On Writing: Some Thoughts on Reader Assumptions, Writing from Life, and Speculative Poetry

After reading the “About” notes for a recent poem in the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day series, I’ve been thinking about the way I read poems, about the assumptions I make about the distance between the poet and the speaker of the poem. Perhaps because I’ve always tried to eschew the personal as much as possible in my own poems, even before I started writing in science fictional contexts, I try to read with space between the poet and the speaker.

Which I think is a useful thing, in that poetry exists in this weird space between fiction and non-fiction, an art that carries both the confessional urge of memoir and the objective gloss of reportage. Even for deeply personal poetry, poetry of the lived experience, poetry of cultural upheaval–don’t we have to see this in two layers? We can read the poet-as-speaker, the person in the moment of the poem, and still understand that behind the poem, the poet-as-artisan, labored over the language, the form, the movement of the poem. But I try not to conflate the speaker with the poet as I’m reading, especially if I don’t know whether the poet writes from life.

But what does this have to do with speculative poetry? Stepping back a bit, in the note to the March 4th poem-a-day selection, “Meadowlark,” poet David J. Daniels reassures us that despite the subject of the poem–his brother’s suicidal intention–that his brother is “very much still alive, thankfully.” After I read this, I was, at first, glad to hear this, of course. Which led me to ask, had I assumed that the poet had a brother who had gone to the park intending to commit suicide?

About later poem in the series, “Will You?” Carrie Fountain notes that “To remain true to my art, I try to be awake in the world. I try to succumb to it—the glitter, the Henrys, the rude things I find coming out of my mouth—and I try to make something of it.” So we’re meant to read this as a transformation of lived experience into art, even if I’m fighting with myself over whether I should. And I do fight myself–I did, I realize, assume that this was something that came from something that feels so very real, even if the details were finessed to achieve the poem.

So, again, what do these examples of literary poetry set in a contemporary context have to do with speculative poetry? Here’s the thing that I’ve been mulling over. There’s something useful about this urge to read first-person poems as leaning more toward the non-fiction end of things. So, we speculative poets write a fair amount of work in first-person, albeit in personas that aren’t, of course, ours. Even if the events didn’t, in fact, happen, the fact that a.) most readers assume the speaker is the poet and b.) we’re so used to poetry being grounded in things that happened to the poet (or, really, the poet-as-speaker) that all modes of poetry benefit from this assumption of the actual: that this actually happened, even if it didn’t.

Why is this assumption important? Let’s go back to that poetry of the lived experience. Thinking back on my early reading of poetry, I did assume that things poets wrote about actually happened. This is just the lay assumption about poetry, or at least it was when I was younger. And that someone experienced the events of the poem, that was part of what was so moving to me about poetry. I’ve moved beyond that, but I can’t shake the feeling entirely when I’m reading something that feels personal. And persona poetry–whether set in the poet’s contemporary time or not–should aim to cultivate that feeling in the reader.

So can I assume that my readers will mistakenly feel the sense of “this actually happened” when they read my near-future poems? Probably not. But thinking about my own reading, and how poems affected me in their mirage of non-fiction, I can hope that they do. What I write about–the ways in which homes will be affected by technology, the ways families come together and fall apart because of it–I could easily write about in contemporary settings. But those settings lack some of the “sense of wonder” science fiction offers: potential solutions to–or complications of–current problems. Or timeless problems.

As I continue to write the poems for the manuscript I have in progress, I’m keeping this in mind. All the poems are the voices of different personas. And their job, all these people speaking from this generation ship I’ve put them on, is to make you believe them.

What are your assumptions about poems? How have you changed your assumptions? Which ones have stayed with you?

Also, if you haven’t already subscribed to the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, you can do so here: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem-day