What Can I Write About?

A few months ago, I wrote on this blog about cultural appropriation, and the idea that there are some slam poems I can't write, such as one analyzing racial disparities in the US from the perspective of the disenfranchised. Such poems, obviously, would be a dishonest appropriation of an identity not actually mine. However, this claim spawns its own questions, most notably among them whether there are topics I can’t write about at all. Are there some themes, some issues, that I simply cannot speak on without appropriating?

In short, no. Poetry, after all, is build upon the outpouring of powerful feeling, and a person can feel powerfully about pretty much anything, regardless of who they are. For a whole host of reasons, I care deeply about gender equality, race relations, and sexual education, and for this reason I can write powerful poems about any and all of these topics. But it’s obvious I can’t write these poems blindly or in any style whatsoever. I can’t, for example, talk about sexual assault as if I’ve ever truly been a victim of it, or sexual education as if I’m a one of the marginalized members it so often neglects.

The trick, then, is to find how I connect to each issue I wish to write about in a way that's honest . How do I write a poem about race in America? By writing one addressed to the students I taught over the summer for three years, about how the world will see them. How do I write a poem about feminism? By talking about my experiences learning that being a feminist requires my conscious, constant action. Poetry must describe something real in us if it is to have any power whatsoever. But human experience is immeasurably vast, and thus, as long as we choose our perspective wisely, so are our topics.

We don't always choose the right perspective at first, of course, and it's not always easy to find the right one. It’s hard, after all, to know how much you’re appropriating or missing the mark of your own experience until others actually read what you write. More than once I’ve had to change poems around to eliminate wordplay or central conceits that were problematic but that I’d grown somewhat fond of, or even cancel poems altogether. But this is a natural part of all writing, the removal of material that makes a piece worse, and pushing past drafts that appropriate a voice or experience not my own helps me write a more powerful poem. So yes, I can write about anything. But every topic I handle is one I must approach with care and a willingness, to ensure that I speak honestly as myself. That, after all, is what all great writing is based on.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex