Confessions of a Could-be Confessional Poet

by Gerry LaFemina

A recent collection of essays, After Confession: Poetry as Autobiography, raises some issues about confessionalism, autobiography, and the role of the lyric I. Confessionalism, that moniker lodged against Lowell by M.L. Rosenthal that was then owned by an entire school of poetry, has of course led to numerous classroom discussions in which students declared that anything they wrote in lines that expressed their feelings was poetry: I’m just confessing how I feel. The more melodramatic, the better.

Of course, that’s where many of us start, and I want to say that most of my poetry still “expresses my feelings,” insofar as my obsessions–emotional, spiritual, psychological—are my obsessions. These are my truths, and they are the cornerstone for the lyric I of my poems. I am less bound to the notion of fact: adherence to details for the sake of documenting what happened is the place for journals or diaries. The poem is about the reader as much as the writer, it’s an exchange in the marketplace of the line, in which the poem has to have relevance for both. The sordid details that we’ve played over and over again in our heads may offer a cheap thrill (though in this age of Facebook posts and selfies, of Instagram photos and Yelp reviews, I think not). The fact is, we’re already bombarded with the tabloid details of people’s lives on a regular basis: what does poetry offer as a place of confession? As a place for autobiography?

In my college yearbook, I have a quote from Simic: “I can imagine many lives in which I could be perfectly happy or perfectly miserable.” It was my understanding of being an artist, something akin to what Kinnell says in “Poetry, Personality, and Death”: “We move toward a poetry in which the poet seeks an inner liberation by going so deeply within himself… that he suddenly finds he is everyone.” What must we be liberated from if not the ego that begs for the facts of our lives to be told beyond the small cadre of confidants we would normally share those facts with.

Fact is, I’m less concerned with my life stories. I’ve told them. They hold no secret for me to get something more. When I tell a story about my son’s birth or my father, and someone says to me (as happens regularly), “You should write a poem about that,” my reaction is always the same: “No!”  A good anecdote does not necessarily make a good poem, in part because so many poets tend to write the poem as if the anecdote were more important than the poetry.

My mother tells a story about giving a group of cousins one of my books because in the poem “The Barely Visible” my great aunt Sophie appears in factual glory, she who “survived/ two husbands, a daughter/a granddaughter and a great grandson.’ As a matter of fact, another person who appears in the poem, a boy I knew in grammar school, appears in hyperbolized detail. And the historical figure Amos Stiles, a shipwreck survivor whom I read about in the shipwreck museum on Lake Superior also appears in the poem. Though they appear, the poem is about none of them, but rather about an obsession of mine then: how our species survives adversity and tragedy.

More to the point, though, a couple of these cousins called my mother asking about the “facts” of some of the book’s other poems. And my mother told them what she’d come to understand: the poem’s facts are the facts of some alternate reality, one that looks a lot like ours but isn’t ours.

Actually, my saying that’s what my mother said is me making up another detail to support the truth of this essay, my current obsession, while simultaneously being disinterested in the facts. Rather, my mother said something like “Gerry isn’t writing an autobiography.”

That’s not to say there aren’t autobiographical details in my poems, there are, but more often than not they are diving boards from which I leap into an imagined life. As I said some twenty years ago when interviewed by a student newspaper, “The guy speaking in my poems is everything I hope I am and everything I’m glad I’m not. We’ve shared a lot of the same experiences, but the ‘I’ of my poems isn’t me exactly.” I’m imagining those lives that Simic mentioned. My goal is not to tell my stories, but to enter an experience of discovery, one that I hope generates a feeling (and, I hope, empathy) when the poem is read.

In my poem “After Reading Rexroth I Step Outside,” the speaker recounts finding the bones of a dead child while morel mushroom hunting. The poem’s title is counterfactual: I had not been reading Rexroth, nor have I ever found the bones of any creature. The point of autobiography that I led to the poem was seeing mushrooms in the grass at work:

Low moon tonight & nearly full.
See how it illuminates the alien bodies of mushrooms
colonizing the weedy lawn.  They’re a surprise after six weeks
of near drought, delivered, no doubt,
                                                                      by the drizzle that followed—

their fibrous necks lifting up their heads so they seem to look
in wonder.

Everything else is imagined not to trick the reader about my life experience, but rather to engage the reader in the same experience of discovery I had in writing the poem. In this way I’m expressing what Adrienne Rich called “our desire [for] a poetry in which the ‘I’ has become all of us, not simply a specific suffering personality, and not an abstraction which is also an evasion of the poet’s own specificities.” That said, once, after a reading, a woman came up to me and asked, “What happened with the dead child?” I said I didn’t know because the poem ended: I wasn’t interested in a moment beyond the lyric experience explored in the poem. She was very upset and felt that she had been manipulated.

My argument—both with her and in this essay—is that I’m an imaginative writer. If I wanted to write my autobiographical experience, I’d be writing memoir (and we know there have been numerous debates about the license some memoirists take with fact). I write poems because their lyric intensity and compression, their language and structure, allow for a more powerful affect. I write poems because my favorite poems had such an effect on me: reading them led me to imagining those lives detailed in them.

Even in my love poems (and I’ve written a number of love poems), the poem is an attempt to metaphorize and understand the feeling. Love, at its best, is one of the most transcendental of feelings: we become part of the other. As Kinnell notes, “As with poetry, so with love: it is necessary to go through the personality to reach beyond it.” The details about the relationship, about the beloved, are secondary to the poem’s attempt to capture the insights and feelings of being “in love.”

Of course, this is my way of thinking about the poem. This is not meant as a complaint against those whose lyric selves are closer to their personal biographies. Many of my favorite writers write a much more autobiographical poem. It’s a large table, and we all can sit at it. And whether we metaphorize our lives or explore them in their autobiographical details, the importance of mediating those experiences via poetry—those aspects of craft that the art form offers–is key. In its discussion of confessionalism, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics notes that it “should be considered not as a prescriptive formula held by one group but as a general permission felt by most poets…to treat personal experience in its most intimate and painful aspects,” and dare I say its most pleasurable and joyous aspects, too. Although I’m sure the quote is using “treat” for its third American Heritage definition, “to deal with in writing or speech,” I prefer to think it actually is using the sixth definition, “To subject to a process, action, or change, especially to a chemical or physical process or application.” Writing a poem about experience ought to change the event(s) in question; it must find its truths if it is going to not just entertain our readers, but engross them, make them participants in the poem itself—in its language and breath and imagining; the discoveries in it become part of their experiences.


Excerpts from PARIS SCRATCH by bart plantenga

Paris Scratch: The Children Snapshots

[Les enfants instantanés]


excerpts from Paris Scratch by bart plantenga
(Sensitive Skin, June 2016)

Walking, like writing, leads from an oft-known destination to an unknown one. From the familiar to the unfamiliar. While living in Paris I fell from natural fascination into rote routine & so I decided to attain a more wide-eyed approach during my walks both utilitarian [buying food] & those categorized as aimless or dreamy. I consciously pushed my awareness of the hidden/forgotten details of everyday life. At a rate of about one per day.

  1. Nez de la Gare [Train Station’s Nose]

The kid faces the men at the bar, wearing a mask with a big nose. Suddenly everyone is still as a photo in a frame. Even the cigarette smoke hangs there like a scratch etched into a carafe of thick air. The boy thinks it is his mask. While each of the bar’s patrons think s/he is the only 1 who has ever felt that odd rumble in the gut when the trains pull out of Gare de Lyon. & then the fat-fingered man reaches out past his drink into an area where he has not been for some time & grabs the big nose. Just like that. Just for the hell of it.

  1. La Boit Subliminal [The Subliminal Box]

The box at the curb simply said:




& the kids de la Côte d’Ivoire take this box of secret messages & launch it into the gurgling water rolling down along the curb of rue André Antoine & as the sewer ate the box 1 hears the gleeful cries of triumph. They dance around the signpost on slender legs that seem to grow by several centimeters over night. It was 11 PM on a warm night.

  1. Une Chatte Enscenté [The Scented & Enchanted Crotch]

The morning is host to school children running with bright packs on their gleeful backs. The petite écoliére in pink slicker runs up the deserted early cobblestone street by the gutted television with her blue rucksack bouncing on her back, late for school. As if there is no end to the running. As if more pleasure is always just around the next corner where, looking somewhere else, she runs into the hooker who laughs, as the little schoolgirl’s nose nuzzles right into her perfumed chatte d’amoure. & she caresses the girl’s head. Runs her hand through her hair with a forlorn & tender wisp.

  1. À suivre de la Seine Urine [Following the Seine of Urine]

The petite fille squatted in the corner of where the pharmacy meets the cabaret along the northern edge of the 9th. She pees with her panties down at her ankles & watches with utter satisfaction as it runs down the sidewalk. She points proudly down at her etching as if the sidewalk is France & her urine is the Seine cutting through it. She begs maman to “Voir maman! Voir!” As if volition, art & cause & effect had suddenly become so clear for her. But maman is late for something, somewhere else & she’d seen it all before & takes forceful hold of her daughter’s wrist as if to emphasize that dreaming & movement were indeed inversely related.

  1. Le Sourire Synchronizé [Synchronized Smile]

The 4-year-old girl sits absorbed in the luxurious radiance of her own smile, suspended in the thick air on the #1 Line. These are the moments that the tick of writing or other arachnids & disease vectors try without fruit to burrow into. & as she chews her Brooklyn gum, I chew mine & with each chew we fall more & more in synch. & this secret knowledge of our giddy reconnaissance makes her smile which makes me smile into the rest of the day.

  1. Kids Sont Toujours Kids [Kids Will Be Kids]

The kids are too young to be smoking but are smoking nonetheless & precisely because of that very fact. Near their school along the Qaui des Celestins, they affect the stance & expressions & drag & puff styles of cinematic heroes like Vincent Cassel or Jean Louis Trintignant or Kevin Bacon or Richard Widmark. Periodically they give the finger to the woman (peut être the mother of 1 of their schoolmates) in a blue suit with white piping, directing traffic. & they run & run away until they’re out of breath & there is nowhere else to run & they are falling all over themselves with laughter & triumphant smiles dripping off their faces. A rolled-up Asterix comic book falls out of the back pocket of 1 of the écoliers.

  1. Vélo, How Are You? [Bicycle, How Are You?]

The boy skidded to a halt on the shiny vélo, a bike still too big for him. He likes the noise & the dust he leaves behind in the Parc Monceau. He looks at me & smiles a smile I haven’t been able to wear for at least 20 years. What wears the smile out the most? His voice suddenly transforms into the roar of a motorcycle & he is off again, just within view of his maman, sitting on a bench, acting like she is not keeping an eye on him—close but not too close—& that is the orbital relationship he craves. When I get home that evening I try his smile on for size in our salle de bain mirror.

  1. Nausée de Rire [Nausea of Laughter]

The petit garçon takes aim from behind the door barely cracked open in the fire station. His green water pistol emerges from the crack &—squeeze, squeeze—gleeful laughter as he dashes off, gazing over his shoulder to make sure the pompiers are giving chase & indeed they are until they find him doubled up, totally immobilized by his own laughter out back. He can’t move another inch & the threat of the firemen tickling him makes him even more nauseous de rire.

  1. Poubelle et la Puberté [Garbage & Puberty]

Les petites filles in their full after-school gaieté, their weird beaded braids & open jackets are dancing a jig or more like a French gigue, which requires some ballet, which it seemed the group of girls all wanted to some degree affect. & suddenly, just for a second, because fortuity sometimes allows a peek into a hidden part of truth, you could see exactly what these girls were going to look like in 20 years. Meanwhile, the old woman in white go-go boots & orange plush housecoat rakes leaves under the bare elm. It is early in the morning & the girls help the woman pick up the leaves & stuff them into a public poubelle near Buttes Chaumont before they run off in a direction the old woman remembers well.

  1. La Perceuse Mystificateur Too Early [The Too-Early Mystifying Drill]

The 5 jeunes étudiants in their school outfits of some color & little leather shoes were standing very still, holding hands, fixated, mystified by the huge drill that is pecking into the pavement of rue St. André des Arts at a time many will consider much too early. Then 1 let go, breaking the circuit, breaking the spell & holds his hands cupped over his ears. He wants to go. School is just around the corner.

  1. The Voice Sans Souci [The Unsuspecting Voice]

Le petit garçon is in the Luxembourg Gardens, behind a hedge where his maman cannot really keep an eye on him & so how long will this idyll last? He is poking around the leaves & dirt with a stick & singing, humming, la-la-ing a tune. It is a happy song with a lilt he cannot quite reach. It is a tune no 1 has ever sung before & so it is his. He really did not seem to have many cares yet. & then I hear his maman raising her voice: “Mon Petit! Mon petit! Où es-tu?!” But there are plenty of us impatient to introduce these cares to him. Although I now know where he got his nice voice from.

  1. Flipper King de Perdre du Temps [Flipper King Of Wasting Time]

The écolier was playing flipper (pinball) in the café with the floor already littered with sugar cube wrappers because he is way too early for school & he is enjoying it, winning free balls, wasting the time of the world like a little king. Until the proprietor, not his father, calls out “Jean,” & nods toward the clock to let Jean know that his time as the king of wasting time is running out.


bart plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic (Autonomedia, 2017), the short story collection Wiggling Wishbone & the novella Spermatagonia: The Isle of Man. His books Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World & Yodel in HiFi plus the CD Rough Guide to Yodel have created the misunderstanding that he is one of the world’s foremost yodel experts. He’s currently working on the Amsterdam-Brooklyn novel Radio Activity Kills with his daughter, Paloma. He is also a DJ & has produced Wreck This Mess in NYC, Paris & now Amsterdam since 1986. He has written about working with refugees in Amsterdam for Truthdig & Vox Populi: The Refugee Center & Guarded Hope. He lives in Amsterdam.

  • Read the review of Paris Scratch in Coal Hill Review
  • Listen to the Paris Scratch soundtrack as you read
  • Also Read: The 2nd part of the diptych: NY Sin Phoney In Face Flat Minor, Sensitive Skin, November 2016.

Book Review: THE SILVER GHOST by Chuck Kinder

410xMiGufnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ The Silver Ghost
by Chuck Kinder
Braddock Avenue Books, 2016

Reviewed by Tori Bovalino

It is the late 1950s and America is a lush, electric, song-filled garden for teenage truelove, and Jimbo and Judy fully expect that their own truelove will grow and grow until the end of time, until the twelfth of never.

Jimbo Stark lives in a place somewhere between reality and fiction, where the events of his life trickle into movie scenes in his head. The reprint of Chuck Kinder’s forgotten novel, The Silver Ghost, marries the nostalgia of Hollywood golden era movies with the bittersweet experience of growing up. Kinder’s coming-of-age novel showcases his easy style of writing and evolving voice as he follows Jimbo on the most important adventures of his young life.

The Silver Ghost begins with Jimbo’s exile to his grandmother’s house in the middle of nowhere. This sentence is inflicted by his father after he sells his father’s prized collection of war figurines to buy a ring for his girlfriend. Jimbo loses both his family and girlfriend in one fell swoop after his girlfriend, the fickle Judy, decides she would rather be going out with somebody else. He struggles with his feelings for Judy throughout the story, but is never really able to overcome his love for her – even after Judy decides to marry another man.

Jimbo’s troubles don’t end with his personal relationships. While running away from home and Judy, he tangles himself with a criminal who goes by the name Jake Barnes. Kinder captures the dark, charming character of Barnes and models him into a cool-guy role model that Jimbo looks up to by framing Barnes as a movie star himself— Barnes is the Humphrey Bogart to Jimbo’s James Dean.

The scenes in this novel are like fish underwater. They are shimmery and blurred but every few moments, one surfaces and sparkles in the sun, fully exposed. For instance, Kinder fleshes out the character of Jake Barnes by first alluding to his exciting life, then giving specific details about his adventures:

Jake Barnes had been about everyone and done about everything all right. As they drove south that night and the following day, taking turns behind the wheel, Jake told one story after another about his wild youth. When they passed a chain gang chopping brush beside the road in the early morning, Jake told about the six months he had once spent on just such a chain gang before finally escaping…

Kinder’s style frames his mysterious, foggy characters in the terms of Hollywood actors and actresses of the period. Jimbo’s internal struggles are described in vignettes of James Dean smoking cigarettes and tangling with boys from school, then disappearing into the dust in his silver Porsche. The narration blurs reality with the perfection of misunderstood youth that could only be conveyed by the silver screen. Jimbo Stark is not just a troubled teenager – he is “old Captain Rebel Without a Cause On the Road, steely eyed, grinning tightly, his soul whopeeing.”

Kinder’s protagonist captures the weighty confusion of growing up mixed with a movie-styled implosion. Jimbo is not intended for some sort of wholesome redemption or solution to his familial troubles. In fact, his only chance for happiness means running away from everything that he has ever known, or else he faces a depressing future of unsatisfying late-night drinks at the bar by himself. Like James Dean, Jimbo ends the narrative in the car, “as he pushes the pedal relentlessly down, as he tries with all of his heart to hit 110, escape velocity: as he tries with all of his heart to become perfectly himself: as he tries with all of his heart to blast off that great starfield in the sky.”