You, I, them: A confessional poet’s dissolution (by Jana Harris, Triquarterly ‘00)
Jana Harris talks about her choice to become, what she calls, a confessional poet. Harris feels it has something to do with the fact that one of her parents was suffering from mental illness and substance abuse, and her other parent was in denial.
by Jana Harris, (Triquarterly, Winter 2000)
My conjecture is that if you come from a family that has a strong “denial gene,” and if you inherit only trace amounts of this genetic material, your chances are greater of developing the compulsion to become a writer of the genus poet, species confessional. This phenomenon holds particularly true if one parent is substance-addicted or mentally ill and the other parent is the guardian of the secret. In the beginning, you start out innocently enough harboring a growing obsession to document your side of the story, something to serve as a sort of testament as to what you perceive as the truth. You are still very young at this point, so you still imagine that there is a truth, or only one truth, at any rate. Besides that, you can’t-due to the weak denial gene-contradict what your eyes see. Like all children, you are taught never to bear false witness. But early on you figure out that you don’t get punished for lying to keep the secret. You only get swatted, sent to your room, or threatened with foster care if you tell your truth, which is labeled a tale. And when you persist, you are branded Dirty Little Liar. Thus, you learn the art of subterfuge.
Later in college when you take a freshman creative writing class, the assignments seem almost effortless, because you’re already an adept storyteller. Besides, it’s the late sixties and every bumper sticker yells at you to let it all hang out. This message cleaves to you like a religious text and becomes your mantra. Sophomore year you get a little lazy and don’t make anything up. Voila, you discover that you get points for your confessions, your depictions of altered states of reality, your dramatic moments which more and more often take the form of lines of uneven length scrawled across the page, unhampered by the restraints of punctuation. Unfortunately for you these narrative efforts aren’t entirely off the cuff sketches ripped from the pages of your diary. One problem is that you are told to include a lot of what feels like boring, insignificant detail. The other is that the story of your life and the people around you seems so mundane that it hardly feels interesting. Who would want to read something about a person whose life has been slightly southwest of normal? Then, during your junior year, it dawns on you that not everyone had a Joan Crawford or a Marie Antoinette or Joseph Stalin or Henry VIII as a parent. Okay, so you suspect one or two of your good friends did-which is probably why they’re your good friends-but not everyone sees their parents in a clear critical light and still fewer feel compelled to write about them. Better to call up what strength you can from the recessive denial gene, bury the past (or invent a new one), and move on.