Confessional and Contemporary: Poems, Life, and Elizabeth Bishop

By Dominique Traverse Locke

5Writers is pleased to welcome back Dominique Traverse Locke, author of The Goodbye Child and No More Hard Times for her second guest blog appearance. 

“Read this,” I say to my husband, who, in all his infinite wisdom, knows translates to, “I wrote a poem. Fix whatever’s wrong with it.” And he does.

When asked to guest blog this month, I imagined myself sitting rather uncomfortably in a truth circle of folding metal chairs. I stand and fidget a bit. “Hello, I’m Dominique and I’ve been married to a poet for the last three years.” The seasoned veterans of the group are conditioned to look at me with acceptance, with understanding head nods, with eyes of vacant judgment, and so they do. “Hello, Dominique,” they chorus. I sit back down and mumble, “And I’m a poet too.” Audible gasps around the circle. “You can’t live with your enabler,” I hear someone whisper. (Not to equate our poetry addiction to a heroin addiction, but for David and me, it’s basically the same thing.)

I met the man I would marry in a parlor catered with all the hors d’oeuvres and wine an MFA student could ask for in January of 2010. I was a first residency student. He was graduating. I was a poet. He was a poet. He preferred the contemporary and confessionals. I preferred the contemporary and confessionals. It was love at Elizabeth Bishop.

We made our relationship facebook official in February, and by the time I returned for my second MFA residency in May, a handful of fellow writers couldn’t help themselves, “Oh, two poets, huh? How’s that working out for ya?” In July of 2011, we eloped. In 2012, poems were published, books were published, contests were won, editorial positions accepted, and a Pushcart Prize nomination was received. Now, we’re expecting a son, so I guess it’s working out pretty well. Suck it, nay-sayers. I like to think of us as more of a Donald Hall, Jane Kenyon than a Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath. But I digress.

In terms of hot poet-on-poet action, to be honest, with the exception of my sniveling when I’m stuck during revision, there really isn’t any. I think that’s the beauty of our marriage-marriage and our literary marriage. David does his thing, on his time, his way, and I do mine. Our methods of reading, writing, revising, and publishing differ entirely; nonetheless, we find great comfort that each night, we slink into bed with another human being that gets it – that gets the introversion of the writer, that gets the love of a unique word, that gets that the speaker and the spouse are separate entities and that’s perfectly fine. Sure, we’ll read each other’s stuff on occasion, and ultimately, I like to have his stamp of approval, but if I don’t get it, that’s okay too, and vice versa. I don’t adhere to everything he suggests if he critiques one of my poems, and he doesn’t always buy into my suggestions either. We respect the person, as well as the craft, and everything they both entail, and for us, it works.

As for the question, Is my life reflected in my work? I would have to say, with 100% certainty and without a moment’s hesitation, absolutely. The vast majority of every poem I’ve ever written is an autobiographical event framed within the confines of stanza, syntax, and line integrity. A photograph, a “selfie” (my God, I hate myself for mentioning that word) capturing a memory that jolts me back to place and time as quickly as a nearly forgotten smell or a dated jam on the radio each time I return to it.

At first, I worried that what I was writing was too close to me and that I would be excluding my readers as a result, and sometimes, unfortunately, that was true; however, after many workshops and critiques, I learned how to discern the poems that I’ve subconsciously written for me and me only as a cathartic venting of sorts, and those poems that have a universality in which any reader can relate. Those are the poems that I submit for publication, and those are the poems that make the cut when I’m piecing together a manuscript. The others just hang around on my laptop. Occasionally, I’ll pull an idea or a line from them, but they primarily get tucked away in a random writing folder in My Documents, much like that old prom dress or stack of yearbooks that live in the back of the closet of your parents’ place.

Since my poems are so autobiographical, the question that readers ask most often is, “Does it make you nervous baring your soul to strangers in your poems?” My answer is always the same. To strangers, maybe a little. To my family and closest confidants, it scares the hell out of me. Knowing my in-laws have read both of my books, books that contain several sexually explicit poems about their son, is a little unnerving, but ultimately, every writer has to decide how brave a writer he or she truly is. Is the authenticity of the poem worth the risk? One of the wisest of owls I have ever encountered in the literary world made me realize this. If you can lackadaisically send out your work, you didn’t risk enough. If you didn’t have that, “Oh. My. Sweet. Lord. What have I done?” feeling in the pit of your stomach when you click “Submit” or when you drop the envelope into the mail, you didn’t risk enough.

Now, I’ve said all that to end with this – a quote from “Tell All the Truth but tell it slant: First-Person Usage in Poetry” by Cate Marvin:

“A good poem is like the space shuttle. It enters the reader’s mind and heart like a rocket. On leaving the atmosphere, it drops the launching gear of experience that served as impetus for its creation. Who wrote the poem, the life the person lived or is living, will not matter once the poem takes on a life of its own. We are familiar with the poem that has failed to rid itself of the person who wrote it. Sentiment, cloying love of the self, and damages done to the self cling to the poem like the lingering smell of body odor one sometimes encounters when entering an elevator. The doors close, and while we are inside the poem, reading it to the end (if one does not get off and take the stairs instead) is a claustrophobic experience, a forced cohabitance with a stench that is mortal. Good poems live long after their authors died. Good poems by the living make the lives of their authors cease to matter.”

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  1. #1 by A Writer With Something To Say on April 29, 2014 - 9:25 am

    This is a great post! I love that you and your husband are writers. Must be exciting. Question:What’s the hardest part for you, when writing a poem?

  2. #2 by Shawn on May 27, 2014 - 7:35 am

    That’s a very thoughtful post of you.It will be very useful to me ,because I also try to write poems but fail to find exact word at the exact place.Thanks a lot.

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