Yesterday I was sent a very interesting letter from a fan who gave me permission to post parts of it: “I wrote to you almost three years ago when I discovered your poem, “Fat Is Not A Fairy Tale”. . . I wanted you to know that I loved it so much I wanted it printed on my body. Your words were such a part of me that I wanted them on me for the rest of my life. . .I have a few other tattoos, words of Socrates and Thornton Wilder, and now you. I feel so blessed to have read your poem and to add it to my “collection” of words and thoughts which are indelible to my soul, and so I chose to make them indelible on my body as well. The tattoo itself isn’t finished, the first several lines are not complete, but I wanted to attach a picture so you could see it. Thank you for making an impact on my life and understanding something (and putting beautiful words to it) as I believe few others can or ever have.” She included a photograph of her back, which is almost fully covered by my words. (You can read the entire poem online at Billy Collins’ Poetry 180 site.)
It has made me think about the relationship between author and reader, usually a tenuous one from the author’s point of view. After all, we cannot possibly be friends with everyone who reads our words. For one, we do not hear from all of them. But more importantly, most writers write because there is a story or a poem or some other thing stuck in their heads. Not to please an audience which is–after all–to diffuse a target to hit.
From the reader’s point of view, it is a much closer and intimate relationship. Often people tell me that I have articulated their private thoughts, or that I have changed them unalterably, or I have actually saved their lives, and other things that may sound like hyperbole but feels authentic to them. As a reader myself, I have had such moments with writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, James Thurber, Isak Dinesen, and Ursula LeGuin.
Would I tattoo my body with their words? Definitely not. But I might buy a tee-shirt or mug or a piece of jewelry saying “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” or “Slit from his guggle to his zatch.” Honoring a writer or poet’s words is how readers let us know how much our work means to them.
But there is a thin line between that kind of honor and. . .stalking. Stephen King’s Misery taught us well. And I have heard of fans who ask an author to sign their book with blood (Clive Barker) while pulling out a knife and cutting a finger for the red ink. Or a woman who asked an author (Neil Gaiman) to sign her breasts. And while these reports may be urban legends, there really are crazies out there. I just happen not to have come across any. Though I have to admit, the Internet is beginning to introduce me to some over-the-top fans.
So to Paula FS, thanks for loving my poem that much. But just as the words of my poem will live only as long as they are printed and read, so your skin and its message will eventually lose its elasticity and readability. Poems like people have a sell-by date. But as long as you live, that poem lives in you. And on you. I do feel incredibly honored.