“You do not do, you do not do…,” says Ms. Sylvia Plath, one of the first aptly titled Confessional poets, in her poem “Daddy”. Now over 50 years later, the child of Sylvia and her brethren of poets (i.e. Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell), I am struggling with a Confessional dilemma. In most cases, it’s a sure bet that if I write a poem, it’s probably about me or someone I know and the poem is true to a fault. If I said the man was wearing a jade colored wool coat when he pushed me in the gutter, guess what, he was wearing a green coat and the gutter smelled. Recently I’ve been trying to push past my inclination to confess and instead tried to move outside the realm of my actual reality and write about experiences that haven’t happened to me. But a funny thing happened on the way to that market:
Last quarter, when I competed against my students that I teach at NC High School in a slam competition, I told them after I’d performed (but before they scored it), that the poem about a girl whose mother had breast cancer was not actually about me. I thought I was clearing myself of getting “sympathy points” and I wanted to be judged by my poem and the performance. This was a miscalculation. The students were at first disbelieving. How could I write such a convincing piece without having experienced it? This made me pat myself on the back. But then the reaction turned again. How could I lie to them? Not only did they give me a very low score but they all agreed that they felt cheated and that I had played on their emotions. Is this true? Yes, I’d told them that my poetry was usually based on personal experience but have I painted myself into a corner? Can a self proclaimed confessional poet write outside the confession box? And if so, what’s the price?
I am often envious of my fiction and non-fiction classmates here at EWU because the world they write about seems so much clearer. The fiction MFA’ers are allowed to create whatever truth, whatever meaning they want, to tell a story. On the other side, here at Eastern, value is placed on the facts in Non-fiction and a story has power because it’s true. And then there’s poetry, stuck in the middle, with the ability to choose truth or create truth but bound by the rules of the other two genres. Here’s a small example:
“He says love is never given freely
while one of his hands presses lopsided circles
into the flesh of my upper thigh. He says
love comes with promises and obligations…”
This line is from my poem “Pillow Talks”. This line is not true. It’s not true because what he actually said was more crude and less poetic, something along the lines of “I just want to (enter expletive here) but we can be friends.” But what I heard was the line above. Oh dear. But I do have an inkling of insight into my own questioning: Honesty is the best policy when it has more power than anything created, when knowing the truth is profound because it’s true. But where does that leave me as a confessional poet, except constantly questioning if a lie, prettied up in a metaphor, is better than the truth?