Let’s talk about the herd of woolly mammoths in the room: How much of what poets and novelists write is (thinly) veiled real life stuff? Isn’t poetry supposed to be ‘real’?
A couple of years ago, I was sitting on a park bench in Essen, reading, and a woman started talking to me. When she found out I was a writer, she asked if I wrote about people I met in the park… Very odd. And no, I never did write a poem about her. Though she is, now, part of this blog post.
Particularly in poetry, there seems to be the constant temptation to conflate of the speaker with the writer. It’s funny, really. I mean, nobody assumes that the serial-killer / cop / vampire hunter / call girl / whatever protagonist of a piece of fiction is the author, right? Yet I frequently see students assume that poems must be autobiographical. I’ve seen this happen in both literature classes and workshop classes, and it can make for some awkward / interesting discussions. This phenomenon is, of course, not limited to students.
The first (and so far only) reading of mine my parents went to was an interesting experience, for both them and myself I dare say. I was completely surprised and taken aback when, after the reading, they took me aside and said, “that one piece — that was us, wasn’t it?” They were very concerned. Flustered. Possibly hurt. My family are very private people, you understand. Had I written about them and then published the piece for everyone to read?
Truth is, that particular piece had absolutely nothing to do with them. I’m sure that many of you who have written and shared their work will have had similar responses here and there.
Now that my first full-length collection, The Knowledge Weapon, is going to be published (I’ll keep you posted — we’re aiming for spring 2016), I find myself wondering if (and where) my parents will see themselves and other family members in these poems. In contrast to the piece at the reading that didn’t mention any fathers, mothers, families at all, only a vague ‘you,’ the poems in The Knowledge Weapon are full of relatives, real and imagined (most of them both). Yes, I do use real life incidents, people, snippets of conversations, but that’s where the process begins, not where it ends.
In his article “Mr.Potato Head vs. Freud,” in the current (October / November 2015) issue of the Writer’s Chronicle, Clint McCown touches on this issue. The focus of the piece is on building characters for fiction — literally ‘building’ them using different pieces, like Mr.Potato Head), and the risks and benefits involved in using friends, family, exes, etc as models for characters. Thing is, poetry has characters too — there isn’t a single poem that does not explicitly or implicitly create a character (a speaker, an observer, an agent) — and so McCown’s observations work for poetry, too.
Here’s where this connects to the “You’re writing about us!” concern: Says McCown, “Fiction is about telling lies to get at a greater truth, and if we try to be too respectful to the real people behind the story, we have saddled ourselves with a burden that has nothing to do with art. The real world and the people in it should be a springboard, not a straightjacket” (83). What this boils down to: “The writer’s first allegiance is to the art, and not to those friends and family being recycled as characters” (84). Sounds harsh, but over all, I agree. In the end, ‘recycle’ is not really the right verb for what happens here — for me, ideas crystallize on / around people and experiences, and to turn the thing into a poem I need to give it the right cut(s) so it will catch the light. In the end, the resulting poem may be a chunk of crystal that has been completely detached from the person or event that caused it to come together in the first place, and that’s fine, too.
In The Knowledge Weapon, there are poems that draw heavily on the lives of family members (all of whom have already passed on, btw) but they don’t just do that. They go further. While I loved my greatgrandmothers dearly, I’m under no illusion that their life stories are what you came for, or I would have written biographies instead of poems. What is captured in the poems is the part of their experience that is in some form universal or transposable. Each poem I write holds some ‘truth’ — something real, an experience, a sensation, a memory, — but it also holds, if you will, ‘lies’ — extrapolations, omissions, in some cases even the fusion of two people’s histories into one. If I was a biographer, this would be very, very bad. For my genre, however, this usually makes for better poetry.
Imagine, if you will, Elizabeth Bishop’s wonderful poem “One Art” — how much less enjoyable would it be if she had meticulously listed every single actual thing she had ever lost, instead picking and choosing, omitting some (many) things and adding others? Adding form, too. Crafting a real experience into a poem, into something for others to take away from reading the text on the page.
“One Art” is, I believe, a fitting example here because it is such a personal poem — it does have clear ties to Bishop’s own life, her sadness over losing / leaving behind places where she felt at home, and her fear of losing the woman she loved — and yet it is also wonderfully universal. A reader who knows nothing whatsoever about Bishop would still be able to relate to and enjoy this poem. It works so well precisely because it is not ‘the truth and nothing but the truth’: A fully accurate list of ‘Things I’ve Lost, by Elizabeth Bishop’ would make for much less captivating reading for most of us. By leaving out what is not relevant, she is allowing us into the experience.
Let me sign off with a request to you, dear reader — I know that when we’re kids, teachers tell us the analyze the heck out of poetry and literature and to make connections / draw conclusions / tie our interpretations to the writer’s biography etc. Let go of that. It’s a bad habit, imho. If you want to know about a person, read their biography. If you want to know what a person has to say / the stories they want to tell, read their creative work. It’s as simple as that. Also, more fun.
This blog post was in part brought on by this blog post (by Gulara Vincent) about sharing her manuscript with her husband. Thanks, Gulara!