My poetic style is what is commonly referred to as confessional, although, I prefer the term testimonial. I have been writing since I was six years old as a way to purge and replenish myself. Until very recently, I had not tried to publish my testimonial, long form, free verse. Why have I waited so long to begin to try and publish? There are a few reasons. One major deterrent always centers and circles back to the question, “who will I upset?” My work is deeply personal – often fueled by my family, the world around me, and my experiences as daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. Who will I offend? Perhaps everyone I have ever come in contact with.
A few years back a relative of mine published a thinly veiled cookbook/memoir exposing our whole family to scrutiny between recipes. The book offered a bitter feast. I, personally, was happy for the return policy at the store where I ordered the book and promptly sent it back. Suddenly, family members began contacting me. They were beset, upset, and angry by what had been written. They felt betrayed. They had welcomed this person into their homes and lives. They shared family stories not completely understanding the tone with which these stories would be used.
This was not the first time I wondered how my family would feel if I actually tried to publish my work, but hearing their rage did make me start to think about the question more concretely. As a confessional or testimonial poet, when is it time to publish? When everyone you speak of is long dead? The problem is probably best described for me by Galway Kinnell in his poem, “It All Comes Back” in which he asks his son for permission to publish a poem about him as a child:
“…Let him decide. Here are the three choices.
He can scratch his slapdash check mark,
which makes me think of the rakish hook
of his old high school hockey stick,
in whichever box applies:
- Tear it up.
- Don't publish it but give me a copy.
- OK, publish it, on the chance that somewhere someone survives of all those said to
die miserably every day for lack of the small clarifications sometimes found in poems.”
How will they take it? What box would they check off? Would my son, so near now to fifteen that everything his father and I say and do is an embarrassment, even if it is just a passing hello to the checkout person at the grocery store, be flattered by my yearly poem honoring his growth? Doubtful. He twisted his ankle last week trying desperately to get out of the car and into school before my husband could even utter his usual morning drop off farewell of, “Goodbye, have a nice day. I love you.” Would my son embrace or find disgrace in the writing of my poems for anyone to see that expose his foibles and curiosity? Will my husband cringe at the idea of our twenty-three-year-old marriage being exposed? From oxytocin-induced ranting love poems to the mundane dose of daily that becomes a long-term committed marriage? My sister, wounded and constantly and consistently reopening her own wounds; would she turn against me? My mother long dead, would she fly through the ether and set the air to fire at my giving over of the family secrets? How can one know?
I have kept my words locked away for so long that I have a catalog of nearly eight hundred poems spanning over three decades. I have only presented my truly personal work in the safe spaces of workshops. My less personal work has been performed on various stages. Where my poetry has been read by women performers, making it easy enough to sit in the back row and just enjoy watching my poetry being read by a dancer/performer who hears the music in my lines and is able to express it to an audience. In 2014 I exhibited a piece of mixed media work at the New York City, Piq Gallery in Grand Central Station. The show was called “Grand Slam” and exhibited a mix of old school graffiti artists with modern pop artists who customized scale trains as canvases. I was honored to have my piece be part of the show. The main component of my train was my poem, “Subway Songs.” The night of the show I stood far away as I watched people read and respond to it. I was extremely excited when my piece was sold. I even considered not cashing the check, until, I realized I could just take a picture of the check to deposit it. I keep that check as a reminder – a bright badge of bravery.
My second issue I have long hated the word submit. To submit, submission - it all sounds on your knees, bow before me, let me judge what you say. A quick online etymologic search of the word submission produces this definition:
late 14c., "act of referring to a third party for judgment or decision," from Old French submission or directly from Latin submissionem (nominative submissio) "a lowering, letting down; sinking," noun of action from past participle stem of submittere "to let down, put down, lower, reduce, yield" (see submit).
Sense of "humble obedience" is first recorded mid-15c. Modern French submission has been replaced by doublet soumission. English in 16c.-17c. also had an adjective submiss "humble, submissive." Submissionist in various political historical contexts is from 1828.
Poetry is not this for me. I realize this is not the thing most poets consider when they hit the submit button, or lick the now rare envelope, awaiting a reply. Poetry for me is observation, healing, pictures painted with words. Poetry is what has to happen. It’s not a choice. I see something, write a quick line, come back to it, let it go, and come back again hone the words. It was only this summer that I first submitted four poems to a journal. The journal I chose had the benefit of a seven-month response time. Enough time for me to adjust to the fact, and even forget, that I had submitted.
The third, very real, and truest of all these truths is the idea of facing rejection. When work is extremely personal, a true reflection of self, then if it is rejected – as it will certainly be at times – when I do choose to move forward and submit – I used to feel this rejection would be a personal rejection. Not only have you submitted to us but we don’t like you or what you have to say. I am fifty now. As I neared, fifty things became different for me. It took a long time to get here, but honestly, so what if I get rejected? Onward. I am not so caught up in myself as I was in my mid-twenties. When I was at the New York State Summer Writers Institute in the late eighties, Richard Howard told me mine was important woman’s work, and I should get it out there.
Important women’s work, I was too young to understand he did not mean cooking or sewing. I now think he meant what happens in the rare times that I do share my work with other women. Some of them thank me for giving voice to feelings they have had but have never been able to express. This is the closest I have come to a religious moment, when my words have helped heal another. Richard Howard may long have forgotten the hour he spent with me, but it is an hour that rings my ears now and propels me forward. “Important women’s work.” I’ll take it, as the praise I now believe it was meant to be and move forward past rejection, past family anger, towards whatever awaits me even if that means submitting.
Galway Kinnell’s, Strong Is Your Hold can be purchased at http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/strong-is-your--galway-kinnell/1116855082?ean=9780544630932, or http://www.indiebound.org/search/book?searchfor=strong+is+your+hold, or visit your local bookstore.