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?