Green Hills Literary Lantern

Secrets and Lies

 

A couple of years ago, I gave a reading at the small college where I earned my undergraduate degree. My first book of poems had just been published and this was only the second time I’d read from the collection. The reading was followed by a question and answer session, and I was nervous about it: I imagined these smart young students asking me questions I couldn’t answer, pointing out previously unnoted connections or discrepancies in my own work, or requesting that I hold forth on some obscure literary theory. As the prodigal daughter and the paid talent for the evening, I was essentially concerned with appearing intelligent and informed. However, it would have been wiser for me to worry about something far more difficult to discuss with a crowd: my personal life.

In many introductory creative writing workshops, the instructor will often begin by explaining the difference between the poet who is the author of the poem and the “speaker” or the “I” in the poem. The instructor will make it clear that it’s dangerous business to assume that the poet and the speaker are one and the same: first, persona poems abound. Second, allowing oneself as a reader to become preoccupied with assuming a false biography for the author -- or, alternatively, taking details from the author’s life and reading them into the poem -- can cloud the experience and intention of the work. I’ve seen many such workshops derailed by questions and comments designed to satisfy curiosity rather than aid in creating clarity. Finally, even if a poem might initially have sprung from some sort of personal experience, it may then have departed from that original personal impulse quite quickly, rendering such a discussion moot. However, this careful distinction between poet and “speaker” is generally made in a beginning workshop for quite a different reason: so that a student who does bring in autobiographical work can feel safe from the danger of having her personal life discussed in the workshop, and instead can be shielded by the cloak of her “speaker” as the craft of her poem is examined.

Which is why this self-protective construct is easily abandoned when we begin to examine published work. After reading a poem in a book or magazine, I often find myself feeling as if I know a distant poet quite well, the same way one might feel intimately connected to a celebrity after reading the tabloids. And perhaps that is one sign of a successful poem: the author has persuaded us to suspend our disbelief long enough to enter the poem and occupy it wholeheartedly. Removed from the workshop setting, there’s nothing wrong with believing in what we read or even in allowing those juicy narrative allusions to become real truths ascribed to the poet rather than the poem. However, a real ethical problem does arise when, after the “information” provided in a collection of poems has already been taken at face value, the author is asked to talk publicly about the autobiographical context of her work. Put on the stand by an audience hungry for authenticity, the poet risks being labeled with the ultimate writer’s f-word: Fraud.

So I should have been prepared to navigate these difficult distinctions when, at my own question and answer session, one young writer raised her hand and said, “You’ve just written this book with all these secrets and intimate details from your life in it—don’t you feel sort of personally depleted, like you might not have anything else to write about?” Instead of carefully explaining the origins of my work—how I write both from my own life and from the life that happens in my imagination, how my poems are often informed by the experiences of my friends and family, how I use some poems to confront not what has actually happened to me but what I’m most afraid might happen in the future—I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it. For one thing, I was terrified: What if the follow-up question referenced some specific detail in my book like bondage play or miscarriage? While I’m very comfortable sharing my personal life in my poems, I’m much less comfortable presenting it to a crowd, so I wanted to head off that line of questioning right away. Additionally, because my inspiration has so many different sources, it seemed funny to me that my book might have run me dry. So I laughed and gave the quickest answer that popped into my head, “My book is full of lies.” The students appeared stunned. One hiccupped nervously. Feeling the need to fill the silence, I added, “And I have plenty more to tell.” My response succeeded in ending that line of questioning, but I could see that it had also left my audience wary of me and, more unfortunately, wary of my work.

Let me make it clear that my response was instinctual, not calculated, and that when I said “lies” I did not mean that I’d intended for my poems to deceive my readers about my life or lead astray their understanding of who I—the author, not the subject—am. For me, a “lie” in a poem might mean many different things, including a stretching of my own lived experience or a truth stolen from the life of someone near to me and put into my own voice. A “lie” might mean the combining of two personal experiences or the transposing of an experience from one landscape to another. Additionally, I believe that the idea of “truth” in poetry is not a constant: certain narrative fabrications, like the shifting of perspective from third to first person, can help poets to tell the emotional truth, allowing that other kind of honesty to be uncoupled from clunky exposition in order to communicate more clearly and directly with the reader. Ultimately, a poem is no different from our own memories in the way that its “truth” is transformed over time through the process of retelling and revising.

But using the word “lie” is a trap I set for myself when I try to have this conversation with readers. They’re often dealing in a rigid dichotomy where a poem is either true or not true—for them, it can’t be both. And while that’s a fine philosophy to possess as a solitary reader partaking of poetry from a book or magazine, it’s a misplaced standard to hold an author to in a public forum. Elyse Fenton, the author of the Dylan Thomas Award-winning collection Clamor, seems to agree. As she stated in a recent interview, “On a fundamental level, these poems do originate with my experience as the wife of an army medic deployed in Baghdad…. some shred of recognizable experience that I don’t mean to disavow…. [But] because he doesn’t want to be anywhere near a spotlight, I think my husband would like a disclaimer on [some of the] poems that reads: this is not my experience. And of course he’s right. It’s not his experience at all; it could never be, and not just because he’s not a poet. But it’s not exactly my experience, either, because it’s a poem, it’s a construction… I’m often asked by audience members in variously forthright ways whether these poems come from my direct experience… It seems to me that [their] question is calculated to gauge the level of the speaker’s ‘authenticity,’ and this is where it gets problematic for me. What I guess I want to ask is: does it improve on your experience of [my poem “Gratitude”] to know that it did, in fact, spring from a conversation I had with my husband, who did, in fact, catheterize an Iraqi soldier? That there is, indeed, an insider in the action somewhere within the vicinity of the poem? I have trouble with this line of inquiry in part because of its implications, its potential to privilege first-hand witness as the only possible ‘authentic’ voice.”

In many ways, I think that it does improve on a reader’s experience of a poem to believe that it sprang from a real occasion in the poet’s life. That helpful suspension of disbelief is one of the reasons that so many poems are written in first person: the construct is direct and creates a sensation of intimacy and vulnerability. It’s hardly fair to blame the reader when these sorts of literary manipulations achieve their desired effect. However, there’s no room for those kinds of craft choices during a Q&A session or an interview: While I don’t have an obligation to differentiate between emotional truths and “real” ones in the poem itself (should I put all the “lies” in boldface type?), when I get up in front of a crowd, it’s not the poem talking anymore, it’s me. A lie at that point is just a lie, no longer in service to the poem but instead in service to my own desire to protect the integrity of my work or simply to protect myself. As a writer, I want to use every literary tool at my disposal to create a dynamic poem, allowing such elements as musicality and voice to trump the “truth,” and trusting that my poem’s authenticity will be measured not in its “truthfulness” but in its power, a power that is a result of careful craft choices that sometimes supersede the directive of personal truth-telling. However, as a human being face-to-face with a curious reader, I feel the need to be honest and forthcoming, to pull back the curtain the reader has asked to look behind. Of course, what’s behind the curtain doesn’t always meet that reader’s expectations.

Not since the reign of the Romantics has there been such public expectation that personal truths might be revealed in a poem. But the cult of confessionalism has done us few favors in dissolving the line between poet and “speaker.” Now, as we try to stretch our way out of and around this conceit, we are stunted by the continued expectation of autobiography, especially when there’s no clue in the poem to tip the reader off that it’s otherwise. Poets like Kiki Petrosino, whose collection Fort Red Border cleverly portrays a fictional love affair between the speaker and Robert Redford, have found a way to write first person poetry that reads as personal and narrative while making it clear from the outset that it is anything but autobiographical. This playful use of persona allows Petrosino to express from a comfortable distance what might in fact be her very personal ideas about race, gender, class, and love. But as memoir and reality television continue to hold sway over our culture, the voyeuristic urge steadfastly remains a part of the experience of reading contemporary poetry, and the fulfillment of that urge plays out again and again when poet and reader meet.

Unfortunately, it’s a lot more complicated than explaining that my poems aren’t an episode of “The Real World,” especially when the construct of first person narration is part of what makes the poems powerful. On the other hand, refusing to admit that I “lie” in some of my poems seems to me to be an admission of shame about those lies, as if there’s something terribly wrong with borrowing, fabricating, and reimagining my various speakers’ lives on the page. However, coming clean to an audience means the potential for being accused of fraud or, even worse, of having used provocative or titillating material as a cover for poor craft. Understandably, people get angry when they feel they’ve been emotionally taken in by a poem.

But sometimes the difference between sharing a real secret with a reader or telling a “lie” can be a fine one to discern, even for the poet. After writing a poem, I often forget whether it’s “true” or not entirely so—all those literary manipulations sometimes succeed even in convincing me of the poem’s veracity. The secrets and “lies” having all been jumbled together in the poem, and therefore also in my memory of its original impulse, I begin to believe in the reality I’ve created. For example, my poem “Waltz of the Midnight Miscarriage” has ambiguous origins for me now. Here’s what I remember from that time in my life: several physical signs indicated that I was pregnant. Then, after a couple of months, those physical signs ceased to exist. What I don’t remember from that time is whether or not I really believed I’d been pregnant or had experienced a miscarriage. I know I wrote many poems about pregnancy and miscarriage during those months, but maybe I wrote those poems as a way of struggling with my worst fears or as a sort of talisman against them. Now I wonder if my memory of that miscarriage is true or something I’ve come to believe in because I expressed it in words. It’s messy in my own head, not to mention during a Q&A when a reader’s question implicitly contains the assumption that I’ve experienced the loss of a baby. I don’t want to willfully mislead my audience, but my responsibilities to the poem, the reader, and myself come into direct and confusing conflict at such a moment.

Additionally, the more I’m asked to explain about my poems, the less I’m able to remember what details I’ve claimed legitimate ownership of, or if my story has differed depending on my audience: Did I confess during last night’s reading that this poem is true and then this morning on the phone allow my mother to believe it’s a fabrication? Because coming clean works the other way, too: some of the poems in my book, many of them, in fact, do hold real truths, ones which make me deeply uncomfortable. And while I’m willing to expose them in a poem, I’m reluctant to own up to them in any other setting. These are truths I sometimes pass off as lies, allowing strangers, colleagues, or even friends to believe that yes, that particular narrative detail falls into the category of made-up poem drama—even when it’s not. But when your mother buys all your books, follows your Facebook fan page, and reads every interview you give, you’ve added another layer to the private and public conversation. How can I be honest with my audience but still keep the truth from my mother? And how do I keep it all straight? There’s a great deal of responsibility associated with truth-telling, and it’s unfortunate that the poet should have to be saddled with making that distinction for her readers, whether they’re strangers or family.

I’m lucky to have a family who understands that for a poet the truth can be an undue burden. When my book first came out, my parents were very proud of me, and they wanted to share the collection with their friends and our extended family. But before they did so, they carefully crafted a disclaimer they would use when confronted with questions about the illness, sexuality, and violence in some of my poems. As my father put it, “These poems are the work of an imagination.” This is both true and not true, but it makes my parents more comfortable, and sometimes it makes me more comfortable, too. My family is not only attempting to shelter my poetry from a kind of personal scrutiny that could make us all feel violated, but they’re also keeping their own curiosity at bay, allowing my work to exist in its own independent space.

I’m not the only poet who struggles with these negotiations, but the solutions some have found are ones that surprise me. Years before I’d published a poem anywhere, I found myself sitting around the dinner table at a summer writing conference listening to Sharon Olds talk about how she’s dealt with publishing such personal material and how her family has handled reading her poems in print. Sharon acknowledged the difficulty of writing, and presenting to the world, work that her family might not want to see appear in a book or magazine. Then she said something that left me astonished: “Sometimes I’ve written under a pseudonym.” It amazed me that a poet so well-known as a writer of narrative, confessional, intimate, and autobiographical work would still, on occasion, be tempted to sever the connection between herself and her poems, to essentially hide from her audience.

But while it’s comforting to me to know that even Sharon Olds sometimes feels the need to seek refuge in a pseudonym, it doesn’t help me when I’m confronted with a reader who wants to know “the truth” about where a particular poem has come from. It might be simplest to refuse to answer such questions and thereby sidestep the issue of truth-telling in poetry, and many poets have counseled me to take this course. In an interview he gave a few years ago, Brian Turner, the author of the collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, gave the following advice to writers about to publish a first book: “If they are going to be doing readings and presenting their work in a public way, then they might want to consider: what is private and what is public? There are some things I decided early on not to disclose… I often respectfully decline to share all of my reasons for joining [the military].” Turner’s two collections of poems deal almost exclusively with his personal and often autobiographical experiences as a soldier in Iraq, but even he is reluctant to expand on his own story in a forum outside of the poems. He understandably feels his need to protect himself supersedes the public’s right to know.

I respect Turner’s decision to deem certain topics off-limits, but I’m reluctant to make the same choice when discussing my own work. Just as writing under a pseudonym would remove me from the conversation, refusing to answer a question about the life surrounding a poem would cut dialogue short. One of the reasons we read is to expand our lives, to have compassion and understanding not only for ourselves, but also for others. That’s also one of the reasons why I write: to gain, and sometimes shift, perspective. Ultimately, I want my readers to trust me because, more than anything else, I’m trying in my poetry to connect with them. And I want to trust my readers to be the ones who will create a space where my poetry can communicate freely and openly.

One recent reviewer of my book wrote, “In lesser books, it’s easy to get the impression that We, The Reader, are being lied to. In Beautiful in the Mouth, that’s never the case.” Or that’s never the impression my reader is left with. So I know some won’t be happy to find out that I’ve cherry-picked the secrets and “lies” I’ve decided to share with them, and I know that reading this they’ll feel deceived. I don’t enjoy allowing people to assume things about my life that aren’t true, and nothing could be further from my intention when I sit down to write a poem. But my poems only tell one part of the story, or one part of many stories, or many parts of many stories. Ultimately, while I believe in lying in poems, what I’m advocating here is that readers of poetry allow some mystery to exist, to trust the author to be honest with them in the way that matters most. As Richard Hugo said, “You owe the details nothing emotionally.” He was instructing the writer here, but I think his message holds true for the reader, as well: As readers, it’s to the poem that we owe any connection we might feel when we read it, not the life that stands behind it.

 

 


Keetje Kuipers earned her B.A. at Swarthmore College and her M.F.A. at the University of Oregon, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University from 2009-2011. She was most recently the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College, and is now an Assistant Professor at Auburn University. In 2007 she was the Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Resident, and used the residency to complete work on her book, Beautiful in the Mouth,  which was awarded the 2009 A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize and was published in 2010 by BOA Editions. Her second collection, The Keys to the Jail, is forthcoming from BOA in 2014.