On Bias and how it influences reading and writing.
For Issue 3 of Pulling the Thread, I asked, you answered. And so, this month’s issue of Pulling the Thread is going to be a discussion about bias. Specifically, the idea of human bias and how it influences everything we do. I’ll be focusing on reading and writing in particular, however. I’m sure I could wax philosophical (and psychological) plenty on this subject, but I’ll try and keep this focused.
I’ve had several conversations with people on Threads talking about, analyzing poetry, and discussing the meaning and interpretation of poetry. One conversation in particular comes to mind. I was talking to someone about a recent poem I had shared. During this conversation, I discussed my personal meaning when I was writing the poem. The reader had interpreted the meaning very differently.
Was their read or interpretation of my poem wrong? Was mine? Certainly not. But it’s an interesting exploration into the inherent biases that we bring with us, both as readers and writers of poetry. (And other content, but hey, I’m a poet. I feel like you knew where this was going.) Our daily lives, every interaction, and every decision we do (or don’t make) are all influenced by how we, as individuals, view the world. We all have our own unique biases and interpretations. And like it or not, we always bring them with us. Now, this isn’t inherently a bad thing. Nor is it inherently a good thing. Instead, it’s something that we need to be aware of, especially as we interact with each other, read, or write our own poetry (seriously, I’m just going to keep saying poetry but fill in whatever you do here: fiction, creative nonfiction, plays, painting, photography, etc.).
What is Bias?
And so we come to this concept that I call “the human bias.” In essence, it’s this: as humans, we are inherently biased. We can’t help it. By simply existing as humans, we view the world in varied and different ways than any other being in existence could. We also bring along our own individual and unique biases and views. Lenses, they could be called. Like, I wear glasses. Without them, everything about a foot or so in front of me is just a blurry mess. In order to see properly, I need glasses to help correct my vision. This is true for how we view and interact with the world. We all have our own pair of glasses on and they directly alter how we view the world. In some extreme cases, these biases can manifest in racism, bigotry, homophobia, etc. But biases can also be benign.
What do I mean by this? Look at my example from earlier, about my poem and how we both read it differently. I wrote the poem with my own biases. My own view of the world and what I had in mind when I wrote the poem. The inspiration behind it, so to speak. In the poem, I have a stanza that reads:
It was not the weight of pretend holding us down—
your nakedness pressing comfortably into mine as we sank
into the depths of adulthood and slipped
Think for a moment about what you read in that stanza. What do the words tell you? Here’s what I had in mind when I wrote it. The poem may be in first person, but I am not the speaker. Does that one simple change affect how you read the poem? For me, this was exploring the idea of two teenagers entering into adulthood through sex and intimacy. It is the discovery of their bodies and their identities. And the marked shift from summer to autumn. A very real change in the season to represent the change and loss of childhood and innocence.
I remember sharing this on Threads, and a reader had commented on the poem. And their response really got me thinking about this idea of biases in reading and writing poetry again. They saw me, recollecting a summer of love with my wife. And I had to point out, that is not an incorrect interpretation. Really, I think there are very few incorrect interpretations. Which is one of the things that’s so fantastic about art in general. It’s all subjective. The read of a loving relationship and summer isn’t a bad one. That’s to say, that would not be a negative bias. Just as the intent I had in writing this poem was not negative either. They are just different. And that’s okay. There can be multiple correct answers in art. That’s art!
The Influence of Bias
And this is where I realized something that I had learned back in my undergrad days during workshop. Something that has stuck with me ever since, and has informed and influenced and yes, even biased, how I read other people’s poems. The author is not always the speaker. And I play with this concept a lot in my poetry. When I first started writing poetry, I wrote in the third person, because it was a way to distance myself from the emotion and the subject matter I wrote about. Even if it may have been a bit about me. Third person provided separation. And so, I introduced my own bias into each piece that I wrote, because I influenced everyone reading the poem.
But, you might be asking how I could influence people reading the poem by using third person instead of first person. Let’s read that stanza again, but this time, let’s shift it into third person to see if you can catch what I mean.
It was not the weight of pretend holding them down—
her nakedness pressing comfortably into his as they sank
into the depths of adulthood and slipped
The biggest change that should be immediately obvious is that I have now gendered the people in the poem. There is a defined female presenting character and a male presenting character. Now, true, I didn’t have to write it that way. But regardless of how, using third person is more likely to bring in gender. It doesn’t allow the reader to make those assignments. It keeps the reader on the outside of the poem looking in. Instead of being in the poem. When the poem is written in first person, it tends to invite the reader into it more. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be the “I” of the poem, it suggests a different level of intimacy. It pulls you into the poem more. At least, that’s what it does for me. Using third person can provide a level of separation. We become more of an observer. Both approaches (even second person) are perfectly acceptable. But it’s something to be thinking about. How something so simple can have such a potentially large impact.
But this intentionality is something we need to be aware of. As the writer, sometimes we want certain things to be viewed or interpreted a certain way. So there are ways, as suggested, that we can influence the reader by biasing them in the direction that we want. We can use bias to direct emotion, to make a villain bad, or a hero good. Or to even flip those conventions on their heads and let the reader know that maybe the hero isn’t so good after all. We can suggest gender, race, religion, sexual identity, orientation. Anything and everything. It can be as simple as saying, “His favorite color was blue.” Depending on our own biases, blue can mean very different things. It could literally just be the color. It could be cold. It could be the sky. It could be the ocean. It could be liberalism. Any number of things can be associated with that one word, and we will bring our own interpretation of that word with us when we read.
Now, meaning can be influenced by context as well, and in most cases it usually is. But our pasts come with us. All of our traumas, our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our prejudices. All of it. But remember this. As writers, we all use bias to influence our readers and to work to shift and manipulate their views. It can be an incredible tool in our belt.
So What Does This All Mean?
Let’s circle back for a minute. At the root of it, we are all familiar with bias. The word “bias” likely even carries certain biases. That’s a part of what is so fascinating to me about all of this, though. Does language itself carry these biases? Obviously not. It comes from the single common element in all of this: us. Humanity. It’s impossible to fully move away from or remove all of our biases. But they can be changed.
As poets, we manipulate language. We bend it (and break it) to form the phrases and images that we want. We take meaning and crack it open to evolve it. Sometimes, we change the meaning entirely. This is done when we invert images or ideas. For instance, I have a piece where I wrote: “Not even as they curl away from heaven, taloned fingers closing into a fist to strike the face of the earth.” I had an image I wanted to capture, but I didn’t want to do it the typical way. The expected way. I wanted to subvert expectations a little bit. That’s why I didn’t say: “Not even as they curl toward earth.” The image, curling away from heaven instead of toward earth, to me, feels backwards. Like if you tried to close your hand away from your palm. Does that make sense?
And this is a type of bias. I’m accomplishing virtually the same image: missiles heading toward earth. The curl is the exhaust trail and the parabolic trajectory of a surface-to-surface missile. But I’ve changed the meaning, haven’t I? So ask yourself how. Later in the same micro fiction piece, I write “the wrath of another god from another land.” So, there’s some religious subtext. Is that why I used heaven? I could have used sky, right? Or maybe I used heaven because of the celestial imagery; I referred to these missiles as “artificial comets” previously.
I feel like this is where I should pause and open up the class for discussion. And it also ties into another part of human bias. I actually was just reminded of this when reviewing an email for my boss at work today. He wanted another set of eyes on an email to make sure his tone was safe to send to a customer. Fair concern, and there was a phrase he felt may have been too presumptuous. However, when I read it, I didn’t get that feeling at all, especially given the context of the sentence and the information that preceded it. However, he knew what he was concerned about. He was afraid he was bringing a certain tone into his writing. So, when he read it, he read it with his own bias that he was afraid he was projecting. The same is equally true for creative writing. Any writing really. We project our own biases onto our words. We may read something out of them that no one else will simply because we are afraid of adding our own bias.
So, Now What?
There are methods you can use to reduce bias. But it’s almost as important to remember that biases aren’t inherently bad. Think about your music preferences. Those are biases. Is there a type of art or photography you tend to prefer? Also a bias. The list goes on. Biases are something you need to be aware of and also be mindful of how they can influence your writing and reading. But you shouldn’t worry about trying to completely remove bias. And really, as humans, we can’t. Hell, you can’t even fully remove bias from algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning.
Bias will always exist. There’s no escaping that. But you can be aware of them. You can use them. They can be a part of the discussion when you are reading and exploring what a poem means to you. And the biggest part of all of this? Remember, there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to understanding and interpreting meaning in poetry. Just because I wrote a poem a certain way doesn’t mean you can’t interpret it a different way. I wrote it with my biases and you are reading it with yours. It can help to separate the author from the speaker of the poem. “I” does not mean the writer. Just like “you” may not mean the reader.
Take your time and explore as you write and read and interact with art. Think about what kind of biases you may be writing with. Think about how you can bias the reader (intentionally and unintentionally). Influence is a large aspect of writing. In one way or another, the writer is trying to influence the reader.
Alright! Class dismissed! Questions? Comments? Existential questions on what it means to be human and to live with biases? Let me know! I’m always open to discussion and conversation!
Next month, I am looking at talking about publishing, what makes a poem a poem, the technical and creative aspect of poetry, or maybe even something else. We’ll see! Or, if there’s something else you’d like me to talk about, comment it, email me (email@example.com), contact me, or tag me on Threads or Instagram (I do kinda check that one). I did like how the poll worked out this time, so I may do something similar for next time.