A Conversation About Sentiment & Sentimentality
with Sarah Busse, Ching-In Chen, Cathryn Cofell, Fabu, & Chuck Rybak
by Wendy Vardaman
The following group interview was conducted using Google Docs.
Before you start answering questions, please say a bit about yourself. (Use your initials to identify you at the beginning of each response below.)
So for example: WV: Wendy Vardaman, co-editor Verse Wisconsin, author of hundreds of unreadable poems about my three children and parents. Recently horrified to discover that every manuscript I’ve ever composed, when thrown into a tag cloud generator comes up with a huge MOTHER in the middle of the various other tiny words, like the Matterhorn looming over some insignificant pasture with a few gentle hills. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Still, I don’t think of my writing as sentimental, per se, though it is often about my children and other children, as well as the experience of parenting and being parented. On the other hand, does anyone really need to read poems about my kids? about me as a mother? I’m not so sure about that. And do my kids at 23, 20, and 17 want me to write (or have written) about them? Definitely not. The purpose of this conversation is to explore some of the ways that you, as writers, make your poems about familiar material interesting to readers, avoiding (or not) sentimentality, and navigating any personal risks the writing entails. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
CC: I'm Cathryn Cofell, hailing from Appleton. I am married to a man obsessed with golf, investment strategy and politics. I love him despite. As he loves me (I think) despite my obsession with poetry, philanthropy and reality TV. We have a 14 year old son named Jack who loves music, magic and driving me crazy. As I drove my mom crazy, and she her mom, and so on. I say that I put my family first in my life, and by how much they appear in my work you probably think that was the truth. But in reality, I’m a workaholic, and a sucker for a good cause, and a poet. As you can tell, I am spread way too thin but it's unlikely I'll change at this point in life. Family time = quality vs. quantity. I have published six chapbooks — Split Personality (with Karla Huston) and Kamikaze Commotion the last two. Cowfeather Press released my first full-length collection in August, aptly called (for this dialog) Sister Satellite.
FPC: Fabu is my name and I am southern by birth and inclination. I have now lived in the Midwest longer than any other part of the world so Madison, Wisconsin, is home too. As a poet I write about who and what is most important to me. I wrote a line in a poem, “My home is my people” which means that where my bio family, my church family and African people are, I feel at home. I love my family and especially the folks in my extended family which includes a Great-Aunt who will be 100 in October, 2014. This is quite an accomplishment for an African American Southern woman born in 1914. I know that I focus on writing about people who have often been silenced in America: children, women and African Americans. Sentimentality is a luxury that I have not experienced to any large degree in life or in writing.
CR: I’m Chuck Rybak, and I live in Green Bay with my wife and two young daughters. I teach literature and creative writing at UW-Green Bay, and this year will be my 10th year working in the UW System. I’ve published four books of poetry, the most recent being </war>, which was just released by Main Street Rag. I’m originally from Buffalo, New York, and then embarked on higher ed wanderings that took me to Ames, Iowa; Cincinnati, Ohio; and finally Green Bay. I have been writing about fatherhood and my children quite a bit lately, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence, since my daughters are 6 and 5 and their coming into the world was a massive change to everything that is me.
CIC: I’m Ching-In Chen, and currently make Milwaukee, Wisconsin my home. After living in the Midwest these last three years, I realized I am a coastal person, having grown up in Massachusetts and spent formative writing years in both northern and southern California. When I was a newer poet, some of my poetry mentors talked about obsessions that follow us throughout our writing career. This rings true in my experience as a writer though I don’t think I am necessarily motivated by the same things that I was when I first began to write. For instance, I still write about received family—in the context of growing up in an environment radically different from the places where my parents grew up—and how I—or someone like me—fit into this new and strange (for my family) landscape and makes sense of who I am vis-a-vis those around me. What I’ve discovered is that the way that I write about these obsessions necessarily changes as I keep writing and getting more and more beneath the surface. I tend to write about what troubles or challenges me these days whereas when I was just starting out, I felt like I was trying to write myself and my family into being, so to speak. In terms of professional identity, some of the writing communities (and artistic families!) that have been really important for me are Kundiman (www.kundiman.org), VONA (www.voicesatvona.org) and Macondo (www.facebook.com/macondo.foundation). I’m the author of The Heart’s Traffic, a novel in poems about an immigrant girl who is struggling to make sense of many of the experiences I mention above, and the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Partner Abuse Within Activist Communities.
SB: I’m Sarah Busse, and it feels awkward to introduce myself in this context, since most readers of Verse Wisconsin will know me already as co-editor, and maybe even have read one of the other essays or reviews I’ve written. Midwestern by birth (Iowa), school (Minnesota) and now living in Wisconsin, although I have deep roots in Maine and to a lesser extent the West Coast too. I have a husband and two kids, as anyone who has read my poems would likely know. And the issues in this discussion are near and dear to my poetics and my larger life, out of which that poetics grows.
To what extent has family—specifically children and parents—been a subject of your poetry?
CC: To a greater extent than most of them would like. They figure heavily into my work, are integral themes in 3 of my chapbooks and my new collection. “They” meaning husband and child as well as extended family and friends like family
FPC: I started with family as the focus of my first three books of poetry but I also included the historical context, events and other important aspects of life. My new poetry collection is about Mary Lou Williams, Jazz genius. This collection is not about family at all but about the life and music of this woman. It is called Mary Lou Williams: Remember Me.
CR: This theme (or themes) have assumed a prominent place in my work. My two full-length collections can, in my opinion, be read as a single work, and you’d find a prominent family thread in those poems, whether it was my family in particular or symbolic representations of family. I have also used family and parenting as important sources of juxtaposition. I’ve been writing about war quite a bit, and that writing is positioned to reflect the subjectivity of a civilian or observer. Like many others, I live in a community where people have lost their child or parent in Iraq or Afghanistan, and thus war, among all of the other issues it involves, is also an issue of parenting to me. Yes, I write about traditional parenting impulses: shelter and protection from harm, fear of the future, joy in the small moments of each day, but I also try to extend that to parenting as cultural and how war often reflects civilization’s larger failures in that area. Obviously, my writing about parenting is not the same thing as my actual parenting, but when I write a poem about me and my daughter building a wall out of blocks, my mind is also holding a place for a poem where someone’s child or parent will likely suffer harm in a similar circumstance. It’s just the way my mind works right now.
CIC: When I began to write, I wrote a lot about my relationship with my mother, perhaps because that was the relationship that I felt the strongest feeling/sentiment about. I was also mindful that mother-daughter relationships are a trope in Asian American literature and I did not want to simply reproduce themes, ideas, and experiences common in the literature I was reading. For me, part of writing about a fictional family was an attempt to approach what I felt compelled to write about in a not so on-the-mark kind of way, so that I was both true to myself and my concerns as a writer, but not re-producing what was expected of me too as a writer. One thing I discovered as I was writing my first book was that, in the histories of early Asian American communities, that many families had what you might think of as non-normative family stories—families who were necessarily separated because of labor, laws (for instance, the Chinese Exclusion Act), circumstances of being physically very distant, multiple families, multi-racial families, families which were outside of the scope of the law (for instance, those who came as “paper sons” to circumvent Exclusion Acts). I realized that though much of these histories were not taught to me in the American school system, that I and my family had some kind of relationship to it, that these could be seen/viewed in a way as familial ancestors. In this way, I aligned these stories and histories with my experience as a queer and genderqueer person who is equally obsessed with chosen, self-made and alternative families as a necessary part of our survival. In fact, as I explored my gender identity more and more, I felt more in search of these kinds of queer and genderqueer ancestors (who I might not have had a biological connection with, but who may have gone through life sharing some of these lived experiences with me). I am still searching for how they/we survive in the world and pass down our communal knowledge and wisdoms, and perhaps the writing is a way of engaging in that act of making/recording knowledge.
SB: Family has been the ground of my being for the last 12 years. In fact, for me as a writer, I found a voice I was comfortable writing in at the same time as my first child was born. That is no coincidence. However, I would hesitate to say that my family is my subject. Rather, I think my experience within family is my subject—if that doesn’t sound too much like navel gazing. As a straight, cis woman in a traditional (very) marriage and family pattern, I see the ground I am allowed to inhabit narrowing in an interesting—sometimes alarming—way, and I insist upon defining and redefining that domestic and familial/familiar space.
I am very sensitive to the question of whose story I am telling, and I try to leave enough space for my children to own and tell their own stories, as they have every right to. With my husband, I may tread a little less carefully. He knew what he was getting into when he married me.
Do children (yours or other people’s) inspire you to write or get in the way of writing or both?
CC: As I attempt to write this, my son has interrupted me twice to show me a new magic trick and my husband is staring over my shoulder because I’m not answering his question about dinner tonight; I’ve ignored my nephew’s cell phone call and emails from my dad and sister. So when I do write, how can they NOT be my inspiration? Rule #1 is write whatcha know, so it’s them or work and work just aint much for inspiration (yet).
FPC: Children always inspire me, including the child inside of me.
CR: Yes, my children inspire me to write and this is almost always on a linguistic level. Sometimes there are specific moments/images that “speak” for themselves, but largely one of my daughters will say or phrase something in a different way, and that phrasing will act as a way into a different world or perception. For example, there is an obvious linguistic difference in that the language of parents tends to be cautionary and prohibitive, manifested as imperatives, whereas my children often hover in the interrogative. Simply put, I find the language of my children to be magical in the fresh paths it takes (not “errors”) and any fresh language is obviously material for poetry. My daughters do not get in the way of my writing poetry unless I start thinking too much about audience, as there is a question of what people want to read about and are interested in; I’m just going to assume that I’m more interested in my children than any reader might be.
CIC: I am not a parent, though my sweetie is a parent of two young boys (and I also have had parent friends) so I have spent quite a bit of time in the presence of young children. I have not found myself compelled to write about them thus far, but I have discovered that the child I consistently write for is my younger self who hungered for books that didn’t exist in the world yet. One thing we have been struggling with is the lack of options for quality books for children which depict queer and trans families in all their complexities—that is something I’ve been thinking about and how our writing could respond to that.
SB: I find, like Chuck, that my kids say things that intrigue me, or pique my imagination, or send me spinning into a new place. They see things newly for me—it took me a while to realize I was writing poems that centered around whatever their obsessions were: my son was fascinated by color from a very early age, and for a while my poems became super-saturated. My daughter’s love of imaginary friends, very small plastic toys and somewhat spooky take on life has definitely influenced my poetry too. It goes without saying that they get in the way. Children will take all the oxygen. They would if they could.
Are there aspects of family life that you are silent about in your writing and, if so, why?
CC: Of course there are, but if I told you why, they wouldn’t be silent anymore would they? Seriously, I don’t think I am ever silent intentionally; if anything, it’s an emotional block that prevents me from sharing about specific details or people. They might coming spewing out six years from now, as did poems about my ex-husband.
FPC: I have been silent about an Uncle who was a child molester. I recently wrote one poem that is the beginning of talking about this man, who was severely mentally ill and cognitively delayed. I can write it now, I couldn’t write about this family secret before.
CR: Not yet. The imagination allows you to surpass any rhetorical boundaries. If there’s something I haven’t written about yet it’s simply because I haven’t found the form or shape, rather than not having the desire to do so. I remember a friend of mine, who also has children, was talking to me about infants screaming and crying; he then said that though he never would cross a line himself, that he could understand how, in that moment, someone could snap and do harm to their child. I thought that was an incredibly honest and dangerous thing to say, and that’s often what poetry is to me: honesty paired with danger. After that conversation, I wrote a poem about just that: a speaker imagining doing harm to his children while they’ve been stuck in a crying fit that won’t be assuaged.
CIC: I tend not to write about relationships and situations I am content with, because I am drawn to writing about what troubles or confuses me. If I am not transformed by the process of writing it, then I don’t think I’m engaging in the right writing questions.
SB: There are silences in my work that are protective silences, allowing my kids their own stories and truths, and not interpreting them. I write more about that below.
There are other silences that are or have been dishonest silences—I think if you grow up in the midwest, in the small town culture I did, in the family patterns I did, honesty is a hard lesson to learn and one I am still learning. Little blond girls aren’t supposed to be angry, for instance. We aren’t supposed to be anything other than mostly nice and not as smart as the boys, and if you grew up a pleaser, as I did, you learned those lessons in the bone. Maybe one of the reasons I write poems is because poetry allowed me to say things that weren’t safe to say any other way? Part of my struggle as a writer has been to write ever more honestly, which requires living ever more honestly. The poem is the life. And vice versa.
Do you run risks in writing about your family, children or parents?
CC: Absolutely! My husband is confident enough in our relationship that he trusts my loose references to marriage are not always about us/him. Not so, though, with child or parents. My mom didn’t talk to me for three weeks after my first book came out; until that happened, I had blinders on: I thought she’d be so thrilled to have a published author for a daughter that I never stopped to think about how rampant the dark side of “motherhood” figured into those poems. I also expect some day my son will flip out about some of the poems I’ve written about him—especially those in which he appears naked, or vulnerable or a royal pain in the ass.
FPC: The risks are difficult. My parents are gone, yet my extended family certainly wouldn’t want me talking about Uncle Fred. When he was put in jail near the end of his life, I talked about his abuse of me and other children in our family. I told them that it was justice that he had been uncovered. My family didn’t speak to me for months and I was fine about it because I was angry with all of them for trying to keep his conduct a secret. It took forgiveness and healing to get us talking again I will write the book in the hope of protecting other children and encouraging other families to expose child predators..
CR: Well, my wife and I work together and have many students in common, which is why I generally stay away from marriage poems. That being said, once I find the right formal groove for those poems, then I suppose I would write some if I had anything interesting to say. With my children, I don’t see this as a risk. In fact, I consider poetry about my daughter to be letters to them in some respect. When I’m gone, I hope they would look at some of that writing and hear a part of me that was complicated, thoughtful, confused, fearful, and curious. I have no doubt that my children know that I love them deeply, and even if a small piece of a much larger existence, they would see my poetry about them as complicated expressions of that love.
CIC: When I was about ten years old, I remember writing a fictional short story in which my narrator’s mother had died. After my father read the story, he was upset and asked me why I had written it, and told me that other people might think that my mother had died (or perhaps that I wanted her dead). It was one of my first lessons in the power of the word, even if uncomfortable. Another lesson happened when my first book came out, and I came out to my immediate (biological) family as queer and told them that there was queer and transgender content in my book. I remember them asking, it’s all fiction, right? This was another lesson in the ability of fictional stories to manifest the truth, even if uncomfortable. Each act of writing should encompass risk because it wouldn’t be worth it to just write comfortable and safe things.
SB: My project recently—no, my project has always been to write what it is truly like to be a mother, to be a wife, and to be a woman (and what is woman, separate from those first two terms?). These words and roles are so idealized, so distorted in our culture (in every culture?), the dominant narratives around them so unliveable, that I have felt maybe it is enough to simply continue to dig away and to try to be honest about what it is, for me at least, to be a wife. to be a mother. to be a (cis, straight) woman. How do we open up that over-identified, over-imaged space to embrace the diversity of women who occupy it? So because I am trying to be honest, there are definite risks. Yes. Honesty always brings risks. Yes. Risk, risk, risk! That’s how you know you’re getting somewhere. I feel a responsibility to expand the language as best I can, at every level: syllable, sentence, trope. Howl. I don’t claim to succeed at this.
Is there a difference to you between sentiment and sentimentality? Where is the line in your work, or is there one?
CC: Most definitely a difference. I am heavy on sentiment, not so much on sentimentality. I’ve struggled when asked to write a poem for a wedding or a baby or a funeral because I know most people want sentimentality but the line between that and cliche or Hallmark is far too thin. I guess I’m not poet enough to ride that line successfully.
FPC: I consider myself a community poet and as such, I will write poems for marriages, births and funerals. People want to be comforted during these important events. It becomes challenging to write a poem for them and at the same time, a poem that I would be proud to read elsewhere. I enjoy the challenge.
CR: I think this is an overstated issue in poetry. I have always felt that people are not only sentimental, but they crave sentimentality. I believe every person who loves poetry wants to read or hear a poem that uses the word “heart,” maybe even more than once. One of the reasons contemporary American poetry is, in my view, so homogenous is that we set up false cultural expectations against sentimentality, and this error is likely housed in our own inadequate definitions of what sentimentality actually is. By sentimentality do we really mean “cliche”? If so, then it sounds like it’s okay to be freshly sentimental.
CIC: According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition under “sentiment” is “personal experience, one’s own feeling.”
Under “sentimentality” is “the quality of being sentimental, affectation of sensibility, exaggerated insistence upon the claims of sentiment.” http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.lib.uwm.edu/view/Entry/176061
When I look up “sentimentality,” what I find interesting is that an earlier, more favourable definition is that it is “characterized by or exhibiting refined and elevated feeling.” In later use though, it means, “addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion; apt to be swayed by sentiment.”
When I saw the question, I had a negative association to the word “sentimentality” — and saw it connected to a feeling of overinflation, of being overly invested in an indulgent way, meaning that it might be useful and helpful to that writer to write it, but not necessarily to the person on the other end reading it.
When I teach, I often tell my students that there are some words which cost a lot (because they are used by everyone and stretched by everyone so much that they lose some of their specific meanings). As a poet, though I know that everything I gather, collage, piece together is an outgrowth of “personal experience, one’s own feeling,” I sometimes resist this imperative and am often drawn to poems made out of other fabrics. The bottom line for me is that I want my breath taken away when I read—I want to step into another person’s little corner of the world and to experience their particularities and strangenesses. If the words do not hold the sentiment (or the project cannot convey something interesting beyond that one person), then I am less drawn to that work. The art that I come back to is multi-layered yet precise and will reveal another angle each time I approach it.
SB: I cannot stop myself from pointing out the heavily gendered history of this particular discussion. We still are living in a wordscape inherited from the Modernists (think Pound, think Eliot), who distrusted the personal, distrusted emotion. But shoot, go back to Hawthorne’s comment about “damn scribbling women” Or see—!—Hemingway, Fitzgerald. Carver? No, we can’t understand our resistance to “sentimentality” and “indulgence”—(who do you think of when you say that word? what a femme word!!)—without understanding the historical resistance to feelings, period, and to female experience and felt experience in (at least) American literature. Look at that definition Ching-In found: “addicted to indulgence in superficial emotion; apt to be swayed by sentiment.” Who do we think that refers to? Who decides what qualifies as only “superficial” emotion? Who, who would prefer not to be “swayed by sentiment,” if “sentiment” is one’s own experience or feeling?
How do you work against, undercut, resist sentimentality in writing about children and family, or do you try?
FPC: Children are complicated as well as family. It doesn’t become difficult to resist sentimentality.
CR: For me, this question is entirely form based rather than content based. I work against it by trying to make my sentimentality formally interesting, at the level of craft. In that sense, the subject of family and children becomes like any other subject—write about them well. Write about them creatively.
CIC: For me, time is a tool to see if what I wrote is worth saving or showing to the world outside of just a space for me to vent or process, especially if it’s something I wrote powered by high emotion.
SB: This comes back to the discussion of cliche. The problem isn’t sentiment, or even excess sentiment. The problem is when we write in cliche, which we too often do. As Fabu says, children are complex and it often scares us to admit this fully. I would posit that women, especially, can be prone to write in cliche about children, and motherhood, because it is the only safe way to write about these subjects in our family systems and communities.
Do you think that sentiment, familial subject matter, or the combination has ever gotten in the way of publishing your poetry?
CC: It would be an easy excuse, wouldn’t it? Sharon Olds just won a Pulitzer for her book about the end of her marriage. I think quality will always prevail.
CR: If it has, the fault is mine in that I wasn’t properly recognizing the venue I was sending to, or I simply didn’t submit a good enough poem.
FPC: No it does not get in the way of poetry.
CIC: No - not in the conventional way that the question is phrased. I do think that your biography may impact the way your words are received and what expectations there might be related to your work outside of the actual work.
SB: I like very much what Ching-In says, “your biography may impact the way your words are received and what expectations there might be related to your work…”. I believe that has been my experience, and the experience of many. This includes not just gender or family pattern but age-ism, racism, etc. etc. But it is almost impossible to address this directly. If we say that we believe our poems are not read, or are read less well, because of what we write about or who we are or the language we choose to write in, we’re accused of being whiny or thin-skinned or plain wrong.
I contend that as a woman/mother/wife I have to struggle to find language that grows out of and encompasses my lived experience in a language which is not built to contain or explore those truths. Not only do we have dominant narratives, we have dominant sentence structures, dominant forms, dominant formalities we have to struggle against.
I should add this is 180 degrees from what I believed when I started writing seriously, and believed in the concept of “excellence,” and wasn’t even sure I wanted to identify as a “woman writer.” I still believe we can know good writing, and even recognize excellence. But we have to ask: Who determines what writing “well” is. Who defines “excellence.” It no longer suffices (for me) to say “I know it when I read it.” Why do I know it? How do I know it? Does every excellence I come across look and sound sort of the same? Then my definition of excellence may be a narrow gate indeed.
Does excellence mean avoiding sentiment? Avoiding certain discourse or subjects? Does it mean avoiding talking about motherhood, or as a mother, which is —immediately and without exception unless I manage to bring my breasts into the poem—a sleeper subject to many? It astonishes me how uncurious too many readers are to read outside of their own experience. Wake up! Milky tits!
I once read an editor who said “I want a poem to f*ck me in the first line.” Well—how do we respond to that? What is the culture behind that statement? What is he asking of poets? What is he expecting? And yet, I find his candor very helpful, because although not every editor would state it so plainly, I think that idea that “you have to wow them in the first line—don’t waste time—cut out everything “extra”” (and who defines extra) is promoted by our po-biz culture. And this is the same pattern we see in our mainstream media depictions of sex, too...how curious... but that’s another conversation. (Or is it?)
Are stories about children ours to tell?
CC: He would probably not agree, but I say hell yes; they are my stories too.
FPC: A poet writes what a poet wants to write. My son has actually never discussed it with me but then all of my poems about him have been much earlier and really all about my love for him.
CR: Absolutely, just as stories about parents should be told by children. I may be a parent, but I am still a child of parents. Much to their chagrin, I’ve written about them as well.
CIC: This is a difficult question — because it all depends on what you’re writing and how you’re writing it, whose children you are writing about. This is a much bigger question related to appropriation, which I’m sensitive about because, as a young person, I did feel that a lot of stories had been written about people like me, without actually having been written by people like me (though I now know that some of that is related to distribution and resources versus desire and existence of such stories). Ultimately, I think no matter which and whose story each individual writer is writing, even their/her/his own stories, there is a question of ethics to be grappled with. How do you do bring these words into the world with the most integrity?
SB: There is definitely an ethical question here for all writers. It is not enough to simply say, “they’re my kids (or parents) I get to write about them” or “I’m a writer, so anything is fair game.” We have to place ourselves, and especially if we are parents writing about our children we have to write in a way that allows them room to be and become other than how we see them. We could be wrong. Our perceptions,no matter how nuanced, are never the full truth. I feel so strongly about this because it is a hard question and I live it every day in my writing practice.
Another way to say this, maybe: Christopher Robin was teased relentlessly and came to hate the books his father wrote. He felt his father had exploited him. I still love the Winnie the Pooh books—they are timeless and classic. But Milne made a big mistake in how he wrote about his son, how he used that young child figure in his books.
Does "sentimental" have more to do with individual taste in literature and art, varying culturally and historically, or does it really exist? Is it important to you to avoid writing sentimental poems or is it acceptable to sometimes be sentimental and when?
CC: It’s all about audience and timing. There is a definite place for sentimentality (i.e. “sap”), but that also doesn’t mean the poem has to be uninventive. Sentimentality seems to play better in other art forms—music and movies, for example. I will watch a sappy movie and bawl my eyes out, but read a sappy poem and go “blech.”
FPC: Sentimentality is a personal perspective.
CR: Sentimentality is a cultural construction, and it varies within existing cultures. I don’t think “sentimentality” exists in any meaningful way beyond the terms “cliche” or “dead metaphor.” Again, we’re talking about linguistic expression and everything is craft. You shouldn’t avoid sentimentality so much as you should avoid writing poems that might be received as sentimental. That being said, there are many people who truly love what I would consider “bad poems” that fail to express a fresh sentiment. Maybe that makes me hypocritical.
CIC: I think this concept is subjective and does depend on aesthetic taste and many other factors. Given my aesthetic bent towards the more experimental, I think that I am frequently less drawn to what might be considered “sentimental,” but I am always writing against myself and surprising myself too:-).
SB: see my above answer. I’m exhausted already.
Is good poetry about family different from good poetry about anything else?
CC: Family is something we all have, or wish we had. Something we can all relate to, so yes, for me it’s different in that it’s universal. Like life and death, why so many poems are on these subjects. I can read a really exceptionally written poem about the Civil War, or about a view from a window in Venice, but it’s much harder for me to emotionally connect with those poems, to put myself in that space because I’ve never been in that space
FPC: Family is universal although the definition can be specific to cultures et cetera. Writing new, invigorating poems about family makes me smile.
CR: I think in some ways it is. If poetry, as both a genre and form of expression, is to be multifaceted and meaningful, then it should aspire to the variety presented by nature itself. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the beauty of a snake is different than the beauty of a horse or a fallen tree, so I would say that good poetry about family can be different, and this difference occurs when the content and craft intertwine.
CIC: I don’t think so, except to say that I think that, like love, there are so many poems on family that I think it takes extra work to make these poems rise above the rest and be remembered.
SB: Poems situated in family or domestic space by an individual writing are no different than poems situated otherly. I’m not convinced that “family” is more or less universal than any other setting or subject, given the radically different experiences people have of families, of family settings. “Father” doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone nor does “mother.” etc. etc. If anything our poems about and around family systems may highlight our own blindspots and cultural or personal ignorances/assumptions. “Mother” can’t be trusted to convey something or someone loving, or safe, for instance, unless the poem can carry that weight and convince us.
Poems try to catch at a texture, a moment, a certain motion or angle of light. Layers, as Ching-In says above. Poets use the situations and tropes at hand to reach toward something else—the ineffable and the universal and the very, very difficult. If we could put it into other words or paraphrase it, we would. For some of us, family life is a ground for that work. And maybe that makes sense. So much of lived family experience leaves us at a loss for words. Moves us beyond words, just as a poem does.