"Nothing Personal" - Poetry and the Autobiographical Self

Not too long ago I was giving a reading for my book, Theories of Falling, in my hometown of Washington, DC. It was an unusually organic mix of people from my life--old friends, new friends, literary world folk, a high school English teacher, and family. A man walked right up to my father and shook his hand confidently. "General Beasley," he said. My father returned the handshake and said tentatively "Have we met?" The gentleman held up his copy of my book "I feel like I met you in here!" he said.

Every poet curdles inside a bit, witnessing that moment. The gentleman had complimentary intentions, but still--we buffer our friends and family with the assurance that "it's not personal." Bolstered by years of workshop etiquette, we claim that poetry readers grant a veil of assumption that the speaker's mother is not the same as the poet's mother. Then that veil gets ripped away right in front of your eyes, and you can't do a thing to protect them.

My book is particularly vulnerable to a biographical reading because it includes a sequence, "Allergy Girl," about growing up with chronic and severe food allergies. It's about me! I admit it! (How often do you hear a poet say that?) It's just too random an area of focus otherwise. I'd have never woken up thinking "What IF I had deadly allergies to milk, eggs, soy, melon, and about a zillion other things? What if I had to navigate the medicalized world of Epipens and Benadryl and RAST tests? What if merely kissing a boyfriend after he'd eaten the wrong thing could kill me?" Or, if I did wake up with that kind of flight of fancy, the resulting poems would have had zero percent authenticity, and have never made it into a book.

So yes, I admit, I'm the "allergy girl." That doesn't mean the rest of the poems are nearly as accurate. But I have to accept that people will read them how they want to read them, or else sentence myself to a lifetime of defensive exchanges. Poets find themselves walking this tightrope all the time. Fiction writers tend to escape into the third person, or else have enough verbal space to "prove" the story is not their own. Memoirists have explicitly accepted the burden of fidelity to fact. But poets struggle with wanting the authenticity of the first person while also wanting the freedom of hyperbole and narrative construction. I was once talking with Aimee Nezhukumatathil (author of two amazing books with Tupelo Press) about the ways she incorporates zoology into her poems. Do you ever fudge scientific facts for poetic effect, I asked? "No, never," she said, very firmly. She paused. "Now the personal facts..." she said..."they're more flexible."

The poems from my second manuscript--two of which appeared in HFR 42--are willfully impersonal. If my first book assembled an identity through the prism of experience, then this book fractures the notion of identity through that same prism. In these poems the jukebox speaks, Osiris speaks, the sand speaks, the orchid speaks, the world war speaks. It's liberating. But it's indicative of my current writing mindset that when I saw a call for "the grotesque" I turned to strange and foreign creatures, whether they be octopi, cussing teenagers, or Beauty as incarnated in a doglike form. When I received the issue, I felt admiration (and maybe a twinge of envy) for those willing to keep the "grotesque" personal. I'm thinking in particular of Carrie Shipers "Four Way to Lose a Father" or Benjamin Vogt's poem, "Little Deep Creek--Oklahoma, 1984," with that incredible final line: "I vomit my country."

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting these works are autobiographical--I learned my lesson at the reading that day. But they are biographical in the purest sense: they describe a life, a lyric moment within a life, with the kind of integrity that suggests it could have actually been lived. They find the grotesque inside, and that's the most frightening place of all to find it.

Sandra Beasley's poetry collection, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize. She will be debuting a column in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine on Sunday, July 13, as part of a new feature called "The XX Files." Sandra's poems, "Beauty" and "In the Deep" appear in issue #42. To hear more from Sandra, visit her blog here.