The Self Not Mine but Ours*: An Exploration of Persona Poetry

        *From A.R. Ammons’ “Poetics”

I have long been drawn to the persona poem. As a young woman writer, I used a character as a loose mask (in Latin, personae) through which to speak truths I was otherwise reluctant to say—or know. (I even named her “the lady.”) More recently, I have taken on the voices of ancestors in order to explore their—and my—stories in a more intimate way. (For this is the paradox of persona poetry, there is both the distance of a dramatic character, and the intimacy of the lyric I.) Persona poetry has also stretched my voice into new places, and has occasionally jolted me out of my habitual gravitas.

Some writers/teachers declare that the “I” of a poem is always a persona. I acknowledge the truth of that, and would argue that any dramatic character within a poem is, to some degree, also the poet. But in this exploration, Persona Poetry means poems in which the poet has chosen to take on the voice of another—sometimes even the “other” in the sense of taking on a POV that is alien and perhaps abhorrent to the writer. In this, persona poetry, even when drawn from personal or societal history, has as much relation to fiction as nonfiction, as the writer is required to embody a person other than his or herself. For this exploration, I have drawn together some examples of my own work and that of other Appalachian writers falling loosely into one or more of these categories:

Family/Memoir: Sometimes these poems include snippets of conversations that may have actually occurred. Sometimes they are in the voice of a family member whose story has never been given prominence. Often it is some exploration of relationship between the “I” of the poem and that of the self. My poem, “My Grandmother Speaks from Beyond” (Tangle, Dos Madres Press, 2015) is an example of this.

My Grandmother Speaks from Beyond

for Pauline Carmen Hansel, died 1932

Girl, don’t speak for me, you only know
what you can see and it’s not much, that picture
took when scant was left, just bony arms
around the baby, eyes too big for my head;
I never would have worn that shade of red
they painted on my dress after the fact
of me was buried in the ground.
Your daddy’s little suit was white, not blue;
we didn’t know what he would be the day
I bought the cloth. I know that picture’s all
you’ve got, and half my name, Pauline, given
to you as if it might be something of me
they could hold. I’m gone and all my stories
with me—you’ll not know what knit me to
the man whose name your daddy carried like
a curse or promise never to be him.
You had enough without me, and your daddy
made it up somehow for all he lacked
for lack of me. Just let me go; those poems
you write (the books you read, do they not teach
you how to rhyme?)—they are all yours,
nothing of mine.

History/Social Commentary: Frank X Walker has written several books of poems in the voice of another or many “others.” As individual poems and as a whole, they offer a view of history that both widens and contradicts more traditional tellings. (“Unghosts” those whose voices have not been heard, to borrow a word from Walker’s latest title.)  Poems by Frank X Walker and links to his book can be found here and here. Poet Michael Henson views our current predicaments through the lens of The Bible in his book, The True Story of the Resurrection. See his poem, “Lot’s Wife”. My poem, “Housekeeping, August 1899,” also from Tangle, is another example:

Housekeeping, August 1899

Cincinnati newspapers tell of a woodworker who drank carbolic acid and, not trusting its effects, shot himself too. In his pocket was this letter: “Living with my wife was unbearable. She was too pretty to work and would not attend to the duties of the household.”

It’s not as if I spent my days
at the mirror; only the once
he found me, rag in hand,
outside the darkened window
caught up, not in of the curve
of my own cheek (he was the one
forever staring at the round parts of me)
but in how the light of an evening
seems to shine out from under
all that green, like it’s caught
there in the bushes. I know
that’s just fancy talk,
he told me so, it don’t
put meat on the table,
five o’clock sharp, no matter
if the four o’clocks
have just begun to bloom
or the hummingbirds decide
to sit a spell
in the sheer blue air around them.
I have the wandering eye
for wonder. Mama said
I was just born that way— a butterfly
would stop my snuffling
quicker than a teat.
Too bad neither worked
on him, all that carrying on
about the chores he knew
I’d surely get to
one day or the next.
I can’t say I’m sorry
that he’s gone—some men
are too particular
to keep.

Eavesdropping: The late Jo Carson was the master of eavesdropping—all the more amazing because she was about half deaf! Her book, Stories I Ain’t Told Nobody Yet: Selections from the People Pieces is, thankfully, still available. Each poem is a dramatic monologue crafted from individual and composite voices. Read one of her more famous “people pieces” here.

Writing A Persona Poem of Your Own

Keep in mind that persona poems are usually dramatic monologues and thus the consistency of voice is key to the poem’s success. In some, the voice is fairly close to the poet’s, though the message may not be. (In Walker’s poem, “One-Third of 180 Grams of Lead,” for example.) Other speakers have very distinctive and separate voices. The speaker is addressing someone—you, another person from their time and place, a general audience, themselves in soliloquy. You might also think of this as a letter from your chosen persona. I began each of my persona poems with a situation, and let my “character” respond to that situation. “Housekeeping” began with coming across a newspaper article, as I mention in the epigraph. “My Grandmother Speaks…” was written in response to a family photograph. Some possible sources of persona poems for you:

Response Poems: In using The Bible as his primary text, Mike Henson’s poem seems to fit within the Jewish tradition of midrash. With the root meaning of “to study” or “to investigate,” midrash stories help to both fill in gaps and draw forward the essential lessons within sacred texts.  For response poems, the texts do not need to be sacred: take any “peopled” poem or piece of fiction and write in the voice of a lesser character.

Their Words: Speak in the voice of a family member, living or dead. Your poem may begin with words you’ve heard family members say (eavesdropping), or may be the re-imagining of a family story in the voice of someone other than yourself. You may be lucky enough to have letters or other family documents to draw from.

Ekphrastic as Persona: Mixing our root languages here (ekphrasis means description in Greek),  this is simply a suggestion to use a photograph, portrait or other visual piece of art as an invitation to write in the voice of the person depicted (or perhaps in the voice of the photographer, or other character outside the frame.)

The Public I/Eye: Speak in the voice of an actual or imaginary person caught up in a pivotal political and/or cultural moment. Whether working with current events or history, this one may take a little research. Here is a link to a really interesting interview with Frank X Walker on the creation of Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers.

 

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Author: Pauletta Hansel

Pauletta Hansel is a poet, memorist, teacher and editor. On April 15, 2016 she was named Cincinnati's first Poet Laureate. Pauletta is author of five poetry collections, Tangle (Dos Madres Press, 2015), The Lives We Live in Houses (Wind Publications, 2011), What I Did There (Dos Madres Press, 2011), First Person (Dos Madres Press, 2007) and Divining (WovenWord Press, 2002). Her poetry has been featured recently in journals including Talisman, Now & Then: The Appalachian Magazine, Appalachian Journal, Atlanta Review, Postcards Poems and Prose and Still: The Journal, and anthologized in Listen Here: Women Writing in Appalachia; Motif: Come What May; and Motif: All the Livelong Day. Pauletta leads community poetry workshops and retreats in the Greater Cincinnati area and beyond, and has served as Writer-in Residence at Thomas More College in her native Kentucky. She is a co-editor of Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel, the literary publication of Southern Appalachian Writers Cooperative. Pauletta received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte.

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