|Linsday Rogers, cermaicist, painting a mug with some donated words from a poet at Pentaculum, the residency I attended at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in January.|
The problem is we think we exist. We think our words are permanent and solid and stamp us forever. That’s not true. We write in the moment. Sometimes when I read poems at a reading to strangers, I realize they think those poems are me. They are not me, even if I speak in the “I” person. They were my thoughts and my hand and the space and the emotions at that time of writing. Watch yourself. Every minute we change. It is a great opportunity. At any point, we can step out of our frozen selves and our ideas and begin fresh. That is how writing is. Instead of freezing us, it frees us.
-Natalie Goldberg, "We Are Not the Poem" in Writing Down the Bones
The above quote is one of my favorites. I love it especially because so much of poetry is autobiographical - whether or not we use "I" in it.
A few years ago, I wrote a sestina about a young girl getting raped and having a child from the rape. It was an immediate poem and very powerful. When I put it in the third person, it felt too distant. I changed it to first person, and it was much stronger. Most of my friends and readers knew it wasn't me - for one, I don't have a kid. But the famous visiting poet at my residency *did* think it was me. I was a bit embarrassed to explain I had not overcome all the woman did in the poem to take a month off to write, and she was a bit embarrassed to fall for the belief that "I" in a poem = autobiographical. She applauded the power of the poem none the less.
I bring this up because it is rare to find memoir in verse form. It is rare to find any full length book in verse form, other than a poetry manuscript in which each of the poems are their own distinct pieces. But in my recent residency at Arrowmont in Tennessee, I was reminded by my fellow writers that a fair number of poetry manuscripts are unofficially memoirs.
There is great power in using lyrical writing to express personal stories. In fact, I am often reminded reading memoirs that lean more on the power of what happened (such as Fast Girl by Suzy Favor Hamilton, my current read), that memoir can be either narratively driven or language-driven. A work like Lydia Yuknavitch's Chronology of Water is a strong example of something more lyrical and language/image driven, while also containing a plot. Both talk about highly personal and controversial topics like sexuality and addiction, but Favor Hamilton does it in a direct way, and Yuknavitch does it more imagistically.
My tendency and preference is towards Yuknavitch over Favor Hamilton, but that's a matter of taste. However, reading Favor Hamilton's book has left me really craving memoir in poetic form. That is to say, not just memoir with strongly lyrical language, not just a poetry manuscript which is memoir-ish, but explicitly stated memoir books which use poetic forms, even if free verse.
So this is an area I will be exploring. I love these hybrid zones. Last night, talking with an old writing friend, he said he's been exploring novels written in poetic form - again, not just lyrical language, but verse form. I got very excited and geeked out, and reflected back my own curiosity about memoir and poetry. Perhaps it is a smaller gap - more naturally joined by this "I" - but one that is often not pointed to directly.
For the rest of you, those writing poetry and hoping to be vague enough about whether that "I" is me or not, lean into the ambiguity and find humanity, what is universal, in it. For those who feel their memoir writing it pinning down their sense of "I" too much (like Goldberg's description of the "I" in poems above), you can take a lot from poetry directly, and lyrical language indirectly.
Let's explore together, mindfully, these gaps and blends and crossovers. So much to learn from other forms, whether other writing genres or even potters, ceramicists, painters and dancers.