How to Incorporate Personal History in Your Writing

Picture of Nick Ripatrazone

Author: Nick Ripatrazone

How did you come up with a concept for your first book?

I was writing more fiction than poetry, but had become increasingly interested in the perceived boundaries between those forms, and thought most distinctions arose from context and intent. Prose poetry is an obvious middle ground–a poem made of sentences, with the margins of a page being the line breaks–but as I wrote more often within the style, I discovered more nuanced differences. Writers like Joshua Harmon, Sarah Goldstein, and Donora Hillard reinforced that prose poetry was more than a hybrid; it was an authentic third form.

Oblations began as only baseball poems–fictional profiles of dead-ball era players–but I realized that I was only using that sport as a pivot, that the relationships and quirks of the players were more interesting. The reason why I would ultimately characterize these as poems is my inclination toward fragmentation. I love fiction that appreciates fragmentation: the work of William Gass and Blake Butler. Those writers are dealing with language as artifice. In fact, it was Gass’s barebones novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” that dramatically changed my understanding between language and image, a shift that led me to also rethink poetry. In prose poetry, I’m trying to capture a single moment, or build associations between multiple moments, within the poetic trope of compression. The other sections of the book–barns, parishes, work, and so on–felt particularly appropriate to such glances, rather than fully-developed narratives.

Who are some poets you admire for their use of personal history in their work? What sort of poetry do you feel incorporates very little personal history?

For me, the idea of a poet imbuing personal history into his or her work is both fascinating and problematic. I mean problematic from the critic’s perspective: I find it dangerous to decode the real and the imagined in any writer’s material. I know that many people who do not often read poetry, and some students, immediately consider the first-person to mean the poet. I always operate from the opposite perspective: I never consider the first-person to equal the writer. If it does, that’s an intriguing addition, but it does not need to.

One of my favorite poets, Sylvia Plath, has certainly been overly portrayed as a confessional writer, someone who used the material of her life to build content. Yet what I find most engaging about Plath are her eccentricities and poetic control over absurd moments. Her poem “Sow,” about a giant pig hoarded by a farmer, appeals to me more than “Daddy.” Plath’s “Blackberrying” feels as personal as her more confessional work, so I am most interested in when a writer’s thematic worldview, rather than actual life’s experiences, appear within a poem.

Some of my favorite recent persona-based collections–Leadbelly by Tyehimba Jess and the York sequences by Frank X. Walker–appropriate a historical figure through persona, but certainly the writers’ contemporary concerns rise to the surface. Miscreants, by James Hoch, reads like a mixture of direct personal experience and the general feeling of living in South Jersey. The latter type of personal writing is most appealing to me: how a poet can, through the accumulated voice of individual pieces, create an airtight sense of place. I value fidelity toward a more general truth rather than singular, personal experience.

For you, what’s the purpose of narrative in a poem?

Narrative in fiction feels more wedded to character than narrative in poetry, which I associate with progression of idea. Poets need to get readers to the final line, making both the journey and destination worthwhile. “The End of the World” by Archibald MacLeish has a perfect narrative: we begin engulfed in the odd moment of this circus, and when the tent’s top blows off, the reader rises, also. I think there’s more possibility for lateral motion in fiction: flashbacks, asides. This might be an aesthetic preference, but poetry feels like it has an endline in mind. I think that forward awareness is the result of revision and reconsideration, polishing a poem until all narrative bits work in service of the whole.

For poets wanting to write a more personal style of poem, what advice can you offer?

I think the conception of first-person narrative is a complex one. I hear some poets bemoaning overusage of “I,” which is an oversimplification of the narrative construction. If a poet only writes about the material of her life, and she then ascribes nearly mythological significance to everything, than fine, first-person is a concern. But most poets who are effective with first-person approach that perspective through the lens of empathy. They want to become other people, other voices, rather than cloaking the world in their own experience.

My advice would be to allow the first-person to reinvent itself within each individual poem. I think of almost all poetry as persona poetry. I think the real danger of personal material appearing within a poem is forcing the organic narrative of the poem to conform to reality. It’s the same fault that occurs when a fiction writer forces characters within a story inspired by real events to replicate real occurrences. Reality is often, of course, stranger than fiction, and the same is true for poetry. The colloquialism “how poetic”–say, a pitcher throwing a no-hitter on his birthday, or a police officer arresting a childhood bully of his–feels heavy-handed in the real poetic world. If you want to keep the integrity of the real, write non-fiction. Poetry is for people who want to revise the world as they go.

What sort of anxieties do you have about using personal material in a poem? What sort of rewards do you find in including people and places as part of your poetic landscape?

This is a good question. I think my second book, This Is Not About Birds, approaches the personal different than Oblations. My first book is only personal in the thematic sense, that I write about concepts (pastoral, Catholicism) that interest me. This Is Not About Birds contains personal material, but often with the disclaimer built into the book’s ironic title: I like the idea of the poet as trickster, someone who uses the confusion of words to reveal the complexity of experience. Like the narrator of “The Mailman,” I was frustrated when mail wasn’t delivered for a week, but I allowed that real experience to unfold into absurdity. If that later absurdity required the real material of the poem to later change, then I would. In real life, I’ve removed a hook from a trout’s mouth, often ran on trails, went to garage sales, pool hopped, watched my brother play college football, and drank Black Haus, but when the narrators or characters of my poems do so, they are not me. They are not even my poetic brothers–more like cousins I see once a year, enough to glean snippets of their personality, but to have the freedom to revise. I had a wonderful childhood, but I know the stuff of happiness is not always fodder for dramatic poetry, so I need to exist outside myself, which means writing about divorce and other topics I have never personally experienced.

One anxiety is that I rarely, if ever, write about Italian-Americans. I do often write about Catholics–practicing and lapsed–but I avoid my ethnicity. I’m trying to understand why. Roxane Gay has a wonderful interview with one of my favorite poets, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, in which they discuss the burdens and beauties of unusual last names. Each ethnicity and race has received their own unfortunate stereotypes, and though Italians suffered in the earlier years of this country, the contemporary stereotypes of my ethnicity are more jabs than uppercuts. Yet they remain: I’m reading with two other Italian-American writers in September, and though it’s by coincidence rather than design, it feels like an unusual event. I’m supposed to be on The Jersey Shore; not writing literary criticism.

Don DeLillo, an absolute master of fiction, might be my idol here. He’s written about Italians, but he mostly writes about America, and our fractured sense of self. I’ve yet to figure out a way to engage my ethnicity in the poetic sense. But that diversion might be consistent with my background: Italians tend to enjoy a sense of mental and emotional play. We don’t necessarily intend to deceive, but we do like complexity, and we love story and exaggeration. Read Luigi Barzini’s The Italians to get the real scoop.

I think one point of reading and writing poetry is to operate outside of one’s self, to understand why people would do confounding, even bad, things. I’ve never lived outside of the Northeast, but much of my reading is focused on Southwestern and Southern writers, and those themes and settings appear in my work. I think populating a work with tangible people and places gives readers checkpoints, words or signs that help them understand the context of a poem. Sometimes those people and places are real, other times not; regardless, they must appear real within the world of the poem, and that poetic reality might lead to truths beyond the scope of a page.