Trigger warning: references to sexual assault
In spoken word (and, I find, increasingly, in page poetry), honesty is valued. There is some debate about to what extent it is permissible to tell other people’s stories or offer entirely fictional narratives, but I think most people would agree that it’s wrong to tell a first-person story that’s made up or happened to someone else without making it clear that it is fiction, as audiences will otherwise assume that it is autobiography and their response to the poem will be influenced by their sympathy for you as a person for your “ordeal”. Most people are also aware of the need to be hesitant about appropriating other people’s experience – if you’re a white person performing poems about racism, for example, your time might be better spent ensuring that poets of colour in your area have a platform to tell their own stories, instead of assuming they need you to do it for them, and if you’re being paid for your set, you are arguably profiting from the oppression of a minority you’re not part of. I sometimes feel uncomfortable about sections of my set which are honestly autobiographical, though, and worry I am being dishonest at the same time I am being honest.
This is partly because the moment you make a work of art out of a personal experience you, to an extent, artificialise it. No matter how hard you strive to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, you usually end up editing to make a clearer story. You change minor details and exaggerate things because they work better artistically or because the literal truth would introduce too many irrelevant digressions. By choosing to tell one particular episode from your life in public at all, you are also artificially foregrounding it and suggesting it has a significance greater than the millions of other things that have happened to you.
For example, I have a poem about being raped. It is true, in the sense that it did actually happen. It happened, however, within a relationship which was emotionally and psychologically abusive from start to finish. Some of that other abuse actually made it into the final version of the poem which is still in my set (in which the rape is the main thing the poem leads up to), some was there in the first draft, which came in at over ten minutes and in which the rape was not the culminating and foregrounded feature, but just one in a long string of things that culminated in something else (so is arguably more “honest” about how I really felt about the experience than the final edited version), and some of the abuse I never mentioned in the poem at all (because if I’d mentioned every single abusive thing this person did, the poem would have been at least a week long).
If I’m honest, for me the rape was far from being the worst thing that happened in that relationship. This is partly because at the time I emotionally disengaged from it and pretended it didn’t happen, but partly because sustained emotional and psychological abuse over time has a cumulative impact that you probably can’t begin to understand unless you’ve been the victim of it. Other people tend to think the other stuff that happened doesn’t sound so bad, because they weren’t there.
In a sense, both at the time when I tried to seek support from the church and now when I do that poem to audiences, I’ve put most of the stress on the rape, not the other stuff, because I know that’s the bit that will get their attention and that they will take seriously (except the church didn’t, which is one of the reasons for the poem. Although, to be fair, in retrospect I can see that people who are good at grooming and manipulating their victims are also good at grooming and manipulating those around them, so maybe I should be less harsh on the people in the church), but it’s the other stuff I’m angrier about and more damaged by. Is that manipulative and exploitative? To use something which 100% did actually happen to me to try to get sympathy and/or justice for something else which also happened that bothered me more, but which nobody else seems to give a shit about? One of the few people who heard the first draft version when I did it at an open mic not long after I wrote it told me that the final version works much better and is a much more powerful version and I suppose that does encapsulate the dilemma – a slightly artificial, crafted version of the truth is always more powerful and meets audiences’ emotional needs much better than the messy, unedited truth.
I am also aware that how I perceived the events at the time was, and perhaps still is, excessively lenient to the abuser. I am still plagued by the guilt that it wasn’t “rape-rape” because he wasn’t a stranger and he didn’t drag me into a dark alley and so perhaps it doesn’t count and I should shut up about it. Until I wrote the poem, it had never occurred to me that his repeated refusal to use contraception and then to blame and guilt trip me when I feared I might be (or actually was) pregnant was abuse. Also, every time I perform the poem I go back to that time in my head and it still takes a massive emotional toll on me, more than twenty years after the event. So logically I know that my fears that maybe my version isn’t “honest” enough and makes the rape a bigger deal than it was are probably groundless and any alterations would make it less honest and paint the abuser as less bad than he was.
Also, sometimes the audience gap-fill in a way you didn’t intend. Many people assume that the events in the poem happened when I was a child or teenager and the abuser was a priest or other church worker. I can see why they think this (I reference a children’s song at the beginning and present myself as very vulnerable and naive – because I was!), but I never meant people to think it was about a child. In fact, it happened when I was an adult and the abuser was a fellow parishioner with no authority in the church and younger than me. I must admit, when people assume I was an abused child, I don’t correct them, because I don’t want them to like the poem less (partly because general artistic vanity, but, in fairness, when you’ve been psychologically scarred for life by something, you don’t want people telling you they’re disappointed and don’t care as much, because you turned out to be the wrong kind of victim or you weren’t abused enough).
Other issues have been raised about a series of poems I wrote for my recent collection, Can You See Where I’m Coming From?, about my childhood and my family background. I worried myself when I was writing the collection whether I was overegging the working-classness and other people have since made suggestions that I am a hypocritical twonk shamelessly pretending to be something I am not, appropriating an identity I am not entitled to, and totally blind to my own massive privilege.
My background is complex and I have never really felt I fitted in anywhere. That is really what I wanted the book to be about. My father was a labourer and I grew up in a mainly working-class community, but my wider family is overall probably more lower middle class, with some very solidly middle-class branches. My parents were aspirational and (to be frank) snobbish and tended to look down on the people they lived amongst, but also felt awkward, embarrassed by what they perceived as their lack of sophistication and out of their depth amongst middle-class people (including their own relatives). When I was eleven, I won a scholarship to a public school. It was a fairly rubbish public school and I underachieved there in comparison to my sink state primary and my public-funded university, and most of the other students there were also there on scholarships from working- or lower middle-class homes, so it wasn’t the sea of poshness and high-octane networking you probably imagine it was, but both in the book and in life generally I have tried to be completely upfront about the education I received, because I don’t want people to think I am passing myself off as more working-class than I am. I have also never tried to hide the fact that I currently work as a lecturer in FE and I want to punch people who claim that teachers are “badly paid” and count as “working class” on points, as I know I earned more in my first teaching job out of college than my dad had ever earned in his life.
So, I am emphatically NOT claiming to be working class now, but I did want to explore my background (whatever it is), the impact it still has on my life now, and my feelings about it (including some perhaps overcandid admissions about my feelings about my parents, who are both now dead). I also do try to point out and protest class bias , both in life generally and in spoken word/poetry circles in particular, when I think I perceive it and it does generally make me furious that classism often isn’t viewed as being a problem anymore, when it blatantly is – this does NOT mean I think I am a victim of it.
To an extent, I can understand why some people think I am appropriating working-class experience and playing a class card I am not entitled to, and also those who think I have oversentimentalised it and/or hammered it over the head with the subtlety of a mallet, but if I’m not allowed to write about my own family and my own past, then what the fuck am I allowed to write about? What do people want me to do? Make up a middle-class childhood I didn’t have? Not write about my past at all if it doesn’t fit into the neat boxes they think it should?
All I can say is that I have always tried to be 100% honest in my writing , but it sometimes seem to me that the harder I try to be honest, the more I am accused of blurring the truth. Honesty also often confuses audiences, who have a tendency to want everything to be kept very simple and black-and-white and who also want everything to be dramatic and emotionally cathartic at the same time as they want it to be “honest”. Also, is there even such a thing as 100% honesty? One of the things I tried to look at in my most recent collection (and which I hope to bring out even more in the stage version) is, however honest we try to be, to an extent the identities we construct for ourselves are always partly fictional.