Ed. note: This post has sparked discussion on Facebook and Twitter since being published, with feedback from a wide range of perspectives and opinions (some Facebook comments here, Twitter Storify here, some comments on the blog below). I’m delighted that a public conversation is occurring on the importance of trigger warnings, since for some they are essential components to live arts events. As I stated in my post, this is a discussion I think poets and promoters need to be having to ensure that poetry events are safe spaces for both performers and audience members, without censoring the poets’ freedom of expression. My original post is below, unaltered. Let’s keep the discussion going; please comment if you disagree/agree/want to talk. As this space is intended to be a forum for discussion, I’m also happy to have folks write guest posts sharing their thoughts on this issue. Thanks to all who’ve shared their perspectives!
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of hosting the April Edinburgh University Literature Society Slam, which was won by the fantastic poet Doug Garry of Loud Poets. Before the scores were announced, I was asked to perform a poem in my role as host and chose to perform a new piece. The poem, entitled “Brightest,” chronicles my relationship with a dear childhood friend, my desire to support her through seriously bad times, and my guilt at moving away and feeling distant from her. It contains mentions of mental illness, sexual assault, and suicide attempts. After the slam, I received positive feedback on the poem from poets and audience members indicating that they had felt moved by it and thanking me for sharing it. However, one young woman approached me and said that the poem had seriously affected her friend who had accompanied her to the slam, bringing back memories of that woman’s friend who had committed suicide, and that she was now crying in the bathroom. She praised the poem and thanked me for sharing it, but I was concerned about her friend and felt awful that something I had written had caused her pain by triggering bad memories.
Since that reaction, I’ve been wondering about my responsibilities as a performer who often covers intense material. Is there anything that I could have done to prepare the audience for the potentially triggering nature of my poem—and if there was, should I have? Is it the responsibility of the poet to warn audiences of graphic, potentially upsetting material in their writing?
Trigger warnings (also called stress warnings or content warnings) are increasingly being used before internet articles to indicate that the content includes material that may be disturbing to readers and trigger memories of past trauma. They tend to cover material including violence, sexual assault, eating disorders, self-harm, and other painful subjects (this article is an excellent resource on when and how to use trigger warnings). For some, reading such material will induce stress, symptoms of PTSD, dissociative states, or even flashbacks. Warnings are designed to warn readers about this content so that they can avoid reading the material if they’d like, or read it forewarned of its graphic nature.
As trigger warnings become increasingly common in online forums, should performance poets consider using them before pieces which contain intense sexual/violent content? In this blog post I discuss the merits of that idea and also how it might not be practical or effective given the context of most poetry events.
First, I want to say that to some extent poetry audiences would know to expect this kind of material: they likely understand that poetry slams are often used to express personal material and thus can sometimes be forums for hyper-confessional, therapy-couch style poems. It’s characteristic of poetry nights, and many artistic performance nights, that intense material will be shared. However, there are always first-timers who may not be accustomed to that style and thus might taken aback by powerful material. And people who are aware that they will be triggered by certain content shouldn’t have to abstain from attending poetry events out of fear of being triggered. Slams are also meant to be safe spaces where the poet can freely and comfortably share material, and in theory that safe space should also extend to the audience feeling relatively comfortable as well.
This article points out that individuals can set their own boundaries and often describe them to their friends so they know what not to discuss to trigger them: for example, a sexual assault survivor could publicly request that others not discuss that topic around her/him. However, in the context of going to a poetry performance, obviously that person does not have the ability to request that performers abstain from performing work on that subject. That would amount to censoring the poetry performed that night for the benefit of a one person in the audience, which doesn’t seem like a worthwhile cause (although this could be argued).
Does this mean that poets shouldn’t perform work on potentially triggering materials? I don’t think so. Art is a powerful medium through which to process difficult experiences, and performance poetry as a medium has often been used a tool for confession of hardship and a means of moving through it. Poetry events are often likened to spiritual gatherings for the sense of trust and community there—people tend to share difficult narratives and audience members relate to them, hopefully in a healing way that helps them move forward. So generally, I think poets need to have the freedom to share material that they feel moved to share, even/especially if that material might be difficult. That is, as long as it is still a poem; I’m not advocating ranting or recounting diary-like narratives at poetry events. The point is still making art from experience, not simply relating graphic material.
OK, so poets need to feel comfortable sharing any material they need, but audience members also have needs, and ideally poets should avoid triggering audience members, or at least warn them about potentially triggering content. But how should/could poets do that? Say the poet adds an introduction to the poem simply saying “This poem contains mentions of X, Y, Z,” like a trigger warning on an online article would. At poetry events, the audience is captive: if someone in the audience were to hear a trigger warning and thus not want to hear the content of the poem, what would be the options open to them? Unlike when trigger warnings are placed on online articles so the reader can simply close the tab, audience members at poetry shows don’t really have the option to get up and leave without it being public and possibly embarrassing for that person. In the context of a slam, giving a trigger warning is difficult to the point of being impossible, since poems are timed from the moment the poet begins speaking and thus to do an introduction uses up some of that time and disadvantages the poet.
This becomes even more difficult with promoting events. For a one-man/woman show, it’s possible to issue a sort of warning in the promotional material, lumping it in with an age-appropriate warning (ie “This show contains poems concerning sexual assault and may not be appropriate for children”). But for shows with more than one performer, would it make sense to issue a warning if only one of two poems mention graphic material? For open-mics, it’s nearly impossible to implement since poetry event organisers don’t know which poems the performers will be doing in advance.
Perhaps this shouldn’t be the point, but playing Devil’s Advocate: for some poems, adding a warning prior to performing it would dull the narrative arc of the piece by removing narrative intrigue. Some poets could argue that adding a trigger warning would be tantamount to adding a spoiler. With “Brightest,” one could argue that warning beforehand that the poem will include mentions of suicide attempts would “spoil” the plot of the poem (although even writing that sentence felt dirty, since it’s a true story and to talk about my friend’s life as having plot points feels crude). There generally aren’t trigger warnings on dust jackets of books, although you could say that films have warnings in the form of MPAA ratings. We’re not used to seeing trigger warnings for fictional material, but we can take cues from the way this material is marketed. If I’m reading or watching Game of Thrones, I won’t see a trigger warning for sexual assault, violence, or incest, but I’ll know from the way the books and show are marketed that they contain graphic materials. Again, this shouldn’t be the point, but it’s a valid question of whether a custom used in nonfiction articles should be transferred into fictional media.
Personally, as an audience member I have never felt a need for trigger warnings before poems. I have been deeply moved by poems and have related to many experiences shared onstage, but I have never been triggered by a poem in any severe sense. However, I also have been fortunate to not have suffered many major traumas, so I certainly cannot speak on behalf of all audience members. I’m aware I’m generalizing here, too: people are not machines to be triggered at any mention of a sensitive subject, and two poems on the same subject may have very different effects on the audience member’s mind
There’s another side to this, too. After the slam, that young woman thanked me for sharing that experience, saying that it had expressed something she felt but was unable to say. It hurt to hear, but healed. I don’t want to sound high-and-mighty, but one of the best parts about performing confessional, intense work is when an audience member approaches you after the show and thanks you for sharing that experience because they shared that experience and it touched them to hear it discussed publicly. It’s one of the main reasons I began performing spoken word: I heard poets brilliantly describing experiences I felt in ways that felt right, experiences no one else was talking about publicly. I started performing when I felt I had stories to share, too. My work covers themes that aren’t often discussed in polite settings, including reproductive rights, sterility/fertility, mental illness, and body-shaming. For poets to self-censor and stop discussing these issues in their work for fear of triggering audience members would be, in my mind, counter-productive. Listening to these poems can hurt like hell, but it can also help audience members understand that they are not alone in their experiences and give them courage to discuss them publicly.
In “Brightest” I’m not describing sexual assault or suicide in graphic terms, and I’m certainly not encouraging anyone towards either. I use metaphors to describe both, and the narrative is one of support, love, and healing. I wrote the poem to help myself understand this experience and as a sort of love letter to my friend. Like so many spoken word poems, it is an intensely personal, private thing which I am choosing to share in the hopes others will connect with it to find their own peace. So ultimately, I think the most important thing here is not the avoidance of certain difficult subject matters, but the way we discuss them. Throwing graphic material at the audience with no artistic gloss (however you interpret that) and without any desire to solve/heal pain is not a positive way of doing a poem, in my opinion. But to share a story of a difficult thing through metaphor and narrative and poetry with the intent to heal oneself and potentially heal others: that is good.
This is part of a larger discussion about trigger warnings: in what contexts are they necessary/appropriate? Is it the responsibility of the poet/artist to anticipate potential triggers and warn against them? Would that be “bubble-wrapping” or self-censoring art or simply a matter of trying to respect others’ boundaries? These are sensitive, fraught areas that I believe deserve some discussion in the poetry scene so that we can ensure poetry events remain safe spaces for both performers and audience members.
Poets: Do you issue trigger warnings before poems with potentially triggering content? Do you think it’s the poet’s responsibility to warn audiences about this kind of content?