“Swallow”: When Poems are Misinterpreted

One of the first slam poems I wrote is a two-minute piece called “Swallow” which concerns the nuances of female fertility, sterility, and contraception (the poem can be watched here). In the autobiographical piece I express my sadness over the unfairness inherent in a situation in which I, as a young, presumably fertile woman, have the ability to utilise contraception to prevent myself from having children right now while some women who desperately want children are not given that choice, as they are unable to conceive due to medical reasons. For me, this poem is an expression of my desire to magically balance the universe and lend my ability to conceive to these women: to grant them the abilities that I am currently not using, thus giving them more control over their bodies. However, I was recently discussing the poem with friends in the poetry scene and they told me that to some audience members, the poem has been perceived as implying that women should stop trying to control their bodies because that is shameful, thus conveying an anti-contraceptives, anti-abortion message. As a feminist with firmly pro-contraceptives, pro-choice beliefs, I’m writing this post to apologise for those ideas which I never meant to promote, to set the record straight on the message I originally intended for “Swallow,” to discuss how easily work can be misconstrued, and to suggest ways to avoid misinterpretations of one’s work or to make amends when it happens.

I have been performing “Swallow” for three years now, and while I know the words inside out and backwards, I realised it’s been a long time since I actively considered the meaning of the poem and the various messages that could be interpreted from it by the audience. Analysing it now, there are two lines which I now see could be particularly problematic, especially when taken out of context. They are:

“there should be consequences for this kind of wastefulness”

“I am a careless girl”

I have realised that these lines associate the use of contraceptives with shame, guilt, and frivolity, which is certainly not an association that I believe in or wish to promote. It is important for poets to consider the value judgments inherent in words. The terms “consequences,” “careless,” and “wastefulness” are all negative terms implying selfishness and a failure to take matters seriously. When initially writing the poem, I meant the line “there should be consequences for this kind of wastefulness” in a cosmic, universal sense: that when I do not utilise my ability to reproduce, the effect should be that a woman who does not have that ability is able to “borrow” it. However, now I see that this line can easily be taken in a real-world format: that women who use contraceptives should be punished. This could not be further from my own views on the matter.

Furthermore, in no way do I believe that women using contraceptives are “careless girls;” rather, taking control of one’s sexuality and planning one’s family is an act of strength that deserves societal praise. For me, that line is expressly personal: it derives from my fear of being unable to conceive later in life, so it is from this perspective that I am deeming myself (no one else) careless for wasting my reproductive abilities while I have them. However, now I see how that line could come across as patronising and insulting to all women using contraceptives, which is, again, contrary to my beliefs. I feel the need to apologise to anyone who heard the poem and felt I was condescending to them: I believe women who take control over their own reproductive abilities do think carefully about that decision and should not be considered frivolous (or promiscuous), so I am very sorry if my work made anyone feel shamed for that decision.

Some audience members extended my argument (as they perceived it) to assume that the poem was anti-abortion, even though abortion is not mentioned. Because they took the poem as associating family planning methods with shame and guilt, they assumed I personally harboured anti-abortion beliefs. This is a reminder to me that the arguments perceived in poems will not necessarily be limited to the contexts of the poems: audience members can apply those perceived arguments to other matters and conclude things about the poet which may be inaccurate but are based in legitimate perceptions. It also reminded me that particularly in the spoken word format, audiences will assume that the poem’s speaker is the poet: usually a correct assumption since slam is a chiefly autobiographical expressive mode, but it is still important for audience members to keep in mind that not all experiences and ideas expressed by the speaker of a poem may be shared by its writer.

It may seem as though I’m blaming the audience members here, but I don’t mean to: the onus is never on them. They are not mind-readers and can only judge based what is presented to them. If the poet is concerned about how the poem will be interpreted, it is his/her responsibility to reduce ambiguities. At the same time, however, it is important to remember that poems are not intended to be political speeches or clear-cut, factual statements. They are poems, which means they should retain some ambiguity. Ultimately, artists must relinquish some control over their work when they put it out there and understand that the audience will do with it what they will, but when the poem is very often misinterpreted or twisted to argue for a viewpoint the writer did not intend, perhaps then it is the responsibility of the poet to clarify the language of the piece. In the case of “Swallow,” it took three years for anyone to mention that they interpreted these anti-contraceptives messages in the piece, meaning either that no one felt comfortable telling me that they perceive them, or (I hope) that most people do not perceive this messages in the poem.

So, how could this misinterpretation of “Swallow” have been prevented? First, I could have been more precise in my language and avoided using terms with value judgments that I did not share. Second, in the editing process, we sometimes remove contextualising information which is essential for the framing of the message. Being careful while editing that lines being removed or altered aren’t necessary to the full comprehension of the piece is important.

Third, interpretations of poems are also based on where the performer places emphasis. Analysing my performance of “Swallow” now, I realise that I place great vocal emphasis on the word “consequences,” saying it twice and pausing after each time. One way to avoid misinterpretations is to be conscious of where emphasis is placed in the poem and tailor the performance to highlight the elements of the poem that best convey the message: for example, instead of highlighting the word “consequences,” I could have highlighted other lines in the poem which give more positive depictions of family planning.

Fourth, I could have turned to a fellow poet or audience member and directly asked them what messages they perceived in the piece early in the writing process. I am so grateful that I now work within a community of poets with whom I can share work, knowing that they will give honest, uncensored feedback. I would not have been aware of how “Swallow” has been perceived if not for fellow poets who were curious and not afraid to probe me on it. Fellow poets are often more perceptive about possibly problematic lines because they’ve shared that experience of having work misinterpreted. Some of my male poet friends who identify as feminists have been deemed sexist and mysoginist, and friends who suffer from mental illnesses have been accused of trivialising them onstage, despite that not being their intent. They have learned from those experiences who to take care with language so as to present the most true (non-offensive) version of their story onstage. It is also good to remember that one of the best things about performance poetry is that the poet is there, in the room. If as an audience member, you have a question about a message shared in a poem, ask about it! All of the poets I know are keen to understand how their work is perceived and generally welcome observations and questions.

From this experience I have learned that I need to be more careful with wording and to interrogate my poems for their political messages early in the drafting process. I also need to recognise which parts of the poem I’m emphasising in performance and how to use these emphases to strengthen, not undercut, my message. I will also make better use of my poetry community and be more active in soliciting feedback earlier in the writing process.

What to do now? “Swallow” is one of my core poems, a lynchpin of my sets. As a result of performing it for three years, it’s been emblazoned into my brain, so it will be difficult to edit it at this point without risk of reverting back to the original version onstage by force of habit. I could simply stop performing it. Or I could use it within sets so I also have a chance to briefly assert my political views as a bit of a disclaimer so I am satisfied the audience will not assume a message I don’t intend. I’m still considering what to do with the poem now that I have a greater understanding of the multiple ways in which it is perceived, and I welcome any suggestions!


Poets and artists: Have any of your pieces ever been misconstrued as arguing a message you did not intend, or even disagree with? If so, how did you deal with it? Do you have a practice for ensuring that the message expressed in the poem matches the message you intended to convey?

9 thoughts on ““Swallow”: When Poems are Misinterpreted

  1. J. Lexi says:

    Yo Katie,

    AWESOME ARTICLE. Lots of stuff needed said, I think you’re right that at some point everyone has a poem misinterpreted.

    The only point I would make is that the possible audience misinterpretation should obviously always be considered, but I feel it’s more like a balancing act between the likelihood of this happening as well as its negative effect and the importance of the possibly misinterpreted section along with the importance of the point the poem is making.

    I think sometimes when the poem is important and there’s no way of saying something without the possibility of being misinterpreted, then you ought to consider keeping it in. Context will always help within a set situation, but at slams sometimes you have to just trust the audience when you have something that you feel needs said, and you can’t say it any other way.

    That’s my view anyway. A lot of my opinions on responsible media come from this video though, so you might find it interesting – even if it is specifically on criticism, the explanations it gives of different types of media and what responsibility involves are really interesting. Let me know what you think.


    • kathrynaailes says:

      Thanks for your comment! I agree with the point that the artist ultimately shouldn’t censor him/herself in fear of any misinterpretations that audience might make; we can’t control what the audience thinks, that’s a good thing, and we do ultimately need to trust that they’ll get the gist. Really interesting video, too! The difference of intention and outcome is, I think, an important one – but equally important is the ability to recognise when the message being perpetrated is not the one intended and to shift either the poem/art or respond to the audience in some way (thus this blog post!).


  2. Derek White says:

    Hi Katie,

    When I was a student I belonged to a volunteer group that worked with emotionally disturbed adolescents. As a training exercise one day I was asked to sit in the middle of the group of volunteers and tell in a factual way a simple story of something that happened to me that day, and the group had to read my emotions and say how I felt about it. We’d been volunteering together for about a year by then, socialising, become friends. Most of the group were psychology students who went on to work in that field. Yet only one was spot on in identifying how I felt.

    It is so much more complex with a poem. Poetry at its best – and yours is very good – expresses a complex of emotions that can’t be expressed in any other words. If a poem can be paraphrased then its not a successful poem. Given that a poem is a unique statement of a specific sense I sometimes feel that the best we can do as readers or audience is approach the feeling of the poem, rather in the way that a mathematical expression approaches a limit.

    I saw you perform this poem at the National Slam on the 26th. It was my favourite poem in your set. For me the line “I am a careless girl” with its multiple meanings and associations is the pivot on which the whole poem turns, that makes it work. I wouldn’t change anything.

    Cheers, Derek


    • kathrynaailes says:

      Hi Derek,
      Thanks so much for this comment and for your support. I agree – good poems are not clear-cut, factual statements but jumping-off points for the reader/audience to connect with their own experiences and interpret as they will. I’m reminded of the quote – I think from Robert Frost – that when you publish six poems, you actually publish seven since the audience takes away so much more than you record on paper. Your comment is a reminder for me that it is not necessarily the responsibility of the poem to make its meaning crystal clear. In terms of this poem, I’m simply concerned about possibly promoting ideas I disagree with by accident. I am glad that you didn’t get those feelings from the piece, though, and that you enjoyed it.


  3. Shaun Moore says:

    Morning Katie, jeez, your blog entries are as thought provoking and thorough as your poems 🙂
    I know we spoke about this last night, briefly during the pre slam melee 🙂 was interested as to how it had come about, and how it will pan out, so ended up here via your FB status on same.
    Anyway, two wee points on the above, if I may?
    1. I heard “careless girl” as not meaning irresponsible, (or even immoral!), but as a recognition that you don’t have the same cares as the other girls you express so much empathy for throughout the piece. Maybe not everyone would hear that, maybe as someone interested in poetry I instinctively look for another layer to a phrase or a word’s double meaning?
    2. You said it’s taken 3 years for anyone to raise this (non) issue. Maybe you should count up the number of times you’ve performed this piece, multiply that by the average audience figures, add the number of hits on your videos of it. Hey, even factor in the wide, wide demographic from pubs, cafes, universities, womens’ events, open slams. And in different countries.
    So out of THOUSANDS of gobsmacked listeners and enthusiastic applause, and face to face compliments on it . . . . . a HANDFUL of folk have given negative feedback to third parties 😉


    • kathrynaailes says:

      Hi Shaun, thanks for your comment! I’m glad that double meaning of “careless” came through for you – it’s not a meaning I initially intentionally wrote into the piece, but I’ve come to appreciate how the word works multiple ways. And yes, you’re right that it seems the majority of folks haven’t been offended, which is good. Still, for me, the fact that anyone perceived that I was shaming them felt like enough to issue an apology. Those listener’s perceptions are just as valid as those of everyone else’s, so I felt it important to respond to them (even in this limited way). I’m been overwhelmed and quite happy with the response to this post indicating that most people didn’t feel that way, so that’s a bit of confirmation that I haven’t been perceived as an anti-feminist for the past three years! Thanks again for your wonderful support, and hope you had a good trip back to Glasgow last night!


  4. Alex says:

    Hi Katie! I don’t think we’ve met properly, but I was the technician at the Scottish National Slam Championships and this past week’s Soapbox, so I’ve heard Swallow twice now. I will say that at the Slam, I very much did interpret Swallow to be anti-contraceptive. I think I picked up on some of the ways in which it was personal rather than political but was very put off still by what I read as the political implications.

    When you performed it again at Soapbox, I heard it completely differently. At the time I chalked it up entirely to the addition of movement (which was AMAZING and added a lot to the performance), but I wonder now if it was your deliberate effort to change that. If it was, it totally worked, congratulations! If it wasn’t, it still totally worked, and I’m really glad to see that I was right the second time hearing it rather than the first.


    • kathrynaailes says:

      Hi Alex! Thanks for your comment; I really appreciate your honesty in telling you that you perceived the poem as anti-contraceptive at first. I’m so glad you had a different take the second time! I agree that it may be the movements (though I’m curious which movements and how they changed how the words were perceived – such an interesting phenomenon!). I also added in a stanza: early in the poem I added it “And this is good. / We swallow the power to work, / to live and learn and give and plan / So when we swell, we are thick oyster shells / ready to receive pearls.” I’m hoping this addition clarifies that I hugely value contraceptives for their positive influences on women’s lives. With that addition early in the poem, I then hope that the listener is free to listen to the rest of the poem assured that it is not intending to be offensive or negative about contraception in any way. As well, since I’m now very conscious of the many ways the poem can be interpreted, I’ve shifted some of the emphases and the way I perform it to try to convey my original intent. Thanks again for commenting, and hoping to see you about more and properly meet you soon!


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