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2119 words
SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Bill of Writes: Life, Liberty, and the Poetics of Authenticity

by Clint Margrave

I once paid $25 dollars and entered a manuscript into a first novel contest. It was about a young man’s experiences in Iraq, written in the first person. The manuscript beat out 150-200 other entries and won the contest. The famous writer who was that year’s judge praised the book for its depiction of a man in a hellish war. But before the novel was to be published, he backed out, refusing to write the preface for the book. Why? Because it turns out, I’ve never been to Iraq. And the experiences were made up. The famous writer who selected the manuscript felt deceived. Somehow, the novel wasn’t good anymore. The hellish experience of a man at war wasn’t valid, and I ended up having to write my own preface for the prize-winning book rather than having the springboard of a respected writer’s praise.

This is a true story.

However, the details are false. The war, for instance, wasn’t Iraq. And the manuscript wasn’t a novel, but a book of poems. Even more importantly, I wasn’t the author. Feel deceived? Of course, you do. After all, by the nature of this essay being a supposed piece of non-fiction, we have an unspoken contract. You expect me to tell the truth. At the very least, you expect that the editors of wherever this essay ends up, have done the proper vetting (no pun intended) to ensure this work credible. But if this were a novel, you wouldn’t expect that. You wouldn’t even care. And if the contest really had been about a novel, not a judge in the world would have cared either. Not even with the most confessional of novels, is it likely a judge would have been offended to find out the author had made it all up. The author would have been showered in praise for his imagination. After all, no one expected Ralph Ellison to have actually lived beneath the streets after they read Invisible Man or that James Baldwin wasn’t white even though his narrator in Giovanni’s Room is. Did Arthur Conan Doyle need to be a detective? Or for that matter, did Raymond Chandler? Does this make any of the novels written by these authors any less authentic? It seems crazy anyone would question this. The fact that novels are understood to be fiction safeguards the need for their authors to demonstrate authenticity no matter how confessional, releasing them from the required proof of, say, the memoir (just look at the recent literary grumblings over the faked memoirs of James Frey, and Nasdijj a.k.a. Timothy Barrus—a subject for another time) or, for that matter, this essay. The contract made with the reader is obviously different between a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction, whether that be memoir, essay, news report, or witness testimony (however, the subject of non-fiction as fiction itself is a worthy one to explore). But what about a book of poems? What contract does poetry have with its readers, if any?

You look up novel in the dictionary and you find the phrase “fictitious prose.” You look up poem, and you find words like “imaginative” or “elevated,” but not “fictitious.” Of course, the first thing you learn in your college English 100 class is the limits of a dictionary. This wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t the public misconception that contemporary poems, unlike contemporary novels or short stories, are somehow supposed to be “true,” or rather, “the truth.” At what point did this narrow view of poetry begin? Isn’t the role of poetry to mythologize in some way? As a fiction writer and poet myself, I’m prone to say it’s all made up and the best of it is authentic no matter how fantastical. Certainly Greek mythology is authentic, not for its factual truths, but for its truthful revelations about humanity. And yet, people don’t go around thinking Zeus is real (anymore). Of course, we have our own myths to contend with, many of which come from texts made of poems, whose mis-readings and literal interpretations lead to many “real” world misunderstandings and even bloodshed. But maybe that’s a point worth considering—how do we distinguish between what’s “real” and what’s “true” and what’s the “real truth?” After all, we may consider Socrates to have been “real,” and though the legendary stories about him may unveil “truths,” they are not necessarily the “real truth.” Does it matter? Well, exchange Socrates for Christ or Mohammad and see what happens.

So, yes, even in the “real” world, understanding the nuances of a genre does matter, and poetry, even the most confessional kind, is not simply the “real truth,” but often fictitious, just as any novel is. But it does take a certain amount of sophisticated training to recognize this fact—which is the most troubling aspect of our contest judge. Here is a well-known poet who surely understands the process of creation, not to mention the limits of non-fiction, and the embellishment that goes into any writing. Why the offense then? What sort of authenticity do we demand upon the poet we don’t the novelist? Is the nature of poetry so much more intimate, more revelatory that it raises our expectations of authenticity? Is a poem not authentic simply because the author didn’t experience what its narrator did?

Back when there used to be bookstores, you’d walk into a Borders (R.I.P.), let’s say, and find in most cases, a fiction section and a poetry section shelves apart from each other. Now I’m not complaining about this. It’s much more convenient to look through three tiny shelves of poetry to find a book than trying to dig out those slim little volumes from the massive inventory of not only literary novels and collections of short stories, but subgenres such as mystery, sci-fi, romance, not to mention the strangely complicated “gay literature” section, which usually would carry a number of labeled “homosexual” authors, but leave out people like Oscar Wilde or James Baldwin (even more confusing since there was also an “African American literature” section. Which leaves me wondering how you might label a sci-fi story written by a gay African-American?). There was also a drama section and a separate Shakespeare one right next to it, usually at the end of the fiction section. This was okay. Nobody questions whether plays are fiction. Nobody is disappointed to find out Shakespeare wasn’t really the son of a king or a raving old madman king himself. There is a perfectly clear understanding plays are made up, even the most autobiographical ones. So what gives when it comes to poetry? Is it that unlike the epic poems of the past, the confessional nature of so much contemporary poetry rewrites the contract between author and reader? It shouldn’t. But it seems true, anyway, that very few contemporary poems are written from the perspective of a hero, or a persona separate from the author’s. Is this a flaw in contemporary poetry? Maybe. Maybe not. It certainly unveils the lack of adventure in so many of today’s poems. Is it the amount of realism that determines the different reactions given to a poem? No one questions the persona poem when Ron Koertge writes it from the perspective of Lois Lane, but when Tony Hoagland does it from the perspective of a stereotypical white American watching a tennis match (to momentarily revisit an old controversy), all hell breaks loose, accusations of racism abound, and in this case, authenticity becomes the enemy. Is this contradictory? A violation? Of course it is. But what’s most disturbing is these accusations are made by other award-winning, established poets.

I’m not saying various fictional genres are excluded from this kind of prejudice— just that it doesn’t happen with the same frequency as it does a book of poems. Naturally, this can happen with novels and short stories—especially when it comes to the general readership. Most people don’t spend their days thinking about writing or the authenticity of an author when they pick up a relatively “realist” work of fiction, whether that be a novel or short story, told from the first person point of view, like something you might expect from Carver. The general consensus is often this is something taken from the author’s “real” life. In many cases, it is. Inspiration is always drawn upon one’s experiences. But it is generally understood to be an approximation. No one who writes is going to challenge that or claim it to be inauthentic, at least as far as autobiography goes. And let me be clear, I’m not talking about the verisimilitude of a story or poem, which is an entirely different thing. In the case of the contest, it’s possible the poet might have even fought in a war and written a book of trite or inauthentic poems due to the lack of verisimilitude. Yet, the opposite happened. The manuscript rang true for it to have been selected by an accomplished poet who, no doubt, has extensive knowledge of what makes for good writing (hopefully). Like I said, there are many cases in which an author of fiction will be called out for the opinions or attitudes or ideologies of his characters as if they are his own (nobody, for instance, credits Sartre’s character Garcin with saying “Hell is other people”). But I can’t imagine a well-known novelist backing out of a contest upon discovering the author wasn’t the same as his or her narrator. I mean, if a male novelist writes from the perspective of a female protagonist (think Roberto Bolano’s Amulet) is this somehow inauthentic? Of course not. Even seems silly to mention it. But what if a straight woman writes poems from the perspective of a lesbian? Because this also happened recently when a straight female poet named Jennifer Donnell began regularly publishing poems under the name Winnie Oliver, a lesbian, with an entirely different persona than the author herself, and an editor slated to publish a chapbook, backed out for the exact same reason as our contest judge. Did that change the merit of the poems to know they weren’t actually written by a lesbian? Did it make the experiences written about in the poems inauthentic? Many argued it did. But how is it any different than, say, Jeanette Winterson who often writes from the perspective of a male protagonist? Is it only biography that makes it different? Does finding out George Eliot is a woman change the literary value of Middlemarch? Or is it because it’s poetry? True, Donnell created a fictional biography for her imaginary poet, which I suppose, to an editor, may be considered a breach of contract (because poets would never lie about their bios!). But what about Fernando Pessoa and all of those heteronyms? He is, to this day, the most famous poet in Portugal. Lisbon has statues of him on every corner. Not only did he have separate biographies for his various heteronyms, he had entirely different writing styles for each of them. Would a contemporary judge of a poetry contest today reject Pessoa’s manuscript upon finding out the author wasn’t really Alvaro de Campos, a bisexual unemployed naval engineer? Pessoa insisted these personas be called heteronyms and not just pseudonyms, as he considered each one to be entirely separate from him.

Unlike these last two examples, our contest winner didn’t even try to forge his biography. Looking at the book right now I see this author served much of his life in the United States Armed Forces. Vague as that is, I’m not left with any other detail about his military history, just the suspicion that this author felt compelled to mention it as a way of fending off criticism. Why should a poet have to go through such trouble to prove his authenticity when it’s the quality of the words that are supposed to matter?

Just recently, the conservative U.S. Supreme Court in a 6 to 3 ruling, overturned the “Stolen Valor Law” enacted by Congress in 2006 “to protect the reputation and meaning” of military decorations after numerous cases of fake heroes had surfaced.1 The ruling focused on one particular case in which a phony elected official claimed he was a decorated war victim, a truly contemptible offense unlike writing a book of poems. Still, in their closing statements, the justices wrote that not only is punishment for making false statements a violation of the First Amendment, but only a “weak society” needs “intervention” before it “pursues its resolve to preserve the truth.” 2 Maybe it’s time that poetry got its own Bill of Rights.


  1. Supreme Court Overturns “Stolen Valor” Act, by Michael Doyle and Matthew Schofield, Miami Herald; published 06-28-12 in The Orange County Register

  2. The Orange County Register, 06-28-12


SHJ Issue 6
Fall 2012

Clint Margrave’s

first full-length collection of poems, The Early Death of Men, is newly released from NYQ Books. He is also the author of three chapbooks: Come Armageddon, Salute the Wreckage, and The Devil Made Me Do It. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Quarterly, Rattle, Ambit (UK), 3AM (UK), Pearl, Chiron Review, and Nerve Cowboy, among others.

His work can also be found in the recent anthologies At the Gate: Arrivals and Departures (Kings Estate Press) and Beside the City of Angels: An Anthology of Long Beach Poetry (World Parade Books). He lives in Long Beach, CA.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury