As poets we write about topics that matter to us. These topics might be anything: race horses, the nature of the divine, our lover’s hands, caterpillars, environmental degradation, or jazz trombone. And then there’s always that one huge, delicate, and potentially difficult topic: family.
How honest can we be in poems about a member of our own immediate family? Will that person be upset? Will he or she hate us? Never speak to us again? Our imaginations create the worst.
My advice is, of course, to go ahead and write those poems. You can always choose to not share or publish them. Or else you can take the risk. One of my early books—published before I had come to any kind of peace about my childhood—contains poems about my mother being mean to me. I was nervous about showing the book to her. After I finally gave her a copy, she arranged for me to do a reading at her local library and invited all her friends. But that was my mother, I don’t know about your mother.
It’s one thing to be writing about your parents, but it’s quite another to write about your children. Babies won’t know what we’re up to, but older kids are tuned in. I committed the ultimate sin: I wrote about my daughter Rebecca getting her first period. It was a poem of joy and celebration (I have created the world/in thirteen years/and it is good) but I compounded my sin when the poem was published in MS. magazine back when everyone was reading MS. The predominant emotion of most teenagers seems to be embarrassment so my thirteen-year-old daughter was understandably mortified. So mortified that she invited a bunch of her school friends to walk all over town with her buying up all the newsstand copies to make sure nobody would see the poem. Note, however, that she did not do this alone and in secret.
I am not claiming it’s always okay to write about personal poems about family members. The okay-ness depends on the attitude with which you write. If you are just whining, you inevitably become annoying. Nobody wants to read too much “poor me” without some art or humor or compassion. Humor seems particularly helpful in “getting even” poems. If you’re going to tear someone down, I say, Do it in style. And then there’s the whole category where what is called brave is merely gross. There are highly personal poems that can make us cringe from TMI (too much information). I’m not always sure that I want to know about Sharon Olds climbing on top of her sister in bed and peeing on her. On the other hand, I can’t get the image out of my head.
But sometimes the poetry is the salvation. Here’s my recent example: A few years ago, my adult daughter and I went through a major struggle. Newly divorced, Rebecca moved to my city and was miserable. I had bought a condo for her and felt she was ungrateful. For a year and a half she complained. She made a mess of the condo. She blamed me for everything she didn’t like about Portland, Oregon. Meanwhile I had grandiose expectations, none of which were fulfilled. During that year and a half I wrote a lot of sad, angry poems. I was beyond angry—I was furious with her. I didn’t show the poems to my daughter; I just kept churning them out. When a friend with a small press asked me if I had a manuscript, I arranged those poems as a chapbook. Then came the big choice: to publish or not.
Because I cared more about having a daughter than having yet another book, I sent the manuscript to Rebecca and asked for her permission to publish it. Needless to say, she could have said no and that would have been the end of it. But she didn’t. Instead she wrote an eloquent essay in response where she gave her side of the story, what she was experiencing during that year and a half. She disagreed with some of what I’d written and confirmed other parts. One of my poems began:
Sometimes I like to say dahlia dahlia dahlia even though
it isn’t my favorite flower but I love how it lies on the tongue
like darling darling like my daughter who used to be tiny
and hopeful and now heartbroken at forty-seven…
…and I wonder is it too late to rename my daughter
because if I called her Dahlia maybe we could start again.
Rebecca’s essay began:
I want to be named Dahlia and start again.
What’s amazing about this interchange is that she and I have started again. We each told our whole truth, attempting to do it with some grace and style, and then there was nothing bad left to say. I have asked many mothers about their relationships with adult daughters and they say they are close, but when I ask further, it turns out they are careful and avoid talking about certain things. Rebecca and I seem to have come to a new place in our relationship. I have finally realized that I can’t change her, re-mother her, save her, and therefore I am no longer a threat to her. Now it turns out—surprise, surprise—we have a lot in common. No subject is too dangerous. We have long, honest conversations and laugh a lot. We got there through writing.
So my advice is, yes, write those risky family poems. Don’t self-justify. Just be honest and do it with craft. You may learn something and you will end up making meaningful poems.
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Penelope Scambly Schott’s most recent books are Serpent Love: A Mother-Daughter Epic (2017) from which she quotes in this essay and Bailing the River (2017). She is a past recipient of the Oregon Book Award for Poetry. Penelope lives in Portland and Dufur, Oregon where she teaches an annual poetry workshop.