,
the communal life he preached in Wales.
He would not sing while the Church
preached polygamy,
or all the temple rites,
or blind obedience to the priesthood.
He would not sing while rule in Zion
was no better than the ironmasters’
grips on the valleys of South Wales.

And when we left Utah
traveling east through the mountains,
still he would not sing—
No sounds that might help
the Destroying Angels find us,
no praises sung to heaven above,
no songs to ease the hiraeth we felt—
the longing for life back in Wales.

David sang in Welsh today,
faced the rising sun and sang.
We stopped our work and listened,
and then a rising chorus,
the men hitching up the mules,
the women tending the fires,
voices rising in harmony—
pilgrims of poor appearance,
singing in this barren land.
We felt our anxious fears subside,
and the spirit of God and hope flowed through us,
like the River Jordan in the desert.

David canodd yn Gymraeg heddiw.
David sang in Welsh today.

Author Amok said...


Thank you so much for the gift of this poem. I'm glad this post struck a chord with you.

There is a short story in the upcoming issue of Little Patuxent Review set in turn of the century Wales, "Ball and Chain," by Jeff Fearnside. I'm sure you'll see many resonances with your poetry project in Jeff's story.

The Word Pimp said...

I am a slave to my obsessions. Fortunately, those obsessions sometimes coincide with my writing. Of course, everyone knows about my obsession with Luna, the moon. Did you know that if not for our moon, Earth would not rotate on the same tilt (23.44 degrees) it does currently? That would mean an end to the seasons. Worse, temperatures would be more extreme, and life on Earth, as we know it, would not exist.

The moon is also slowly slipping away from us at a rate of about 38mm per year. The further away she gets, the slower Earth revolves, adding another 15 microseconds to our day every year.

All that, and she's pretty, too!

I wrote this moon poem in Manassas, Virginia in October of 2008. I was working on th Obama campaign. It was getting late, and I needed a break. I decided to take a long walk, and it felt like the moon was stalking me,peeking at me from the shadows. I wrote it in my head, then typed it out once I got back to campaign HQ:


I see
her eyes
from the quartered
moon shining on
my grinning
as I trudge
around long
blocks thinking
of nothing
but her

I laugh
at how silly I sound
in silence, in
darkness broken
only by pinpricks
poked by stars
& that inimitable
grin reflecting
her eyes
upon me

I fear
that I will wave
my arms like mad
and be dragged
away: a lunatic
whose love
for the moon
is mistaken
for madness

Author Amok said...

Another poem gift! I am a lucky blogger. Thanks, Fernando, for sharing this poem. Wow -- the way you use the word lunatic. Perfect here. I can just picture you wandering around suburbia with election pamphlets and your eyes on the sky.