Don’t make me say it

I spent most of last week writing a long poem about a lot of things but mainly grapefruits and my friend Aeryn. She wanted me to write it, and I wanted to write it, and when I was done writing it, she asked if she could post it to Instagram and I made a noise like ‘hnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnngnnnnnnnn’. I’m a very private person, which juxtaposes in the worst possible way with being a poet— sometimes I make poems vaguer before submitting them to workshop, sometimes I have to do the writing exercise of the week over again before I feel comfortable sharing it, sometimes I write poems about things and reread them, realizing that even in my head I can only talk about them by talking around them, never allowing things to come into focus. You get it. 

Is it ever really the role of the readers to know what a poem is about? Is that ever your business? I think not. I know that feels rude, and I do think it’s wonderful when poems are open about their meaning, freely accessible and available for others with similar experiences to relate to. I just prefer poems that are hyper-specific, with proper nouns and weird references. I want to write poems and have strangers read them and think that they are beautiful and weird and sad, and then I want my friends to read those poems and laugh and know who and what they are about. 

The expectations of openness are different for poetry than anything else (except creative non-fiction which is maybe almost worse). If I were a Physics major, I could simply share my physics homework and never worry about whether or not my classmate saw through it and into me, suddenly burdened with profound knowledge about what shapes me into a human. They would only know that I was terrible at math and probably should not be a physics major. There’s too much of myself in poetry, just right there in the open for anyone to see. Sometimes I get anxiety sweats the night before workshop, imagining someone asking me what the poem means, exactly. 

I let Aeryn post the poem, eventually, because I felt bad for denying her the opportunity to share it. Once I let her into the poem, it wasn’t really just mine anymore, and, to be fair, nothing bad happened. My mother did not erupt from the earth and shame me for bringing open emotions to our stoic Irish ancestors, no one informed me that my acceptance into the creative writing track was an elaborate prank, there were no locusts or rivers of blood. There was only me and Aeryn and a few hundred readers, suddenly burdened by intimate knowledge. Or maybe not.

2 Replies to “Don’t make me say it”

  1. There is a large amount of vulnerability involved in the creation of poetry, so the instinct to patch up anything that might hint at it is understandable. But I think there’s a lot to be said in giving our readers almost too much credit, rude as that sounds. There are poems that I have submitted to workshop that I thought were pretty blatant that evade the understanding of my readers for any variety of reasons. I wonder if it would help you to have some doubt in your reader’s ability to understand you; to submit a fully vulnerable poem?

  2. I feel like your poetry could absolutely keep a wall up and remain impersonal, there is no obligation to lay everything bare. But there absolutely is the misconflation between poetry being personal, and poetry about the uncomfortably personal- a poem could be about you, and not necessarily about something terrifying. But if it does, there is no obligation to explain it in the workshop, either. Even going beyond that, writing something completely esoteric and mysterious is entirely doable.

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