Trigger warning: this post mentions harassment and assault.
According to the Poetry Foundation, the term ‘Confessional Poetry’ came into use in 1959. “Confessional poets wrote in direct, colloquial speech rhythms and used images that reflected intense psychological experiences, often culled from childhood or battles with mental illness or breakdown. They tended to utilize sequences, emphasizing connections between poems. They grounded their work in actual events, referred to real persons, and refused any metaphorical transformation of intimate details into universal symbols.” [Confessional Poetry, National Poetry Foundation].
Take for instance the poet Isabella Dorta. With around one million followers on TikTok, she is a successful poet who openly calls herself a confessional poet. Her poetry is inspired by past relationships, and personal experiences. Her poetry creates an instant connection with audiences because often she is talking about shared experiences: love, heartbreak, betrayal, and jealousy, which are universal emotions.
A lot of us have written love poems at some point or another.
Isabella Dorta is someone who writes brilliant love poems. She also performs them brilliantly, and her on-stage presence is something I admire greatly. However, despite having four published books to her name, including one with Penguin Publishing, convincing her that she is a ‘real’ poet seems to be an ongoing battle. ‘Confessional Poetry’ can be considered a derogatory term in poetry circles, in the same way, that women writing poetry can often find themselves boxed away as ‘domestic’ poets. We find ourselves side-lined in favour of ‘proper’ poetry written by long-dead, white men. In the twenty-first century, we are still fighting the stereotype that women can only write poems about home, and family, and that if we do write about those topics, those poems are somehow lesser because of it.
Of course, this is nonsense. The topic of a poem does not dictate its quality, in the same way, that the medium you present poetry through (Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, open mics, or traditional publishing) does not immediately dictate the quality of the poet.
I have been writing poems for the better part of fifteen years, and my style has developed over that time. I write about the things that interest me, such as history and mythology, but I also use poetry to talk about things that have happened to me. Last year I wrote a blog post about incorporating real life into poems, and how poetry does not need to contain all the facts to still show a truth. It is a medium that allows us to tell stories while also protecting ourselves as storytellers. On the first page of her debut collection ‘How Sunflowers Bloom Under Moonlight’, Isabella warns readers about the various topics covered in the book that might be triggering. While writing and reading about trauma can be cathartic, it can also be dangerous, and before I go any further I want to emphasise that point. If you are writing about something in your past that hurts, make sure you kind to yourself, and you check that what you’re doing isn’t making the wound deeper rather than helping it to heal.
Sometimes, we need the safety of distance between us and a situation before we can write about it. One of the poems I’m currently working on is about an incident from last summer when I was catcalled in my local park. I’d been running with a friend, and as we came around the pathway, a lad of thirteen or fourteen stepped towards us and made some inappropriate remarks.
This was not my first time being catcalled. I have vivid memories of being in sixth form and getting wolf-whistled by grown men while walking alone in my school uniform. A few months back I sprinted for the train station, only for a couple of the taxi drivers to shout ‘run Forest run’ after me. That last situation sat uneasily with me because even though it didn’t hold a sexual element to the mockery, it was designed to be at my expense. I was being laughed at, and I was still made to feel uncomfortable.
I have always used poetry to help me work out how I feel. Processing trauma through poetry is common enough, but I don’t always share those poems. When I first started writing poems I shared almost everything I wrote, and the idea that I could keep some back for myself was one that I stumbled onto as I began working towards more traditional publication routes. Since most journals don’t accept previously published work, I held onto more poems. I also became a better judge of what poems I wanted to put out in the public sphere. I did not necessarily want to be known as one of those female poets who only write about how she has suffered for being a woman.
As I said earlier, poets can get placed into boxes depending on the subjects they write about. Teenage poets are often relegated to the realms of ‘teen angst writing’, and female poets can be easily earmarked as ‘angry feminists’ if we write political poetry. Stereotyping is never fair, and it doesn’t tell you the whole story. A lot of female poets may indeed be ‘angry feminists,’ but we have a lot of reasons to be angry. I won’t touch the feminist part of that label because anyone who singles ‘feminists’ out deserves a swift kick.
Writing a poem about being catcalled, falls under the umbrella of confessional poetry, but it also hits on another point that came up in conversation with a couple of my poetry friends, which is the pressure for poets to present their trauma for general consumption. There can be an expectation that whatever we have struggled through in our lives should be the centre of our poetry, and our ‘stories’ a source of marketing material. We can feel pressure to write poems that re-inflict that initial trauma because there are people who will praise us for it. While I will always say that I write for myself, and that is true, I would not be chasing a career as a poet if that were the only reason I wrote.
I’ve posted about my concerns regarding taking my daughter to poetry events, and how they might overtake my identity as a poet. I worry that I may become the ‘mum poet’ rather than just a poet. I think this same concern made me hesitate each time I started to write a poem about my pregnancy, and then about the birth. Even now, I can count the number of poems I’ve written about being a mum on one hand. Sitting down to write about those experiences still proves to be a challenge for me.
A similar fear rises when I write about other, ‘female’, experiences. I’ve put the female in quotation marks because the gender binary serves pretty much no one, and experiences easily cross boundaries such as male/female. However, when it comes to catcalling, harassment, and assault, gender plays a factor, and it would be wrong to ignore it.
Some days the balancing act of writing poetry that represents me, as well as poetry about the topics I love, and building a professional persona as a poet
When I was studying history at university, my lectures emphasised the importance of grounding research in primary sources. In recent years, social histories have seen a surge in popularity, and more attention is turned towards the lives of everyday people. Their experiences were rarely recorded in official records, but now and again a diary will emerge revealing some of the day-to-day minutiae of what it was to live in a certain period. These diaries are gold dust to historians, and while they may be flawed with personal bias, they contain information that we would find anywhere else. Collections of poetry rarely fill in as many blanks as diaries and journals, but they still provide an insight into the people and time surrounding their creation.
Consider what might happen four hundred years from now, (if we haven’t destroyed the planet and all life), historians will be able to look back and find a wealth of human experiences in the poetry that was written. The rise of self-publishing and small presses has widened the publishing market considerably and broadened the range of voices within it. Poets such as Isabella Dorta have encouraged a new wave of young people to explore their experiences through poetry and share them on social media apps. We are recording data at a previously unimaginable rate. Voices that were often hidden throughout history, have suddenly found the space too loud, and listen to. More than that, modern poets are searching out those older, marginalized voices and getting inspired by them.
Exploration is important in any art form. One of the main pieces of feedback I received on an early version of the Stone Tongued manuscript, was ‘had I considered playing around with form?’
I have played around with form in the past, but I have to admit I’d fallen into a comfortable rut with my poetry, and in doing had begun running the risk of sounding repetitive. Now sounding repetitive, is not the same as finding your voice. There is also nothing wrong with writing the same poem over, and over until the right version shows itself. But in the context of writing a poetry manuscript, you are writing a commercial product, and therefore you have to consider the reader at least a little.
Building on that original draft for Stone Tongued, I’ve made an active effort to explore form with the poems I’ve added to the collection. I’ve also started to consider how I could vary the type of poetry I’m writing without ramming in poems that are off-topic for the theme. Stone Tongue pulls from history and mythology for the individuals in the poems, but there are personal, confessional, poems mixed in. Referring to last year’s post about writing real life into poetry again, I’ve used Caroline Bird’s advice about mythologizing real-life experiences both to create distance between myself and the events, as well as maintaining the tone of the manuscript. This way I can work multiple elements into my poems.
Of course, there is not one, single way to write poetry. Every poet had to find what works for them, and even then, what works now might not be what works later. This is perhaps both brilliant and terrifying, so take that however you wish. The most important piece of advice I can share is that nothing will make a poet aside from writing poems. Write them about whatever you wish to, write on whatever you have to hand, and share them in whatever manner you care to. Trust your voice enough to make a record of it.
Informative, helpful and poignantly interesting. I wouldn’t call myself a poet, per se, but my experiences tend to filter through my writings. I don’t follow any rules that I’m aware of so I just refer to it as free verse confessional(on the last part, that’s the only connection know of as I ‘confess’ instances of sin as has been lectured to me over n over a long time ago which pushed me to stop sharing anything, and only recent years have I begun to share.