Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Public & Private

I've been too much "in my own head" lately as a very dear old friend pointed out to me yesterday.  These days I've wondered quite a bit about the "personal" or "private" circumstances that seemed to compel my writing The Spring Ghazals.  I think of these things, & I think about how these things aren't really "private" any longer, not simply thru the publication of the book—tho that fact certainly complicates the questions I've had—but also thru this blog & other avenues of promoting The Spring Ghazals.  These considerations, still unanswered in my own mind, have led me to create some questions for you, dear readers.  I'm hoping your answers may bring me some clarity:

  • How do you—as fellow writers—deal with writing about life experiences that involve other people, especially people with whom you’re no longer in touch?
  • Are you ever concerned about “private/interior” realities being made public, whether the writing appears on a blog or in a book or is simply circulated amongst friends?
  • Are there ways that you attempt to censor yourself—either consciously or unwittingly—when writing about severe emotional states?
  • Do you think that “confessional poetry”—using the term more loosely than the standard definition—is potentially therapeutic, or does it, as Plato said, only “water the passions?”
  • If you do or ever had, engaged in “confessional” writing (using this broad term, where “confessional” means something like dealing with intense emotional states or circumstances) are you conscious of constructing personae for either the “I” or other “characters” that distances them from actual persons, or do you tend to take a more “head-on” approach?
  • Do you believe this type of “confessional” writing is exploitative, either of the writer’s own self or the selves of those she/he is writing about?
  • For those of you who have read all or part of The Spring Ghazals: were there points at which this private/public interface seemed uncomfortable, or did the poems have enough of an appeal beyond the specific circumstances of their composition.
  • In the case of a “confessional poetry” where there is a broad appeal, what do you think creates the broad appeal?  In the case of a “confessional poetry” where you get more of a sense of “exhibitionism,” what is lacking?

These are some things on my mind, & I’d love to hear from readers on as many or few of these topics as interest them!

Pic shows my study in Charlottesville, VA in 1986


  1. "For those of you who have read all or part of The Spring Ghazals: were there points at which this private/public interface seemed uncomfortable, or did the poems have enough of an appeal beyond the specific circumstances of their composition."

    I think "The Spring Ghazals" really did have appeal beyond the specific, and private circumstances of their origins. To some extent, such poetry requires "opening up a vein" so to speak if only in order to keep them from seeming like generic experiences and generic language.

    As regards to the other points of your post, I think the upshot is that all writers take from life, whether their own or from the lives of others. That is a given. However, the degree to which one morphs mismatched shards of reality from various sources of knowledge or personal experiences is unique to each of us.

    I find I censor myself quite a bit to avoid exploiting the experiences of others which do not belong to me; or my own experiences which I do not care to share; or, most often (and in a boring sense, I suppose), because of a background in journalism which maintains that the writer is not the story. The writer is only the teller of the story.

    But then, I do not write poetry, which requires different sensibilities.

    This is an interesting discussion, but I worry about you doubting yourself too much. You have a gift. You use it well and to the best of your ability. There is nothing else.

  2. Hi Jacqueline: Thanks so much for entering the discussion. It's interesting to consider the difference between journalistic writing & the writing involved in lyric poetry--I've done some of both--obviously a lot more poetry--but yes, there is an attempt to erase the "I" in journalism, while in lyric poetry, the "I," even as a persona, is almost everything. & thanks for your kind words at the end. I've been absolutely racked with self doubt lately--your words help.

  3. Sorry I'm coming so late to the discussion, but here's my two cents:

    I agree with Jacqueline that your poems have value beyond the experiences that inspired them. They now live as their own works of art, separate from the memories.

    I was always taught in graduate school to treat the "I" in lyric poetry as the narrator, rather than assuming that it's the poet. It can be kind of an arbitrary distinction, but I think an important one for both readers and writers to remember.

    To me, the poem is a representation of an experience, but it is very separate from the truth of our lives.Whenever we craft a poem from a memory, we are changing the experience. We are adding a layer of artifice and description that didn't happen in the real experience. The reader changes it again, in his or her mind, through the interpretation of our artifice. Together, we're creating a new experience that isn't 100% truthful to the inspiration. That being said, I do censor myself a lot. I am a very private person and an educator to boot, so I am very intentional about what I put out in the world and how it represents me and any institutions that I may belong to.

    A lot of the poems in my MS are confessional and related to my upbringing and my relationship with my mom. When I finished a draft, in preparation for my thesis, my mother read the MS. She told me that she chose to read it as though it were fiction and I was describing a character. Of course, we never actually talked about the experiences that inspired the poems. :)

    I hope that this helps!

  4. Hi Jessica: Sounds like you & I were in the same grad school class! I certainly am aware of the concept of the lyric "I" being a persona, & there are certainly ways where that is a valid way to read The Spring Ghazals. It may or may not be worthwhile to consider that lit crit hasn't always taken that position on the lyric "I"--in the 19th century the persona idea was much less stressed by critics. In some way, the amount of stress laid on the persona idea since the rise of Modernism is probably a corrective of 19th century tendancies.

    & then too, the writer is also a reader of his/her own work. The writer distances himself from or identifies herself with the lyric I for any number of reasons, just as another reader will take the "I" sometimes as an alien presence & sometimes will enter into a close identification.

    As I suggested in an earlier post, it is hard for me I believe, both as the writer of the poems & also as the person who underwent certain experiences that informed the poems, to let go of those identifications, despite the fact that I'm intellectually/logically aware of the constructedness of narrator, etc.

    That's interesting about your poetry & your mom. When my poetry took a darker turn in the 90s (poems now in The Days of Wine & Roses) I simply stopped sharing them because I felt it would be too hard on my mother--my father never had much interest, truth be told. & that has continued to this day. My mother wouldn't understand the circumstances that led to the composition of The Spring Ghazals, & they would undoubtably upset her. But on a more positive note, the more I hear about Blameless Mouth, the more anxious I am to read it!

    Your comments are always welcome, no matter what the time frame.