Obsession… panacea or poison?

reflectionI’ve been away at a conference with a student of mine. We’ve been pondering the ways that we can develop a more inclusive community in our school – one that includes students with intellectual disabilities and those without. But that does not mean that poetry has been far from my mind.

When I watched a young woman with Down’s Syndrome learning to bowl get a strike on her fourth trip down the lane and break into spontaneous dance, I thought of poetry. At night, I watched the traffic scan into Anchorage and scan out of Anchorage from the 14th floor of the hotel -poetry. Heck, I even wrote some poetry, or tried to.

I tend to be a homebody poet. In addition, I need a whole lot of silence and time to truly create something worthwhile. I know, sometimes it’s okay to write things that aren’t “worthwhile.” Not everything can spring fully publishable like Athena leaping from one’s skull. But all of the false starts of the past days, the fragments that peter off the page, pieces of wet wood that never took spark. They all add up to a small sodden frustration.

The one writing highlight of my time away from home (because, trust me, there were plenty of interpersonal highlights) was that I had some time to delve into Tony Hoagland’s Real Sofistikashun. Halfway through, I’ve just finished the essay, “Obsession: ‘Are You Still Writing About Your Father?’” Hoagland postulates that to have a real obsession is to be blessed with a constant source of material. Strangely, I’ve been trying to steer away from topics that I seem to have an obsession with, fearing that I’m burning those wicks too low.

This evening, I began to think of obsession differently. I grabbed the text of my MFA creative thesis, as well as the text from a dozen poems that I’ve recently written and pasted them into Wordle. Wordle.net is a website that will generate “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. The product resembles a fabulous collage of words, larger and smaller depending on frequency. You can change the font and color scheme. However, the true gift is you can see your obsessions. They’re large, clear, beautifully delineated. Try it with your work – a chapbook, a full-length text, the contents of your blog. Fascinating.

I’ll close with some wisdom from Hoagland, “Passion is the greatest gift a poet can have, and nobody is mildly obsessed…. A mature poet may not know how to command obsession, but understands how to transfuse material into it and then to surrender. The obsessed psyche knows unerringly where to go, like a Geiger counter to uranium, or a dog to his master’s grave. Lucky dog, to have a master.”