When I was an undergraduate with limitless energy and cranking out poems left and right for my workshop classes, all I wrote about was my family. There were poems about everything from my grandfather’s hands to the years he spent working in a field. Even the paisley print of one of my grandmother’s shirts made it into a poem. As did my brother, mother and father, even a certain rude classmate whose name or face I can no longer remember made an appearance as a giant rat.
Some of these poems, in spite of how poorly made they were, brought my mother to tears when she read them because there we were, our family, our struggles, on a piece of paper. It was a record, albeit a weak one, that we had lived and suffered and were still here.
Take all the records the government could use to prove someone’s existence (deeds, bills, social security card, pay stubs, etc.) and they would say little more than my family had lived on a certain street and used X number of watts of electricity to power our washer and microwave and the TV that once the day’s robberies and Reagan’s pearls of ignorance had been reported by news anchors and Johnny Carson had bid us goodnight, began broadcasting pure static snow all through the night until the morning brought the national anthem and our beautiful, waving flag. None of this ever made it into my poems back then because I was, in my ignorance, mining what I knew and being a third-rate Confessional.
Later, when I was a graduate student and I had run out of things to write about in my life, I tried slipping into the lives of others and liked it, so much so in fact, I never tried to put myself in a poem again, aside from the minor personal detail I might secretly slip in like my tendency to mumble or my awful memory, details no one would ever know unless I pointed them out. What’s more, I tried to hide these details in scenes that might be filled with Johnny Carson and images of patriotism sitting snugly beside a microwave dinner.
I was, to put it simply, trying to obliterate myself in my poetry so that I could make up stories about people and places and things that were far more interesting than I was, stories that might help a reader meet someone new or travel somewhere different. In Lord Jim, Conrad writes, “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Conrad had it easy, as do most writers of fiction, in that if a reader could be made “to see” something, she would most likely not think the character who spoke about writing and seeing was Conrad himself, just as no one I know has ever mistaken Huckleberry Finn for Twain or Gatsby for Fitzgerald.
And yet, it is our burden as poets is it not, to be confused for our speakers, even if they be of a different age or gender or species, all of which was the subject of conversation while my family and I passed turkey and dressing and peach wine during Thanksgiving. Try as I might, I could not convince them that the book I had written and whose poems they had carefully read—a thousand blessings on their heads for that—was not written by a 200 year old half man/half bear who had moonlighted as a soldier, a prisoner of war, a Soviet scientist, a preacher, and countless other things.
Having to choose between thinking that I could spin a really good yarn or that I was a centuries-old hybrid creature living among them, they happily picked the latter, a choice which delights me to no end because it is just one more of a thousand masks I am happy to accept and wear and for which I will always gladly give thanks.