I am reading Mindy Kaling's hilarious & engaging essay collection, Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? I bought it a couple of weeks ago when I attended the Young Women's Conference at Brentwood School. Reading it has made me wonder if I would ever have the guts to write a memoir. She makes it seem like so much fun. But then again, she's M.K., a popular celebrity with a television series, which makes reading about her life an entertaining jaunt. And despite her humorous asides and quirky observations, I'm guessing the facts of her life as she shares them are generally true.
If I wanted to write my life's chapters in prose, I would want to do it after I've spent some more time in the surreal world of poetry, where it's acceptable to bend the truth. I'd also need to develop thicker skin. Some would argue that poems are similar to memoir, are equally confessional. I think poetry has often been read this way. But reading poetry only this way might be limited and less creative. Many poems are fictional in a sense. In my poems, for instance, the voice is my own, the sentiment true, but the content may be exaggerated or invented. The content is the conduit for expressing a feeling. Sometimes it's a product of my conscious mind, and sometimes it's a product of my subconscious. I've written poems in the voice of a sociopathic killer and a Buddhist monk. As a detective, trapeze artist, and a misplaced slipper. This is because poetry, the way I experience it, lives in the realm of dream consciousness.
Dreams, like poems, spring in part from the subconscious mind--are both real and imagined. They are mysterious. This is the kind of world I try to create in my own poems...a world where reality is invented and re-discovered, even when I'm recounting a story I actually experienced. I may change the details if it serves the poem. I may invent plot twists if it helps make a poem more luminous or strange. Like a storyteller, I want to seduce the reader, and seduction requires a bit of fantasy. Sometimes I get asked, so is that poem about you? Did you really find a crocodile under your bed? Did you really get angry at your friend because she forgot your birthday? I understand the question. A lot people associate poetry with personal sentiment. But poetry, as art, is about more than that. My first poetry chapbook was subtitled "memoir", by which I meant a memoir of sentiment, experience, & imagination. So when I get asked about the factual basis of my poems I want to say: "The point is, did the poem move, entice, or entertain you?" It would really help to know.
Poets are more similar to fiction writers than we think. We tell stories. Sometimes absurd ones. And because we choose to do so in a form that is associated with memoir, our poems are often read as personal confession. But that's not always the case. The details come from our lives, our observations, and our imaginations. Sometimes they are "real" in the autobiographical sense, just as they are in fiction. We are really fabulists, pursuing the narrative impulse in photographs & fragments rather than a plumpified plot. So I would, if I could, make this my too long bumper sticker: Read poems like a form of imagining, as a journey into a poet's mind, not necessarily as a factual disclosure of her experience in real time.