This week, I released into the wild the love poems project, the one that started as a valentine and, over time, developed into something else entirely, about love and violence and women and men and all the inherent complications thereof. It was a weird things to be working on, given mostly when I write about romantic relationships, they are firmly in the past (or at least MOSTLY in the past). And while I've had some good relationships that just didn't work out with good people, I've also had some with bad people and predictably bad outcomes, and somehow those are the ones that turn up in the poems. Not always the exact truth or details, but sometimes an amalgamation of relationships or men mixed in with fiction. It is the same with family, the mothers and sisters and fathers in my poems are not always my mother and sister and father, but sometimes, there are shared experiences and traits. Fictionalizations to prove a point and strike a certain chord.
Sometimes, I am writing entirely fictional people into being--like in girl show or the shared properties of water and stars. Like the three sisters in beautiful, sinister. Books like major characters in minor films or salvage are more about me and my experiences. In the past, I haven't always shared these books with people I am involved with romantically..some are interested, some less so (depending on whether they are, in fact artists or creators or into poetry at all.) Art is easy for me to share with anyone, but handing someone a poem and saying, "yeah, this is about that jerk I used to date" not so much (I imagine this is a perennial hazard for someone like Taylor Swift..lol..). It's like you wear your exes on your sleeve sometimes (and worse, sometimes the line between fact/fiction blurs in an unflattering way.) I can change names to protect the innocent, details even, like how the physicist in shipwrecks of lake michigan was not a physicist but a mechanical engineer. Like how the married man in major characters...was not a singular span of time, but something that spanned over a decade of us weaving in and out of each other's lives disastrously.
Initially, I had written the love poem project as a gift to my boyfriend of almost three years. Last February, I bound the poems in a small carefully handmade volume and intended to gift them when we met up a couple days after the holiday, but then my mother had a heart attack that started the downhill slope of her decline and the holiday was skipped entirely. I held onto the poems and wrote more through the spring. I also managed to spill coffee on the handmade book and threw it away after a couple months. Then, over the summer, the project took a turn away from just being a personal valentine and more toward addressing broader themes of the difficulties of love in a time when men keep doing horrible things to women on a global scale. While the poems became a central part of my most recent full-length manuscript SEX & VIOLENCE finished in the fall, I decided to wait and issue the project as a zine for the zine series, incorporating some valentine collages I did last year. In the meantime, while some pieces have been published and shared (in Hobart and Rag Queen Periodical), And while the series is technically dedicated to him, I hesitated over giving it to it's original recipient. Is it too political now? Too angry or barbed to be considered a proper love poem, or is that the point? Is it a Valentine or a feminist manifesto? I am still undecided...(the danger of writing about relationships you are actually still in the midst of.)
I've been having similar feelings about the hunger palace series I've been blogging bits of here. On one hand, these are set in the reality of my own life, but things are changed for thematic effect. For example in this piece, the timelines are off, the trees on my block not cut down until about a month after my mother's death. The mouse under the stove and the chipmunks under the stove happened over a decade ago, but they were details that seemed to fit the poem. (The skunk and the stinkbugs though are true.) I also was not present for my mother's speech/occupational therapy sessions, but she recanted them later when I visited.
I imagine the details will continue treading that line. When I went to my first AWP in 2004, I sat in on a panel about poets reading fiction and fiction-writers reading poetry, and one of the fiction people said he always assumed that that the poets words were true--fact--autobiographical and of course all the poets laughed nervously. Over a decade ago, I wrote a poem with the line
"There are three sides to every story. Yours, mine, and the one we make up for the sake of art."
As time goes on, it has always seemed less important for the details of poems to be based on fact, but always important that they be based on truth, and that sometimes, poems are truer for their fictions. X, Y, or Z may not have actually happened, but in the world of the poem, they go a long way toward chipping away at the truth of any given thing. When I met the married man, but before I knew he was married, I gave him a copy of my first book, the fever almanac, which was in the process of coming out that fall. . (I also gave him a ridiculously expensive 1st UK edition of a Henry Miller novel for Christmas, one of his favorites, which should have been a warning sign) After he read my book, his response was to ask me, half-joking, if I was really as depressed and dark as the book (my response was both yes and no.) Later, he was aware there were poems about him, but I did not ask or want him to read them.
As someone who is mostly non-monogamous and dated steadily through my 20s and 30's , there have been a number of men for whom there are no entire poems, but only a line or an image. Like a flash of a swimmer in the ocean as the waves bob him into and out of view. The college trysts and random make outs. The older man, who wrote long love letters to me via e-mail, who told me he loved me way too early on a date at the top of the stairs in the Art Institute. The work crush I spent over a year trying unsuccessfully to drunkenly seduce in bars. The years long poly relationship that fell into a more platonic friendship because I could not handle my jealousy. The mechanical engineer himself, on an off again for years, who finally moved back to Detroit. All of them disassembled and reassembled in various ways. Facts used here and there along with some fiction for desired effect.
And maybe the truths are always more interesting than the actual facts anyway. The possibilities of thematic arcs and resonance far vaster when you finesse the details a bit. Maybe not write what you know, but write what's true.
(edited to add a link that proves I am not the only one thinking these things of late..)