Snapping Pieces of Memory into Place: The Puzzle of Memoir Poetry

When I first began writing poetry in earnest I didn't set out to write about myself. I just knew I had something to say, experiences I wanted (needed) to share. Chaotic family life growing up? Check. Falling in love and having my heart broken? Check. Insecurity about navigating the world as an adult and what my place in that world was supposed to be? Check.

No, it wasn't that I chose to write about myself; it was that I didn't have a choice. I never struggled to find my voice on the page because the voice was me. The trick was, and still is, bringing coherency to the jumbled thoughts, translating those thoughts into imagery and sound, and then piecing it all together in such a way so that the story I'm trying to tell gets told.

I wish I could say that I have an exacting process, that I settle in behind my desk or hoof it over to the local coffeehouse, pen and notebook in tow, with an agenda: Ah, yes, today is the day I turn into heartfelt stanzas the memory of that early winter morning in grade school when, waiting outside for the school bus, a stray dog stopped at my feet long enough to pee on the Scooby-Doo lunchbox I'd set down on the ground.

Actually, the bit about me not having a process isn't entirely true as it can be argued that settling in behind my desk or into a comfy chair at the local coffeehouse is a part of my process. Sadly, that Scooby-Doo lunchbox? Well, to borrow a phrase from The Big Lebowski, it was indeed “micturated upon.” But if I did decide to write a poem revolving around said unfortunate lunchbox, in all likelihood a triggering factor would have preceded that memory. Perhaps I'd caught a glimpse of Scooby-Doo while channel surfing, maybe there was a poster I noticed while window shopping at the vintage store or, minding my own business as I stood on the subway platform, the cartoon's theme song – seemingly out of nowhere – began looping through my brain (and if you're old enough to remember that ditty, I apologize in advance).

It's the triggering factors you need to pay attention to, those split-second occurrences -- sights, sounds, smells -- that begin a chain reaction that, if you're open and willing, can set you on a path down into the rabbit hole of memory. I'd be willing to bet that something already happened to you today that stirred the pot of recollection. Do you remember what it was? Did you tuck it away for future use or just let it slip away?

While it's true that many of my poems are woven together by a thread of autobiography, it doesn't mean that I'm not thinking about my reader – because I'm always cognizant of my reader. In fact, for me the challenge of snapping a poem's puzzle pieces into place is figuring out how to make whatever story I'm trying to tell universal. The act of writing is a solitary endeavor but one of my goals is establishing a connection to the reader – an elbow subtly poking a stranger's side: Hey, this happened to me; does any of it resonate for you? Don't we often feel most alive and present when connecting with other people? We share experiences with friends and family, those experiences become memories, the memories become stories we’ll retell for years to come, and ‘round and ‘round it goes... We are, all of us, walking autobiographies.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there’s a certain Scooby-Doo lunchbox in need of unpacking.

Michael’s class, What the House Has to Say: Memoir as Poetry, begins June 5.

Posted May 2017.