Do you want myself or do you want my song? Poetry & truth

While I was pregnant with my (now four-month-old) daughter, I was performing a feature poetry set in Melbourne and during the break a woman came up to me and said: Congratulations! I’m so glad to see you’re expecting. That poem about your son dying is so sad, it makes my heart break.

gilscotth-677x1024My response was to stare at her blankly. I thought she’d probably confused me with someone else, and asked whether she had. She looked a little confused. You just performed that poem – the one about your son being shot. I looked at her again, blankly. The poem you JUST read, she insisted, it’s in your book! I wracked my brain and realised she meant the poem ‘mali’, which appears in my book Gil Scott Heron is on Parole (Picaro Press, 2010). The poem is about the anxiety of carrying a black child in the womb, with the mother (myself) imagining all of the things that could go wrong:

… birthing a black child
into this world
wasn’t smart on any footing
like dumping osama in abu ghraib
& saying have fun boys
nobody’s looking
i felt sick
every time i felt you kicking …

The poem also contains the lines:

… gunned down on the tube for wearing a back-pack
seven holes
not one sniper stopping to think that
maybe a mama wz losing her child …

Clearly, the reader had taken the poem literally. I explained what the poem was actually about and all the while the woman was staring at me dubiously. When I got back behind the mic, I noticed her toward the back of the room whispering to some mates who in turn, were staring at me even more accusingly than she was – as if they were wondering whether every poem was flight of fancy. Wtf?

Even if the poem had been written from the perspective of a woman who’d lost her son to police brutality, would they have been justified in being peeved? Fiction is a word usually applied to story writing, but poetry can just as easily be fiction or storytelling, can’t it? I know my poems often are, but should I have to declare that they are? Surely a poet has no obligation to their readers to separate fact from fiction? Am I selling you myself, or selling you my song?

I once submitted a novel of mine to a Novel Search competition. It was successful, but didn’t end up being published (full story in the interview here if you’re interested). One thing that surprised me, and has always stuck with me, is that when I initially submitted the first 10000 words of the manuscript, the potential publisher, when calling me for a full submission, asked: Uh, I was just wondering … how much of this manuscript is actually autobiography? I paused for a moment, wondering: What does he want me, or expect me, to say? Umm. About five per cent. That five per cent or so was so sporadic: locations and mundane situations rather than people or names. Thank goodness, he said, most of what we’ve been sent has been thinly veiled autobiography.

The competition was a fiction writing competition, so his frustration made sense. It got me thinking though, about different writing forms and truth. In my experience readers, particularly non-poets and superparticularly (let me invent a few new words every now and then – it’s my blog after all) non-writers, generally expect poetry to be honest. Literally honest: they expect to hear about the poet’s direct experiences or at least actual observations. If you write a poem about riding the railway in India, they expect that you have ridden the railway in India. If you write about a volatile break-up, they expect you to have been devastated by an ended relationship.

Why? It’s not journalism, it’s poetry! What are your thoughts about poetry and truth? Should I give myself, or are you okay with my song?

Cross-posted from slam up.

Maxine Beneba Clarke

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an Australian author and slam poet of Afro- Caribbean descent. Her short fiction collection Foreign Soil won the 2015 ABIA Award for Best Literary Fiction and the 2015 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. Her memoir, The Hate Race, her poetry collection Carrying the World, and her first children’s book, The Patchwork Bike, will be published by Hachette in late 2016.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. HiYa Maxine

    I find it hard to separate fact from fiction myself – I generally live in a fantasy world with the faeries at the bottom of the garden 😉

    I often create characters and stories from expanding a news segment in my imagination, hearing a couple of sentences from the radio and creating the ending I missed, a piece of music which evokes a scenario, taking a ‘real life’ event and then continuing with ‘what if…’

    If my poetry was truthful, it would be overly concerned with select events, repetitive, and not too interesting for others… 🙂


    So I am with you – give me your song anyday!

  2. Hi Maxine, I totally agree with you, but I think with poetry people assume it’s you because poetry is perceived as being written from some emotion you’re feeling, and a lot of poetry is, but some poetry isn’t. I guess as a writer, no matter what, people are going to assume what we are writing is about us, even if some of it is, and some of it isn’t, even if we class it as fiction. I’m not sure there is any way around it other than just pushing aside people’s perseptions of you and getting on with writing the poetry. I do it too. I always read books and watch films and wonder, how much of that is a true story. It’s human nature. Speak of poetry, I’m performing at the Dan Oconnel hotel in Carlton from 2-5pm, just ran out of time to post it on Overland. Come down and read a poem, Maxine – we miss you! I am also selling my new chap book!

  3. That’s an interesting question Maxine, there’s a lot of poets who write basically what they feel and experience, and then there’s a lot who don’t. I’m not sure why poetry seems to divide up into these two camps – (and maybe it’s not even a real split, anyway) – but definitely, for me, my poems are usually spoken by someone else, someone different to me. Obviously – because I’d hate to have to judge on the mental acuity of a person who thought some of my poems, with hell-demons baking scones and running orphanages, or cuddly little teddy-bear like creatures who terrify other cuddly little teddy-bear like creatures, came from ‘personal experience’. Oh, that experience comes from someone – but that someone just isn’t me.

    Maybe we should blame Wordsworth for highlighting personal experiences in his own verse. I like blaming him, so it works for me…

  4. Works for me too, Tim – Wordsworth as the poetic pinjada (SPELL?). What, you mean you’ve never actually MET the oongoly doongolies?

    Glad your reading went well Koraly. I’ll be back someday…but only if you keep missing me!

  5. Coming a bit late to the party:

    Rather than blaming Wordsworth, it’s probably worth reading him again. In the wordly flesh, the craggy literary monument is a lot more interesting than many of his adherents would have us know. He certainly did a lot more than merely write the “personal”. He had quite a lot to say about truth in poetry:

    “Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature. The obstacles which stand in the way of the fidelity of the Biographer and Historian, and of their consequent utility, are incalculably greater than those which are to be encountered by the Poet who comprehends the dignity of his art. The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher, but as a Man. Except this one restriction, there is no object standing between the Poet and the image of things; between this, and the Biographer and Historian, there are a thousand.”

    Truth to Wordsworth is the immediacy of a carefully observed world delivered to another mind and heart through passion, ie, without any “object” between what the poet observes and the reader. It’s a form of knowledge, which is pleasurable in its apprehension (it’s worth noting that Wordsworth included science in his comprehension of knowledge). I know this is a million miles from impertinent biographical assumptions, which also annoy me; but to Wordsworth, those “personal” perceptions only had value if they illuminated, with feeling, this larger conception of truthfulness.


  6. hi maxine, also late to the party. i think that the meaning i see within my own poetry and the meaning others see in it are disconnected and irrelevant. i’m quite happy for someone to see a meaning within a poem of mine differently to how i envision it. to use your experience as an example, i doubt i would have explained what the poem was really about (for myself) to the disgruntled woman who assumed that they understood you. i may have said, ‘well that’s not what i wrote it about, but that’s a perfectly valid interpretation, i’m glad that you can take something out of it’ or whatever. so in answering your question – i am perfectly comfortable and even encourage a difference in the truth that i inject or understand within what i write and what others see within what i write.

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