We tell ourselves stories in order to live.Â The princess is caged in the consulate.Â The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea.Â The naked woman on the ledge outside the window on the sixteenth floor is a victim of accidie, or the naked woman is an exhibitionist, and it would be “interesting” to know which.
Joan Didion – The White Album
I used to write persona poems fairly frequently, back when I was in my late teens and early twenties and everyone’s life seemed interesting but mine. Now that I am in my forties, I don’t really have the desire to write poems in character. There are too many things that have happened to me. Nothing imaginary that I come up with rings as true as my own. It is easier in fiction than in poetry In fiction the length of the form allows me to develop a whole world for my character’s to reside in. Fiction is meant to be a beautiful lie. For me poetry is more personal than that. I want my poetry to reflect my life and my thoughts, so I no longer feel the urge to write the persona poems that I once wrote.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t tell stories. It also doesn’t mean that every word I write is true. I have tremendous sympathy for James Frey and his somewhat fictional autobiography. I don’t think that anyone can write a completely true autobiography. The mind doesn’t work like that. It fills in the blanks. It remembers things the way it wants to. I am absolutely positive that some of the key events in my life seem completely different to the other people involved. Everyone has a perspective and no one has all the information.
As a storyteller, I am perfectly happy to combine two different events in my life into one. If they live together in my mind, they should be allowed to live together on the page. The truth of the story is not necessarily the facts of the event, especially in the world of poetry. We are given poetic license for a reason. To me, poetry is about interpretation and distillation. In poetry, you strip away the things that don’t matter and you say what has the most importance, especially if you choose to write about yourself. That means that, sometimes, you don’t explain that there were four good reasons why you showed up late to the party, you just stick to the one that matters in the poem — unless your poem is about the four reasons.
I don’t encourage people to tell outright lies about themselves, even in poetry. If you are going to do it, though, be upfront about it. Tell the most apparent and glorious lie you can tell. Commit to the lie. Otherwise, make do with the truth.
Today’s Poetry Prompt
Write about the first time you did something.