How important is the author’s intent?

In class when Erica asked if any of us wanted to read our postcards to M. NourbeSe Philip aloud to the class, none of us wanted to. I do not know why others in the class wanted to keep their words private between them and M. NourbeSe; perhaps the connection they felt to the work felt personal between them and the author, or perhaps they wanted to keep their response private for a different reason. But I know why I didn’t read mine. I was worried I had gotten it wrong.

Perhaps my desire to “get it right” is based in the fact that my background is in political science academic texts, not poetry. Writers of textbooks generally want you to take away a specific message from what they write: the “right” message. But poetry is different. How could I have gotten my own response to a piece of poetry wrong? I am the only one who can gauge my own feelings, so if I write down my reaction to something it is necessarily correct. But what if my response isn’t the response she had intended to illicit? She made her intention for writing the piece clear in her Notanda. In writing Zong!, she told a story that can’t but must be told. She wanted to rip up the language of the captors and use it to create something new. But how did she want that to make me feel, exactly? Uncomfortable, or something more profound than simply that? Devastated? Guilty? In writing my postcard, I wanted to figure out exactly how she wanted to make me feel and report feeling that way. I was so grateful to her for creating such beautiful poetry, I wanted to show her she succeeded in whatever her goal in writing it was.


And how horrible is that! How arrogant, as if M. NourbeSe Philip’s writing is about me and the effect it has on me. To assume she would be affected by whatever my response to it is. And what an odd approach to consuming a piece of writing, to assume the writer wrote each line with a vision of exactly how she wanted to make the reader feel. That is certainly not how I write. I do not write experimental poetry (yet?), but I doubt the reasons why I write differ too significantly from those of experimental poets, and when I write I write firstly for myself. I write my truth (even if my writing is fiction) and I get out what I need to get out and then hand it off to the world to receive it as they will. That is not to say that I never write with a larger purpose, that I never intend my work to affect people in some way. Just that I know my control over whatever that effect is will be limited, that once my work is out it must stand for itself, so to try to elicit a specific response is pointless. Besides, it’s way more interesting to see how others take it if it’s not exactly what I planned.

So just how important is author intentionality, then? I know there are varying schools of thought about this, and in “Interview with an Empire’ M. NourbeSe alludes to the postmodernist idea that the author is “dead.” But then why write notandas or introductions at all? I am realizing now, as I write this, that unless especially instructed by a professor to do so, I rarely if ever read introductions on my own. Do I only care, then, about whether my response matches the author’s intent when I am addressing the author herself? Is my desire to understand her intent more about “impressing” the author or “making her feel good” than about actually comprehending her work in the way it was intended to be taken?

I don’t actually have the answers to any of these questions, but will certainly continue to ponder them.

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