Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 30, 2013

Using Fiction in Poetry

james-frey-to-reunite-with-oprah__oPtReaders sometimes make assumptions that any poem written in first-person voice must be autobiographical.  I often find myself wondering this as I read poems of favorite authors:  Did Billy Collins really suffer through a horrible divorce?  Did a clown’s car really break down in the front yard of Stephen Dunn’s friend?  Did Carolyn Forche really have dinner at some Guatemalan mobster’s mansion, and did he really empty out a sack of human ears onto the table?

It shouldn’t matter, I know.  The poems are what they are, true or not.  Each poem is its own little world, and if I’m sucked into it and am made to feel or think about life a little more deeply, then the poem is a success.  And yet….it does make me stop and think about that blurred line between fiction and reality, and if writers owe readers an explanation.ZeroDarkThirtyChastain

Ever since the James Frey “Million Little Pieces” debacle, that line has become a larger issue.  This year’s Oscar contenders faced criticism for the same reason:  Just how “factual” is Zero Dark ThirtyArgoLincoln?  How “factual” should they be?  Must a film or book that is not historically accurate begin with a big disclaimer:  “Based loosely on real events”?  Many publishers and film producers have begun to do just that.

Poets have been given longer rope with the issue, mainly – I’m sure – because far fewer people read or care about poetry!  A poem is perhaps seen as more artistic at its core, like a little song, or a painting.  It’s not a re-enactment of real life, even if it is based on real events.  Poets are given a greater degree of artistic license because we expect poems to be full of metaphor and veiled meaning.

And yet….

flect_magic_mirrorEven among the few who may read a poem I’ve written, a small part of me wants these readers to know if the poem is “true” to my life, if it’s based upon what has happened to me or is a true reflection of my own thinking.  Because sometimes my poems are not….and sometimes I’d hate to think that a reader may get a wrong impression of who I am if they misinterpret a poem that is meant to be ironic, or if they assume I’ve experienced something I haven’t.  Call it neurosis, vanity, or just plain ridiculous, but I do think about it any time I use a first-person voice in a poem.

The first poem I ever got published was in a West-coast literary magazine called Cloudbank a few years ago.  I got the idea from a column written by Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune, after a spring thaw, when she commented in her ever-astute way about what is suddenly revealed under the snow, and how these items capture the past in mysterious ways.  Here is the poem, which is included in my book, The Gray Limbo of Perhaps:



When the snow finally melts

revealing flattened brown grass

it’s as if the sky has unlocked

a time capsule for us –

a yellow tennis ball under

the cluster of azaleas

Chloe’s small red mittenred mitten

at the base of the birch tree

and alongside the driveway

a faded ticket stub from the

Meryl Streep film we saw

that night you told me you

had taken the job in Portland

and backed out of my life

my door still slightly ajar

causing the dome light to

cast a glow above your head

as you drove to the end

of the lane and turned out.


It was my driveway I pictured as I wrote this poem, and I did at that time have a neighbor with a little girl named Chloe.  But there the “real” details in the poem end.  I haven’t had a boyfriend in years, or even dated anyone – let alone been dumped by a guy who moved to Portland.  But I could easily imagine what it would have been like to experience these things, and it caught my imagination to put myself in the position of a woman who finds a ticket stub next to her driveway.  I liked how the title can be taken in multiple ways, and how the universal experiences – of watching the snows melt away, of discovering detritus in the browned grass, of ending relationships – all come together in one moment.

Snow-mounds-March-2013Schmich’s column had suggested some of this, too, and I can only assume she really did spy a lone mitten in the grass on the day she wrote her piece…. though I believe the mitten she saw was pink.  I borrowed her idea and let it launch something altogether new in my poem, which is what writers do all the time.  T. C. Boyle, the great contemporary fiction writer, says all his ideas for stories come from the newspaper.

Truth is usually stranger than fiction, after all.

So in the end, does it matter whether the thoughts and details in a poem come from my life?  Not a bit.  Anyone who knows me and cares enough about my poetry can always ask.  Otherwise, I’m fine with leaving readers to guess….or to simply enjoy the poem for what it is.



  1. I love the poem mentioned this time all over again as much as I liked it the first time I read it.

    I’ve been watching a small garden shovel reveal itself for the last week—each day the snow melting a bit more. The fun of it being a tool of spring makes me smile and I almost don’t want my neighbor to clean her yard and put it away in the garage.

  2. I love that, Trace — the unveiling of the garden shovel! Ta da!

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