Do Confessional Poets Forfeit our Right to Privacy?

Last week I wrote a post about the sensitivity of performing confessional poetry given that it might violate the privacy of those people mentioned in the poems. Today I want to discuss how listeners tend to react to confessional performance poets, both audience members immediately following the performance as well as members of the press and academics. I was reading a transcript of a fascinating discussion between British performance poets Jean Binta Breeze, Patience Agbabi, Jillian Tipene, Ruth Harrison, and Vicki Bertram, and one of Breeze’s comments resonated with me. Asked by Harrison, “How important is it to have a literary critique of your work?” Breeze replied, “Well, I find that people don’t often critique the work. Everybody wants interviews with you about your personal life! And, you know, I get a lot of press, and they all ask the same questions, usually. And it’s about my personal life, and how I write, and my children. But nobody ever takes the work and says, ‘I’m going to critique the work’, or come to a performance, and critique the performance, like how you critique a play” (31).

From my observations, this effect still occurs in the performance poetry scene, as well as many confessional art scenes. Responses often focus on the events and feelings described in the poetry rather than the devices used in the writing of the poem or the performative techniques employed by the performer. Sometimes this is welcome: I remember that once after giving a performance of my poem ‘Dear’ (about my sperm donor) a student came up to me and thanked me for sharing it, as his girlfriend was going through the process of searching for her donor and he had observed that no one talks about this issue in public. This kind of feedback was welcome, and I was delighted to have made a positive impact through sharing personal information. However, sometimes the questions are too probing. During my undergraduate senior year, a member of the university’s Communications department who had seen a reading at which I performed ‘Dear’ asked for an interview about my poetry for the university website. During the interview he asked, “So, if your biological father were to show up out of the blue and introduce himself to you, what would you do?” Aside from being tangential to the subject of the interview and an inappropriate question to ask a stranger, this was also something I had never thought about, given that it is illegal for my biological father to know who I am and thus impossible for him to find me. Were I more sensitive, this could have planted a tantalizing and ultimately harmful fantasy in my head. At the time I stammered some brief, nonspecific answer and we moved on with the interview, but it struck me as a situation where I felt that my privacy was invaded but the interviewer didn’t sense that he had crossed any lines because he felt my poem has given him permission to ask these questions.

I was at a workshop given by the wonderful Scottish writer Jackie Kay at the Scottish Writers Centre a couple weeks ago, and the audience’s questions reflected this trend. Although there were many writing-related questions from the audience (likely because it was composed almost completely of authors and poets), several of the questions were shockingly personal, getting at Kay’s familial and romantic relationships. Yes, Kay does write intensely confessionally; it is a hallmark of her writing style and one that has earned her some scorn from critics: Christopher Whyte has commented that “someone who writes so consistently and ruthlessly from her own experience gives the impression of a car driver perilously close to the kerb” (Whyte 2007, 84). But does this allow the audience to probe her more deeply, asking for intimate details in a public space? Kay dealt with the questions gracefully, giving more information where she felt it appropriate and deftly, politely avoiding those questions which I assume she felt too personal.

So what gives audience members and critics the sense that asking these questions is appropriate? One of the best elements of the performance poetry scene is the safe space created within the venue, where performers understand that they can share intimate experiences and be accepted. And I think this safe space is felt by the audience, and sometimes they interpret the relationship of sharing to be a two-way street, or very porous: they interpret that because the poet has shared something personal with them, that communication line has been opened and (they feel) they are now privileged to ask more.

Sometimes this is welcome. In cases where an audience member has related with the subject matter and wants to share their experiences, the poem can be a great starting place for productive dialogue. Sometimes, however, as in the case of the nosy reporter, it can be invasive. It is particularly harmful, I think when academics and members of the press focus on poets’ personal lives rather than the merits and craft of their writing, as Breeze noted in the discussion quoted above. It can imply that the poet’s worth is in the scandals of his/her life rather than the work he/she puts into his/her writing, which is problematic.

Do we invite this gossip by sharing the stuff of our lives publicly? Perhaps. However, I believe that critics and audience members need to perceive poets as artists who have molded personal experiences (and external inspirations) into art through a process of craft and direct questions to that craft rather than diving straight into the stuff of the poem. Not to ignore the stuff of the poem, perhaps, but to remember that performing a poem onstage is the result of drafting, editing, rewriting, memorizing, and rehearsing: it is not pillow talk to the audience, no matter how much we may make it seem that way, and so some tact should be used when asking about the materials within the poems if they are sensitive.

Performance poets, I’m curious: have you been asked questions by audience members, the press, or critics that you felt were invasive? Why do you think these questions were asked, and how did you deal with them? Do you think that by performing confessional work we forfeit our right to privacy on these subjects?


Breeze, Jean Binta, Patience Agbabi, Jillian Tipene, Ruth Harrison, and Vicki Bertram. “A Round-Table Discussion on Poetry in Performance.” Contemporary Women Poets. Spec. issue of Feminist Review, 62 (Summer 1999): 24-54. JSTOR.

Whyte, Christopher. “Twenty-one Collections for the Twenty-first Century.” The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature. Ed. Berthold Schoene. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 78-87. Print.

4 thoughts on “Do Confessional Poets Forfeit our Right to Privacy?

  1. Derek White says:


    I was interested in your article. I’ve been doing spoken word around Edinburgh for a couple of years although I’ve been writing longer than that. My approach has always been that my poems are art and not biography. I once did some poems about the relationship between the narrator and a woman called Caroline and a number of friends asked me Who is Caroline ? to which I answered: She’s the woman in these poems. She also had a name that rhymed with Wittgenstein, which believe it or not came in handy in one poem.
    Experiences within my life weave in and out of my poems but almost never word for word as they appear in the poem. Also it doesn’t matter. One poem I did about a night at a concert in Washington State was in fact almost an exact description of what happened but to me it’s no more autobiographical than ones I’ve made up from scratch.
    In a sense all my poems are autobiographical because they are about what I’ve thought and felt. The narrative of the poems is a structure to convey ideas and emotions. Hopefully the ideas and emotions are true: it doesn’t matter whether the narrative is.




    • kathrynaailes says:

      Hi Derek,
      Thanks for your response! Taking the perspective that poems are not necessarily autobiographical and that there is distance between the narrator and the author makes a lot of sense to me. I think that sometimes with the spoken word format creating that distance can be difficult, since the audience tends to assume that the poetry is always autobiographical, but it is an important tool to have nonetheless. And I absolutely agree that the sense of truth in the ideas and emotions of the poem is much more important than the factual truth of the narrative: I’ve changed facts before to make poems feel more true, as odd as that may sound to non-writers. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried contains an excellent discussion of this fact-bending to make stories feel more truthful, and is an overall brilliant book. Thanks again for your comment!


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