Who do we talk about when we don’t talk about ourselves?
“I’m with you in Rockland / where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter.”
Us? Them? You? The original purpose of Letters From Lady Nakatomi was to record preoccupations that occur behind the scenes of my poetry writing exercise. A sort of b/log of decisions ongoing. Winter/Spring 2018 has been mostly brought to me a review of ‘confessionalism’. A word, I confess, I hadn’t heard in some time.
Confessions of an unapologetic confessionalist
After not having heard the ‘c’ word for quite a few years, here it is in my world. For me, it’s always been a bit of personal desciption somebody else gives you and it’s mostly not a compliment. It feels to me like a word to create distance to put a person in the ‘them’ box. However, like ‘feminism’ – another word I wouldn’t probably use to describe myself if I was left to roll along as myself-unwitnessed – I would be horrified entirely if I thought anybody believed that I were the things that a not-feminist or a not-confessionalist are. In other words, if you need to call me names – let confessionalist and feminist be among them, please. If I appear to not be these things, please let me know and I’ll see what I can adjust. (Note: Rolling along works for me too and my name is Olive).
Small Examples and the Production of Knowledge
I had three returns of the poetic impulse before I took it seriously (by which I mean submitting poems for publication). The third, extended, turn began when I was doing a masters thesis which spanned strategic management theory (yes business..) and women’s place in the workforce (private/public sectors). It was a time of enlightment. I’m hoping both professors would like it if I said we were a bit renegade and rock’n’roll – talking in the off hours about how you only needed to split one atom.. It’s like the dark ages now but small sample, generally, to be fair, qualitative methodolgy based, research was still fighting to be taken seriously as a means of acceptable academic enquiry.
One arrived all excited to wear academic language suits, to be part of a workforce where very large invisible ‘I’s watched with a peculiar detached fascination tiny ants walking up a wall and wondered in a kind of eternal unidentified voice, how could these small creatures get around.
What I left with was an understanding of how the act of being watched influences the relationship between those who enquire and those who are enquired about. I learned to identify myself as a baseline in any kind of opinion I offered.
I came away persuaded to never again use the passive voice.
With the Best Will in the World..
Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necesssary?
But I didn’t get it right first time. For good reasons. I went on to work in the world of equal rights campaigning. I was no great heroine in the whole thing but I had gone through that fire of actually understanding that things were not right in the world of women, and from there to position in society, community background, sexual preference, intellectual and physical ability, religious belief. Access all areas denied for not very life affirming reasons.
I loved the work of Adrienne Rich and was (still am) a little drunk on the fumes of the french philosophers…I am the I…
I tried to write poetry that would contribute to making this world a better place for the folk that live in it, celebrating the diversity of what it is to be whatever it is I am, you are, we are, they might be. But I was also aware of my own privilege in the world and my story didn’t seem particularly useful to the exercise of improving things. And so I tried to write, using words that were kind (I hope), necessary (I believe) but with the best will in the world not true. Not great glaring lies, or an attempt to leap frog into somebody else’s life experience that I didn’t actually have. Instead, it was real-ish things that got inauthentic due to my hope for ‘agenda approval’ and ‘doing good’. Nobody but me has ever seen this work, but I keep it as a reminder that these be dragons..
I made two decisions – guidelines for my writing going forward as you might say. One is to write from my own experience and if somebody else’s experience was more useful, then either get out of the way or, alternatively, lend a hand to get the word out.
And then I made a third decision, I decided that I would write authentically for myself whatever came. I believe we all have that right and so it is. However, and this is where my form of confessionalism becomes complicated, I would only submit work for publication where I knew of at least one other person whose experience or affectedness was similar to my own.
Experience for sharing, of sorts.
A wave to passing imperialism as I continue on my journey
In the interest of full disclosure, I have embraced the world of autodidact entirely. I have absolutely my own definition of imperialism here. By which I mean, purely in this context, an old element who have unquestioned assumptions about those whose territory they have a right to talk about – when that territory is beyond their own pale of experience. (Note: This definition could do with work – but I hope you know what I mean.).
This Winter/Spring has brought all sorts of interesting discussions about the quality of poetry when a person writes from their own experience – some of it in a way which demonstrates a quirky nod to the fact that there was a time when literacy for everybody wasn’t important, where universal suffrage didn’t exist, where there were very clear expectations about what one should and should not talk about no matter what lived experience was*.
How very dare you: confessionalism and the selfie generation
I’ve used the word element above because the even quirkier fact is that the poet part of the commentators appear to be confessional in their own actual practice*. So the poet and commentator when living in the same body are in different places? I believe that it’s more complicated. Not talking in general terms isn’t even taught that much in Introduction to Extreme Beginners Poetry classes – because really it’s just not the thing to write an ode to the savages when one’s own self is not a savage. Things have changed.
But clearly not entirely. I wrote a poem in February which had a bit of writing about my womb in it and talked about woman as not-mother (full disclosure – I have no children) and was reasonably visceral. I heard voices in my head…’confessional’ and ‘Sharon Olds’…Echoes of too many workshops. In any case it felt like I was doing something that needed to be corraled. Mightn’t be the right subject for proper poetry. Not particularly robust feedback, to be fair.
I persevered but not without going back to what confessionalism is. What it means to espouse it and to be accused of it? Much more, of course, than when a woman talks about actual woman’s experience which is distinct from the general (I have a bit of a belief that this isn’t men’s either, to be honest..it’s sort of a washed down version). But it is also absolutely that. My experience of menstruation, female physicality, menopause, no-childbirth will not be the same as another woman’s even – and definitely not cover any man’s experience. It is what it is.
So, who am I talking TO when I’m talking about myself?
People…..will always remember how you made them feel.
When I step away from the protection of ‘we’, and I tell you about it from my perspective? Who are you? I don’t, to be honest, readily have an answer to that question. Perhaps, that one other person who has become a little invisible because, in a particular instance, of a lack of generally applicable life experience, perhaps?
If I turn it back the other way, who am I when you are talking to me from your perspective? I have a sense that I feel disconnected when it’s something outside my life experience, and I move on leaving this to those who do connect. I feel locked out, however, when I hear my name mentioned but don’t recognise the me that is described.
5 Situations where you need a Selfie Stick
It’s me so it is.
Talk of Selfies invariably happens at this point as pejoratively as an old-style throwing the world confessionalism in the conversation.
I – and you – are now in possession of the tools to present ourselves as we would like to be seen. We don’t need professional photographers, celebrated filmmakers, or even passing strangers, to represent who we are. All filtered still, of course, because with the best will in the world you can’t show everything. But we are in control of the filtration process. Now that we know that the one behind the lens is a powerful person in creating filtered reality, who better to have that power than me or you. Surely a better ongoing dialogue is how and what we filter when we present ourselves – and to what affect. Not that we do. Not that is is wrong.
Read ‘5 Situations where you need a Selfie Stick’ (note: ctually about situations where you need a selfie stick)
Notes to account
*this is a screen grab from my iPhone
*I’m not mentioning directly big debates on the poetry scene that has gone in the last couple of months – but they are easily found. This is because, I’m reporting about my mast colours being pinned than speaking truth to power. If that makes sense.