|We don’t know and they won’t tell us ~ poetry in the space of possibility
by Tamiko Beyer
More often than not my poetry exists in a liminal space of true-not-true.
It’s one of the things I love about writing in the particularly blurry genre that is poetry. I feel complete confidence to write what feels true, whether it’s factual or not. And I don’t have to identify it as fact or fiction. I can just let my poems exist in the queer space of myth and maybe.
So I was intrigued when I looked back through the archives of Storyscape. Most of the poems in this journal have been published under the “True” category. (A few went into the “We don’t know and they won’t tell us” category, and only three poems, all by Kate Johnson, have been published in “Untruth.”)
Of course, this makes sense. Storyscape allows writers/storytellers to choose their own category, and I think most poets believe that our work captures some kind of truth about the world – independent of the veracity of facts in a poem.
Maybe what happened in a poem really happened, or maybe it didn’t, but it doesn’t matter – what matters is the poem’s emotional and/or intellectual truth and its resonance. And poems often fail when they fail to resonate with the reader – when readers suspect the emotional and intellectual truthfulness of the poem.
I have been thinking quite a bit about issues of trust and truth in the spaces of public discourse. This spring, philanthropist Greg Mortenson’s memoir about his work in Afghanistan was discovered to be full of “beautiful lies.” This set the nonprofit and philanthropic world (where I spend much of my time for my day job) all abuzz.
One blogger pointed out that that Mortenson’s deception is particularly troubling because we trust nonfiction writers to tell us the truth. When there’s so much information flying all around us, we need to be able to quickly and easily identify what’s “true” – and we assume that journalists and nonfiction writers will tell us the truth. When they don’t, we feel that we’ve been made fools of. The implicit assumption of trust has been broken.
Even in the more casual online space, where it’s much harder to know who is behind blogs and posts, we are more likely than not to take things on face value. So when an American man was recently exposed for pretending to be a Syrian lesbian blogger, many who had been taken in by “her” story were outraged, and rightly so. In this case, his lies were not beautiful – they were condescending and creepy, “an idealized projection, the white man’s fantasy of an oppressed yet courageous Arab women [sic],” as author Minal Hajratwala wrote in her blog.
The event increased the Syrian government’s scrutiny on real queer bloggers, putting their lives in danger. Here, the untruth masquerading as truth did more than break the trust of the readers of the blog. Liz Henry, one of the first people to suspect the blogger’s real identity put it well: the man’s lies “harmed the fabric of social trust. Lies and hoaxes do damage to communities. The hoaxer did political damage.”
Then, there was the quote wrongly attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which went viral the day after Osama Bin Laden’s death and the subsequent spontaneous celebrations in cities across the U.S.. Unlike the hoax of the fake Syrian lesbian, what happened here was unintentional. Jessica Dovey, 24-year old woman teaching English in Japan, posted to Facebook a King quote and prefaced it with her own words: “I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” As it got posted and reposted, Dovey’s words became merged with the longer King quote. When it hit the Twittersphere, it was reduced to that single sentence – and was attributed to King.
I think the quote went viral because it eloquently articulated how many of us felt as we watched the public displays of revelry by our fellow citizens. And it gave us instant credibility to attach that sentiment to a man who, in the common imagination, stands for all things good.
It was true-not-true. The sentiment was true, but the source was not. A slippery space. Many who had reposted the quote became embarrassed and angry when they found out the “truth.”
Who do we trust to tell (us) the truth – and what is that truth composed of? Who do we trust to reflect our feelings and speak for us?
We do not necessarily expect the speaker in a poem to tell the truth in the same way we expect journalists and bloggers to be truthful. But poetry has the capability to capture and reveal in a highly compressed way profound emotional, visceral, and intellectual truths.
That’s why people turn to poetry – even those who don’t read it often – during times of significance. Poetry appears regularly in rituals such as weddings and funerals, or during times of political turmoil or national crises. When our feelings are large and overwhelming, when we are attempting to understand huge events in the world, we turn to poetry because it utilizes language to get to a deeper and more relevant truth.
We don’t know and they won’t tell us.
There is an implication in the way this category is worded. Someone – they, the authors/storytellers – do know whether the work is true or not, but they will not say. It implies a certain coyness on the part of the author.
Perhaps sometimes this is right. Sometimes, we are coy.
But often, we are protective, and more often then that, we genuinely don’t know.
For me, writing is always an act of vulnerability. In my best moments, I write to reveal my deepest self – not necessarily facts about myself, but almost always an intimate revelation of how I see the world and how I move within it. To “not tell” whether the facts of the poem are true or not is a form of protection that occurs simultaneously during that act of exposure.
But also there is the mystery of creation. I don’t often know where the words and images come from when they appear on the page or screen. Sometimes I can trace their origins back to something I experienced or read, but often I can’t. I do think that all artists tap into some kind of Jungian collective unconscious when we create, and at times, we can’t necessarily articulate the sources of our creation.
So perhaps the category could be more accurately called: “We don’t know and they don’t really know either.”
In any case, this space of not knowing can be a space of deep discomfort. On some level, readers want to know if it’s fact or fiction. We want to be able to trust that writers are telling us the truth.
But it’s also a space of great possibility. The freedom of not having to be tied down to either truth or fiction allows a great range for both readers and writers. It lets us connect more deeply to the text and to each other (reader-writer) by allowing for a greater truth than the actual truth.
Knowing something is definitely true or definitely not true gives us firm footing as we plod through our daily lives, absorbing and processing information. But when that firm footing is taken out from under us, we might fall – but we also might fly.