February 16, 2021 § 29 Comments
How does a poet morph into a memoirist? It happens when poetry can no longer restrain words that spill over the sides of a container composed of lines and stanzas, instead filling page after page. It happens when the need to lay down a narrative becomes so compelling that a poet must begin to write the story of her need.
I had always wanted to write but in my early years struggled with narrative. I have a drawer full of old short story fragments and aborted novels, all typed on onionskin paper with a portable typewriter (yes, back in those days!). I’d never dreamed I could write poetry but one day, when I admitted to another story failure, in frustration I gave verse a try. Even now I can picture myself sitting in the university library when the thrill of my first (very badly written) poem ran through me. I believed I had found my calling and gave up wrestling with narrative then and there. In my last forty-odd years of writing and publishing, I believed that would never change.
Many decades later, my father, then in his mid-80s, began to slide into the shadow world of dementia. As I watched my father losing words, losing memories and losing me, I tried to capture the progression of that loss, to capture him on the page. I wrote poem after poem, several of which appeared in my collection Always a Blue House, published the year I turned sixty. By then my father, living in a nursing home, couldn’t come to my book launch party. He couldn’t even understand that I’d written a book, much less read any of the poems.
My father had always been a closed man, emotionally damaged by his Depression-era childhood. Abandoned by his mother, he grew up in orphanages and foster homes. That early trauma left him with an inability to express his emotions, turning him inward, into a silent man. A silent father with a daughter who lived for words.
As his disease progressed, I found myself compelled to write about our strained relationship, a subject poetry couldn’t satisfy. I wanted to come to terms with our conflict and with his dementia that had stolen any opportunity to heal our breach. As suddenly as poetry came to me long ago, the desire to write a memoir appeared. Since my father had such trouble expressing himself with words, I would help tell his story. And that required the full sweep of narrative.
In my transition from poet to nonfiction writer, I battled insecurities not very different from those that plagued me starting out. For so many years I had called myself “poet” and not “writer.” Those two labels connoted to me two completely different types of artists. I had to battle the power of those labels to realize: what is a poet if not a writer of poetry?
Since I earned my living as a language arts teacher, I did what I would advise any of my students: start learning. I took online courses and read book after book on writing nonfiction. I read as many memoirs as I could, soaking up every technique and way of telling I could find. I had to learn to combine my poet’s voice with the “telling” reflective nature of memoir, how to lay myself on the page as the genre requires. Poets can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, “tell it slant,” shading their emotions and selves behind metaphor and imagery. I came to see that I’d found it easier to write about difficult topics in poems by keeping myself in soft focus. Memoir requires bold-faced honesty, the reflective voice revealing the writer’s deepest foibles on the page. Still struggling with this, every time I write I replay the wisdom of a writer friend: we must see more of you on the page.
I wondered if I the poet, used to works taking no more than a page or two, could find the fortitude to amass words page after page, until I created a book. A daunting task—but the thrill of pages piling up kept me going.
I persist and the word count increases. Now I can say writer as well as poet. I focus on the doing and not the labels. Next to my computer I keep William Faulkner’s quote: “Don’t be a writer. Be writing.”
Lisa Rizzo is the author of Always a Blue House (Saddle Road Press, 2016), a finalist in the 2016 National Federation of Press Woman Awards, and In the Poem an Ocean (Big Table Publishing, 2011). Her poetry and nonfiction have appeared in journals and anthologies including Calyx, Naugatuck River Review, Longridge Review, The MacGuffin, and Unmasked, Women Over Fifty Write About Sex and Intimacy (Weeping Willow Books). She is at work on her memoir in progress, Half-Orphan: A Daughter and Her Father. Visit her at www.lisarizzowriter.com