Tuesday, 29 April 2014

How Not to Write About Sex

I was surprised (and a little perturbed) when a performer at one of the regular Yorkshire open mic nights recently referred to me as an “erotic poet”. I don’t think he was referring to my magnetic, romantic personality. Rather, and I’m not sure quite how this happened, I’d been pigeon-holed in the category of Poets Who Write About Sex.

I do write a lot of love poems. But my published (and occasionally prize winning) love poems are poems about libraries, rivers and ornithology. Not, by any stretch of the imagination, ‘poems about sex’.

I’ve written one poem, to date, that is overtly ‘about sex’. And I’ve performed it to an audience exactly twice. Breathing for Me was a challenge set by a writing tutor some years ago, and writing the damn thing terrified me. It was published in a Ragged Raven Press anthology, and eventually found its way into my collection A Long Way to Fall. It’s not an especially explicit poem. Although it’s clear what is happening, I made sure that the sex itself stayed firmly in the subtext. But it’s a very sensual poem – and I think this is what my fellow poet was referring to.

You don’t have to be writing ‘about sex’ to write a poem where sex, or the possibility of it (or the consequences afterwards) infuses the subtext. When Andrew Marvell wrote about his Coy Mistress, he didn’t write about the actual physical process of having sex with her. Carol Ann Duffy is hardly an ‘erotic poet’, but Valentine and Warming Her Pearls are filled with sensuous imagery that positively electrifies the atmosphere.

‘Erotic poetry’ (by which I specifically mean ‘poetry about sex’) was a bit of a craze in York a few years back. There were whole evenings dedicated to it. An element of ‘dress-up’ was involved, which made these events doubly intimidating for an introvert like me. Some participants opted for the classic ballgown or dinner jacket; other people’s costumes were more suited to a BDSM dungeon than a poetry night. Many creative people have an exhibitionistic element about them, and that’s fine. It takes all sorts, as they say. But ‘erotic poetry nights’ really didn’t do it for me.

I did once appear in an anthology titled The Exhibitionists, as it happens. But that’s another story.

‘Erotic poetry’ is not the only place where a poet can tread on uncomfortable ground. I was made aware of that at another poetry reading recently: a book launch event for a well known poet whose latest material draws on dark recollections from the poet’s past. The tragic history of the poet’s first love affair was a major theme of the poems.

If romantic verse is one aspect of the poet’s stock in trade, then ‘love-gone-wrong’ poems are the other side of the coin. I’ve been there before too (“many, many times,” to misquote Betty Marsden), and made a fair bit of poetry out of the experience. Even a little money, too; a couple of these poems have been prize winners. But what applies to the ‘erotic’ love poems also applies, for me, to the ‘love-gone-wrong’ poems. Their power is in the imagery, the subtext: the things the poet chooses not to say explicitly but only to hint at. These are what allow the poem to transcend the poet’s own experience and find a new life in the heart of the reader, or listener.

When a poem of this nature becomes explicit – when it becomes biography, when the lost love is named and shamed in the poem – then I can’t help feeling that a line has been crossed. The poem becomes journalism, or confessional, or – at worst – revenge. No matter how well crafted, it is a report of someone else’s life. That thread of connection which binds the poet and the audience is broken – or else it was never there to begin with. And as a reader, I will never feel that the poem really speaks to me.

Just as I have no wish for my sex life (poeticised or not) to be on public display, so I have no desire to broadcast the details of past heartbreak to the world. My ex-girlfriends deserve the dignity of me keeping our private affairs private. That doesn’t mean that what went wrong in those relationships will never influence my poetry again. But I prefer to use the experiences as source material to inspire my poetry on a subtler level. With the aid of metaphor, imagery and subtext, I try to make something a little bit beautiful out of the wreckage of past mistakes. Something that I hope others can relate to.

The poetry tutor who made me write Breathing for Me was pushing me to a greater degree of honesty. He wanted my poems to be truthful about the ‘inner me’ – he wanted me not to be afraid of using my art to express the deepest, most personal aspects of who I am. For the record, I think he was right. But that doesn’t make Breathing for Me autobiography. That was never its purpose. Instead, it was permission to find new freedom in how I use my imagery, metaphor and subtext. It was a pivotal moment in ‘finding my voice’ as a poet.

But it was not a ‘poem about sex’. And I don’t really want it to be seen as one.

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