The challenge of writing famous people and events into poems.
I really appreciate this post so much--it resonated with me for similar reasons, though my connections were not as direct as yours. I wrote about them here: https://www.wordsruntogether.com/2023/07/26/shockenheimer/ and my post might interest you as a fellow traveler in the shadow of the AEC. I suspect many of us are out there, hopefully wrestling with these ideas on paper. I will be curious to read anything you write about your experience with the film, though you might need to process for a while. Thank you for tackling these big topics. I'm ordering Bloodline now!
Radha, I love your book and find this discussion enlightening too about the personal and public and imaginary "things" you juggle there. Thank you. Oh and the Oppenheimer quotation from the Gita; that makes me tear-up, imagining what he felt to say that.
Good guidelines. And yes, good to see it stated that poetry is fiction. And important to include a disclaimer like you did to remind readers of that.
It’s probably good exercise to write about anything, but publishing is another matter. For example, someone may decide they will not publish any poem about a living person, whether named or not (for example, a family member), that it would be an invasion of privacy plain and simple. But even with deceased forebears, it’s probably worth asking oneself about the rights of other relatives: do their points of view count for anything?
As for writing about historical figures, poets probably face the same questions that novelists face. For example, do we need to be an expert in some sense? Based on what? Having read a biography? Two? And is third-person voice more acceptable than second person, and is that more acceptable than first person?
Hence why poets so often write about themselves, I suppose. At least that’s something we’re still de facto experts on.
good job outlining the tricky parts of it all. My Dad was a case officer for the CIA from '52 to '84. I tend not to write about him as he kept things so quiet. He only spoke about essential things- how a boy should handle questions and certain situations. In honor of his general self discipline I long ago decided to pass on writing about that topic from those years.
These are also the questions of those of us who write memoir - whether the people we write about are famous or not. What rights do we have? What obligations? Where creative license? Where emotional truth?
All good questions, to which the answers are never easy and, even when we make the choices we do, no matter how much the story we tell (whether in prose or poem or in the liminal forms in between) is "mine", how much is "ours", and how much might be "not mine or ours to tell. Or at least not in certain ways.
I think about this a lot. Not in the context of famous people or events, but in the context of writing about my adult children, one child in particular.
One thing, however, that feels clear to me - I think famous events are all fair game. From where else, then, come the novels of alternate history?
Thanks, Radha, for another post that makes me think.