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.
My 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.