Confessional Work: On Respecting Others’ Privacy

Something on my mind lately has been the politics of confessional poetry: how does one honestly perform personal poems while also being mindful of their effect on the people whose privacy is interrupted by these poems?

Slam poetry has always been a genre which encourages poets to share intimate details of their lives. Susan B. A. Somers-Willett notes that this confessional style is an increasing hallmark of slam: “a great deal of the work appearing in recent slam and spoken word anthologies and films confirms the trend of proclaiming one’s identity for an audience” (Somers-Willett 52). Slam audiences generally expect personal material to be shared by the performers, so being a confessional poet is almost a necessity for the contemporary slammer (unless their style is more political, activist poetry, also a hallmark of slam).

There is an odd semblance of anonymity that accompanies performing slam: it is easier, it seems, to perform a poem sharing intimate secrets with a large room of strangers than sharing this information with a friend or family member. Often open mics become quasi-therapy sessions, with the obvious problem being that audience members in their silent role can’t help the performer work through the issues being shared. Sometimes, though, the very act of performing confessional poetry seems to help: once an issue has been aired in a poem, sometimes that act helps the poet to heal. But what happens when the story in a poem involves others who may not be ready to have their story told?

Most of the poems I perform publicly are revealing not only about myself but about others. It is difficult to write a love poem that does not reveal intimate details about the lover’s life, character, and faults. I have made every effort to be transparent with my partners about my writing and check with them before performing poems that concern them. Poems about family can be more complex, however. The first poems I performed were about my parents’ difficulty-fraught journey to my birth. In “Swallow” and “Dear” I share delicate information about my family’s struggles with fertility. For me, these were deeply personal poems that I was sharing with strangers; I didn’t consider their effect on my parents. I realized that I had revealed perhaps more information than my rather shy, introverted parents would have liked aired, and that I should have received their consent prior to performing them. Luckily, they have been supportive of me, but the realization that they had seen my poems on YouTube threw me for a loop and made me consider how responsible artists should be for protecting the privacy of others in their lives when performing confessional work. Of course, with the Internet, poems can much more easily be found and shared: soon I will be posting on the effect of technology on the performance of poetry.

One strategy suggested to me to protect the anonymity of others has been to place a personal poem into the third person voice or adopt a thrown voice. In fiction and published poetry, this is an entirely valid means of veiling one’s personal connection to material. However, in slam poetry the third person voice is very seldom used, as it revolves around about the presentation of the self. I haven’t yet used this strategy, although I may consider it for writing personal material in the future.

At a recent workshop, the Scottish writer Jackie Kay discussed how she negotiates writing very personal material, including memoir, while avoiding making the people in her life uncomfortable. Her strategy is to send out copies of her manuscripts to the people mentioned in them so that they can ensure that they are being represented fairly. Kay commented on the often surprising elements that people want changed: her brother, for example, didn’t object to the way Kay analyzed his feelings about his racial background, but he was appalled at her inaccurate memory of the brand of motorcycle he rode!

The last thing that I want to do with my poetry is to make anyone uncomfortable. Rather, by speaking about often socially taboo subjects such as contraception and infertility, I hope to open a space for conversation where others can feel comfortable sharing their experiences. I know that this is the kind of work I am interested in making, and to some degree I will continue to make it regardless of whose story I am telling. Sharing it, however, is a choice which I am working to be more careful and considerate about making.

Artists: how do you ensure that your work is not overly revealing to people involved in the stories you’re telling? Do you check with them before sharing the work, or do you consider it to be primarily your story and tell it regardless of their feelings?

Somers-Willett, Susan B. A. “Slam Poetry and the Cultural Politics of Performing Identity.” Performance. Spec. issue of The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 38.1 (Spring 2005): 51-73. EBSCO.

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