Josh and I got into our first heated debate of the trip today. Not a fight—since it was approached in a largely intellectual manner—but certainly it was a passionate discussion containing several points on which we vehemently disagreed.
Here’s how the story goes:
We left Marfa behind us (sadly, determined to get back there someday, and soon), and began the seven(ish)-hour drive to Austin. Josh and I love each other dearly and find each other infinitely fascinating, but after four days of nonstop togetherness we were definitely ready for a conversational lull. Today, we spent much of the drive listening to podcasts of NPR’s This American Life. (Which are so damn good, by the way, so if you ever have a long car or plane trip, think about downloading some. Yay Ira Glass!)
Somewhere around the time the landscape transformed from desolate desert and mountain to a greener, hillier central Texas, we were between podcasts and Josh brought up an interesting point. “You love This American Life because of the stories,” he said. “But your poetry isn’t particularly narrative.” And thus started our long, meandering conversation about the nature of storytelling in poetry.
And This American Life actually fed into it all perfectly. On one episode, we learn about a 52-year-old man (Jerry) who’s exhaustively listed his every daily activity since he was 10-years-old. From the interview, it seemed likely that he was autistic, or in some way challenged, but that wasn’t the focus of the piece. After detailing how his friends and family thought the lists were insane, how they mocked him and/or tried to talk him out of doing it, the reporter eventually wrapped it up with his own opinion, which was that Jerry did it so he could feel like he’s done something with his life. In other words, it was his way of telling his life story.
Which led Josh and I to discuss autobiography and (because semantics came up a lot in this conversation) the use of autobiographical material in writing. As a poet who recently decided to try her hand at fiction in a dedicated way, I’ve found that I’m much more comfortable (and excited) about writing wholly fictional stories than I am writing poems that have no specific link to my own experiences and viewpoints. My process of poetry writing is totally different than for writing fiction; for each, I’m using my imagination in a completely different way. When I write fiction, I’m imagining myself in someone’s life, and I’m trying to become the megaphone for some (fictional) other person’s voice. Of course, everything I write is informed by my opinions, politics, history, even gender, race and culture. The point is, though, I’m making up a life I haven’t lived and becoming a person I’m not.
In poetry, I don’t do this actively. Certainly my poetry isn’t all (nor even mostly) true, if there’s such thing as truth in art. But much of what I write about is based in actual experiences I’ve had and sights I’ve seen. They’re not all me (and, as Josh pointed out, the very common assumption that the speaker is the poet is generally a dangerous one), but to write my poetry I tend to mine my life story for material. So I feel that those particular pieces of material are autobiographical, though a reader shouldn’t necessarily assume that by rote.
Josh’s issue here seemed to be twofold. On one hand, he thought that I was being pejorative, valuing writing that was wholly fictional (or, specifically, that didn’t utilize actual events from a person’s life) somewhat more highly than writing that used one’s own life experiences. Like I thought there was some lack of imagination present when a person used his or/her own story as a basis for a poem. (And, understand, we’re not talking about confessional poetry here, but poems in which the writer, upon writing the poem, is using his or her own voice.)
But his objection wasn’t true at all. I think there’s good poetry of both sorts, and it takes equal imagination to take something one sees and apply it outward, transform it, make it universal and beautiful as it does to make up a person or an experience. Sometimes, in fact (and as I’m learning as a fiction writer), embodying other people’s voices makes the work more flat, more cliché, and less passionate. So the objection that I find poetry begat by personal experience less interesting doesn’t really hold water.
The second problem is more complicated, though. Josh believes that, on the reader’s end, assuming the poetry is autobiographical also assumes that the poet has some obligation to or contract with “the truth.” Because he sometimes writes about things he sees or does, then transforms them utterly, he doesn’t like the idea of a reader believing the content of the poem in any way equals the content of his life.
Which I agree with, actually. All the reader can do is decide if he/she enjoys the work or not…anything else (unless the author goes on public record one way or another) is just a guess, or hearsay. The poems I write about me aren’t wholly me, but an aspect of myself. A persona, of sorts, and, if embodying my voice, only representing it at that particular moment and in that particular circumstance and mood. Which isn’t the truth, if, again, there is such a thing.
Another This American Life story that informed our conversation actually had nothing to do with writing, but was about art (harkening back to yesterday’s post.) These two artists conducted polls in several countries to find out what people most wanted to see in visual art. The first poll, of Americans, found that people most liked to see landscapes, groups of people, and the color blue. “Stupid Americans,” these Eastern European artists thought, as they painted family scenes on or near pretty blue seas. However, when they started polling people in other countries, they found that people in every single country they collected data from except ONE all wanted that same thing.
The black sheep? Holland. Those folks liked abstract art better. When the reporter on the radio program inquired why that might be, the artist demurred, saying he wasn’t a philosopher. But maybe, he opined, it’s because they live in a beautiful country already, with beautiful blue landscapes and not much unrest, so they were just bored of the same pretty thing.
Yes, yes, I know: where does this all fit in? Fear not…I have a point! Josh mentioned (more than once) that saying a poet writes autobiographically also implies that the work is limited in scope. But more subtly, I think that perhaps the oblique insult Josh imagined was some idea that writing about oneself means that one is self-interested. That the “limited scope” I’m supposedly accusing poets of is really just an inability to care about things, stories, situations and ideas outside one’s own personal arena. Just like Americans, and citizens of the other 12 countries the artists polled, who just want to see a pretty thing on canvas….a pretty thing we’re all familiar with, or want to be familiar with.
Because, well, aren’t the people of Holland the cool ones in this story? The interesting ones? For wanting something new and exciting and not as invested in their own little lives?
But honestly? Not really. I don’t think so, anyway. Because I love realism and I love abstract art, but I don’t judge a work by what category it’s in. I’d personally rather see a really kick-ass Eric Fischl painting than a lukewarm Mondrian one. On the other hand, I’d probably rather see an awesome Cy Twombley piece than yet another well-wrought Madonna and Child. Cool or otherwise, personal or fictional, it’s all about how good you are. No?
So, Josh and I were talking about the right way to end this post, and he thought I should consider whether (and how and in what context) this conversation matters. Instead, I’ve decided to go out on a limb and ask you, for your question of the day:
Does it matter whether artists get (some or all) of their material from personal experience?