Guest Blog Posts

Persona Poetry as a Memoir Writing Technique (part 2/2) – guest blog post by Kimberly Burnham, PhD

We can use persona poetry techniques to write memoires. Technically, memoir poetry is not persona poetry, because in persona poetry, the poet and the speaker are different people. It is a bit like ghostwriting. We want to preserve the feeling that it’s true to the person’s voice, even when it is not our voice.

One can make the case that when I try to write about a memory from my five-year-old self’s point of view, the poet and the speaker are different people. At 66 I am not physically different but certainly I am emotionally and experientially unlike my 16-year-old self. In persona poems the poet tries to “walk a mile in another person’s shoes,” tries to evoke the feelings of another person as clearly as if the person themselves wrote the poem about their experience.

Persona poems are often written about a celebrity and we try to imagine what they are thinking and feeling. Children in classrooms are instructed to write persona poems about a relative who has passed with the teacher encouraging them to imagine what their relative would say to them today or what they would think about the world the child lives in. What would be different seen through the relative’s eyes.

One way to do this is to close your eyes and with your mind’s eye look around at the environment, the landscape, the people around the “persona” or the younger version of yourself. Ground them in space and then visualize or remember their feelings and responses to the environment, people, and situations. Write the poem from this feeling.

In a memoir poem, there is an added layer of having a stronger sense of what your ten-year old self saw and felt. These persona poems can be included in a memoir as poetry or woven back into prose. If we publish in traditional prose we can use the poetry, that helped us unlock the memories, in a newsletter promoting the book or as an eBook to be given away for free in order to draw attention to the memoir’s launch.

The following poem appeared originally in Live Like Someone Left The Gate Open, a poetry collection memoir of my coming out process and I have written it in prose format as two different stories for my upcoming memoir, Mistaken for a Man, a Story for Anyone Struggling to Feel Comfortable in Their Own Skin, Clothes or Community. My prose stories are better because I wrote the poem first.

Who Am I To You

A big party at your parent’s place
a family friend asks you to dance
then you sit on the edge of his chair
laughing and talking as if
I am not watching
with territorial bile rising
the hem of your short skirt touching him

Who am I to you? Not here in our bed
out in the world, browsing for books
near home, far from your work
where no one must know
of us, of our love

“Hey look at this book,” turning I find you
away across the store talking
to a stranger, I have never met
but know at once?your ex
the way you stand, the way he looks, I know
but not what you will say if I approach

Who am I to you? Doubt crazes me
I panic
imagining an introduction

I can’t bear to hear myself described
“Kim’s a friend”, the story I tell myself
as I turn and walk home alone
without making you choose
love, family, work
without even saying goodbye

As I wrote this story back into prose, I felt the panic that I experienced as I walked home alone. Revisiting this memory and poem helped me see the way I responded in a new way.

Writing poetry can sometimes intensify the feelings, but it can also be a way to express traumatic events in a way that allows one to release the trauma. Certainly writing our life stories in poetry lends a new frame or perspective.

This idea of combining poetry and prose is not new. Japanese poet Matsuo Basho created Haibun, a poetic form in which a poet combines prose and haiku to create a prose poem. The prose part is like telling a story with full sentences and grammar followed by a poem that summarizes, adds to or frames the prose. Memoirs written by poets lend themselves to a Haibun style of writing flowing back and forth between prose and poetry or putting the poetry in the marketing pile and just publishing the prose. Of course, we can also put the prose in the marketing pile and only publish the poetry.

Found poetry is another marketing tool I have been using to engage with potential readers. When I publish a book, I often get several proof copies over the editing period. Once I have gone through the paperback proof, I will use the pages for found poetry.

Sometimes called Blackout poetry, it is poetry written with the words that are already on a page of text. The words of the poem are circled, while the words not used are blacked out or drawn over or obscured in some way. The poem (words only written out) or an image of the page can be used to promote your memoir or any other book you publish.

Here is a found poem from my upcoming memoir, Mistaken for a Man.

Orthodox Men’s Hands
Miami Florida 2019

In a Jewish deli I stood deciding
he slapped me on the back in a friendly way
and said, So many great choices, eh

mistake he slapped
a woman on the back

His touch contaminates him
his mistake

 


Kimberly Burnham, an award-winning poet living in Spokane, Washington is the author of Live Like Someone Left The Gate Open, a poetry memoir of her coming out process. Her second memoir is prose. Mistaken for a Man, A Story for Anyone Struggling to Feel Comfortable in Their Own Skin, Clothes, and Community is coming out in May 2024. She is the author of Awakenings, Peace Dictionary, Language and the Mind, A Daily Brain Health Program, a book of poems  on the word for peace in different languages. Almost half-way finished, her “Peace Project” is a quest to find the word for peace in 10,000 different languages. Kimberly’s book Using Ekphrastic Fiction Writing and Poetry to Create Interest and Promote Artists, Writers, and Poets is a how-to-guide for writers collaborating with artists and promoting both their art forms for mutual benefit. Her books are available at https://amzn.to/3wz2ApJ


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