As promised in the last part of my Ledbury poetry festival round-up, I’m returning to the subject of lies.
Two of the workshops I went to last week talked about telling lies in poetry. The first was a Bill Manhire workshop which we started by telling truths and lies about ourselves as an icebreaker – we had very little success at guessing which were which! Interestingly, one reason for this was that many of us had lied by stealing other people’s stories, something that is surely essential for a writer. (I’m reading a fabulous book of short stories called ‘Stolen Stories‘ just now where this is the entire premise, with each story having a short paragraph explaining where it was stolen from.)
A lot of the lying that we were doing in this workshop was in the realm of exaggeration and metaphor, which I guess feels different to me than just ‘making things up’. The lack of literal truth in a statement like ’till a’ the seas gang dry’ (the workshop title) wouldn’t perturb me in the slightest.
However, I do feel edgy as hell when I don’t tell the truth in my more personal-sounding poems – it really bothers me when I change a couple of details, conflate people or events, or even just remember things incorrectly.
Then, I get bothered than it bothers me. I know, from a poetry-reading perspective, that I shouldn’t necessarily identify the I-voice of a poem as the voice of the poet. I’ve had the conversations about literal truth versus poetic truth. I had a really interesting chat with Kona MacPhee about how her well-know IVF poem (a marvellous sestina) makes people assume she’s had IVF. She was definitely encouraging me to get away from needing to be truthful in my poems. Let’s face it, as in fiction, a lot of life would just make a much better poem if you tweak it a bit.
I don’t have any problem at all in telling lies in prose fiction – that seems entirely natural to me. I wrote a short story last week for the first time in ages and ages and it started off with someone I knew and took him off in all sorts of directions! No trouble at all.
So it was interesting to explore these ideas further with Dave Lordan in the performance workshop. Our assignment there was to listen to a story from someone we were paired with, then write their story, adding some lies to it. The lying came much more naturally to some people than others! I found that because I was trying to write down all the story detail, I kind of ended up writing the lies in afterwards. Other people found that the lying was really their natural mode.
Then Dave talked quite a bit about his stance on confessional poetry and telling the truth in poetry – he would really advocate going the other way and making things up. Partly because the poetry ‘market’ is rather flooded with personal stuff, but also because it gives you much more scope as an artist and an entertainer. And – this really chimed with me – he suggested that it can make performance easier if you’re not doing something personal to you. Putting on a persona when performing has a lot of appeal to me (even though I’m a terrible actor!) I could see that separating the ‘I’ of the poem from my own ‘I’ could really help there.
So, I think I’m at a bit of a turning point where I really have to jump in and start working with more stuff that is totally made-up, and, more uncomfortably still, stuff that is nearly true but not quite! At the moment, it seems like a terrible prospect to be asked about a poem at a workshop or a performance and to admit that it’s not true! Maybe I’ll start with more overtly persona poems that could never be thought to be me and work my way back towards could-be-true-but-isn’t.
So watch out when I turn up at your workshop or open mic with that touching anecdote from my childhood. From now on, I could well just be making it up.