RESEMBLANCE TO ACTUAL PERSONS, LIVING OR DEAD
Brett Fletcher Lauer
I REMEMBER BEING TOLD in undergraduate workshops and reminded in graduate school workshops of the perfunctory custom of referring to the individual in a poem as “The Speaker,” instead of the first name of the poet sitting across from me. Perhaps this was and is a holdover of the New Criticism’s privileging the organization of the text itself, and its problematic whitewashing of historical and social contexts, among other things. Or perhaps it was just polite decorum to avoid the awkwardness of critiquing my classmates’ feelings about life. Still, invariably someone would slip up — because the contract between poem and author and reader is a slippery one.
For instance, poetry doesn’t often enter into the contract of fiction, where books often carry the disclaimer: “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.”
Nor does poetry enter into the same contract as memoir, where the expectation is that the presented material actually happened, not only because the genre announces it as such, but also because a legal contract explicitly outlining those expectations was signed with the publisher. And when that contract is violated, as it was so flagrantly in James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, there is outrage all the way to daytime television.
Ben Yagoda, in his book Memoir: A History, quotes the Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger on the fake memoir Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood. Kluger remarks, “A passage is shocking perhaps precisely because of its naïve directness when read as an expression of naïve suffering; but when it is revealed as a lie, as a presentation of invented suffering, it is deteriorated to kitsch.”
The reason the author presented Fragments as memoir rather than fiction, setting aside maliciousness or mental illness, was to create a direct relationship to the events and suffering portrayed. They become more powerful, sensational, and true for the reader as they’re not mediated through an author, but rather through a participant or witness. And though Fragments is a particularly egregious example of the fake memoir, it does connect with Lynn’s questions regarding who has the right to tell what stories and to what end. Kluger rightfully calls this appropriation of shocking material under the guise of memoir kitsch. Kitsch being “worthless pretentiousness,” to “render worthless, to affect with sentimentality and vulgarity” — which I think might be the inauthenticity that Lynn mentions.
But what is the reader’s contract with a poem? And furthermore, why am I talking about “contracts” as if a poem or any text for that matter had a universally binding agreement between two parties: Author and Reader. I certainly don’t believe in telling a poet what she or he should write about.
When I find myself reading a poem, I like to believe I acknowledge the text as a construction: it is a vehicle — with its own mind and intentions. It is crafted and in its crafting the “story” may or may not be the primary purpose. Maybe the poem is about sex and violence. Maybe it is about ecological disaster. Maybe it is about nothing much.
As a reader or a writer I don’t believe that poems have an obligation to be factual or sincere, that they have to adhere to or reference actual events or even demonstrate truthiness. I know a poem is not an objective, static artifact and that my reading habits and opinions are subject to my own literary and personal history and knowledge, but simultaneously, the poem is an aesthetic object composed with formal considerations, and to disregard either of these issues would be an unfortunate limitation. And that might be one of the primary dangers of conflating author and poem: it severely frames the material and in doing so limits a much fuller view.
There is a word that is used in reality television that relates to this framing: frankenbite. Slate defines the frankenbite as “An edited reality show snippet […] extracting the salient elements of a lengthy, nuanced interview or exchange into a seemingly blunt, revealing confession or argument.”
Maybe the poet is making something that, like a frankenbite, starts with a real pool of data, events, images, and language and then distills that material to create a finished work. In a reality television show, that frankenbite masquerades as truth and deliberately misleads and, literally, profits from the illusion of reality.
In poetry it’s a little different, not the least because the poet has control over the final cut of the production. But also because the poet is not attempting to trick the reader into believing the poet is real. Like reality television, it is possible the reader may believe or feel or want it to be real, but it would be a failure to not recognize the craft and construction that is guiding the material. At the same time, I think poems often gain some power from not completely closing off the possibility of a relationship to the autobiographical — that same possibility which, of course, is often used reductively against the poet or poem.
Like I said, it is slippery, although I think it is worth noting that it has been less slippery for my own poems, which is most likely a result of my own white male privilege, and that the autobiographical power that certain of my poems may possess has never been used against me.
PROXIMITY, PROXY, PRACTICE
AS SOMEONE WHO has written a book of poems about fictional characters (they have fictional names and drive a fictional Honda), a book of poems that actually carries the “entirely coincidental” disclaimer Brett mentions, I sigh deeply when someone assumes that the book, or any poem, is autobiographical. Mutiny Gallery is a so-called novel in verse, but it was, from the get-go, an experiment, an attempt to see what could happen if lyric fragments — imagistic glimpses, dreamscapes, dialogue, citations, semantic riffs — were assembled to suggest the fractured narrative of an offbeat road trip. I wanted to write an account of pain, isolation, and love, while still leaving room for the lacunae in consciousness and memory, and for the tensions that vibrate in the lumen of thought and feeling. I have no interest in justifying this folly or the result, nor in defending its morals or mine (if a book can be said to have morals), but I would like to clarify publicly that my husband has never clocked my son in the face.
The assumption of autobiography from any poem is inherently troubling because it forgets that language is prismatic, rife with uncertainty and ambiguity. When someone assumes that the content of a poem has a straightforward relationship to the life experiences of the poet who wrote it, or to the person performing it at a reading, he or she ignores the fact that language refracts, well, everything. Not to mention that the self — like unicorns, fairies, virgins, and other mythical beasts — defies capture, and words are our only nets.
Even a person who hasn’t been anywhere near a university in the past 50 years, or hasn’t ever heard of Derrida, or believes that a divine Logos can conjure the world with the Word, knows that we earthlings communicate with an imperfect system of signs. I’m glad we do — if meanings didn’t wobble, if there were no linguistic instability, if language were a system of straight-up exchange, there wouldn’t be poetry. Words’ materiality and artificiality make them pliable, and dangerous, and delicious. So using writing as a transparent window on identity would be impossible even if there were such a thing as a “self” that held still — a definitive, coherent, recognizable “self” that a transparent window could reveal. At the same time, and nonetheless, we are individuated organisms, animals who experience their environments as such, who experience isolation from each other, and cannot think outside our own membranes and neurons. The critic Denis Donoghue once told me that he knows exactly what the self is when he catches a head cold. As someone who is semiotically unmoored and corporeally caged (more on the body in a minute), suffice it to say that I am a node of discourse in the socio-historico-linguistic matrix, but a node in need of a Kleenex.
And I am a node of discourse who is aware that she just referred to both academic jargon and a registered trademark of Kimberly-Clark Worldwide Inc. In other words, I am both made of signs and caught in the unique predicament of being able to reflect on that constructedness and the tangle of coercion and creation behind it. “I” am the language that has rattled around in my head as I have moved through a sign-laden world for 41 years — from the advertising jingles and popular songs and Catholic liturgy I heard growing up, to the textual sediment that sifts through my Facebook feed, to the echoes of any literature I picked up in between. I’d much rather my consciousness comprise the words of Virginia Woolf and John Keats than Toys"R"Us and Oscar Meyer, but it’s all there. This is a quick gloss of Supersized thinking, I realize — in another forum I’d be happy to have my feet held to the fire about the post-structuralist thought and historicisms and neurocognitive philosophy toward which I gesture so cavalierly (with some advance warning, please). My point here comes to this: a poem is never simply a matter of telling the truth or not. The medium of language always mediates, interposes its otherness — fogged lens, procuress, hypocrite, spy.
The reductive assumption that a poem is either my story or someone else’s follows poetry around in two ways, and I bristle at both of them. The first, as Lynn has mentioned, is the sense that a poet has appropriated someone else’s story for effect — to tug our heartstrings, to shame, exclude, or demean. This discomfort usually arises when the poet has ignored the lens that his or her perspective has imposed on the material, has denied the torque and tether of that language, or has ignored a power differential — someone seems to have spoken for, or spoken to control, someone else, but the language goes blithely on as if nothing has happened, as if there’s easy access to this heartbreak. The second way is the converse: I’m uncomfortable when I feel like a poet is trading on his or her losses — when the material, however harrowing, feels untransformed by linguistic urgency or energy, or when it relies on backstory or a kind of cult of personality surrounding the poet him- or herself. In both of these cases, there’s a hint of the mercenary, and an assumption of a transparent window into “authentic” experience that I don’t think exists.
Moreover, I think the assumptions people tend to make about autobiography and poetry are a gender and genre problem, a problem at the intersection of those terms — a rigidity about what “women’s” or “men’s” poetry should sound like, and a rigidity about formal and generic conventions for what poetry should look and sound like. Part of the confusion arises because of attitudes about lyric subjectivity since confessionalism, and the ways those beliefs align with the mistaken notion that women’s writing is uniquely tied to the body and voice. Do people ask Frank Bidart if he is anorexic? Did they ask Browning if he offed his wife? We’re all tethered to the body and the voice. Moreover, verse lineation and lyric modes of address themselves seem to magnetize people’s expectations for poetry as first-person memoir, regardless of gender. I don’t think anyone asks Jennifer Egan if she did or witnessed all of the things all of her characters do in A Visit from the Goon Squad.
I’m very glad Metta reminds us that “Art places us inside of our bodies,” that whatever we make with our hands and minds from within that place, be it persona poem or tessellated linguistic array, “we enter in our body and engage from within our bodies.” Cate leaves us with the same verb: “I make things.” Alex arrives at this conclusion (and verb) too — “Art is made by people.” This recognition — that art happens through a body — seems to me to be one of the most important insights that feminist thinking has given all of us, male and female humans alike. The possibilities for what a body can make with the sounds it utters, or the signs it scrawls, are countless. Sometimes I feel words are the pebbles I’m throwing out of the well I’m trapped in, hoping they are perceived as a code, or just land in an interesting pile. Other times my body seems to utter syllables that belong to others, that rumble up and echo, to my dismay or delight, language from somewhere else. It always comes back, for me, to the effort to find language to make and remake the body’s experience, with whatever strange result, an effort to work at the threshold of interior and exterior, and to make contact with other people — other words-trapped-in-bodies. I can’t seem to talk publicly about poetry without mentioning this line of Adrienne Rich’s: “This is the oppressor’s language, but I need it to talk to you.”
In the verse novellas I’m working on now, I want the language to announce itself in all its cultural detritus and oppressive rhetoric and flagrant artifice and outrageously fictive glory, and, and, I want to articulate an empathic imagination. I believe this is possible, if maybe a little quixotic. Writing as if human stories, mired in language though they are, cannot still be meaningfully communicated to other people is not only boring, it is simply not the case — Rich is right, we need to talk to each other, and we can hear each other, we really can. To decide to write only about what pains me, what I suffer in my own achey navel in my own zip code, seems ridiculously narcissistic. No one cares about my umbilical hernia, literal or figurative.
I’ll end, quixotically, with ethics. I’ve been spending some time lately with Levinas because I want to find an intellectually rigorous way to believe in empathy. He says that before the I am is the I love: Love is not consciousness. It is because there is vigilance before the awakening that the cogito is possible, so that ethics is before ontology. Behind the arrival of the human there is already the vigilance for the other.
In “The Proximity of the Other,” Levinas says that the foundation of ethics has to be the other, not the self, not the beloved or the neighbor: “A going outside of oneself that is addressed to the other, the stranger. It is between strangers that the encounter takes place; otherwise, it would be kinship.” Perhaps writing into that space of otherness — saying this is not my experience exactly, but I feel it, I feel it in my body, and I am going to represent, perform, envision, or envoice it — can reveal, reconnect, provoke change. Perhaps. It depends, so much depends, on that precarious “I” hanging off its precarious lintel, lectern, ledge.
THESE MYTHOLOGIZING Is: ON TENDING TO THE PAST AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY
L. Lamar Wilson
Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others imprinted indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a thread, each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture. And the tapestry tells a story, and the story is our past.
— Kasi Lemmons, Eve's Bayou
Everybody loves a good story. Where I’m from, that’s what we call them. “The stories,” to my father, mother, and other seniors back home, are melodramatic soap operas that keep them rapt every weekday, 11 a.m. to 2 o’clock. There and everywhere else I’ve been, “the stories” are well-told lies, tales that transport us away from the banal dailiness of our individual truths by embellishing them in the larger-than-real-life personalities of others.
I have always been lauded as a consummate storyteller, raised by even more gifted tale-tellers than I, many of whom spent most of their lives in kitchens, front porches, schoolrooms, and pews they called holy. These women knew what to emphasize, how to modulate their voices, and, most of all, what omissions would best serve their narratives. Their stories are legendary in Long Bottom and Burden Hill, the post-Emancipation monikers for the land on which my ancestors were masters and slaves, exploiters and exploited, economically co-dependent and linked by blood — in veins and by the lash — yet often fiercely at odds. I learned, then, as a child, what keeps people listening and passing the stories on, how silences make room for triumphant ones to unfold. I’ve learned since I left that quiet hamlet that what I understood as tall tales were not unique to my rural African-American community and were heralded in all cultures as myths.
As Amy so insightfully asked, then, which is more deserving of attention, an author’s work or the mythologizing of his or her life vis-à-vis the work s/he leaves behind? I see value in both, especially in work like my own, which makes myth of its author’s experiences and ventures beyond autobiographical “confession” into metaphysical meditation on the complexities of the human condition. But what is it about myths? Why do they endure? In short, they work. Homer, Sappho and the master-poets since them have found art in making the myths of antiquity new.
The master-poets who are black and American — who, since the Enlightenment, have been the prototypical Other that Barbara referenced — have turned these age-old stories inside out and found individual and collective truths lost in the mythologizing of African-Americans’ circum-Atlantic journeys from the land of the Mother, through the Caribbean and Central and South America, to a burgeoning freedom in various havens throughout the diaspora, particularly in Europe and the United States. The freedom to dream into being any reality one’s imagination can devise, for the black American master-poet, remains this ever-expanding “place,” as James Weldon Johnson wrote, “for which our fathers sighed.” A number of these poets have found, in Biblical outliers and outcasts and in the African diasporic pantheon, the forgotten stories from which Greco-Roman mythmakers’ progeny glean without acknowledging the sources of their inspiration. As the late, great Lucille Clifton put it, she and other black master-poets are rightly “accused of tending to the past,” of staring at History’s shadow and writing her freer, their imaginations making art of the silences that myopia, racism, sexism, and homophobia incite.
How do they do it? They re-create the stories they inherit, the ones they live, the ones they witness that inspire their empathy. How do they do it? They find in their Is voices beyond their lives’ limits that speak to and for the humanity not afforded those not given the attention that their Is command. Of course, the fault lines of these master-poets’ memories shape their mythologizing, but, with all due respect, get out of here, T.S. Eliot, with your individual talent spiel. You and yours are not welcome here. You’ve mythologized enough about my Is, carrying my blues and jazz from St. Louis, pretending you and your Tiresias only felt them in the Thames. I know it was Bessie. I know it was Sidney Bechet and Jelly Roll. See, there I go lying about what I know.
What I know, I know: everybody loves a good song, and everybody knows I am among the best singers who ever lived. When I say I here, you think I’m talking about only me? Well, that kind of ahistorical, individual poetics is not a luxury for master-poets, who cull from History’s and their autobiographies’ silences that which their mythologizing Is transform into lasting lyrics. Because that is the way it is with any bittersweet song that the love of any (wo)man inspires, with any poem worth (re)reading and reciting, with any lie worth retelling, with every myth.
I am a storyteller, an amanuensis-journalist, and a singer trying to become a master-poet. I wrote a lot of stories in a book with a lot of Is. Their lyric voices — all my own creations, many culled from my experiences, but not mine alone — tell the stories of a little Florida farming town-cum-penal colony imprisoned by the silences of its messy History and of a mixed-race family forever altered by its youngest being born (dis)abled and queer; stories about the big towns that almost swallowed me and many I’ve loved whole; stories about Henrietta Lacks, attempted murderess Izola Ware Curry, runaway slave Morning Dew, an amalgam of sex workers, including serial killer Howard Belcher, and a few of History’s other lost sisters and brothers; stories I discovered anew in the Good Book I was raised to recite once I emerged from the pit of the Cave and the questioning began; stories about one disease, HIV, that keeps silencing my greatest loves and another called Fear that’s left far too many of my brothers and sisters lying dead on street corners and their killers free to kill more still; stories about a hope that not even Old Scratch can steal.
They are my stories, and yes, to get to the heart of the matters, in them are my lies of omission, the mythologizing of that which my Is remember of my autobiography, re(-en)visions of that which the mythmakers of History have recorded about others’ stories.
Do you think that only in Atlanta’s Lion’s Den I danced, witnessed excess and reveled in it? How could I know what Lacks’ HeLa cells would say? And does it diminish the impact of my “Dreamboys” to know that not one, but two of its speaker’s nephews were re-enacting the scene from the 2006 musical-film on which the poem’s title eponymously plays? Lord, I hope not. The truth is that man-child from Marianna’s feelings and experiences are real, though so much of his stories’ ugly details are excised, so much irony and humor added to make sure they don’t drown in tragic victimhood. Sacrilegion selects from my memory of a difficult youth, a selection of elusive and indelible images whose art and arc ideally will live beyond my last breath.
In writing the stories, I only did what my master-poet forebears have shown me our Is must do with language, with our autobiographies, with History. Metta astutely points us to Phillis Wheatley, who paved the way for Other(ed) master-poets, particularly those black, female, and queer, and declared herself human and her imagination divinely inspired, even though her humanity and intellect were literally put on trial. Ultimately, Wheatley prevailed, encoding History lessons in her verse while laying claim on a Carthaginian-Roman literary ancestor named Terence, a slave, like her, who wrote his way into immortality.
But the beauty of it all is that now my stories are yours, too.
These mythologizing Is have gotten into you, just as their truths live with the we in me.
You can’t help it.
Now run. Tell that.