Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption?
The vast majority of my writing is autobiographical. I actually find myself getting annoyed by people assuming my writing isn’t autobiographical. I’ll read a poem about injustice or trauma I’ve experienced and have people ask me, “Did that really happen?”
English classes always taught me to separate the speaker of a poem from the poet. I was taught not to assume. Now, I find myself seeking out poets’ biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs to try and map out which personal experiences appear in which poems.
I have had cries for help in my writing be ignored in favor of conversations about craft. I have written about feeling suicidal and have had people say, “That’s a beautiful poem,” instead of them acknowledging my threat to harm myself. I’m now training to be a therapist, and clinicians have to take every remark seriously. If a client is mad at their partner and says, “I could kill him,” we have to assess for homicidality. If we assume it’s a joke or an exaggeration and something goes down, that’s on us. So many poetry admirers forget that poets are people. This mindset is definitely one of the things that encouraged me to get a Master’s in Counseling Psychology rather than an MFA in Poetry.
Aziza Barnes asks in their poem, “How come black folks can’t just write about flowers?” Does this resonate with you? How would you answer that question?
I see myself as a black poet that used to write about flowers. When I was younger, I was apolitical. I grew up in mostly white spaces, and my family always taught me to keep my head down and avoid making waves. Most of my poems were about unrequited love. Then I started writing about mental illness. Then my experiences with misogyny. And finally I started talking about race. I understand now that my family had discouraged me from talking about these things because they wanted to keep me safe. They tried to protect me, but it got to a point where the urgency with which I needed to speak on these topics outweighed my need to make my family feel comfortable. I think the short answer is that everything is political. Even if I name myself as a queer black woman then try to write about flowers, people will read into whether the flowers look like vaginas or what color the petals are. If I try to write about flowers to avoid being political, people are going to politicize it anyway. If that’s the case, I may as well write about whatever I damn well please.
VIDA has recently expanded their annual count to include race, LGBTQ+ identity, and ability, using self-identification surveys to collect some of this data. What are your feelings toward self-identification in author bios? Do you feel editors and readers approach your work through a lens that you don’t control?
I am absolutely in support of self-identification in author bios. I used to say that I wish I had the luxury of being seen as just a “poet,” instead of being seen as a “black poet,” but that just isn’t possible. I wanted to be seen as a “poet” when I was writing about flowers, but that isn’t where I am anymore. I will say though that I think it’s unfair for white, cisgender, heterosexual male poets to get to be “poets” while everyone else ends up othered. I like to think my desire to be seen as just a poet was less about colorblindness and internalized “-isms” and more about wanting a shot at the privilege that white, cisgender, heterosexual male poets have. But I guess the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
As a therapist-in-training, I specialize in bibliotherapy and poetry therapy with the LGBTQ+ community. Part of my research is coming up with a way to categorize poetry by the identity of the poet as well as the content of the poetry. If a black woman comes to me for therapy and says she is a lesbian who is married to a man, I would want to be able to point her in the direction of Audre Lorde. It’s not to say this woman couldn’t find comfort in the work of writers that don’t share her identity and experiences. But representation is so important.
Sometimes, you just need to know that you aren’t the only one out there. I once had a white woman come up to me after a reading and say my work really captures what it means to be a woman. It didn’t sit well with me. I appreciate the fact that my work spoke to her, but it felt like she was erasing my blackness. The two of us will never be alike. She has privilege that I don’t have. I don’t expect her to feel guilty about that, but at least be aware of it when addressing me.
LAUREN YATES is a Pushcart-nominated poet who is currently based in Philadelphia. Her writing has appeared in Nerve, XOJane, Crab Orchard Review, Vinyl, Softblow, and more. Lauren is a poetry editor at Kinfolks Quarterly and a member of The Mission Statement poetry collective. In Winter 2015, she served as Poet in Residence at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery at Drexel University. When she is not writing poems, Lauren is working toward her M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology at Temple University.