In my workshop, I often use a prompt where I pass out blank index cards and ask my students to--as quickly as possible--write down one of their secrets. The secret can be mundane (I talk in my sleep or I broke a vase and blamed the cat) or intimately shocking (I cheated on my boyfriend with his cousin; I steal money from the cash register at work); it doesn’t matter. It just has to be something that most other people in their lives wouldn’t know. I also suggest they try to disguise their handwriting so that all the secrets look as if they could belong to anyone.
After I collect the cards, I shuffle and redistribute them so that every student holds someone else’s secret. It’s always possible--chance being a trickster spirit--that a student’s own secret returns, trailing him or her like a cat stalking the hapless rabbit, texts from a lover who can’t fully believe things are over, the eternal recurrence of the blood stain on Lady Macbeth’s hand. So this doesn’t derail things, I tell them if you draw your own secret, pretend it’s not yours; follow the next step the same way you would if the secret you have belonged to a classmate. The only rule for the second part of the prompt is that no one is allowed to speculate about origins--who in the room the secret they’re writing about first belonged to. Other than that, they can write whatever they want: a persona poem confessing the secret as their own, a narrative poem describing the situation, a pantoum incorporating the secret as one line in its intricately woven pattern, anything.
Now I’ll confess one of my secrets: I stole the prompt. One of my students was given this exercise in a different class and then mentioned it in passing in my workshop--I’ve used it every semester since. To Christina Castro (the messenger) and Major Jackson (il primo fabbro), a tip of my hat and a resounding thank you.
This assignment is usually a class favorite--perhaps because of its mixture of narcissism and mystery, the way the students’ balance of interest keeps shifting back and forth between who has my secret and how are they writing it and whose secret do I have. I think it also plays into a particularly modern love for simultaneous self-disclosure and concealment--the same impulse that leads to Internet chatrooms where our avatars type out desires and regrets we might never dare admit to our loved ones or therapists; phone apps like Secret that allow you to contribute anonymous confessions to a newsfeed your contact list can idly scroll through as they ride the bus or wait in line to buy groceries; and Postsecret, a website and book series compiled from confessions scrawled on postcards and mailed to the site’s founder who posts a new selection of secrets each Sunday. I’m fascinated by these Internet confessionals where people articulate their deepest most vulnerable truths and yet still remain strangers, both known and unknown at the same time. I fall a little bit in love with almost everyone whose secrets I read because secrets are the gates we walk through as we become intimate with others: in the early stages of attraction, we want to learn everything about the enticing new stranger--to discover the locked box of each of their secrets and open it--and later we love them because we know them, because they have given us their mysteries to hold.
I feel compelled to make a sweeping generalization about poetry: I think the best of it requires secrets. Some poems seem to have secrets hidden beneath the words, while others appear eager to reveal them, the “I” shedding personal disclosures as rapidly as new lovers do their clothes. Many of the writers whose work I’m drawn to the most these days give the illusion of doing both--of concealing and revealing simultaneously--as with the famous opening to John Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”: “...as though to protect / What it advertises.” Here I would also mention Mary Ruefle, Graham Foust, Erin Belieu, Simone Muench, Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, David Dodd Lee, and Anne Carson among others.
Lately, I find I’m a Goldilocks of sorts--wanting poems that neither give away too much (the porridge too hot) nor too little (the porridge too cold). What I need is a tease of meaning, a poem with enough clarity of intent to initially draw my interest--be it through the stained-glass-shard of an image or a compelling voice--and enough mystery and elusiveness to keep me coming back, reading and rereading the work, never entirely sure I can rest in the certainty of perfect and complete understanding.