When I started giving poetry readings for the first time, I found it fascinating what I learned about myself from audience responses. After one reading, a man asked, “Have you ever been a doctor?” Certainly the strangest question I’ve received. I had read a poem about anxiety over the possibility of contracting HIV while making love.
Another question I received after a reading, one that comes back to me often, is: “Are your poems true stories?” My knee-jerk reaction was to say “yes”, yet I know that if my poetry were journalism, the fact checker would pull all his hair out.
No, the answer has to be more complicated, particularly for a poet. I’m trying to make a story, a song, and a painting at the same time. Surely the best poems hold the kind of emotional truths that reverberate in the body, blood, and bones. But for a moment, let’s forget about telling (truth or lies): not the point of the exercise.
Poets want language to hurt you in the heart, brain, or balls. So I’m doing my job well when I smash together elements that would never otherwise belong together. A poem about a trip to Wendy’s turns out to be about childlessness. A poem where I run over a snake is actually an elegy to my dead first love.
I often say poets just think differently. I might, say, be reading on a porch one day and witness a cat growl at a dog and chase it away. I carry that fearless cat around with me for fifteen days or fifteen years until I find the right poem to drop it into. It turns out to be a poem about finding out my grandmother slipped into a coma she probably won’t recover from.
Sometimes I fight with a poem for fifteen years until I realize that what it needs is that ferocious cat.
Other times I sit down, very sober and awake to the world, and a poem comes complete. I had such an experience last summer with a poem that was immediately accepted by the first editor who read it. What was its truth? I’d written another elegy to my dead first love. Instead of writing about that person, though, I used physical details, family members, a scrap of a dream I’d had, and even dialog that all belonged to another ex-lover.
That ex is alive and well, lives up the street, and I waved to him on his bicycle today.
At this point, you may be flipping through your well-worn copy of Stories About Penises and wondering if every word of my poem 'The Violinist at the Pulitzer Reading' is true. By way of an answer, dear fact checker, I’ll say that the poem was conceived on October 27, 2016. Pouring rain outside. I was almost late for the reading. The event has a web site, and so does the violinist. I only look it up on days when I start to forget the melody.
Anthony DiPietro is a gay writer and Rhode Island native who spent his career in community-based organizations and now serves as associate director of the Rose Art Museum near Boston. His poems and essays appear in Notre Dame Review, Spillway, The American Poetry Journal, and many others. His website is AnthonyWriter.com
Our debut anthology Stories About Penises is available from Guts Publishing, at independent bookshops in London, and with most major online book retailers.