The Writer’s Eye
I’ve heard poetry compared to non-fiction and even to prayer, and so I should have been prepared when readers of my new collection, Exile on a Grid Road (Thistledown Press) expressed surprise at how deeply personal they found it. But I doubt they were more surprised than I was. I’d thought close friends and family knew what a private person I am, and instead of thinking I was baring all in public, they would realize that something else must be going on. An act of imagination, perhaps. Or even art.
To be fair, I had a house cat that died, and I wrote about that. And there is a short series about my experience with breast cancer. I also mention my parents — although the poem with my mother is completely invented, based on a news article about a disease she didn’t have, and anyone who does a literal reading of the poem on my father might believe that he briefly became an indoor grackle. But I also wrote about non-existent neighbours, imagined sex scenes and betrayals, invented colleagues, word games, and flights of fancy from scientific studies, all of which all seem to be accepted as real.
This confusion between the I and the eye of the writer can happen in any genre, although I suspect poetry, seen as more intimate or confessional, may more frequently elicit this response. However, while a piece may be more powerful in the first person, as writers we know that first person narratives may not be based on real life as it was lived, and may instead be an imagined reaction by an invented character to a fictional scenario.
Puzzled as I was at first, I’m now beginning to wonder if this reaction might be a compliment. As writers, we want our work to resonate with readers, whether our poems or stories are distilled from experience or completely made up. We all have colleagues, parents, pets, and even diseases, and perhaps some of the readers who called my work deeply personal felt that way because their own lives had been touched. If so, I’m honoured. If not, it’s still a win-win for creativity: They’re happy with their imagined gossip, and I understand my intentions and have moved on to other writing.
Shelley Banks has an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in Journalism, and her poetry collection, Exile on a Grid Road was published in Fall 2015 by Thistledown Press. She lives and writes in Regina, Saskatchewan.