“Think dear Sir, of the world which you carry within yourself, and call this thing what you like… only pay attention to what arises within you, and set it above everything….Your inmost happening is worth your whole love, that is what you must somehow work at, and not lose too much time and too much courage in explaining your attitude to people”
– Rainer Maria Rilke in “Letters to a Young Poet”
After every reading, I get the same question posed to me about how I feel about talking about issues that are so personal to me, about loves lost and deep grief and sexuality and family. “Doesn’t it frighten you that it’s out there?”, “Don’t you feel like you are laying yourself bare to strangers?”. Usually people think it’s either very brave or just indulgent. Some of the criticism I’ve received is that my work doesn’t deal enough with larger social and political concerns.
But in the words of Rilke, ever since I can remember writing, I’ve wanted to explore what arises within me. I’ve always been someone who felt things too strongly. I get emotionally attached to inanimate objects, I feel a need to say goodbye to a table that I’ve eaten my breakfast on every morning because it has become a part of me. I feel guilt for discarding anything that’s been faithful. So in a sense for me, writing about the things that are intensely personal to me, is my way of writing about the world I see and know.
I can still remember the first time I read a poem that walked out of the page and grew its roots into my heart. I was 13 and it was Sylvia Plath’s anthem, “Daddy”. Something about the anger and the visceral nature of its last two lines was so powerful, I walked around hearing those lines in my head for weeks. And then I read Anne Sexton’s work which dealt with menstruation, abortion, masturbation and drug addiction at a time when none of those were considered appropriate subjects for poetry. Their honesty was an ugly one, but that only made the nature of telling the truth more brave to me. I’ve read that Anne Sexton started all her readings barefoot, cigarette in hand, reading “Her Kind”. It was her way of telling the audience what kind of woman she was, what kind of poet. Some might call it an overtly dramatic gesture, but in a sense that was her way of stepping out of person and into persona. And as I have come to discover, there are other shields that help with that process. An attention to form, a rhyme scheme, images, all of these make what you are talking about a construct, a chosen representation of that which is inside of you. This makes it somehow easier to share with the world than the drunk diary entry you scribbled at 3 am.
I write about things that scare me, about losses that have scarred me about men who have been so beautiful I thought I might lose my mind (and occasionally, I did.) But in the end I’ve come to realise what seems so personal to me is usually something someone else easily identifies with. The best response I ever got was after I read a piece I wrote called “Resurrection” when a woman in her forties came to me and said, “thank you. That’s exactly what my break up felt like. I’m so glad you put it in words for me”. I was stunned to be honest. I never thought my little musing of loss would translate to a truth for someone else.
It was then that I realised, the intensely personal is a powerful thing. Because it can be ugly and not everyone has the guts to confess to it. But when I do accept that truth and turn that confession into a poem, it honestly sets me free – and once in a while, someone in the audience too.
‘My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are” – Anne Sexton
About Pooja Nansi:
Pooja Nansi is a teacher and poet who believes in the power that performance can lend to the written word.Her first collection of poetry “Stiletto Scars” was published in 2007 at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. She is one half of the spoken word and music duo ‘The Mango Dollies’ and she has also participated in poetry projects such as “Speechless” with the British Council, where she worked in conjunction with poets from London, Ireland, Taiwan, The Phillipines, Malaysia and Vietnam and engaged in a month long tour of the UK to explore issues surrounding freedom of speech.