If you are a member of a writer's family, you will be written about! Sometimes, if you are parents, the writer may wait politely until you are dead. But if you are a sibling or offspring, all bets are off!
"Good poets cannibalize themselves," Clayton Eshelman said to me when I was a grad student. I was repulsed. I didn't believe him then. I do now. Poets have to be fearless in exploring their own emotions. No censorship can be permitted in one's own head, or on the page.
But what he didn't tell me was that the risk applied to family as well. We use all of it, all of our stories, our secrets, our strangest events and feelings. The writer's goal is not to hurt people. Our goal is to use language to explore, and in so doing, everything we know and love and hate and fear is grist for the poetry mill. Alchemy is a prettier metaphor, but the process is the same--take all of experience, even the shit, the dross, compress, transform, and sing.
Okay, so we agree that we'll write our hearts out and maybe eat them, too. But does this mean we have the right to publish writing that may hurt or offend others? My daughter doesn't like for me to read one of my poems, "Lovers," which sings of her toddler days. The poem mentions her name and my breasts in the same breath, which is a no-no. I have plenty of poems, thank the goddess, so I honor her wishes. Sort of. I never read the poem when she's in the audience, or even in town.
But I have other poems about other family members that are so honest they might be experienced as cruel. At least one of these is a really good poem. So does poetry trump hurt feelings? Does the writer's ego rule? For the moment, I am keeping the poem private, for my eyes. Maybe some day after the parties concerned have passed out of the picture, I'll publish the work. Will I leave instructions to burn any questionable work after I'm dead? Nope.
Causes Marilyn Kallet Supports
Southern Poverty Law Center, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, ACLU, Amnesty International, Save Darfur.