In the age of the selfie you’d think we’d have this one covered, right? But if you think about it, the Selfie and the self-portrait, in poetry or visual art, are completely different animals. The Selfie seems intended to flatter the self, to market the self, while the self-portrait seeks to uncover some truth about the self, strip off the mask, or at least knock it askew. The best self-portrait poems reveal truths about the self that are unflattering at best, perhaps downright ugly. Even the kindest most well-adjusted individuals have flaws, weird idiosyncrasies, personality tics that make them who they are but also ripe for the stuff of Greek tragedy. I see the pre requisite of the self-portrait poem to be honest self-reflection. Self what? As a culture we don’t engage in much beneath the prettied-up surface, encouraged to delve only as deep as we can go in a five minute post-yoga guided meditation. Last month I taught a two day Found Poetry workshop at the Squam Arts Retreat (more to come about next year’s retreat) where I led participants in loads of writing prompts to get the creative faculty limbered up and weaken their defenses. People get nervous around poetry, especially if they’re the ones writing it. But these lovely ladies had chosen my workshop so they were all game, nervous but still game. Anyway, one particular prompt had them answering about fifty questions, an index card for each. I asked each question out loud and gave them time to answer. I included some of these in a previous post titled 20 Questions. Some of the questions were easy to answer “surface” questions like: How close do you live to the place you were born? Others could be answered literally or metaphorically: How will you carry all the things you have to carry? Others were more loaded: If you could change one thing in your life what would it be? or Begin a sentence: “I’d be lying if I said…”, which could be rephrased “how do I lie to myself? what do I lie to myself about? Even questions like, do you have a scar? how did you get it? or if you have a tattoo what is its significance, if you don’t have a tattoo, why not? encourage a level of self-reflection we don’t often employ in day-to-day life where our own histories, our own personalities, have become so familiar they’ve achieved invisibility. I answered many of these questions on my own before leading the workshop. The very innocuous first question: Who named you? sparked my own self-portrait poem that got at a truth about my personality that my mother saw in me from the start. I used the anaphoric refrain: My mother named me… My mother herself was named after a dress shop by her father. My grandmother had named the other children and said: “you name this one”. He was driving home from the hospital when he saw the dress shop named Ellena Fay. Even more interestingly, my grandfather was never named by his own parents. His brothers called him Peter Rabbit and so his name became Peter, proving there’s more to a name than meets the eye. In my own poetry, I’ve been obsessed with identity, self-definition and name for years. Check out Sylvia Plath’s The Disquieting Muses which isn’t called a self-portrait poem but truly is. These portrait poems also have some prompt-type questions to get you started and show how a poem can be constructed in different ways using the same questions. Chase Twitchell’s poem in Poetry Magazine is a mysterious, weird little self-portrait poem. And another by Cynthia Cruz. Read their poems closely and work backwards to questions you could ask yourself that could get at some deep answers and the spark of a poem. As I said earlier, my mother named me, but my name in itself doesn’t have a story behind it or any deep meaning other than the biblical “princess”. It’s an old-fashioned name that just happened to be one of the most popular girl’s names a few years after I was born.
I think titling or calling a poem a Self-Portrait is also a way to say “me, me, me; I, I, I” without attracting the criticism of post-confessionalists. There’s kind of a backlash in poetry these days against the self and against the slightest whiff of sentimentality. Many contemporary poems are completely unpeopled by the first person, or operate so efficiently at the level of irony that you don’t truly know what the ‘I’ thinks, believes, feels. There is a fine line between feeling and sentimentality. Feelings are like that; sometimes they’re gritty, messy like a broken nose, sometimes they’re surreal, but often sappy, self-indulgent. It’s hard to write about feelings with utmost control, but that’s what poetry asks us to do, especially the self-portrait poem. I’m going to include mine below, but wanted to mention the post photo above. That’s my grandmother around 1940, she was probably still in her teens. The photo is obviously not a self-portrait, but I love the incongruity between her prettied-up appearance and the not-so-pretty, a little rough around the edges backdrop. That would have been the section of Lowell, Mass known as Little Canada where the French Canadians settled. The photo below, however, was a self-portrait; a very early Selfie. I do think this one contains a little more self-reflection than the other. It was taken in a mirror.