One thing I often have quite heated debates with other poets about is to what extent poems should be “true”. There seems to be a widespread feeling, especially in the spoken word community, that it is deceitful and manipulative to represent someone else’s experience, or a made-up story, as your own experience (although, having said that, there is a much greater tolerance for fictional personae in comedy than there is in “serious” poetry). I am broadly in sympathy with that feeling (with some qualifications – see below). But I also know some people who dislike it when spoken word artists present other people’s stories onstage, even when they clearly do so in the third person, and thus do not even attempt to pretend the experience they are narrating is their own. That, to me, raises fundamental questions about what poetry is for.
I would like to emphasise that everything I say onstage in the first person is more or less true, unless it is fairly transparently fantastic or metaphorical (e.g. I credit audiences of The Gingerbread House with enough intelligence to work out for themselves that I have never actually burned a child alive in an oven or literally built a gingerbread house. But on an emotional level, the poem is true – the persona’s feelings are mine, even though the exact events aren’t). I sometimes exaggerate things, condense several real-life events into one or alter minor details, but when I say that I was once raped by a boyfriend, and that at peak periods of mental illness I have thrown away a pair of shoes because I walked down a street with dogshit on the opposite pavement, I am telling the truth. I would never lie about shit like that or manufacture a misery memoir to win a slam.
But I can understand why some people do. The tendency of some slam audiences to vote for the most heartrending or shocking story or the poem with the most right-on, issue-based subject matter,almost regardless of the quality of the writing, can encourage this. When I find myself (as I have, on occasions) calculatedly choosing to do my poem about being raped as a slam piece, “because that’s the kind of material that plays well with slam audiences”, even though the poem is absolutely true, and performing it has been enormously therapeutic for me, it does make me feel there is something wrong with this aspect of slam culture. I think it’s true that a poem that contains a nugget of the poet him- or herself often has more power than a poem that gives an external perspective on someone else’s experience. I also think it’s right to acknowledge and reward the fact that someone has been brave enough to share a harrowing experience. But, ultimately, I believe that poetry should be judged on the quality of the writing and the performance, not on who has the most impressive sob story. If audiences are demanding to vicariously experience mental breakdowns, social deprivation and substance abuse, I can’t entirely blame poets who feel they have to provide the audience with what they want, whether it’s true or not.
I know that page poetry often goes too far in the opposite direction – that “confessional” poems are often discouraged in favour of the cerebral and detached. While it’s true that the urge to use poetry as therapy, to prioritise getting your feelings and experiences down on paper over the choice of language in which you couch them, can sometimes lead to truly terrible poetry, I think contemporary page poetry often runs too scared of raw emotion and it is one of the things which is driving the young towards spoken word instead.
Nevertheless, if a poem, and/or the way in which it is performed, has the power to move an audience, does it matter whether it is “true” or not? What is being judged? The quality of the art or the poet’s personal morals? Is honesty what poetry is for? After all, they don’t call being economical with the truth “prosaic licence”.