- Family Skeletons:Writing About the Living and the Dead
In your poems, I have noticed a generational quality, grandmothers, mothers, daughters. They are ghosts that haunt the poems. Are they always women? And how do you make sure not to cross the line between nostalgia and sentimentality, especially when talking about the dead?
I find that there are a lot of voices in my head and stories that want to get told. For a while, my grandmother took over my psyche. It started with an exercise writing a persona poem from a photo. I had a picture of my grandmother in Hungary when she was 16 with long blond hair, taken right before she was forced into a marriage arranged by contract. She complained about this all of her life, but it wasn't until I became her that I felt her pain.
After that persona poem, other poems came pouring out. At first I restrained myself from writing poems that made her look bad, but then I let go and told the truth, as I experienced it. She was harsh with me, you know, all that guilt. She always said, You are my mother's name. We want you should be like us. That became a line in one of my poems.
Over the years, I became particularly fixed [End Page 214] on the Holocaust. I think those stories must be told. Ironically, that contract marriage brought my grandmother to America and saved her from the fate of her mother, sister and nieces, who all died in Auschwitz. Her younger brother survived the camps. I wrote about him, and I wrote about one of her nieces. I only had her name, so I made up a life for her.
I've also written about my other grandmother, my father and my grandfather. My father's father was murdered, and I told that story. I didn't want it to die with him. But the women seem to surface more. Two years ago, I became focused on my mother. I recorded her decline and eventual death. It meant a lot to me to give life to those experiences. As for the next two generations, I've written about my brother, two sisters and two of my nieces. And, I've written tons of poems about my daughter.
You asked about not crossing the line between nostalgia and sentimentality. I don't think there's a place for sentimentality in good poetry, but I think nostalgia can work. We have stories to tell, but we want to give those lives a universality, and we want to make statements. Sometimes this means embellishing; sometimes it means showing the whole person—the not so pretty side, even the ugly side. That's being true to the essence of how we experience that person. I heard a poet once say that no one is interested in your family poems, but tell that to Sharon Olds or Marge Piercy. Poets are interested in good poetry. I think we can write poems about our families that reach people in sensitive places, because they can relate to the experiences, like any other experiences. It's not the subject that's important; it's how we render the poem and how it speaks to people that's important. And if the subject is family, then that's valid.
I absolutely agree with you in regards to family and poetry. And even if it is true that no one wants to hear about my family, I do think that something I say about them will remind the reader of his or her family. However, trying to begin a poem by, say, writing about a dead grandmother, isn't a very easy place to start. Rather, I always have to begin with language.
I wanted to write a poem about my paternal grandmother who died in a plane crash on her way to Mexico to visit her lover in 1929. But, it took me years to do it, and the only way I was finally able to do it was to do as you said, Shelley, and be her. I...