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The Practice of Poetry: A Tool for Conducting Emotional Research

Poet Anaïs Duplan describes a poetic research tool he invented that propels emotional discovery and helps generate new writing. 

I taught a workshop called Poetics of Emotional Research at Poets House in July of last year. The class spent six weeks together talking about how to use our emotions to drive poetic research—e.g., we let our feelings lead us around the Poets House library to books we mined for inspiration. We spent time inside and outside of class asking ourselves what was important to us, what we seemed to be spending a lot of time feeling, and tried to learn more about those things. We tried to learn more about our emotions in general. As a poet, I have found that emotional research has enabled me to make connections between feelings and texts that I might have been otherwise unaware of.

On the first day of class, we spent a little over an hour making “emotion wheels” to help us track what we were feeling as we read, talked, researched, and wrote for the next month and a half. I’d say just the process of making an emotion wheel was helpful, regardless of how much we used them afterwards. I’ll include the instructions below, and a picture of the emotion wheel I made in class, in case you’re so inclined. I would recommend making a new wheel every few weeks or months, as I think the dominant emotions we’re feeling can subtly shift over time. During the class, I was in the midst of processing a lot of grief, so my emotion wheel reflected that.


1. Get one rectangular piece (about 2″x5″) and one square piece (about 5″x5″) of thick card stock. The square piece will be your background piece. You’ll use the smaller rectangular piece to make the spinning “arrow” piece in the middle.

2. Decorate both pieces by gluing on colorful paper, using markers and pens to add color, and cutting borders as you wish. I chose to keep my square piece square and cut the rectangle into more of a water droplet shape. Be creative! Are there shapes that best represent your emotions?

3. Poke one hole in the center of your background piece and two in the center of your spinning piece. Use a thick needle and waxed linen thread (or something like it) to sew through the holes and fasten the pieces together. Make a knot on the back side of the background piece and tape it down. My diagram in the picture below might be helpful.

"How to Make a Feeling Wheel," steps 1 to 3

4. Think of the emotions you’ve felt in the last two weeks or so. On a separate piece of paper, make a list of 5-8 of the dominant emotions that come to mind. You can group your emotions if you have more than.

5. Come up with an appropriate order for your emotions. Do you tend to cycle through the emotions you listed in a particular order?

6. In the order you’ve come up with, mark each of these emotions as a point around the perimeter of your emotion wheel.

"How to Make a Feeling Wheel," steps 4 to 6


The easiest thing to track with your emotion wheel is ​changes in how you feel (rather than static positions). When you go from one emotional place to another, it means that you’re experiencing internal motion—think of emotions as energy in motion.

If you find yourself in a library (like the Poets House library), try walking around the stacks with your emotion wheel in hand. Notice when you experience an emotional shift. If your focus is on research, simply start compiling books and other resources that cause emotional shifts for you. You might categorize them according to what kind of shifts they cause, e.g. “from emotion X to emotion Y,” “from emotion Y to emotion Z.” Think about what else these resources have in common. From my personal library, these three books bring me from a place of toxic shame to acceptance: Autobiomythography & Gallery by Joe Pan, Song by Brigit Pegeen Kelly, and Interaction of Color by Josef Albers. Joe’s book because he published my first book and has since become one of my best friends, Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s because it was one of the first books that made me want to be a poet, and Interaction of Color because it was one of the first books I taught to my poetry students. Each of these represents encounters that remind me I’m not alone.

Emotional shifts can help you read between the lines, too. For reading, take note of every time you experience a shift. (If you own the book you’re reading, make physical marks in the margins.) Usually these shifts can help illuminate where changes in underlying elements of the text, like tone or voice, are happening. In Chekwube O. Danladi’s poem, “Salt: Alum,” for example, I experience an emotional shift at “the jewels” in the lines, “The beast dug / out of me, the jewels” that reflects the surprising turn from the grotesque into the precious.

Here is Chekwube’s poem with marks where I experienced emotional shifts:


For writing, spend time with any kind of object—including a memory—that causes emotional shifts for you and use your writing to try to get to the bottom of the shifts. It’s harder than you think, but you’ll generate a lot of writing trying to put words to what you’re sensing.

Working by way of the emotions allows a different kind of sense-making than is possible when working linearly or by way of logical thought. I think these two kinds of sense-making, used together, mimic the way we make sense of our daily experiences and therefore deepen our reading and writing experiences.

Anaïs Duplan is a trans* poet, curator, and artist. He is the author of a forthcoming book of essays on black art and creativity, Blackspace (Black Ocean, 2019); a full-length poetry collection, Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016); and a chapbook, Mount Carmel and the Blood of Parnassus (Monster House Press, 2017). His chapbook 9 Poems/The Lovers (Belladonna, 2018) is in Poets House’s 2019 Showcase. His writing has been published by Hyperallergic, PBS News Hour, the Academy of American Poets, Poetry Society of America, and the Bettering American Poetry anthology. Duplan is also the founding curator for the Center for Afrofuturist Studies, an artist residency program for artists of color based in Iowa City. As an independent curator, he has facilitated artist projects in Chicago, Boston, Santa Fe, and Reykjavík. Duplan’s video and performance work has been shown at Flux Factory, Daata Editions, the 13th Baltic Triennial in Lithuania, Mathew Gallery, NeueHouse, and the Paseo Project and will be exhibited at the Institute of Contemporary Art in L.A. in 2020.  He is currently a joint Public Programs Fellow at the Museum of Modern Art and the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well as Adjunct Assistant Professor in poetry at Columbia University.