Launch 3: Writing about family
The gravity of my third launch hit me a couple of weeks before it went ahead. In the back of my mind I had a niggle, but it grew...as they often do. You see, I had absent-mindedly written a few poems about my family in the couple of years prior to bringing together September.
When I wrote the poems, I didn't ever think that the family members they were about might read them. As I compiled the manuscript for September, I started to realise that these were amongst some of my favourite poems, and added them to the draft, thinking 'I'll tell them later'.
I knew that I should tell the subjects of the poems that there were poems about them in the book. Not all of them were dedicated, but I wouldn't want people to recognise themselves in those which weren't without prior warning. I wish I had spoken to them before I had even put the manuscript together, but at that time, I was 100% sure it was going to be accepted, and wanted to 'break the news' if/when I got to that point.
But why was I so concerned in the first place? Wouldn't people appreciate being written into a poem? Some of the poems were written as tributes and in awe and honour of family members. There were a few reasons I was nervous about my family's reactions.
- While the poems are not nasty, I'm realistic. Not everyone is perfect and not all of the situations I write about are typically 'lovely'. For example, there's a poem about an argument between my father and my grandmother in September. I can imagine that not everybody is happy to be reminded of such times. And not everybody will always be happy with how those close to them are represented.
- People do remember things differently. I've been reminded of this recently - this week - talking about childhood memories with my sister. Something I remembered with fondness brought back an upsetting memory for her. Not only that, but I have had to use some literal 'poetic licence' at times to draw together dots and form a narrative or cohesive poem. This is especially true of a poem about my grandparents. My grandmother has some memory problems and I will probably never know the true, undiluted story (is it even my role to know it? That's a whole different post). By doing so, I'm accepting inaccuracies into essentially biographical work, which not everybody will appreciate.
- There's a poem about my partner in September. Well, actually, it's about our differing dialects. This requires an introduction when being read, as not all of the audience will be familiar with the dialect. But my partner is also very averse to being the centre of attention, and I really didn't know if he would be comfortable having the spotlight! The same goes for other family members.
- I've written about family members who are no longer with us too. I'm very aware that when it comes to family, many of us are affected by these losses, and the last thing I want to do is stir up painful memories for any of my family members.
Prior to the Shrewsbury launch, which I knew several of my family members were planning to attend, I visited the key 'subjects' of the poems and asked for their permission to perform the poems at the launch. They were very supportive and agreed (without reading the poems though...)
The day of the launch itself was very, very hot. We were at one end of the upstairs Darwin Room in Shrewsbury Library, which has a beautiful gothic chapel window and views out to Shrewsbury Castle. At least, it's beautiful when it's not acting as a large greenhouse. My family and friends turned out in force and some lovely people I hadn't seen for years came along to offer support. My cupcakes melted, my glasses slid down my nose, and we gave my grandmothers handheld fans, but everybody sweltered along together to hear me read, and for that I'm eternally grateful.
The Library staff had provided some fans, and were on hand to dish out drinks, fetch chairs, and generally to look after us in the tropical heat. My lovely attentive audience listened to my whole set before escaping to the closest open fridge or air conditioned pub.
When it came time to introduce and read the poems I'd written about my family, I was extremely nervous. I wasn't sure if they had heard or read these poems before. I wasn't sure what their reactions would be. I didn't even know where to look. But I've had lovely feedback about those poems, and so far, nobody has excommunicated me from the family (to my knowledge)! In fact, these are the poems which seem to touch people the deepest out of the collection. And I even heard wind of a complaint from my sister that there wasn't a poem about her in the book!
All in all, I felt extremely loved afterwards - and even now, two weeks on, I can't quite put the feeling into words. I'm so grateful for the people who have rallied around me for years as I've built up my writing, for those who took time out of a very warm day to come and see me perform, and for all those whose words and actions of encouragement have helped my confidence grow, especially in the last few weeks as I've taken the scary steps to letting my poems out into the wild.
I was once at a workshop on memoir writing led by Louise Palfreyman, who advised that often it's best not to write biographical works about those who are still alive, particularly if there are contentious issues to air. Despite my anxiety at performing these works, I enjoyed the writing process, and documenting my family in this way. Not that I had anything particularly salacious to say!
I think I would like to continue writing about my family when I am inspired to, but I might make sure I give them an earlier heads-up before including them in any more books!