Space from autobiographical poems

Hey, so since it’s the end of the semester I should probably actually start posting. I’ve got a question for you guys: How do you handle poems about specific personal experiences? I’ve had a few ideas rattling around the back of my head for awhile now, and every time I try and put them down, it doesn’t feel like it does justice. I remember an old teacher telling me once that people should sit on their experiences before turning them into poems, since the writer will have more perspective and it isn’t quite as reactionary. There’s also the issue of poking old/still open wounds. How do people write about losing loved ones/bad break-ups/etc. without returning to emotional turmoil?

3 Replies to “Space from autobiographical poems”

  1. Hi Rachel,

    This may not be very helpful, but I am personally not good at heeding the writing rule of thumb that you bring up here (allowing distance between an event and writing about it) and so I am kind of going to advocate against it (to some degree, not entirely!) I think that emotional turmoil is, often, just a part of the territory when it comes to writing about personal trauma’s and tragedies, but I also think that emotional turmoil, while internally/personally a culmination of horrible feelings, can actually be a really amazing and important catalyst for some of our best and most touching poetry. Oftentimes I find myself to be the most inspired when I am experiencing or meditating on some kind of emotional turmoil. Emotional distress also tends to create a kind of singular focus or line of thought in my mind, so when I am inspired and in this state I just write, and worry about revision and editing later. It can just be cathartic in that moment to put something on a page, even if I end up never using it again.

    I also think that writing poetry about our own lives and traumas can actually be a way of ‘sitting on them’ as you said above. You can always turn to poetry as a way to try and make sense of an event in your life, and then spend some time away from that initial poem before coming back to it, or use it as a starting point in a series of revision that happens as you gain that distance from the event.

    For me, a good indicator that I am so emotionally invested in a poem that I am actually taking away from its meaning or complexity is when I can recognize something akin to ‘bitterness’ in the voice. In order to avoid this, it’s helpful to examine what you are ultimately communicating in the poem. One way to do this is to try and sum it up in a sentence or to and speak it out loud to yourself, which can lead to the realization that the poem is not communicating what you think it is or want it to be.

    Hope this helps!

  2. Hey Rachel,

    For me, the only way I can cope with something is writing about it. To me, it puts it in perspective. Unfortunately, I get the whole, ‘this isn’t doing this justice’ part. Everything I write just doesn’t seem to embody it the way I want or it doesn’t bring about the right feeling.

    So I say to just write. Write a poem, write a CNF piece, write a fiction piece about a character going through the same thing so you get that sense of disconnect if the wound is still fresh. Especially when it comes to poems, I know they often don’t do it justice. I’ve written like 5 poems on one experience alone and I think it’s important that I did even though I’m not incredibly happy with them. Sometimes the material is just too big. I’ve gotten into writing slumps where all I can write about is heartbreak and that wasn’t healthy. I think it’s necessary to get it out, but not to dwell on it.

    Good luck writing. I hope that you’re able to get something good from the suckiness of life.

  3. Hey Rachel,

    I agree with Christy. Writing about painful emotional experiences is definitely cathartic. Same as Christy and Marley, I write about personal experiences to process and understand what has happened. However, it is important to note that when I am writing about these past events, I am looking at them at a distance, and therefore I don’t descend into emotional turmoil because I am not reliving the experience.

    Similar to Marley, I have also written 3-4 poems on the same event, which I think you should try! Yes, write when you feel ready, yet writing about the same experience at different stages will produce several poems that capture different facets of a presumably complicated topic. Thus, I wouldn’t necessarily “sit on a poem” for the sake of it. Fresh wound poems are just as good as retrospective poems!

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