Zuihitsu | zoo-hit-sue
The “running brush” or “following the brush” are phrases often used to define this Japanese form of writing, first developed as a prose style and in later iterations applied to poetry.
So imagine if you will the imagination’s brush—is it dripping with color? Does it leave only one thin black line behind it?—Where does the brush go? Not where do you want it, or see it going, but where does it go when it is given freedom to leap, to unmask, to color outside of the lines? This exercise is about finding where the imagination’s brush would take you if you let it steer the course. Are you digging the possibilities already? Yes you are!
Now, for any skeptics out there who think that work produced this way is disjointed or obtuse, rest assured it is not. This is not just randomness for randomness’ sake. When one is able to trust the imagination one usually finds that thoughts are not accidental synapses, they are an elegant weaving of ideas, emotions, moods, colors, sentiments, and memories. The imagination is a tapestry the zuihitsu welcomes you to explore.
This is a form with few strict rules, but there are a few perimeters you might observe. Kimiko Hahn said it best when she summarized zuihitsu this way: “There’s no Western equivalent [to zuihitsu], though some people might wish to categorize it as a prose poem or an essay…some of its characteristics: a kind of randomness that is not really random, but a feeling of randomness; a pointed subjectivity that we don’t normally associate with the essay. The zuihitsu can also resemble other Western forms: lists, journals. I’ve added emails to the mix. Fake emails.” [bold text added] Read the full interview with Hahn here.
Finally, here is one of the poems from The Narrow Road to the Interior. This collection of poems is made up of tanka and zuihitsu, two Japanese forms that Kimiko Hahn uses to tell an alternating storyline throughout the book.
Boerum Hill, Late Summer | Kimiko Hahn (2001) 43 I miss most the outdoor shower. Nine at night. A light rain over the spray. A light from the bedroom window where he reads about psychopathology. 42 I would cut and carry home all the weeds along the Gowanus Canal—if the guys from the cement factory weren’t watching me over their thick sandwiches. 41 Even in Brooklyn we hear cicadas—whose young suck the roots of trees for seventeen years. No curfew. And no disputes.
Boerum Hill, Late Summer | Kimiko Hanh (2001)
I miss most the outdoor shower. Nine at night. A light rain over the
spray. A light from the bedroom window where he reads about
I would cut and carry home all the weeds along the Gowanus
Canal—if the guys from the cement factory weren’t watching
me over their thick sandwiches.
Even in Brooklyn we hear cicadas—whose young suck the roots of
trees for seventeen years. No curfew. And no disputes.
Zuihitsu is often considered a Japanese form, but a similar form also exists in ancient Chinese poetry. Here is an excerpt from “Nine Improvisations” by Tu Fu written sometime in 700 A.D. translated by David Hinton.
Nine Improvisations | Tu Fu
Seeing all the wanderer’s sorrow, I cannot wake from
Sorrow: spring’s shameless colors crowd my pavilion.
Blossoms scattering so deep and reckless might at least
Teach these rhapsodic orioles they are trying too hard.
The peach and plum I planted aren’t ownerless.
a hermit’s wall is low, but still home. So like spring
Wind, never letting things alone: last night
It came tearing blossoms down by the branchful.
Knowing well how low and small my thatched study is,
River swallows come often. Their beaks clutching
Mud, they spatter my koto and books, and with these
Insects all-a-twitter, fly at whoever may be here. (…)
“Nine Improvisations” Tu Fu, Translated by David Hinton, The Selected Poems of Tu Fu, New Directions, 1988. ISBN: 0-8112-1100-2. This poem has been included for teaching purposes only and is not meant to infringe on the copyright holder’s rights, but to encourage reading of the writer’s work and to promote him in the most positive light.
Write a zuihitsu based on a journey that you took or somewhere you have traveled. Let the title serve as an indication of place, and as with “Boerum Hill, Late Summer,” also add a time of year and the year itself.This will provide a grounding element to a zuihitsu that invites the reader in while also giving the imagination a frame of reference, or rather, a starting place.
You can begin in two ways:
1) Just start writing, let your imagination flow. Don’t worry about line breaks or staying “on topic.” Let your mind do the work for you, just transcribe what occurs there. You might try putting on some gentle or relaxing music to help clear away distractions.
2) Before you begin the flow generate a list of objects, experiences, words, and places
Or try using a constraint such as: each stanza is a telegraph that can only contain 50 characters or each stanza is an office memo and cannot be longer than three sentences.
Remember, as Kimiko Hahn said you are striving for “a kind of randomness that is not really random, but a feeling of randomness.”
幸運 Good luck!
How did this prompt work for you? Leave a comment!