Thursday, December 20, 2007

We Are Family

Yes folks, it's that time of year again, the time when we we gather together with friends and family to celebrate our holidays and the new year. It's a mix of happiness and stress, complicated by the practicalities and impracticalities of travel, for those of us who shoved off and forged ahead, making lives far from our familial shores.

What has this all to do with writing? For those of us whose work is rooted in our personal lives, stretching out from the Confessional poets into some new poetry that isn't straightforwardly personal but takes the personal at a slant, there is always the delicate matter of publishing poems in which family members may appear...or may think they appear...and not in a good light. This question must not come up for those more distant philosophic, intellectual poets, writing at a distance from their own lives, cloaked in layers of speakers more and more removed from their own biographies. I admire their work, especially their precision with language and images, but I'm often left with one hand opening and closing as I reach for something to hold onto, something to take with me when I'm done [greedy, greedy].

My boss, a fellow poet, tells his creative writing students two things that apply to this discussion: one, something needs to be a stake in the poem and two, for material -- go into the black box that sits underneath your heart and harbors all the messy stuff of your life. For my own work, I believe in these statements as well. I want to write poems that offer something to the reader, a new insight into the struggle to live and love, lines that they can carry around for solace in the dark times as I carry Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, Walt Whitman, Charles Wright, Pablo Neruda, and so many others with me. My writing also emerges from those dark intercostal spaces in my torso where my body builds muscle memory of pain and gladness.

So, I am left with poems that, if not directly confessional, are slantly confessional. The "I" speaker is one incarnation of me, one moment in time of me, and that "I" is struggling to make sense of the troubling world. And yes, sometimes these poems involve those people closest to the black family. For me, I come from an intelligent but non-literary family. They all read, but they read mainly mainstream, popular fiction, newspapers, and general interest magazines and have little knowledge about the world of poetry, its form and theory, its craft. And so how do you explain to your father that a poem about a father's fall from perfection is only loosely based on the realities of his presence in your life? How do you tell your sisters that you aren't judging their lives, merely trying to examine how and why and to what result they made the choices they made?

This is probably one argument against the confessional in don't have to worry about hurting someone's feelings if you're making everything up. However, I think there is something to be said for the risk that is at stake when the poem comes up out of closely held hurts and fears. Yes, the language must still be precise and the images new and awe-inspiring, but without the risk, the something at stake, then I'm left feeling let down and empty...when reading or writing a poem.

And so, "once more into the breach," which is also a welcoming home. May you all be safe in your journeys!

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