What I most fear as a writer is hypocrisy.
This may sound funny coming from someone who’s nattered on about how poetry doesn’t need to be personal, defends the right of poets to write fiction, etc. etc. But just as there’s a difference between fiction and lying, there’s a difference between fact and integrity. Just because a poem is about “true” facts doesn’t mean it’s honest.
But it goes beyond fair and accurate reporting, precisely because we retain the right to write about things that are not factually true. We reveal ourselves in our writing; to a perceptive reader, we can reveal a lot more than we probably think. I’ve frequently finished a book and realized that I now know more about the author than I really wanted to.
So this is my fear: That the “me” revealed in my poems is not the “me” I think it is. That my piety exposes itself as cant, my love for nature as an affectation of environmentalism, my political views as the shallow liberalism of a child of privilege. That the poems I’ve written about my ethnic heritage and my upbringing in Tanzania are actually attempts to make myself seem less like a middle-class ugly American.
The answer ought to be obvious: Write as you really are. If you’re not a hypocrite, you have nothing to fear. Easily said.
Self-examination doesn’t come easily to me. Of course, that’s true of most of us, and it’s hard to say objectively whether I’m better or worse at it than “most people.” (Who the hell are they, anyway?) I do think I’m more self-aware than many people; paradoxically, I think that makes me worse at self-examination. Because I tend to think I already know everything I need to know about myself. Because I’m rarely called on to extend my self-knowledge.
And here’s the other side: Like Whitman, I contain multitudes. Should I even expect to present a consistent portrait of myself in my writings? By focusing on the risk of hypocrisy, do I risk narrowing my poetry to a preachy and repetitious set of variations on the same tired themes?
I’m finding that to be a downisde of my 2012 writing project #2. The “Wisdom of the East” calendar saying do offer a pretty narrow range of subject matter. In the upcoming months, I need to take a freer approach to them as prompts.
I shy from words like “creativity” and from referring to poems as “mine;” I regard myself as a conduit, not a source. (In case you’re wondering, the source is God. Call it the universe, the collective unconscious, or interstellar radio if you prefer.) For me, the cure must be careful listening and faithful transmission. If I do it right, I won’t have to worry about exposing myself. I’ll be exposing God.
Such is my ambition. I will fall short, of course; only Allah is perfect. Inevitably my experiences and opinions will tint my choice of expression. But I must remember always that self-expression is not the goal.
Flash update on Project #1: My chapbook High-Voltage Lines has been accepted for publication by Barefoot Muse Press. I figure that counts as half a book. So, Project #1 is halfway to completion!