I’M A LITTLE CONFUSED. Not long ago, coming off a string of out-of-town readings where I found myself in the company of mostly male poets, I noticed I was asked fewer questions about artistry, process, and craft than my male counterparts. Instead, I often heard more personal questions about my private life and history (not to mention my wardrobe). Poetry is always intimate, and it perhaps guides an intimacy between the writer and reader with which I am just not used to yet. I do not know if it’s because I write about sex and violence, and not, say, the sea, that these assumptions exist, but I’ve felt a little taken aback by the frequency and the disparity of these comments.
I’ll admit that, to some extent, I understand the impulse; everything in our tabloid media culture prepares us for salacious interest in the gory details, and for a kind of reductive tendency toward particular groups. And it’s not like poets (hi, Anne Sexton!) haven’t actively encouraged a conflation between “speaker” and “poet.” Confessionalism happened, and the rise and rejection (and perhaps a new embrace) of the “I” in poetry happened, and now poets who write in this vein — women, it seems, more than men — are viewed through a movie-of-the-week lens.
After a poetry reading I gave a couple of months ago, a stranger came up to a male poet I read with and asked him how he landed upon his chosen form for the lyric, “I”-based poems in his book. The same stranger then turned to me and asked, ostensibly in earnest, if I was “okay now.” My poems had him “worried.” I will generously assume the worry was one of concern and not prurience. Apparently he mistook my poems as a cry for help rather than, say, you know, art.
Still, I am further confused, because, if I now admit here that what I write about is mostly my life experiences, why do I mind if people assume that fact? Because here’s what I find troubling: this idea that I have such a limited scope, range, and resourcefulness that I can only write about my own history exactly as it happened. I have a number of poems based on Paul Klee’s art. I have never been face-to-face with a harmonium, but one exists in a Klee work I wrote about, and the line in which I mention it is as personal as anything else in my book. Still, it’s not “me” I’m writing about, it’s not strictly “Lynn Melnick.” (Believe me, the world doesn’t want the poem where I wait impatiently in line at the Dunkin’ Donuts…)
I would also assert that the twisting of words through metaphor, syntax, and line breaks creates something that is more complicated than a strict retelling, something hopefully more beautiful and revelatory. Even if a poet writes her or his poems based on certain experiences and recollections, it’s still a kind of invention. Plath’s poem, “Daddy,” arguably the most well known Confessional poem, has only tangential relation to her actual autobiography (even though it is frequently confused for such).
And yet, more confusion, because I sometimes ruffle when I feel like people are writing about things with which they may not have firsthand, personal experience. I was at a reading last spring when a man proudly informed us that he would end his string of tough-guy poems on a “bummer” because his final poem of the evening would make mention of the rape of a teenage girl. I know a lot of my resistance to this is tied up with a resistance to the tagging of certain topics for their shock-value. We need only turn on the evening news to encounter the chewiness with which our culture tackles subjects like violence. Poems (and poets) that exploit traumatic issues for easy emotional payoff make me angry, because they’re grotesque, and because the inauthenticity shows. It’s not art that’s worth my time. If I want to be momentarily titillated by someone else’s trauma, I could turn on a cop show. (I won’t, though.)
So I am torn here. I bristle when people just want to talk to me about what “really happened” (especially when the man standing next to me is being asked about more intellectual matters), and I bristle when I suspect, at least, inauthenticity in the voice of the “speaker.” I am constantly trying to work through my confusions. Lucky for me, I am not the only poet who grapples with these issues, so I don’t have to explore them alone.
I invited a diverse community of poets to think about and respond to these issues, in the hope that I — and you — would gain some insight into the questions that have confused and haunted me for some time now:
- Is it ever safe to assume autobiography from a poem? Elegies, for example, almost insist upon it. Are there certain populations that experience the assumption of autobiography more than others?
- Is there something inherently wrong with the assumption of autobiography? What are the effects of that assumption?
- Who gets to write what stories? Surely white men, most of them straight, have been writing the stories of others for centuries, and much of this we call “classic literature.” Should we be able to write about whatever subject haunts us, regardless of who or what we are?
- What makes the voice of the speaker authentic, what makes it phony, and is it ever okay to use certain subjects as easy emotional route markers?
I sent these questions to a group of poets, along with several recent essays I thought relevant to the discussion. As the weeks went on, we all read these, and each other’s, pieces. Although we never met in person, our conversation was easy and fluid and many of the poets refer back to each other’s pieces in their own. My own internal conversation was changed. I loved, for example, Amy’s playful curiosity about poets’ biographies, even as she recognizes the double standard toward female writers. I shifted: maybe I can take things less seriously. I loved Brett’s assertion that poems often gain in power by the possibility of autobiography. I shifted: maybe the tendency some readers have to reduce poets to their personal history isn’t about holding down, but about pushing back against this strength. I loved Metta’s interpretation of interest in a poet’s biography as a desire to connect. I shifted: maybe the world isn’t as sinister as I suspected; maybe it’s reaching out to bring us together.
Every single one of the following pieces brightened my mind, even as they banged against each other, sometimes with discord but always with harmony. The issues remain complex, maybe even more so than ever, but I feel grateful — and expanded — for the fact of the conversation.
THE REAL WHORE
A few months ago, after a reading I gave in San Francisco, someone came up to me and recounted a very personal sexual experience which he said came to mind instantly after hearing one of my poems. Then he said, “Your poems are so personal and universal.” This confession was both an entering into a shared space (where presumably we’ve had similar sexual experiences) and a reminder to me that even when it appears we have the same stories, there is no universal — everything that happens to us happens in very specifically different ways. I don’t believe in the universal. But I do believe in the personal. The idea of the universal is, for me, an easy and unremarkable attempt to ease our anxiety about being alive and alone — an anxiety that art tackles by speaking to no one in particular and everyone at the same time. The universal tells us one bridge connects us. The personal destroys, renames, and rebuilds the same bridge into many bridges. Which is true? What I’m trying to say is, our lives are just as complicated as a work of art. And the two are different and endlessly connected. Can other people’s art make us feel less alone? Yes. Is it a result of shared life experiences? No, many times it’s not. It may be a result of how something (a poem, a painting) is made (not lived) and how that making makes something happen in someone else. I smiled, thanked the person for his kind comment, and left.
Another story. After reading a review of my book, someone on the internet called me a whore. Which was immediately followed by their stating that they knew me. My poems, the perception of personhood in the review, and their knowledge of me in “real” life were used in an attempt to legitimize their observation. Yes. Often times we’re telling stories about ourselves with different pronouns or names, and through other people’s stories. Sometimes we tell lies about ourselves and about others to get to the truth. Sometimes we tell lies. Sometimes we tell just to tell. In life and on the internet. In art, it hardly matters at all (and yet it matters all the time).
One more story. Or maybe there are many: “…he’s ugly to boot — AND a lame, whimpering lay.” “It will be curious to see if he presses on once he advances into middle-age (and life is no longer ‘bearable’ because of his faded ‘beauty’), or kills himself out of embarrassment over the ridiculous reputation he’s created for himself.” “…he is the exact reason why ‘poetry is always attacked as being culturally irrelevant’…”
But my favorite story is this one. A stranger from Brazil wrote to tell me he came across a poem of mine in a m4m São Paulo Craigslist post. Someone had posted “Leaving Town with Allen Ginsberg,” a poem that appears in my chapbook American Boys, without identifying the author of the poem and without the last line, which reads “let’s never let them sleep.” The poem is about connection: with the past, and with people. And this stranger told me he liked the poem. He looked it up after encountering it on Craigslist. He found me. He read more. He was going through a tough time in his life both in regards to love and his own art. He said something happened when he read the poem. Maybe nothing extraordinary. But something. He didn’t say what. And an hour after he wrote me, the stranger who had posted the poem on Craigslist wrote me as well — (I love strangers). And he too told me a little about his life and his relationship to my poems.
So here we are. You and me. And here are people. And art. And the world.
Art reminds us we’re people. Art is made by people, and it belongs to people. It belongs to everyone. Art is the real whore. There’s no stopping it.
“IMAGINATION! WHO CAN SING THY FORCE?” (– Phillis Wheatley)
Here I am in the midst of moving. Again. The new banker, whose official title is Relationship Banker, asked me if I had other bank accounts in any other state. I listed a slew of banks in a number of states and, when she gave me a look that may have said: “Ummm, you sound like you’re running from the law” or could have said: “you need to close your accounts!” or “oh dear” or any number of things; I quickly added: “I’m a poet and professor. My profession takes me to a number of different places.” She didn’t blink when I told her my profession is “poet,” nor did she ask me what kind of poems I write or what I write about. Instead, she began to tell me about all of the cultural events that will take place in this city for the next two weeks. This also happened to me in the place I lived before her; people asked me what I did, I told them I’m a poet and professor, and they talked to me about cultural events around the area. This tells me that poetry, in the public eye, has come to some new place, a new understanding, a new acceptance. Poetry has, it seems, announced: “we’re here; we’re stanzas; get used to us.”
It doesn’t go unnoticed that this conversation about autobiography begins in the autobiography, begins in the personal. Begins with (oh! no!) human connection. Minnie Bruce Pratt said, “I returned to poetry not because I had ‘become a lesbian’ but because I had returned to my own body after years of alienation.” This sentiment, that poetry is the space one goes to in order to be inside of their own body, strikes me as the point of contact, the point of conversation, the point at which we excise the ornaments of categorizations. Art places us inside of our bodies. Whether we use those bodies to practice the subliminal, the persona, the pointillism, the abstract, the memoir, we enter in our body and engage from within our bodies.
Here’s a shared story, one that many poets “on the margins” (queer, woman, black, Chinese, Mexican, indigenous, etc.) have often told, in some form or another. Last year, I read a poem in the city I lived in, a poem about police brutality in a city quite accustomed to such, and a white man came up to me and found a laughter deep inside of him. The sides of his eyes crinkled and he put his open palm on his stomach and began to rock. “I loved that poem about the police! Like oh my god! That was rich!” “It was real,” I said. “What do you mean? Do you mean you experienced that?” “Yes.” “Oh. That’s disappointing. I thought you made it all up. Well. It was better when I thought it was made up.” He walked away. A few months later, in a new city I lived in, a graduate student in my poetry workshop bemoaned poems written, for the most part, by women of color, for their “realness.” Said of Bhanu Kapil’s The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers: “I hope this isn’t true. If these interviews actually happened, it’s just not as good a book.” We got into a heated argument about his penchant (not really his, as it has its literary history) for dissing the works of women and, particularly, women of color. “It’s an old, old, old argument,” I said to the class, “This notion that one is either inventive, tapping into the imagination, or that one is personal and therefore, I suppose, pedestrian, tapping into experience. It’s old. It’s white. It’s male. It’s annoying.”
Take a gander at Phillis Wheatley’s “On Imagination” and sit with what she’s talking about.
Once, I was in an Amtrak railcar, sitting in my comfy seat, listening to NPR, and the train made a stop in Hartford. I was listening to a story about Wallace Stevens, and I was sitting in a train looking out of a window at Hartford. Without warning, I hear something along the lines of “Wallace Stevens’s ‘Emperor of Ice Cream’ was based off of a real billboard in a real Hartford that advertised a real place called the Emperor of Ice Cream,” or perhaps there was an ice cream shop whose owner called himself the Emperor of Ice Cream. The person went on to describe how all of Stevens’s poems could be traced through a realistic landscape if one just took the time to walk through Hartford, as Stevens had done. The train shook and jerked and pulled off as I yanked my headphones out of my ears, screaming (in my head): “Who gives a fuck!?!”
At the start of this conversation, Lynn sent us this wonderful piece on Lorine Niedecker, where this great quote sits, by Niedecker herself: “We are always inhabiting more than one realm of existence — but they all fit in if the art is right.” Some people need the “real” story to make sense of language that feels alienating to them. They read biographies voraciously, and they walk around with all of the smugness of those in the know. In this way, they strip the language of its mystique, of its wonderment, of its varied levels. They use “the real story” to fix the lyric, the narrative, to tease apart the experimental. They use autobiography against the poem and its creator, and later, they accuse the poet of not being inventive, of relying on their own experiences to make art.
Years ago Li-Young Lee (and I tell this story all the time, so skip ahead if you’ve heard it) gave a lecture to University of Houston students about what he called the “fully integrated poem,” basically the chakra poem, one that is equal parts mind, heart, body, spirit, psyche. I’ve been searching for this poem and seeking to compose this poem since that (poetry) world shattering day in 2002 (or ’01, who can really remember, but I do love dates, the sheer autobiography of them, how particular and personal they can be). Lee’s lecture, truly, for me, changed the game. We have to move beyond our desire to enter into old discussions, to give them new breaths, when there are so many other worthwhile conversations to have that are not based in whiteness, in maleness, in some puffy sense of privilege and rightness. Regardless of whether or not a person writes “pure” autobiography or whether they lie to tell the truth, whether they stretch their memories to insert li(n)es to fill in the gaps, they’re trying to connect. And the person who really, really, really needs to know if this is autobiography, maybe they, too, are simply trying to connect to what they imagine is a real person versus their words alone.
Is autobiography an impulse that we shoo away, attempt to subdue, when we become makers of art? Even more daring: is autobiography an instinct that we are told to shed in order to make art, to, as Alex suggests, make “universal” the “particular”? We’ve, each of us, met art that strikes us with force, summons us to locate the artist, to understand the impetus, the drive, to make a certain piece. Art we connect to, a narrative, sometimes, is art that we sense is our narrative, too. I have no doubt that there are people in the world who connect to this thing we call the “universal,” the “theme,” the “big message,” tamped down to oh so many words: trials and triumphs; healing through meditation; friendships and foes, etc. I equally have no doubt that some people connect to stories; they’re not searching for the point of the story, they are delighted by the story itself, the details that carry them to their memories, their psychic recollections, the autobiography of one person that emerges in the autobiography of another. All art is autobiographical, all art comes from the self, all art is a “history of the life of the self,” and if we can just pry open the jaws of “life,” to understand the trembles and quakes, the layers and textures of “life” and what comprises life, perhaps then we can stop having this same conversation in this same way.
I hope Lynn’s necessary, albeit not contemporary, series of conversations will do one (kaleidoscopic) thing, remind us that “what’s old is new again,” will push us forward, will make us bolder, make us say the thing that needs to be said: the time is now to let go of whiteness, maleness, ego, to speak and think and act for ourselves, in concert with others who matter, those who are not attempting to make us in their own, fragile, frightened, frivolous egos.