As a teenager, I used to daydream that one day someone would write a poem about me. This was around the time I got into schmaltzy love songs and Mills and Boon novels. When it actually happened, however, it turned out to be less romantic than I thought.
In the mid-90s, I spent four years teaching at a Polish university, mostly acting as a glorified language assistant, but I did do a little bit of academic teaching, as well. This was a long, long time before I started writing poetry, but some of my colleagues (both Polish and foreign) were published poets. Colleagues who were permanent staff and were studying for, or had completed, a PhD had a tendency to treat those of us who were there on a temporary basis, helping out the students with their English, as if we were a bit thick, especially if we were women. In fairness, many of us didn’t behave like we were proper lecturers, spending more time going drinking with the students than having serious academic discussions with our colleagues, but their patronising dismissal of us still grated and to an extent it became a vicious circle – the more they treated us like airheads and left us out of serious conversations, the more we found other, nonacademic things to do with our time. As a result, they didn’t get to know us very well.
One day, after some kind of conference or event (I don’t even remember what it was), I shared a taxi home with two of the non-Polish academic staff. I asked one of them, who, incidentally, was an up-and-coming poet, if he would mind giving my address to the driver, as “they never understand it when I say it.” The reason for this is that I have problems saying the letter ‘r’, even in English, and Polish is a rhotic language (the kind of language where everyone pronounces their ‘r’s like it’s Talk Like A Pirate Day). This wasn’t usually a problem when I was speaking Polish, as it would normally be clear from the surrounding dialogue which word I was trying to say, but it was a problem in very short exchanges, like saying my address (ulica Czarnieckiego), when there was no context to help. I suppose a rough equivalent in English would be if somebody lived in Charity Street, but pronounced it Chatty Street. He agreed to do this willingly enough, the tax driver dropped me off at my home and I thought no more about it.
Some months later, the colleague with whom I’d shared a taxi published a poem in English about Anglophone people with a superior, colonial attitude who go abroad and make no attempt to integrate. It contained one very cutting line about a woman who “has lived in Poland for three years and still can’t say the name of the street where she lives.” The minute I saw it, I knew he was referring to me and felt angry, hurt and humiliated. Above all, I was struck by the unfairness of it – this man who was making broad, derogatory statements about me didn’t know me, had never made any effort to get to know me. If he had, he would have known that my Polish, while not brilliant and probably far less good than it should have been considering how long I’d lived in Poland, was really not that bad – I could read books and newspapers, I could have extended conversations and I continually worked at improving my grasp of the language. I really wasn’t the lazy, complacent ignoramus he’d painted me as and I had many foreign colleagues who had been there the same amount of time of me or longer whose Polish was far worse. Why had he singled me out?
Every time I saw him after that, no matter how civil he was to my face, I knew that underneath the affable exterior he hated me and was sneering at me in contempt. A little while after this, I was interviewed on local TV about a drama project I was doing with the students. By this point, I was so obsessed with vindicating myself, that all I could think about while the interview was going on was, “I hope and pray Colleague X is watching this. This is proof I speak Polish adequately!”
Looking back on this more than twenty years later, as a poet myself, I realise it probably wasn’t the targetted personal attack on me that I perceived it as at the time. In my head, the whole poem had been about me and how much he hated me, as an individual, but now I realise that he probably picked on me, not because he thought I was uniquely awful or even the most egregious example in his circle, but because that particular instance was a powerful and economical way of illustrating a general point he wanted to make about foreigners in Poland not integrating. What mattered was that it gave a fair and accurate impression of how too many foreigners behave, not whether it gave a fair and accurate impression of me.
It does make me wonder about the ethics of writing poetry about actual people, though. In particular, I have been criticised for my unrequited love poetry in the light of the #MeToo movement. Isn’t it creepy, stalkerish, objectifying, inappropriate, an invasion of their privacy to write intimate poems about people who’ve made it clear they don’t want to be in a relationship with you?, I’ve been asked. That’s a hard question to answer and I’m not sure how you balance the rights of people who are long-term single to express their feelings and sexuality and the rights of the objects of their affection to not feel uncomfortable or embarrassed. I try to avoid publishing unrequited love poems that include details which would allow a third party to identify who it’s about, but I have published poems where the object would probably be able to identify themselves if they ever read it. Is this harassment, as continuing to send love letters to someone who’d rebuffed you would be? Is it better or worse that you’re publishing them for multiple strangers to read, not sending them to their house? Is writing poems about intimate moments you shared with an ex and putting them in the public domain dangerously close to revenge porn? Is it OK to publish a love poem about anyone without their written permission? And should the book be pulped if they ever change their mind? Where do you draw the line?
It’s not just romantic poetry, though. Any poem about a living person has the possibility to cause offence. My colleague’s poem upset me at the time for at least three reasons: (1) he’d stolen something I said or did without asking me, (2) he’d taken it out of context and used it to suggest something about me that was not true (3) he had not given me any opportunity to challenge his account or defend myself. But as a poet myself, I know that (1) he was writing about a conversation he was part of, too. Is it appropriating someone else’s experience to write about your own experience of, and feelings about, things they said or did? (2) Poetry is, by its very nature, crafted and edited, not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I have written “true” poems which have taken events that actually occurred several years apart and made them happen in the same week and written love poems that have conflated relationships with two entirely different people. (3) The nature of most published work is monologic, not dialogic. That’s just the way it is. It’s supposed to be a subjective, filtered account, not a police witness statement.
You’re probably safe writing about the dead – I’m publishing poetry about my parents now that I wouldn’t even have written in a private diary when they were still alive – but I live in fear of ending up on non-speakers with many other friends, acquaintances and family members if they ever realise I’ve put them in a poem. Other times, I’ve binned a really good poem because I just didn’t want to risk the upset it might cause.
It is almost impossible to write good poetry without hurting people’s feelings, appropriating their experience without permission, giving a very subjective, one-sided account of events without giving them a chance to put their side, and/or distorting or changing their words and actions or ripping them out of context because it makes a better story or more clearly makes the point you are trying to make. The only way you can avoid the possibility of offence is by sticking to writing poems about bluebells.
Ultimately, I think the onus is on readers/audiences to be aware that any poem, even one where the poet has been at pains to document the truth as far as they can, is a selective account, filtered through the poet’s subjectivity, and that poetic truth is not the same as truth truth. And it’s probably not personal. At least, in this case, I hope it wasn’t. But if it was, it’s just occurred to me that I have unintentionally just got my revenge, as I’ve just done the same thing to him in this blogpost as he did to me in the poem.