In a recent post, I mentioned that one of the challenges of writing a speaker in lyric or lyric narrative poetry is that readers assume the voice, experience, or perspective of the speaker completely aligns with that of the poet. It’s especially confusing if the writer reveals that one poem does arise from or act as memoir/lived experience when other poems by the same author–that seem like memoir–are fictions.
I admit to being among said poets: my collection Barefoot Girls contains poems based on memories of my teen years in the 1970s, yet the stories therein are invented. Sometimes a poem starts as something that “really happened” but does not work well as a poem when I stick to the truth as I recall it. Journalism is not poetry (usually). Thus, in the revision process, the so-called truth gets reimagined…in order to craft lines that are better as poetry. I know that people who don’t write poems find this fact difficult to grasp.
I keep a journal–have done so for decades–and I tend to start poems one of two ways, either from image-based phrases I jot down or from prose entries. The latter approach, from prose, may indeed have a basis in lived experience. Here, I offer a concrete example.
The draft below started as prose but may evolve into a prose poem, may evolve into free verse, or may end up as metrical or formal, blank verse or pantoum. Or it may end up in the “Dead Poems” folder of forgotten drafts. Right now it consists mostly of lived experience, though I’ve already begun to fictionalize a few moments, blur a few lines about the ride in the car (there was another passenger), what he may really have said (heck, my memory’s not that accurate) and where my thought process went. I’ve also played around with line breaks and indents to help me visualize phrasing and rhythm. This is the way I often work.
I believe models and examples of creative working methods help to clarify what artists do. Yet some of it–especially among geniuses–is inspired, mysterious, and cannot be described. I wish I felt that inspiration more often. But I do not mind doing the work of rethinking, reimagining, revising.
My Son Drives Me from West LA to Pasadena …talking the whole way about the job he loves, new friends, old friends, how he spends his leisure time; where we can eat, what he thinks about social movements and government policies, whether it’s worth buying patio furniture, what we should do next time I visit and I’m listening, honest I am, but I’m also observing— I can’t call it a landscape, really, as the view’s a swath of highway many lanes wide and city blocks for untold acres dotted by walls of vivid bougainvillea, beige buildings, tall palms under a sky perfectly cloudless, flat. Then, a shift of geographic formation leads into scrub brush, spotty suburbs, highway narrowing to a mere six lanes, and he says I’ll notice real change once we get into the hills; the weather’s usually predictable here, it’ll be a fine day. I’m listening, but I’m also recalling times—many times—I sat behind the wheel when he was far too young to drive, watching the road through the windshield of the family car and listened to him tell me the thoughts that flashed through his mind like a summer field of fireflies. Those trips I was privy to a newly-forming perspective on the world, it was as though I listened to his young mind crackling with ideas, listened, and listening, with a joy I’ve never abandoned. ~