I’m teaching a persona poem community workshop starting next week, so this seemed like a good post to share again. Enjoy!
As writers we are so often told to "write what you know." And this is good advice.
But this "rule" should not be taken literally, especially when creating persona poems. The poet must create a place where the reader must, as Samuel T. Coleridge famously said, "willingly suspends his [or her] belief." The voice in a persona poem has to emerge from an authentic place within the poet. Yet this "taking on of the mask" requires an authenticity of emotion and not, necessarily, autobiographical veracity.
Let me give an example. Suppose I am going to write a persona poem in the voice of an Alien whose head is made of a pink volcanic ash which resembles something like that of a pencil eraser. The eyes of this being take the shape of a semi-colon; the body looks like of exclamation mark! This other-worldly being lives on Hailey's comet and is, at this very moment, cataloging all the stars in every galaxy using its one good eye. This alien is an outcast from its home world. Over the last few centuries, it has been contemplating rubbing itself out of existing. However, it decided to create an archive of the heavens instead. In order for me to create a believable voice within a believable, though albeit outlandish, context, I must write from that place inside myself that knows something about yearning for union, the fear of social isolation as well as the emotional comfort which comes from an obsessive set of actions.
Further, I have created a "backstory" for the Alien which may or may not get into the finished poem but which will inform the character of the Alien's voice and situation. I know the Alien's psychological state is a mix of anger at being shunned by peers and a despair that rise from deep loneliness. I know the physicality of the Alien and so can imagine its strengths and weaknesses. For example, its body is in a constant state of heightened awareness which gives its existence a spiritual quality. But observing the universe with only one eye makes the stars less clear and therefore the counting somewhat difficult. I know the Alien yearns for a purpose which will not dissolve with the passing years and so created an impossible task of itself--cataloging the cosmos. I must write this poems so the reader will set aside all objection and will embrace that which is the genuine and therefore "true" in the mind, body and soul of this Alien.
It is the poet's job to determine how the reader will encounter a poetic persona.
Sometimes the voice in a poem can take on a conspiratorial, intimate tone between the reader and the persona–something like an intense conversation between friends. Sometimes, it can be a like a public protest–confrontational, aggrieved, outraged. In a persona poem the reader can observe, learn, judge and love–or hate–the persona encountered. However, the reader will only do so if the he or she believes and then invests in the persona. This is the poet's ultimate challenge.
Here are questions to consider when creating a persona poem:
1) who is speaking and to whom, if anyone, is she or he speaking?
2) why speaking at this specific moment in time?
3) how is she or he speaking? what do syntax, idioms, colloquiums, slang reveal?
4) where is she or he speaking? (region, country and/or specific location/landscape)
5) when is she or he speaking? (what point in time; what point in their lives; in history/culture)
6) what is her or his psychological state? what are is she or he revealing, hiding, lying about and or blind to? what does she or he need?
Just as the surface facts of our own lives don't fully reveal who we really are until those facts are interpreted-–and often edited-–for an audience who is ready to listen to and engage with our story, so it is true of each and every persona we create in our poems.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Lois Roma-Deeley fourth collection of poems, The Short List of Certainties, won the Jacopone da Todi Book Prize and will be published by Franciscan University Press in 2017. She is the author of three previous books of poetry: High Notes, northSight and Rules of Hunger. Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, nationally and internationally. The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and CASE named her Professor of the Year, Community College, 2012. Roma-Deeley is the recipient of a 2016 Arizona Commission on the Arts Grant. www.loisroma-deeley.com
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