Autobiographical Poetry: Interview with Kate Rogers
About Hollay Ghadery:
Hollay Ghadery is an Iranian-Canadian writer living in Ontario. She has her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. Fuse, her memoir of mixed-race identity and mental health, was released by Guernica Editions (2021) and winner of The Canadian Bookclub Award for nonfiction/memoir. Her collection of poetry, Rebellion Box, came out Radiant Press in 2023 and her collection of short fiction, Widow Fantasies, is scheduled for release with Gordon Hill Press in fall 2024. Hollay is a poetry editor with long con magazine, and the Fiction Editor of untethered. She is also the Poet Laureate of Scugog Township.
About Kate Rogers:
Kate Rogers’ poetry and critical writing have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies both in Canada and abroad, including The Montreal International Poetry Prize Anthology (Véhicule Press), Looking Back at Hong Kong (CUHK Press), subTerrain, ARC, PRISM, and many others. Her most recent poetry collection is Out of Place (Aeolus House/Quattro Books 2017.) She is a co-director of the Art Bar Poetry Reading Series in Toronto.
I recently read the new, upcoming book from Kate Rogers, The Meaning of Leaving (AOS Publishing, February 2024)—which includes many autobiographical poems that detail her life: notably, her marriage to an abusive partner, and the emotional abuse she endured as a child.
As I read these powerful and invariably moving poems, as a multi genre writer, I began to think about autobiographical poetry, and why Kate, who has written nonfiction, would choose this genre over personal essays or a memoir.
Kate was good enough to indulge my questions and provide some illuminating answers. Below is our conversation.
Hollay Ghadery: The autobiographical extent of poetry can be a touchy subject but for me, and my work, it’s straightforward: my poetry is pretty autobiographical. Even if I am writing about someone or something that may have nothing to do with my life, there is something about the subject that resonates deeply with me, and I am using this person, place, or thing to work out what that is. Your upcoming collection, I’d say, seems deeply personal. But would you call it autobiographical?
Kate Rogers: I can relate to how some poets use poems on a variety of topics to work out questions or issues directly relevant to them. As poets we each have our own way of processing experience through art. I think the ekphrastic poems in my collection which respond to images by Diane Arbus are less direct ways in which I have worked out connections I feel to those images of other women by Arbus, a woman photographer I have long admired.
On the other hand, my poems in the first section of The Meaning of Leaving are more directly autobiographical in that they describe my experience of emotional abuse growing up and emotional and physical abuse in my last marriage. My abusive ex-husband died during the pandemic. His death caused me to relive the abuse during our marriage and write about it in the poems in this first section of my book. And because what happened with him was almost twenty years ago I had enough distance to create art out of very difficult material.
My choice to make the poems that concerned that part of my life more autobiographical was conscious and deliberate. Leaving an abusive partner and distancing myself from an abusive family dynamic were both very difficult, but by leaving both situations I empowered myself. I would hope that the vulnerability and honesty in my poems might help other women living in such circumstances in some way—and empower them to not only seek safety, but also create art from their experience if that would be meaningful to them. The facts speak for themselves: even before the pandemic domestic violence was steadily increasing in Canada. Here are some statistics and their source:
“It costs lives: in 2022, 184 women and girls were violently killed, primarily by men. One woman or girl is killed every 48 hours (Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, 2022).”
At the same time, my poem in the first section, “The Passing of Sean Connery,” is a kind of response to the actor who played James Bond and was a cultural hero for many Baby Boomer men. Connery was known to say in a Playboy interview that it was okay for a man to hit a woman, although the man should hit the woman differently from how he would hit a man. That is mentioned in the poem I reference. So, my poetry in The Meaning of Leaving is both directly autobiographical and less so, depending on the subject matter.
HG: I know when my memoir, Fuse, was published, I was worried about what people might think—especially my family—because there’s no getting around the fact that the book was nonfiction. But I feel like there’s a bit of a buffer with poetry: I am saying here that yes, many of my poems are autobiographical but in general, I think poets can get away with remaining more ambiguous about how much of a speaker of a poem is them, and how much the speaker is part of the poetic form. Would you agree, or do you feel differently?
KR: I agree that people who choose to read poetry may not assume the poems are about the poet’s experience. Many of those people are likely educated about how poetry and any writing isn’t always directly autobiographical. My family members don’t read much poetry at all, but with some of them, there is heightened sensitivity about the sharing of family history. I am trying to protect them, and myself, from them knowing the content of the poems I am sharing in my book The Meaning of Leaving. By seeking to protect myself I mean from negative reactions or judgements by family members. I manage my social media sharing about my book and other poetry to moderate who among my family members will see reactions to my work.
I chose poetry as my medium for The Meaning of Leaving because, in my opinion, it expresses feeling better than other types of writing, even when those emotions have been recollected from a distance.
HG: Would you have written about the themes you write about in your book—violence against society’s most vulnerable people—as nonfiction or even fiction? Or would you have preferred not to write about it at all if poetry wasn’t an option?
I ask because I write about many of the same themes in my nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, and they definitely resound with audiences differently in different forms. I absolutely connected with my readers more deeply when I wrote a memoir—but perhaps that’s because more people tend to read memoir. And, as you said, there was no ambiguity about who the writing was about. But with fiction, people learn through imagination, which gives people another way into a theme.
KR: No. Poetry expresses emotion visually through imagery, through the other senses of sound, scent and touch and through metaphor. Although those literary devices are used to evoke emotion in fiction or nonfiction, for me, poetry is better at expressing feelings. Margaret Atwood has described poetry as “condensed emotion.” Robert Frost said “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”
Although I have written creative non-fiction about challenges I experienced in my relationship with my mother (The Accident, The Windsor Review, Spring 2021), I have found that poetry best expresses the emotional and sensory aspects of my memories of our relationship. Poetry is more visceral.
HG: What is a piece of advice you’d give someone thinking about writing autobiographical poetry?
KR: Be true to your feelings and experience, but also recognise that a poem has its own imperative. Don’t expect to be literal, do craft the experiences or observations which have inspired the poem. Consider what is best for the poem and do not treat your autobiographical poem as simply an opportunity to vent. Be prepared to revise again and again.
About The Meaning of Leaving:
The poems in Kate Rogers’ The Meaning of Leave explore the broad theme of departure—from an abusive marriage, a homeland and an adopted home. The themes of the nature of home, homelessness and belonging run through the poems as the speaker reflects on returning from Hong Kong to her Canadian birthplace.
With unflinching tenderness and insight, Rogers reflects on our hardest edges and most vulnerable soft spots, bringing the painful and unspoken parts of ourselves to brilliant, shattering light. The effect is transfixing, unsettlingly, and explosive.