I write in both genres, and have often wondered what impels me toward each type of expression. Time lapse is one element that seems to convince me that a subject should find its place in a poem: if a specific, momentary observation moves me, that seems less appropriate to a memoir-style essay, and more appropriate to a lyric poem that can make use of what poet Kate Light has called the “imploded image.” Even then, though, seepage occurs. For example, I recently worked on both a poem and a lyric essay using one of those momentary observations: a young cardinal leaping from the nest for the first time. This fledgling image is one that’s very easy to treat in a hackneyed manner, and maybe my search for a fresh take on this moment is what led me to try both genres. Last month, after many, many revisions, I submitted each piece for publication in different journals. We’ll see what happens.
In addition to a thematic crossover between poetry and memoir, for me there’s also crossover between revision concerns. My new memoir project focuses on a series of essays about reuniting with my birth family. Most of the essays I’m working with have been published, but I need some narrative threads to hold them together in a single story. I’ve also written many elegies for family members who’ve died in the past few years. I’d love to put these together in a chapbook or book-length collection, but there again, I need some sort of thread beyond the subject matter to bring them together into a cohesive manuscript.
The family members I write about in the elegies are also the subjects of some of the essays. In most cases, my elegies for them came before the essays. Poetry has always been a way for me to make sense of experience, and it’s possible that writing the elegies allowed me to process some of my intense emotional reactions to meeting my family for the first time as an adult, and then losing people I’d loved. The imagery and language from those poems rarely gets recycled into the essays, but I know that writing the poems has helped me to sort out my emotions and my relationships.
In poems, I feel free to invent. The only “truth” I feel obligated to in the poem is emotional truth. Twenty years ago, I wrote a long poem about my experience with intimate partner violence. In the poem, I wove images into the narrative without regard to whether the images (broken ice on the Kennebec River, eagles and ravens circling each other above a mountain peak) were ones I observed during the year I suffered the violence. But for me, writing nonfiction requires a different ethic. In Walk Away, my memoir about surviving that violence, I needed – and wanted – to be true to the facts as I remembered them.
Art is selection and framing of experience, not the moment-by-moment, blow-by-blow flow of everyday life. I select facts and scenes to include in my memoir pieces, but I don’t feel free to make things up as I do in my poems. I don’t kid myself that memoir is the objective truth; it’s a selection of truth. For that reason, my voice in Walk Away is not me – it’s a persona version of me, the older-and-hopefully-wiser version of the abused teenager I once was.
Self-revelation, whether in memoir or poetry, can be risky. For some poets, the voice of the poem is their own voice. Molly Peacock, who’s published widely as both a poet and memoirist, has said “I am the ‘I’ in my poems.” For other poets, a distinct persona provides a buffer between the actual self and the self of the poem. Other elements of craft may act as a mediator between the self and the poem. Consider these lines from Plath’s poem “Lady Lazarus,” which are explicitly about self-revelation.
The peanut-crunching crowd
Shoves in to see
Them unwrap me hand and foot—
The big strip tease.
These are my hands
I may be skin and bone,
Nevertheless, I am the same, identical woman.
I love the tasty, right-in-your mouth image of “the peanut-crunching crowd,” how Plath manipulates point of view to make the poem’s speaker both actor and object, both ringmaster and circus act. The rhyme between “tease” and “knees” is unexpected and satisfying, especially after the not-quite rhyme (blame the metrical disparity) of “tease” and “ladies.” So much is going on artistically in these lines that we accept the speaker’s boasts of being able to rise again and again, always “the same, identical woman.” The speaker is clearly not Plath herself – none of us rise from the dead – although Plath’s experience of suicide attempts may have inspired the poem’s conception.
We all draw from personal experience in writing poetry, no matter if we write in confessional modes, or in styles more like imagism or language poetry. Our own minds, the words and landscapes we know, the experiences we’ve had, are inescapable. If it’s impossible to extinguish the self, do all poems contain a hint of memoir? And if we aim to create beautiful, resonant language in our memoir stories, don’t these stories need at least a hint of poetry? I’d answer “yes” to both questions. In fact, I think poets are uniquely qualified as memoirists because of the close attention to language and selection that poetry demands.
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A poet and memoirist, Michele Leavitt is also a high school drop-out, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney. In 2016, her poems appeared in North American Review, concīs, and Hermeneutic Chaos. Her essays appear most recently in Narratively, Catapult, and Guernica. Michele is the author of the poetry collection Back East (Moon Pie Press) and the memoir Walk Away. More at www.michelejleavitt.com.
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