Last year, I wrote a poem about a hit-and-run in which an Asian grandmother was left lying on the side of the road like roadkill (“I am the driver / the woman’s body / is violation”). Once, I wrote a poem about an accident that left my mother in a semi-vegetative state (“Your head bloomed / & you crumpled like a sheet down the stairs”). Once, I wrote a poem about experiencing death through a solitary phone call (“The day the phone rang / we were shooed outside, the day / we stripped our dolls into finer stems / naked and buried them in the lawn”).
Which one was true? All of them and none of them. I have never experienced death firsthand, much less received news of death over the phone. My mother has a normally functioning brain, and the hit-and-run incident reached me via the grapevine (which is to say, I was not present when it happened, I did not see pictures of the incident, and I most certainly was not “the driver”).
Looking back, my life was oddly boring to be the source of inspiration for such dramatic poetry, yet I produced poems anyway like a well-oiled machine. One of my tactics to unearth Freudian fixations and other worthwhile content was to . I blame part of the practice on the people who first told me, “your life isn’t boring! Everyone has something they can write about,” which began my habit of magnifying my problems (especially as a woman and a person of color) to find something worth writing about. This “problematization,” though, is different from the phenomena I depict above, in which I tell stories that simply aren’t true (in the narrowest sense of the word).
Clearly, the poems above resonate with someone; they are, after all, plausible and realistic experiences. They just aren’t my experiences. (I am, to be fair, simplifying the definition of “experience” when I judge the poems solely on the basis of whether or not they played out in real life, in my life. But I seek to engage this notion of foreignness and forgetfulness — reading one of these poems the other day, I forgot that these were my words. The words failed to awaken a corresponding episodic memory because the memory simply did not exist. The poem had originally unfurled with my imagination.) To what extent is it fair to pretend to be someone else, inhabit someone else’s experience, without having experienced it firsthand?
In the lines I cite above, you will notice the power of an ambiguous speaker. I recently spoke to a poet-friend who said, “[My professor] always says not to assume that the speaker is the author, but all my poems are projections of myself just written in the second person.” In other words, sometimes the speaker’s experiences are embedded in the poem, and sometimes they are not; the “I” first person narrative in particular is the most seditious lie in which the author owns the agency to be the main character but can deny it at any moment.
Is painting a scene that I never experienced before merely lying? I will tell you the backstory of the poem in which “my” (the speaker’s) mother entered a semi-vegetative state, and perhaps from there we can parse an answer to this question.
The poem, (scroll to the bottom of the page), tells a “what-if” story. “What if” the mother that I have loved for all my life suddenly becomes a stranger because of a degenerative mental condition? It is not implausible one day in the future; dementia runs in the family.
The pain I tell may be “imagined” pain, but it is a neurotransmitter-releasing, lip-biting pain nonetheless. The story is made up, though the emotions that penned the story are real. In telling someone else’s real story, I have inhabited someone else’s pain. Perhaps, then, the work of writing a poem in which the writer hashes out someone else’s experience is as translational as it is seditious; in other words, it penetrates the experience of the inviolate “other” and seeks to probe the feelings that exist outside of the author’s one and only body.
The ambiguity (or conversely, anonymity) of the speaker can be a double-edged sword. I do believe that any poem can be exploratory in a good or bad sense. I have found myself writing speculative poems about experiences that I now believe to be off-limits — for example, anorexia should not be employed to talk about body image struggles if the author has not experienced it firsthand — because in some instances, it is better to listen rather than to speak, though the line between empathy and appropriation is blurry and subjective. When is an experience broad enough, common enough to all mankind that the inexperienced writer can dive into it and take what she needs as inspiration? When is an experience off-limits because it belongs to an individual or group to which the author is not privy? Can we as a community delineate together the agency of the writer to embody the experiences of another, or will it always be a point of private contention between the writer and the page?