Teaching the Persona Poem
Imagine, for a moment, that today you aren’t you. You don’t have to drag yourself from bed to go to school or make lunches for your children. You no longer live in your house or in your town. You don’t have a dog. Or now you inexplicably have dozens of them. Today, you can be anyone you want. Yesterday you were 40, but today, you might be 73 or a different sex, have a different profession, or be of a different orientation. Your sister stole your inheritance. Your car broke down. You’re a pastry chef or a spy. Today, you’re the astronomer Williamina Fleming discovering the Horsehead Nebula or Jack the Ripper prowling alleys. Only one thing is certain: you are finally free of the dictum that has plagued you your entire life—“just be yourself”—because today you must be someone else.
What a relief!
The desire we all have at some point in our lives to run away from ourselves isn’t one we can regularly indulge—at least not without serious repercussions. But through writing and reading persona poetry, we can put on masks (or personae, in Latin) and see with different eyes.
In this essay, I’ll offer several reasons such masks can be useful in the classroom, but first, consider one adage of the creative-writing classroom: “write what you know.” This well-meaning advice is typically intended to curb uninformed pontification on complex subjects or deviations into grand metaphysical vagaries—which, when it works, is fine. It's important to help new writers realize that the quotidian, handled well, is anything but boring. Unfortunately, many students understand "write what you know" quite literally, believing it an injunction to write autobiographically rather than to write poetry informed by personal experience and expertise. For the rare student who worked on an oil rig, who grew up in a cult, or whose mother was a spy, nothing could be better. For the rest of us, this misunderstanding can lead to two different but equally unfortunate responses: on the one hand, avoidance, and on the other hand, self-indulgence.
The avoidant student thinks she has nothing to write about because no one is more boring and dull than she. She writes poems with flat language to mirror her supposedly flat subjects. In extreme cases, she may retreat into fantasy, writing genre-inspired poems populated by vampires or zombies, or simply stall out and refuse to write entirely. Then there’s the student who believes his life is endlessly fascinating. He presents a magnum opus on the subject of his recent breakup. Often this student's work is so personally coded that it is entirely opaque to readers. In a workshop setting, such poems can be frustrating for everyone involved. To greet these efforts by simply reiterating “write what you know” will seem futile and tone-deaf to these students. They believed, they tried, and it didn’t work. But what is the alternative?
Rather than preaching “write what you know,” consider persona poetry. It seems paradoxical, but writing as someone else—exploring what you don’t know—can prove an excellent method of coming to know yourself as a writer. Using a persona allows a student to temporarily shake loose her devotion to portraying her “true” self and be someone else for a while. Your students are already familiar with persona in other genres, which makes introducing the concept in the classroom a multimedia opportunity. Of course, novelists often write from different points of view, and even musical artists employ personae. You can bring up examples from the music world with your students, such as David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, Garth Brooks’s Chris Gaines, Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce, Lady Gaga’s male alter ego Jo Calderone, and the various personae employed by Nicki Minaj. For many of these artists, using a persona permits explorations of gender, sexuality, and social behaviors in their music with less fear of public or private repercussions. By focusing class discussion on what employing a persona allows an artist to do, you may find productive conversation about what we think we can do in art.
Persona presents a puzzle. It is predicated on artifice, yet persona is also a very intimate form of poetry. In a persona poem, a writer often speaks directly to readers and, in doing so, forges an almost interpersonal relationship with them. It whispers in their ears or grabs them by the shoulders. Read, for example, James Tate’s “The Motorcyclists,” a persona poem written from a female perspective. Though the chatty female speaker initially seems frivolous, beginning the poem with “My cuticles are a mess” and ending with “Honey, can we stop soon? / I really hate to say it but I need a lady’s room,” her apparent superficiality is intercut with surprisingly dark observations:
Do you know that I have never understood what they meant
by “grassy knoll.” It sounds so idyllic, a place to go
to dream your life away, not kill somebody. They
should have called it something like “the grudging notch.”
Moments like these encourage us to rethink our initial assumptions, and upon rereading, we notice other instances in which the speaker points out the potential for first impressions to be false. The new negligee she wears isn’t unique but “a replica / of one Kim Novak wore in some movie or other,” the sweet words of a flirting chiropractor disguise a latent creepiness, and the fixtures in the White House look gold but might be a cheaper brass approximation. Just as the pastoral connotations of the “grassy knoll” belie the national tragedy it references, nothing is quite what it seems. But then, we realize, neither is the speaker. The persona poem can accommodate all sorts of speakers and dramatic situations—what matters is that we treat our subjects as worthy of our regard. If Tate had written this poem with the sole purpose of mocking the speaker, we’d have thought a lot less of the poem and possibly less of Tate.
A persona poem allows a great deal of control over the distance between a speaker and the audience. Tate’s speaker chats directly to us, but not all persona poems encourage this one-on-one intimacy. Others invite us to sit back, observe from a distance, and even judge. The gold standard for this is Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “My Last Duchess.” You may wish to play your students this recording of the piece, read by Alfred Molina, which highlights the dramatic possibilities.
That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will’t please you sit and look at her? I said
“Fra Pandolf” by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ’twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek. …
Over the course of the poem, the seemingly gracious duke is revealed to be jealous and self-absorbed, his ire raised by his late wife’s interactions with others, whom she treats “as if she ranked / My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name / With anybody’s gift.” He perceives her smiles as a sort of promiscuity, for “who passed without / Much the same smile?” Rather than acknowledge any sort of power she might have over him, he instead gives “commands; / Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands / As if alive.” The wife is now just one more item in his art collection; he finally has control over who sees her.
In the classroom, this Browning poem is useful for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrates dramatic tension; we learn the extent of the duke’s murderous hubris. Second, this poem demonstrates the seductive power of the persona poem—the jealousy the duke describes is familiar and relatable, even if its degree and his consequent actions are not. Third, it’s an example of a persona poem doing complicated things concerning audience. There are two audiences in this poem: readers of the poem and the representative from the count, there to broker a new marriage for the duke. The fact that the representative has no reaction to the duke’s revelation amplifies the sense that there will be no consequences for the duke. Unlike the representative, however, at our removed distance, we readers are not bound by propriety or even fear to keep our opinions on the duke to ourselves. By framing the poem as an overheard speech, not one directed to readers, Browning invites us to judge the duke’s actions.
Deciding who is speaking in a persona poem and how intimate the address are important choices. Kevin Young’s “Reward” gains much of its charge from its choice of speaker, the distance we experience from that speaker’s voice, as well as the poem’s glimpse into history:
RUN AWAY from this sub-
scriber for the second time
are TWO NEGROES, viz. SMART,
an outlandish dark fellow
with his country marks
on his temples and bearing
the remarkable brand of my
name on his left breast, last
seen wearing an old ragged
negro cloth shirt and breeches
made of fearnought; also DIDO,
a likely young wench of a yellow
cast, born in cherrytime in this
parish, wearing a mixed coloured
coat with a bundle of clothes,
mostly blue, under her one good
arm. Both speak tolerable plain
English and may insist on being
called Cuffee and Khasa respect-
ively. Whoever shall deliver
the said goods to the gaoler
in Baton Rouge, or to the Sugar
House in the parish, shall receive
all reasonable charges plus
a genteel reward besides what
the law allows. …
The speaker, as is revealed at the end of the poem, is one Elizabeth Young, a slaveholder. Kevin Young could just have easily have chosen to write from the perspective of Cuffee or Khasa, but letting us imagine their experiences through the world conjured by Elizabeth’s words, a world in which people are “goods” to be “deliver[ed]” branded with her name, is its own horror. Cuffee’s and Khasa’s voices—even their proper names—aren’t recognized, but Elizabeth’s is. We read between the lines of her dispassionate advertisement to see the suffering it glosses over through the language of commerce. By choosing to use the advertisement language, rather than Elizabeth’s speaking voice, Kevin Young discourages intimacy with this speaker.
As these examples suggest, persona poems can address a number of student writing concerns—such as creating dramatic tension, making decisions about authorial distance, and addressing difficult personal and political subjects—while allowing students a greater freedom to write without self-censure. But there are some serious potential pitfalls to using personae in the classroom. Some students will rise to the challenge of attempting to write their own persona poems after reading a few examples, but others will find that an open-ended assignment raises too many possibilities, and they may become overwhelmed. Constructively narrowing the field until students are ready to strike out on their own can head off needless frustration. The poet Brittany Cavallaro suggests using photographic portraits in the classroom and asking students to choose one as their speaker. You might also refer students to an online gallery, but this carries the risk that everyone will choose the same three or four subjects. I suggest supplying hard copies, if possible. Use a variety of sources for these photographs—Cavallaro has had great success with portraits from Richard Avedon’s In the American West, but you might also consider adding to these the work of Diane Arbus and Bill Rauhauser, the recently discovered photographs of Vivian Maier, or even vintage photographs found at an antique store. Bring in an excess of photos so no student feels “stuck” with a portrait; it’s best if students can choose photos to which they respond strongly.
Although persona poems encourage writers to consider the experiences of people with different backgrounds, it’s not unusual for students to rely on received ideas about others rather than thinking more deeply and critically. To combat this, consider incorporating a small research component into your persona assignment. For instance, by learning what someone working in a slaughterhouse actually does and what the working conditions are like, a student will be able to bring concrete details to the poem and be less tempted to lean on stereotypes or clichés. You can have students fill out a detailed questionnaires about their personae, answering questions about their personalities, personal and medical histories, families, likes and dislikes, and so on. Students’ answers should be highly detailed, moving well beyond easy, brief responses. Think of it as a way for your students to build interesting characters. Even if they don’t directly use their questionnaire answers, the exercise will prepare them further to think through another person’s identity.
Another temptation is to choose a speaker without considering whether that speaker is the best one for the student’s needs. The Great Gatsby, after all, wasn’t written from Gatsby’s perspective: Nick’s outside view of the outsider Gatsby helps reveal the novel’s different layers of social interactions. Ask your students to try writing a new version of one of the previous example poems, using a different speaker’s perspective. What would Browning’s duchess say if she could speak? What about the count’s representative? What would be gained or lost had “Reward” been written from Cuffee’s or Khasa’s perspective? Why did Kevin Young make the decision not to let Elizabeth speak directly to readers?
Students can use personae to create new perspectives of established characters or even to give voice to creatures who cannot speak for themselves. Debora Greger’s “Miranda’s Drowned Book” elaborates on the character of Miranda and her relationship with Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Through her persona, Miranda can step forward and present herself as a much lonelier and more ambivalent character than we’d known before. Margaret Atwood’s “Pig Song” prompts us to consider our treatment of food animals by affording the pig both dignity and a voice. You could ask your students to use these poems as examples and write from the perspective of an animal, as Atwood does. Writing from the perspective of an inanimate object could also be an interesting challenge.
If your students are up for it, you might ask them to break into pairs, each with their persona poem drafts. Ask them to have a conversation about anything they like for 15 minutes, with the caveat that they can speak only in the voice and diction of their persona poem characters. This will be greeted by laughter, and the hammier students may need reining in, but it will also prompt students to consider the speech and concerns of their speakers. After the 15 minutes, ask students what they learned about their characters and then have them return to their drafts with these discoveries in mind.
By writing persona poems, students must make authorial choices about who speaks and who doesn’t. In doing so, students consider the experiences of those outside their immediate circle and what hidden depths might be gained or lost by listening to them. These are lessons all writers need to learn. When those students put aside their masks and once again turn to their own experiences, they’ll find that their personae have prepared them for a more complicated re-engagement with the self. Having spent time in the lives of others, your students will better see the interesting contours of their own. Having given themselves permission to imagine someone else’s experiences, your students may find they are no longer as devoted to personal confessions or depicting events “as they really happened” but can instead make choices about what to represent and how to represent it. By making decisions about the distance from which they present their characters, they can approach their own lives with a bit more detachment. Then students can realize how the voices, the speakers, the “I” of their poems are always constructions with which they can experiment. The stuff of our lives isn’t so dull after all because we’ve seen how interesting other lives can be. We’ll finally write what we know.
Rebecca Hazelton is the author of Fair Copy (2012), winner of the Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry, and Vow (2013), from Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She was the 2010-11 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, Madison's Creative Writing Institute; and winner of the “Discovery”/Boston...