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Questions Asked of the Poet

July 2014

If you are a poet and publish or give readings, you may have been asked questions about your poems. Readers and listeners often wonder how real or autobiographical the details in your poems might be.

Some readers expect that the first car you owned in that poem must, in fact, be the actual first car you owned. That Francine who was your first kiss - Was she really your first kiss?

How honest do you need to be in your poems? How autobiographical are your poems and how much poetic license do you allow yourself? Is there a line of fiction that poems shouldn't cross?

For this month's prompt, we consider the questions readers ask (or might ask) about your poems. There are two poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil that serve this prompt. First is her poem, "Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?" I like the way she answers the question in several ways and I think for many poets the answer does depend on the poem and situation.
The second poem is "Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill" in which Aimee gives us a found poem, composed entirely of e-mails from various high school students. (As the title implies, Aimee's last name is a tough one for most readers.) The students have asked questions and made observations about the poet and her poems, and only through her selection, arrangement and repetition does the poet comment.

What are readers asking you about your poems and what are you answering?

As always, there is more about this prompt, others and things poetic on the Poets Online blog.


“Did you get permission from the parents
of the boy with the yellow T-shirt,”
the interviewer asks, “to write that poem about
him?” I guess a journalist always smells
the possibility of lawsuit. I try
to explain, in that poem about a boy, there were
at least a dozen boys composited in one,
none of them wearing a yellow T-shirt.
The truth is, one boy/many boys
got lost, murdered, died of exposure.
The T-shirt is poetic license. So is the boy
himself, as if I selected a nose here, eyes there,
freckles from a third; whereas actually,
it was the street where this one lived,
the creeping vines I crawled through, following
my dog on the trail of another;
and birdsong that recalls a third. How
could I ask permission of all those parents
for just a portion of their boys?
How could I tell them the boy in the poem
doesn’t even have a name?

Taylor Graham


asked the seventh grader after I had finished my reading.

Well, I replied, yes. But usually not enough money to just be a poet. I am also a teacher.

So, it's like a part time job, he concluded.

That stopped time.

I did write my poems part of the time. I also worked. I raised two children.
I tried to keep a relationship interesting. There was small but exciting life
that had nothing to do with spouse, kids, teaching or poetry.
I realized that I made no money at being a wife or mother.
I lost money living that other exciting life.
Poetry sometimes did pay a bit.

Time restarted.

Yes, I agreed. I get extra money for doing something I really love.

Pretty sweet deal, he nodded.
Pretty sweet deal.

Lianna Wright


Is your puppy really named Ariel as a tribute to Sylvia Plath?
Do you really hate the way your wife loves you like a cat playing with a mouse?
Did Rimbaud really write a deathbed letter to Verlaine?
Not that I know of.
Did that jazz pianist Sir Roland Hanna’s fingers really leave his hands and fly off in an icy frenzy at the Knickerbocker Lounge?
Yes, every Friday night for years.
Did you really have an affair with a lady who sat down at your table at the Kiev restaurant one sunny June day when you both were NYU students?
Yes, she sat down at my table in a crowded Kiev, no, it wasn’t in June, the waitress objected but I wanted her to stay, yes we went out for awhile, no she didn’t go to NYU (but I did,), she was a freelance photographer who went home to Wisconsin in a few months, and I never saw her again, and though you didn’t ask about this, she was absolutely gorgeous and great fun. And that stuff about our favorite haunts in the Village disappearing is true, of course.
What about that duck pond in Passaic Park?
I used to feed the ducks until they got aggressive and scared my toddler son.
With all your poems about the Yankees - Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, DiMaggio, Casey Stengel – you must love them very much.
No, I’m a Yankee hater. I like the Giants and the Mets. The Yankees are just so mythic it’s hard not to write about them.
Your poem about Woody Allen is ambiguous. What do you really think of him?
We are secretly married. Soon-Yi is a beard.
I don’t understand your poem about Aristotle and Descartes being together in a Blimpies in Paterson, what does it mean?
It means that Aristotle and Descartes were together in a Blimpies in Paterson. Sigmund Freud was there too, drinking weak coffee, and Holden Caulfield was sweeping the floor.

R. Bremner


Nobody sends rejection letters anymore.
Poems sent disappear, like immigrants in
Sonoran sands, as though they’d never been.

Stamps, envelopes, SASE’s are not required;
Just log on to Submittable and upload: done.
Oh—don’t forget the reading fee! Visa’s fine.

I once had a friend whose tiny office was
Papered in rejection letters, some just 3x5
Cards, but each at least a faint recognition.

Someone had looked, perhaps read, his
Poems, following the image thread or
Counting syllables, weighing the rhyme.

Yes, most of the notes were much alike:
“Not exactly what we’re looking for.”
“Not a fit for our publication.” “Try again.”

But always a sense of someone there, an ear,
Came through the boiler-plated phrases, so
He tried again, on and on, pacing up and down.

He died by his own hand in 1977 after burning
All the letters in a pile in the back yard of his
Trailer on the edge of a Texas border town.

Robert Carroll Miller


You asked, pointing with a finger at "he" in the second line of my poem.
        Because there's no way that's me. Except in that fucked up head of yours.
He crumbled the page across the table, packed it in his hands like a snowball
or a baseball ready to throw, then stuffed it in his pocket.
        You ain't using me for none of your stupid poems no more.
And he was gone,
perhaps thinking the file had been also deleted from my computer,
or that the Muses get to choose who they will inspire.

Pamela Milne


about my poems.
Even after I gave a reading, no one was asking
if that accident really happened
or if it really happened to me.
It didn't really happen.
It certainly never happened to me.
Does that matter?
Why don't you ask me about the rest of the story
behind that woman who tried to commit suicide
after she read my first book of poetry?
Now that is a story.
It's not a poem.
That's something I want to tell you:
None of the really good stories are poems.
Even though you didn't ask.

Charles Michaels