Poets share what draws them to the genre
April 15, 2022
This piece is part of the 随筆 | Zuihitsu notebook, which features original art by Satsuki Shibuya.
This week we published the 随筆 | Zuihitsu notebook, featuring interpretations on the genre from twenty-one poets. Frequently translated from the Japanese as “following the brush,” the zuihitsu is a Japanese genre of writing tracing back to Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book. A medieval writer and courtier born in 966, Shōnagon chronicled court life with witty anecdotes, lists, sharp observations and opinions on people’s behavior and customs, and poems, among other miscellany. Writers—in particular Yoshida no Kenkō, who wrote Essays in Idleness between 1330 and 1332—followed Shōnagon’s lead and expanded the genre, which is still written today in Japan. In The Columbia Anthology of Japanese Essays: Zuihitsu from the Tenth to the Twenty-First Century, editor Steven D. Carter writes it is now “a supergenre in which one will often find a mix of subgenres, everything from reportage and travelogue to poetry, literary criticism, biography, confession, journalism—and so on, almost ad infinitum.”
We invited notebook contributors, most of whom write primarily in English, to share how they encountered the genre and what draws them to it. Several noted that the poet Kimiko Hahn, who advised The Margins on this notebook, introduced them to the genre. Hahn laid the groundwork for the zuihitsu in American poetry, in particular with her collection The Narrow Road to the Interior (Norton, 2006). Shortly after the book came out, Hahn shared in a BOMB interview that she initially studied zuihitsu in an academic setting but started writing them in the nineties after being invited to do so for a reading at the Poetry Project celebrating Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book.
While the zuihitsu is frequently compared to an essay, Hahn showed its possibilities as a poetic text. In a 2021 article for the American Poetry Review, Hahn wrote:
Zuihitsu, literally, “running brush”; This uniquely Japanese genre is a poetic text lacking the formal structural principles we associate with Western verse. Through a variety of techniques—fragmentation, juxtaposition, varying lengths, disparate forms (observation, anecdote, journal, catalog, … and a hybrid text), and an organizing subject—it creates an impression of spontaneity and a quality of “imperfection.”
Many contributors to the Zuihitsu notebook seem drawn to these qualities. Some seem to find within it a fragmentary and intuitive style of thought; others gravitate toward its sense of voice, taking inspiration from Shōnagon, whose tone in The Pillow Book is by turns delighted, irritated, contemplative, disdainful, and bemused. And many contributors noted the freedom and relief found in a genre not within the Western canon and one that encourages voice, hybridity, and imperfection. As Ching-In Chen writes, “Encountering the zuihitsu—a small room opening up with sunlight. Another vantage point.”
The zuihitsu is a mimic octopus. It’s the closest form that resembles how I think, how I map the world. One flash displays lyric fragments, another line displays some reportage, another shows some running of the senses, which is of course, a sort of “running of the brush,” that I always try to maintain in my zuihitsu.
I had read The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon in undergrad out of curiosity, but I hadn’t studied the actual craft of writing the zuihitsu until taking a weeklong workshop with Kimiko Hahn at the Fine Arts Center in Provincetown in 2015. (The first draft of “Unsuitable for five or six blocks” was written at that time.) I had read some of Hahn’s own zuihitsu prior to taking that class, but hadn’t realized everything the zuihitsu entails when you write one. People talk about wabi-sabi, the beauty of the imperfect, all that jazz—what they don’t tell you about is the freakin’ work it takes to make things look that easy. Also, the form demands a voice. Sei Shōnagon was an aristocratic wit whose court required she dash off perfect and imperfect thoughts on the daily, in verse. Sending tweets or a couple short emails is not the same, but that process gets close to the immediate delivery expected, the pressure to get it right in a timely way, social conventions in play. All this pressure—to be lively, to bring images sharply to the mind’s eyes—are what hone her zuihitsu like diamonds.
I think I was drawn to this form the way other poets are drawn to the sonnet, to see what it teaches, or to think about the relationship between form and intention, which is what compelled Jericho Brown to invent a form of his own, the duplex. I study technique and form to see what emerges under constraint. Shōnagon leans on lists—but are they really like grocery lists or more like associations of remembrances, philosophy and dreams? How does she contain them and how does she let them run free? (Think of Virginia Woolf’s long sentences in To the Lighthouse, and how she carries you along the winds of time, smoothly and effortlessly, and you get the gist of how far-sweeping a range the zuihitsu can reach.) Shonagon was sniping about people’s hairstyles and behaviors, but she was also in a situation where she could be put to death for offending the wrong person. The humanity in those little bits of etiquette mishaps and transgressions alongside the seasonality of court life saved her work from being denounced as treason. Instead, she could read them aloud to amuse others. And eventually, hundreds of years later, we’d read them to get a flavor of her time. Heady stuff for the modern poet to study!
Love Letter to Dear Zuihitsu
As a younger writer, I stayed away from writing in form. I had been introduced to what felt like a very limiting structure that didn’t quite feel like it fit my writing. Encountering the zuihitsu—a small room opening up with sunlight. Another vantage point.
Opened me up to what was possible—I never knew a form could feel blurry and open. More like a pulse to listen to.
Writing zuihitsu revealed me to myself. Unpeeled layers of those other forms I rejected. Helped me understand other ways of entering a relationship with form. Thank you, dear zuihitsu, for these gifts.
Jee Leong Koh
I was introduced to the zuihitsu in a workshop on Japanese poetic forms taught by Kimiko Hahn and immediately fell in love with it. How fresh Sei Shōnagon sounds across the centuries! What is the secret to such eternal freshness? Trained in traditional Western forms, I was looking to expand my repertoire by looking again to the East, and what I found was not so much a form as a voice. Sure, Sei Shōnagon is a privileged snob, as a literary friend pointed out with a sniff, but I love to put on her beautiful robe, rub some precious rouge on my cheeks, burn a fine incense stick, and wait for my lover to arrive in the night.
The zuihitsu form is a welcome reprieve from the will: an invitation to clear space for the drift of the mind and observe how it gets assailed by thought, feeling, loosened memories. I’m especially drawn to watching something emerge into being through brushstrokes, and the manner in which fragments get charged by—and take on deeper meaning through—juxtaposition, movement, accrual.
Joseph O. Legaspi
Earlier in the pandemic, it seems that all I could write were fragments—inconclusive, untethered, strange. And all I could write about was the pandemic and its periphery, and its dark cloud. The fragments are not akin to my usual poetic practices and aesthetic. Of course I’m fully aware that my writing is a manifestation of our shattered, segmented, isolated, fraught, and dangerous existence.
However, when reintroduced to the zuihitsu for this folio, a proverbial light bulb lit up. After relearning its characteristics and revisiting Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior, I realized the fragments I’d collected these past two years were given a vessel. With zuihitsu, I acquired an organizing principle. I enacted “the brushstrokes” in tracing the psyche, illustrating the emotions, and threading the imagery of my fragments into a narrative, both intimate and universal. The zuihitsu allowed me to draw up a map, not solely cartographically but painterly as well. How else to portray this disembodied, disorienting, and mystifying time? The zuihitsu had given my fragments a form.
Juliet S. Kono
When I studied with Kimiko Hahn last summer, the class opened a whole new direction of possibilities in my writing. I love the collage element found in the zuihitsu: the intermix of ideas expressed through prose and a diversity of poetic forms.
I am drawn to the zuihitsu as a form of migrant poem. It was brought into the world of American poetry through the work of Kimiko Hahn and it resists simple genre definition, relying on temperature and voice, arrangement and precision. The idea of an aesthetic practice outside of the “American” (read white) canon opens up so many possibilities for me as a writer with roots in the United States, the Caribbean, and Asia.
I was first introduced to zuihitsu through Tina Chang, who I’m very grateful to have studied with on a couple of occasions, and who is responsible for bringing more than one poetic genre into my life. (My first pecha kucha was also written under her guidance.) At first, I was struck by zuihitsu’s resonance with my tendency to collect copious notes, quotes, tidbits from assorted reference materials, stray scraps of ink-covered paper—intuitively pulling together disparate fragments that seemed to want to be in conversation with each other. Later, I found zuihitsu to be an incredibly apt form for curating machine-generated outputs, which reflect a vast array of perspectives, linguistic styles, voices, vocabularies, personas, intentions. I’ve come to think of the training data sets I compile for my AI alter ego as a kind of zuihitsu, too—a diffuse, dynamic pre-poem written for a solitary cybernetic reader who then attempts to create her own.
I was initially drawn to the zuihitsu through my hero-mentor-friend Kimiko Hahn, whose work has influenced me enormously for two decades now, even before I started writing seriously. I love the note-taking aspect of zuihitsu. It’s a genre that works for my short attention span. I often find myself jumping back and forth between ideas, chores, and responsibilities, so it fits in with the way my headspace works. When I wrote “Manchester Chinatown 2022,” I was in Manchester, England, and needed some comfort. I decided to walk to Chinatown for some beef pho broth. I’ve always been conscious of being a member of the Asian diaspora, but it has had a new sense of urgency and hypervisibility since COVID-19, and so I walked with those thoughts. And when I returned to my place, I took notes on this “Asian feeling.” At the time I was also reading books for my PhD orals exam, and that factored heavily into my sense of a racialized and colonized self.
I love the zuihitsu because it feels alive. It floats, twists, and wiggles like unhemmed fabric on a line, an expression uninterested in perfection. The zuihitsu doesn’t ask “what’s good?” or “what’s bad?” but simply “what is?”. And usually the answer to “what is?” is fresh, surprising, and sensitive to the texture of one’s life. Starting a zuihistu feels the same as improvisatory dancing. One is moved by a musical impulse, but in this case the music lives in the sparkling details of daily observations and internal musings. A writer tracks onto the page a texture, a movement with language skimmed off the immediate surface of daily living.
I wrote these poems in the summer of 2021. To process the grief of the pandemic, the amorphous sense of sitting unemployed, the endless scroll of my doomsday phone, I gave myself a ritual of walking to the water around 6 p.m. to sit and say goodbye to the sun. I was meditating every evening on the pier, and I did so all summer so long as the weather permitted. I am glad I had this form to write in. Between zazen and push-ups, this felt like another form (and I used this in a bodily sense) to return to, a way to practice my thinking and feeling with full acceptance and intention.