April 12, 2016

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Poetry Friday: Writing about Difficult Subjects

What is the job of a poet? Let's look at the darker side of this issue for this week's Poetry Friday post.

Many years ago, I participated in a group reading event with poet Lucille Clifton. At the time, the self-help book and movie The Secret was in its heyday. I'm over-simplifying when I say that The Secret advises reader/viewers not to see the things they don't want to "attract" to themselves.

If you want to be thin, the film says, don't focus on people who are overweight or think too much about how rich foods make you fat. If the evening news makes you worry about violence, choose not to watch it, or you might be attracting that violence into your own life.
"The Law of Attraction" says thinking acts like a magnet.
Negative thoughts attract negativity into our lives.
Positive thoughts bring us good things.

Clifton addressed this issue at the reading. She said that poets should not look away from what's uncomfortable or upsetting. It is our job, she advised, to bear witness to life and events that are difficult. If we don't talk about them, who will? In doing so, we poets set the stage for change -- or, at least, for conversation.

Poet Jacqueline Jules (Zapato Power) recently contacted me. I'll explain the connection in a second.

Jacqueline is an accomplished children's author. You'll find her list of over a dozen books at her website. But Jacqueline also writes poetry for adults. She had a poem published at the online literary journal rkvry quarterly. The theme of the current issue is sexuality. Jacqueline's poem addresses the difficult subject of childhood sexual abuse.

Jacqueline invited me to interview her regarding that poem. Such interviews are a special feature at rkvry. I like the way these discussions between poet and guest interviewer provide additional insights into the poem and continues the conversation between poet and reader. You can check out my conversation with Jacqueline at rkvry.

Her poem is titled "The Stick in the Big Boy's Hand."

The Stick in the Big Boy's Hand

by Jacqueline Jules

I saw my little sister go next door
with the neighbor boy.
White sandals on her small feet,
short pink socks with frilly lace cuffs,
and blue flowered shorts
matching a cotton button-down shirt.
Mama always dressed us nice, even to play outside
on a slick June morning, two days into summer vacation.
Wet blades squeaked beneath my shoes
as I followed up the hill. Reaching the crest,
I thought, at first, she’d slipped,
seeing her prone in the dew,
her cheek pressed into the long grass
Read the rest of the poem at rkvry quarterly.

And here is a poem dealing with childhood sexual abuse is by Lucille Clifton.

What Did She Know, When Did She Know It
by Lucille Clifton

in the evenings
what it was the soft tap tap
into the room the cold curve
of the sheet arced off
the fingers sliding in
and the hard clench against the wall
before and after
all the cold air cold edges
why the little girl never smiled

The poem is unpublished online. You can read the entire poem in Clifton's book, The Terrible Stories.
1996 National Book Award nominee
Oprah Winfrey's website has an excellent list of resources for victims of sexual abuse, including children.

Questions for you. readers: What is the darkest or most personal subject you have felt brave enough to tackle in a poem? What do you think makes these two poems work, despite the troubling subject matter?

This week's Poetry Friday blog roll is at Semicolon. See you over there for more great poetry links.


Renee LaTulippe said...

Thank you so much for sharing these poems, Laura, and for your excellent, insightful interview of Jacqueline.

Robyn Hood Black said...

So very powerful - thanks to you and to Jacqueline for sharing the poetry and the interview.

The "writing about difficult subjects" question (but in a historical context) was one I asked Margarita Engle today in my post.

Author Amok said...

Robyn, I'll check out your post. It's amazing that there seem to be threads between posts each week. I'm at a conference, but looking forward to reading your interview later today.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Thank you, Laura, for opening the doors to such difficult subject matter. Jacqueline's poem is both exquisite and powerful in its expression of vulnerability and mental paralysis. And then your interview just deepened the experience for me even further. I'm grateful to have read them both.

Linda B said...

You've shared such important parts here of what poets, and their poetry, are able to do for themselves and for those who read their words, Laura. There have been some times in my classroom (middle school age) that we dug into sharing of what was hard, but important to share & I was astounded by their honesty, & I know that our writing helped the students by being able to reveal their "secrets". I liked the interview with Jacqueline, seeing that writing the poem was clearly something she needed. Thanks for sharing the bit of Clifton, too.

Furniture Press Books said...

Writing "about" an event or idea is controversial in itself because language does not have the capacity to absolutize a feeling or sentiment. So, everything we poets do is an approximation of that. What exactly does it mean to write about a horrific event or idea? Is it didactic? Does it teach anything? What's the point of poetry? Entertainment? Meditation? What are we doing when we read vs when we write it? I think posing this question begs the logical sibling of this idea, of writing about such events and ideas: how does language ultimately fail us during interpretation? And how do we enact this failure by making conscious (in our poems) by balancing the sentiment and the failure? Art is both artifact and artifice, the evidence of an attempt at making sense (and senses!), which are always negotiated by numerous and often contentious subjectivities. Ultimately, to answer you question: What does one do with difficult subjects? Enact and ambrace the failure of its righteous completion (in coming to grips with such things) and embrace yourself (and others) in total compassion and empathy. You can't change anything from the past, but you can come to grips with it. As they say, you're worst enemies are your greatest teachers.

Jacqueline Jules said...

Thanks, Laura. I loved the wisdom you shared from Lucille Clifton, how she said "that poets should not look away from what's uncomfortable or upsetting. It is our job, she advised, to bear witness to life and events that are difficult."

Linda said...

Laura, "writing about difficult subjects" is what keeps me sane sometimes. I can't look away from the pain so I write about it. I love Lucille Clifton, and she left us with some amazing poems and picture books. Jacqueline's poetry is new to me, but now I want to read more. Thanks for this powerful post.

Margaret Simon said...

It is important for the poet to be the voice even though these are difficult subjects to write about and read about. There is a theme going through the Poetry Friday posts today. I also read Violet's "Bullied Abecedarium" which comes too close for comfort to bullying. We must be this voice for our world. Thanks for sharing.
Lucille Clifton is one of my idols. I saw her at the Dodge Poetry Festival years ago. Such a loss of a strong voice!

Holly Thompson said...

Thanks for posting this. Here is my post on the topic of Writing About Difficult Subjects--Verse and Writing Headlong into Grief:

Tabatha said...

Was Jacqueline at Debbie Levy's recent book launch? Small world! Important topic, Laura. I think there are as many ways to handle difficult subjects as there are poets.

Mary Lee said...

I'm keeping a list of prompts for myself, based on what I've seen in this week's PF Roundup. I'll add writing about a my most dark and personal subject...but I'm not sure how close to that core I'll be able to go...