When my mother reads one of my poems that uses the personal pronoun ‘I’
And the word queer to describe myself
She gets all worked up, all don’t be showing this to your auntie and only upsetting her
My mother doesn’t care that the LGBTQI community have reclaimed queer
Or that when a poet writes a poem using ‘I’ it’s not necessarily their perspective
The kind of poetry written with the personal pronoun ‘I’ is mostly associated with the lyric tradition. Lyric poetry represents, to paraphrase Helen Vendler, “an inner life in such a manner that it is assumable by others.” In this sense, ‘I’ can be a vehicle for representative rather than purely subjective experience.
Then why does my mother feel so ashamed when she reads my poetry?
Because when the personal pronoun is combined with autobiographical details the reader knows about the poet, then the reader begins to question the relationship between the poem and the poet. They begin to identify the lyric self with the poet’s public self. We call this process of identification lyric reading. This way of reading has been subject to shame and repressed within literary studies. Yet, as Gillian White has argued, there is value in “allowing and exploring the shame of lyric reading.”
This idea of revaluing shame in lyric poetry comes from queer studies, which has sought to revalue the shaming queer people have been subjected to by societies prejudiced against them. Queer studies asks, what might we learn from paying attention to the experience of shame rather than merely seeking to overcome it.
In my creative-critical PhD thesis I am exploring the shaming of the personal in lyric poetry written by queer women. I believe shame can play a crucial role in making space for their bodies and perspectives, as they have long been excluded from the Western poetic tradition.
I include autobiographical experiences in my creative component (which is a book of poetry), and in my critical thesis, to try and resist this exclusion and encourage a culture of openness to questions about shame, questions that are not just important to poetry.
My mother asks me what happened to the gay girl Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale?
She won’t watch the television adaptation of the book
She’s afraid her fears for Moira will be confirmed
She’s afraid of what the world will do to Moira
Or me when we insist on presenting ourselves so shamelessly
Emer Lyons is a poet and PhD candidate in the Department of English and Linguistics at the University of Otago. The article above is adapted from”Shaming the Personal in Queer Lyric Poetry”, her people’s choice award-winning performance in the final of the university’s “Three Minute Thesis” competition on 3 August 2018. View Emer’s performance below.