I've been thinking a lot about what it means to write "personal" poetry. Over the weekend, someone very important to me was having a rough time, so I sent him a copy of a manuscript-in-progress. This was difficult for me because 1) I only allow certain people to see work in progress and 2) these poems were extremely personal. But seeing my writing helped him feel better.
But although I was nervous about showcasing rough, personal poetry, what I consider "personal" has changed so much from when I first started writing. It's difficult to explain how, though. But I'm trying to articulate the difference because, since I have started submitting work again, all the poems that have been accepted have been intensely personal. And yet - they're not the same "personal" poems I was writing in high school and college (and getting rejection after rejection).
When I was writing as an adolescent, my personal poems were really just me spilling out my emotions; essentially, trying to turn journal entries into poems. Now, the personal poems are not so obvious. I draw on people, conversations, important events - but there is a sort of concealment taking place. For example, my poem "Accidental Dancer" is based on a very specific person - but even my spouse did not know who it was about. These poems are highly personal to me, but at the same time, they're more abstract. It's not "this is how I feel" but instead "here is something from my life that I want to show you." And I think my most successful poems are the ones that are both highly personal, but also are somehow abstracted from the rest of my life. My most successful poems are those that evoke for me something very specific, but at the same time, even people close to me won't necessarily know that source of inspiration. My best poems are those that are personal and yet transcend my own life, and engage with the rest of the world.
What's also interesting to me is that I have become oddly more shy about sending out personal poems. In high school, I was sending out all my emotional poetry and didn't care that it might be rejected. But the way I write personal poems now - examples of my life that are somehow not specific to only my experience - I get nervous about other people seeing them. Even though no editor is going to know the specifics about what inspired a piece. Even though a rejected poem is nothing personal. Even though these personal poems are somehow depersonalized, I am somehow more protective of them than I was with any of the emotional ramblings I used to submit. The poems made exclusively of thoughts in my own head - those didn't need so much protection. But the poems made from people I care about, meaningful events, important conversations - those are ones I want to protect. I know I'm rambling, but I'm just trying to write my way to an answer. And I haven't quite found an articulate one yet.