I am happy to share my online interview about my newest book of poems, Tangle, from the Dos Madres Press website. While visiting the site, check out all the wonderful books they publish! Artist Elizabeth Hughes Murphy designs each book with her painterly eye. Editor Robert Murphy is a remarkable poet who publishes the books he wants to read. Many thanks to them!
*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
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.
Often we are drawn to write poetry because of an intense emotion or the need to explore our thoughts and feelings about a particular subject, person, memory… Rather than beginning with the abstract thought or feeling (anger, loneliness, it was fun, I miss him) try beginning with a concrete image that brings that internal emotion into the external world. By concrete image, I don’t mean only what we can see, though that too, but also what we can touch, taste, hear, or smell. I have heard it said that smell is the sense most connected with memory (and maybe that’s why realtors try to have cookies baking in houses they want to sell!) but other senses can also bring you back to previous times. The summer that song was always on the radio. The nubby couch in your first apartment. The French onion dip that was served at every party you attended in your twenties! Sometimes an image will move you to tears or joy before you are even conscious of the reason. Here are a few of short poems of mine that attempt to let the image do the emotional work. Read them and try one or both of the prompts offered below.
This morning’s dog,
the no-color of the lake
he circles in his snuffling search
for what he knows has been
before him, will come again
once he is gone. Mist rises,
freezes as it falls.
© Pauletta Hansel 2014
My Father’s Ghost
here, in the stretched shoulders
of this sweater requisitioned from his study closet
even before his death—my parents’ house
that late December cold
for my blood, my father’s
not yet thinned by drugs
and their diseases. Now
his bookshelves line my study walls,
my shoulders, where his shoulders were,
hunch over books
not his; he had small
use for poetry,
except for mine.
I scrawl notes along the margins
as if my hand were his.
Pauletta Hansel from The Lives We Live in Houses, Wind Publications 2011
Becoming My Mother
In dreams I wear your feet, twisted as roots,
each step a wrenching up from earth.
The morning hands that reach to smooth
the years around my eyes are more yours than mine.
When I was five your friends would ask where
I got my curly hair, knowing I’d say,
my mother made it, as you made our
matching dresses, rickrack at the collar and the hem.
Now the skin around our collarbones is
rumpled, its fabric loose against our frames.
Pauletta Hansel from The Lives We Live in Houses, Wind Publications 2011
With this prompt, you are working with image as metaphor. Take an abstract emotion (longing, love, joy) and brainstorm images that bring it to life. They can be memories from your own life, or drawn from things you have seen (heard, smelt, etc.) Try: “If (abstraction) were a taste it would be…. If a smell it would be….” Also look at Lisel Mueller’s wonderful, “Imaginary Paintings.”
Make a list of people in your life for whom you have strong emotions. Next to their names brainstorm specific sensorial experiences (images) associated with them. Examples:
Daddy Bookshelf, easy chair, back of head in the car
Granny Grease jar, chickens, hummingbirds at her trailer porch
Then start a poem with that image and see where it takes you! You may find yourself moving into metaphor here as well.
“A poem should not mean but be.” (Archibald MacLeish, Ars Poetica) One way of understanding this quote is that a poem should allow the reader as close to a direct experience as words are able to provide. Similar, perhaps to a painting, or a piece of music. One of the best ways to do this is to engage the senses through images. Here are some of my favorite quotes about the sensorial nature of poetry:
- Our senses note only particular. We never see color, we see particular colors; we never just touch, we touch something….This human preference for the particular is shown in many primitive languages, which may have no word for tree but may have many words such as ‘oak’, ‘pine’, ‘maple’ and ‘elm’.” The Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by David Mason and John Frederick Nims
- “Poetry for me is always a process of inquiry. If I knew what I thought, if I knew what I felt about what compels me in the world, I doubt I would write a poem. That part of our minds which makes metaphor proceeds ahead of us, and the metaphors seem to know more than we do about our emotional lives, about our ideas…. my work as a poet is to…put pressure upon those images that strike me, in order to ask them to yield their meaning. –Mark Doty in Poetry Review . [Vol 87 No 2 Summer 1997].
- “I always begin with an abiding image. I sit with that image and I turn it and turn it and look at it from every angle, and I write into the mystery of that image. ..They (the images) are asking something of me. They’re asking me to look beyond the surface to the bigger levels of meaning and metaphor.” –Cathy Smith Bowers
- Image’s concentration, like sound’s, is a field where the energies of mind and body meet… Keeping one foot braced in the physical and the other in the realm of inner experience, image enlivens both. — Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry
My next post, Writing Image-Based Poems, will provide some ideas for using images to make poems.