In a second post to mark Carers Week 2016, V. Press poet and carer Alex Reed asks himself some hard questions as he explores some of the risks at the heart of life writing and literary precedents for tackling these.
Permission to Speak?
‘Every word I write is autobiography.
Every word I write is fiction.’ William Burroughs
The term ‘confessional poetry’ has surely exceeded its shelf life in this postmodern (or post-postmodern?) time when distinctions between ‘real life’ and fiction have become blurred. At the same time, life writing in which the subject matter draws directly on the life experience of the writer remains potentially complex ethically. For instance, Velleman considers how life writing that deals with repressed or denied areas of family history may be impositional for those who had chosen not to speak of these matters, and furthermore didn’t give consent for publication. In writing about ourselves we reveal something of the lives of others.
Because my poetry pamphlet A Career in Accompaniment draws on my experiences as a carer, it inevitably draws on intimate and sometimes painful events that also occurred in my partner’s life, and often in a more fundamental way for her, since she is the one who is ill. Questions are raised about the motivations for including such personal experience, and what might be achieved by doing so?
Blake Morrison explores the various motives for such life writing. He convincingly argues that the idea that it arises through a spontaneous overflow of feelings – ‘it just came out of me’ - doesn’t accord with the actual process of writing. My own experience is that the impulse to write about powerful experiences and emotions is often countered by an even more powerful, censoring anxiety about doing so.
Morrison also discusses the popular conception of life writing as cathartic to the writer, and is more sympathetic towards this view than many commentators. In discussing an interview he carried out with Ted Hughes, Morrison writes that Hughes believed each of us has some story we need to articulate in order to take greater possession of our lives. Unless you do so, Hughes suggested, ‘you’re just tiptoeing round the edges of yourself.’
Writing about yourself becomes a means of taking ownership of your life.
In thinking about my own motivations as a poet drawing upon family experiences of illness and caring, this seems important. After all, labeling erases the specifics of who we are – a person becomes ‘a cancer patient’, ‘a schizophrenic’ and so on. And what else is ‘carer’ but another, albeit more benign, form of labeling. What is removed from the intimacies of a relationship when lovers become re-defined as the ‘ill one’ and his / her ‘carer’?
Morrison also discusses life writing as ‘truth telling’- a bearing witness and a testimony. This has been important for me, and part of the uneasiness around writing about the impact of illness and disability relates to the fact that we live in a culture where such things are not generally spoken about - a culture where, for instance, the word ‘invalid’ remains in common currency without provoking shock or outrage.
Growing up in the North East of England in the sixties and seventies, disability was a source of shame and stigma. OK, the world has changed a lot since then, but remnants of that old bigotry linger on. Consider how easily the Coalition and subsequent Conservative governments were able to promote the stereotype of the disabled as work-shy scroungers to justify their agenda of slashing essential benefits. Counter-stories need to be told.
And to paraphrase Ben Okri, ‘Poetry is a form of resistance.’
More information and a sample poem from A Career in Accompaniment can be found here.
The pamphlet, which is published by V. Press next month, can also be pre-ordered now using the PayPal link below. (A Career in Accompaniment is published on July 11, 2016. Pre-orders will be dispatched that week.)