At the Core of Poetry

If I had a nickel for the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “write what you know,” I’d probably have fifty nickels. While that is only a whopping $2.50, the point is, fifty times is a lot, considering I’ve only considered myself a writer for the past two years. This phrase used to grate on my nerves, making me want to scream, because I didn’t really know anything. Or at least, I didn’t think I did.

I knew that Romeo loved Juliet and that anything that wasn’t poetry was prose. But how do you write about that? The answer is: you can’t. After many moons of biting my nails and unsuccessful third, fourth, and sometimes fifth, drafts, I realized the key is much more than writing what you know. A brilliant poetry teacher once told me poetry was like an onion, and with every read you pull of layers of emotion, meaning, truth. The core of it is writing what you know, but all the layers around this core rely on–get ready for it—lies. Tim O’ Brien said it best,  “A lie, sometimes, can be truer than the truth. And that’s why poetry gets written.” (Alright, he said fiction, but I think poetry still applies here.)

After this brilliant discovery my poetry seemed to blossom. I took the core of it, what I knew, and all of these lies blossomed. Lies like beautiful images I’d pay to see, people I’d kill to meet, love I’d die to have, and loss I’d barely live through. I’d found that the images, or the lies, I created were indeed truer than anything I’d ever written, because once they were complete and on the page, I realized they were simply truths I’d never acknowledged.

And so I’ve realized that lies are the key to all brilliant poetry, or maybe even all brilliant writing. Because the lies bound to page by an author’s hand really aren’t lies at all, but layers of an onion that were otherwise unacknowledged.

–Darcy Graham, fiction editor