Auld Lang Syne

Thursday, June 30, 2011

First Person Writing, or Veiled First Person

I heard from my alma mater today via Facebook that poet and visiting writer Claudia Emerson read last night at College Hall (Vermont College MFA in Writing summer residency), commenting that her collection, Late Wife, was not written in the first person because the material was too painful. The question was asked (on FB) if any of us take that approach, veiling the first person for protective reasons. I did not have to think about that at all. The answer is a resounding yes. But I am thinking about the "why" of it, asking myself what my motives are when I change the "I" to "she" and whether that actually does obscure the first person for readers. Not such a clear yes or no here.

I do know that in many cases I have veiled the first person, including in a recent (unpublished at the moment) poem, Spousal Particular. For this poem, the subject matter is so dark and so challenging that I did not want to burden it with first person, thus making the reader so involved in sympathy that the poem loses its effectiveness as a crafted work. I did not change the approach because I think first person poetry is too personal and thus not inclusive of the universal reader. I changed it to protect the poem's own integrity. There has been a trend in recent times to eliminate the "I" and make the poem not so self-conscious, so self-effacing, or so exclusive. Bah to that. I believe that a well-written first person poem can stand on its own, does not have to be homogenized for the sake of SEEMING less confessional. However, when it comes to sensitive material, there often is a dilemma. How much should one expose? The sky's the limit there I believe. It is, for me, a matter of HOW to expose sensitive material. If I write a poem about maternal cruelty for example, most readers will assume I am either writing about my mother or myself. I may or may not be doing that at all. That judgement is out of my control entirely. I cannot give out disclaimers or add footnotes to poems in order to protect my mother or me. I know it is going to happen that readers will judge the poem's etiology. What I can do is to veil the first person by using third person, or by creating a persona (a pseudonym) for the speaker of the poem. As long as the person of the poem has an authentic voice and a deep involvement in the narrative, that ought to suffice. When I do author talks, I do make some kind of statement about the person of poems. I try to educate readers to see beyond their own need to identify with the poet. Works? Sometimes. Not always. This is because readers WANT to be involved with the poems and the poet. OK, fair enough.

Understand that sometimes a poet will also veil names of characters in poems to protect those people who are dear  and still living. Often those poems that might offend are withheld from submitting for the same reason, sent out after the demise of the character in question. But the fact is that when we write narrative poetry there are PEOPLE in our poems. Those real people will see themselves and react. It is true also that other people will THINK they are in the poems and react. Oftentimes a person is a minor character in a poem that is about so much more than her or him, and the reaction will happen there too. A good example is a poem in my first book Daughter of the Ardennes Forest, a verse memoir about my father's WWII experience and his resultant PTSD. In the collection is a poem, We Blame Our Dysfunction on Hitler. My sister is mentioned early in the poem as an anchor to the greater idea of not blaming our dad for his outbreaks of anger or depression. She read the poem and got very defensive. She was pretty mad at me for talking about her smoking and mentioning she went to counseling. Oh dear. My brother-in-law told her, "It's not ABOUT you," and she read the poem again and discovered the real thrust of the poem: Dad. I thought long and hard about the poem and using her as part of the narrative. Could I have somehow omitted her? I decided that I had to write it exactly as I did write it. I am satisfied that I did the job of telling that part of Dad's story in a truthful and sensitive way. And was I throwing my father under the bus by telling of his suffering and the suffering he caused as a result? No, I don't believe so. I wrote the poems to absolve and forgive him.

It's a fact that people are going to look at narrative poetry in a certain light, through their own experiences of the poems. Some will be able to filter out the personal or filter in the personal as the poet intends. Some simply will go to a place of connection that does not exist for the poet. One cannot fix or help this. It is important to keep writing, keep telling the stories and exposing truths.

I add the Hitler poem here so you can judge for yourselves if my sister ought to have been annoyed.

We Blame Our Dysfunction on Hitler

My sister chain smokes, blames
our parents
for her unhappy childhood.

I marry the wrong man,
a military man who cheats on me,
beats down my self-esteem,
says he hates me, and blames me
for getting myself pregnant.

Back in the hospital,
trying to smoke out her depression,
my sister coughs up
a new idea
suggested by Dr. Whoever:
"Blame your dysfunction on Hitler."

Well, you can stop smoking, Diane.
I've gotten my life back,
and Hitler is rotting in the grave.
We can blame him and forgive
Daddy for using the gun belt
to spank us, for sending us to bed
without supper
like the nights in the POW camp
when he went to bed without a crust
of black bread in his belly.

We can blame hitler
for our dysfunction
and take Daddy off the hook
for some parts of childhood
we'd just as soon forget.

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