To her credit, she handled the question with the utmost professionalism and kindness, even though it must be one of the most irritating questions that poets hear. No one asks Dave Sedaris or Augusten Burroughs if they write about anything other than themselves. Maya Angelou’s most popular prose was her autobiographical books. Memoirists rarely, if ever, get faulted for writing about themselves, but for some reason poets are expected to turn their attentions outward.
But let’s be honest—most writing in some way features the author at its center. Even in the realm of fiction, the author is present. This is not the old trope about all fiction being thinly veiled autobiography. But when an author writes a short story or a novel and depicts a character as despicable in some way, that is a reflection of the author’s ideas of what is despicable. The heroes are reflections of what the author views as heroic. She may not see herself as heroic, but her ideas of what constitutes heroism will work their way into the fabric of the character. That characters within fiction spring from the imaginations of their author ties them in some way to the author’s psyche and their persona.
Of course, poets who write of their own lives write in a very different style than fiction writers. And the criticism we receive is related to the idea that we are somehow self-obsessed. This is one of the major criticisms of confessionalism, which is why so many poets are so quick to remove or distance themselves from the label of being confessionalist poets. I sat through multiple panels at this year’s Dodge Poetry Festival where poets who work in the realm of confessionalism were very careful and very direct in their denials that they actual work in a confessionalist style. It would seem that being labeled a confessionalist is something akin to being labeled a pedophile in terms of disrepute.
But we need to reclaim the word confessionalist. To write in a confessionalist mode should not be seen as something to be avoided or derided. We should not deny our roots in confessionalism, and we should not view the confessionalist movement as a dark era in the history of poetry. We shouldn’t fight to rebrand ourselves as “narrative” poets—we’re not writing Beowulf. We’re writing poems about our own life experiences, and there is zero shame in doing that, because we’re not just writing about ourselves.
As human’s, our experiences are human experiences. The reason that people read confessionalism isn’t out of a sense of literary voyeurism. It’s because the individual human experience is, in its own way, the universal human experience. There is far more that can be related into in a specific narrative about loss than there is in some vague, broad reflection on what loss means. A poem about an awkward exchange at my grandmother’s funeral is likely to be far more relatable precisely because of its specificity than a poem that is broad, unspecific, and rooted in vague examples that are completely divorced from the personal. We do not experience the world in universalities. We experience the world in the specific moment. Our stories differ, but as intelligent human beings, we are able to derive the universal aspect of those experiences because of our capacities for empathy and sympathy. We feel another person’s feelings because we can relate to them. It’s why we cry at movies. It’s why confessionalism matters.
So often in beginning writing workshops, students are terrified about writing about themselves. They think there is no value in it other than self-pity. They’ve been told they should write about rose bushes, gardens, revolutions, and staring out their front window. They’ve been told their own lives are not poetry. If there is no poetry within your life, then what kind of life do you have, to have no sweetness or nuance? Life is filled with poetic moments, and the poet’s job is not to trivialize them by divorcing them from the actual lives they come from, but to word them in ways in which the beauty of the poetry within those moments comes to the fore, evokes the emotions and understandings within the readers that the moments themselves possess.
If you write poetry about yourself, you’re not being selfish or self-centered. You’re acknowledging the importance of your own experience. And you’re sharing the wisdom and emotion of those experiences with your reading audience in a way that constitutes one of the bravest acts that anyone can take on in their writing—to strip themselves naked for their reader and allow themselves to be seen honestly.
So if someone asks you if you write about “anything other than yourself,” look them in the eye and say, “no.” If they are asking that question, they don’t get the importance of why we write what we do anyway, and there’s no point in allowing them to shame you into feeling like you have to justify your work. At some point, given time, they will find themselves moved by a poet who is “only” writing about herself, and even if they don’t consciously admit to it, they will realize that there is a universality in the personal.