Ellen Bryant Voigt has upset me more than any other poet. After my encounter with her, I promised myself I would avoid the poet in every way for the rest of my life.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Utah, I signed up for a conference with her to discuss my work. I was excited. I’m a sycophant and find it an exciting challenge to be liked by someone popular. At the same time, I become frightened that I will be judged in an unfavorable way, slink away from the encounter without any self-respect. I’m a nervous person.
During my conference with Voigt, I deflected any talk about my work, and instead asked questions about hers, particularly the intriguing volume Kyrie which deals with the Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919. In this book, she writes poems in the personaes of those impacted by the plague. The characters are based on actual real-life people is history.
As it was creative non-fiction, it raised questions for me: How does a writer offer a compelling and organized narrative without warping the characters in such a way you show disrespect for the dead. This sort of work is elegiac, after all, and the dead do possess a right to be remembered in a respectful way. At least, I think so.
So I asked her that.
“I am their God,” she said, “I brought them back to life. Once I write their lives, they become mine.”
One of my brilliant graduate students asked brought up this same very question, and then explored the role of ethics in memoir. In her inquiry, she triumphed in explaining two ways in which a writer can represent The Real, the actuality of historical and/or personal events. She differentiated between translation and distortion. I’ve stolen this idea from her. This dichotomy now supplies my classes with a fun way of looking at CNF.
Let’s draw an analogy to explain the differences.
Think of the way it works in terms of translation of a poem from one language into another. No one could, to a certain extent, acknowledge the importance of translation. You allow a whole new audience accessibility to a foreign work.
In the process of translation, undoubtedly, some words could not be translated to new ones. There would be no equivalent. But you’d find approximations.
And those approximations would be as faithful to the original as possible.
The original text still remains the one worshipped, given appropriate respect.
But if you decided that you wanted to warp the meanings in order to more closely fit your political/aesthetic/ethical agenda, problems arise. You fail to llow your audience to make their interpretations. You appoint yourself as God; the original words no longer marked with the need for respect, fidelity. Your behavior is unkind. That's distortion.
This is all a lead-in to talk about poet Aaron Shurin’s King of Shadows. It is one of the kindest pieces of non-fiction I’ve read in a long time.
My discussion of Shurin's King of Shadows will continue Wednesday.
"What Remains" at Verse Daily
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