Earlier this year I made the decision to make a lot of my writing public. For a long time I kept the majority of my writing visible to Writing.com members only, not the general public, and I decided that it was time for me to make that leap.
Most publishers will not accept submissions that are freely available on the internet, but will accept ones that are restricted-access, such as those only visible to Writing.com members or only to Livejournal members. I decided that publication was not my goal, so why was I maintaining this restriction? Time to go public!
The first thing I noticed was the assumptions. About half of my poetry is autobiographical, which means that I wrote it about experiences and emotions that I personally experienced. The other half are based on observations of other people’s lives, prompts and just plain imagination. Most of my darkest poetry is fictional.
I recently wrote The fight is over which is written from the perspective of someone whose marriage has failed. And I find it incredibly awkward that people assume it is autobiographical. My husband and I are very happily married, and yet family and friends (and random strangers!) assume that we are having serious relationship issues because I write poetry about fictional situations. I always remind myself that it is a compliment that someone thinks I have expressed a fictional situation so well that it rings true. And trust me, I’m honored that they think so, but at the same time, it’s not an assumption I’m comfortable with. Similarly, I wrote a couple of poems from the perspective of someone who had experienced domestic abuse, and found myself having to give disclaimers every time someone read them. I think people are really starting to worry what sort of man I’m married to! Poor Steve.
I have had a number of reviews of my poetry where the reviewer has made a comment regarding the situation described in the poem, with the most common being sympathy. It is totally fine to make a comment on how a poem makes you feel, what it makes you think of or reminds you of, or why it spoke to you in particular (maybe you’ve been in a similar situation), but be very careful about assuming that the poet has written from personal experience. When I encounter these poems and wish to make a personal comment of sympathy or similar to the poet, I always note it with a disclaimer. ‘I don’t know if this poem is autobiographical or not, but if it is….’ This leaves the door open for the poet to respond without making it awkward.
So, the next time you’re reading a poem, please take a moment to pause and think. Yes, it may be a personal expression of the poet’s thoughts, experience, and emotions. But on the other hand, it might be observational or entirely fictional. And trust me, you can’t always tell just by reading it.