I was reading a manuscript of someone else’s poems recently, and they were really good poems. Very competent, lovely poems of domesticity and parenthood. But, I thought to myself, some element is missing. Is the problem that I’m just not that interested in poems of domesticity and parenthood? I didn’t think that was it. I decided finally that what I was missing was a kind of reaching. This very able poet was not reaching beyond her grasp. She knew the world of her poems too well. If I call what I wanted from this manuscript more risk-taking, what do I mean by that? It’s a sense, I think, of a mind in motion rather than a mind at rest; questions asked and pondered rather than answered. What does it mean for any of us to take risks in our work? How do I write a poem that feels risky to me, that feels like I’m peering over the edge of something, and something that makes the reader tremble there too? Is risk about subject area, form, language, meaning?
So little subject matter is risky these days – we’ve encountered poems by now about just about every potentially taboo subject. So what is risk?
A friend says, “I demand emotional risk. Not necessarily confessional, but someone willing to open a vein, or why are we there anyway? … I just want to feel inspired by the guts and honesty and curiosity of the speaker, real or implied, to get out there and do the same. It’s something I have to say to myself over and over when I’m trying to write a poem, ‘Who are you shitting? Get real for a minute here. What’s the point? No, seriously, the real point, under all this tapdancing…Be honest!’”
I think I agree about “emotional risk,” but I’m just not always sure what that means — both in what I read and in what I write. And I actually don’t always need “emotional” risk, but SOME kind of reaching, whether emotional, craftish, wordish, conceptual. Now, how to translate this for my own self and my own poems is the trick.