This post was co-written by a mentee-mentor pair in the Writing & Mentoring Program, Cindy Chu and Iris Cushing. It covers the persona poetry genre workshop on Saturday, March 7th 2015.
A Mentee’s Perspective: Cindy Chu
On Saturday March 7, 2015, Girls Write Now welcomed PM Craft Talk speaker Vanessa Jimenez Gabb, who discussed the inner workings of persona poetry. Describing persona poetry as poetry written from another’s perspective, Ms. Gabb selected two of her own poems, as well as Margaret Atwood’s “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”, to discuss with mentors and mentees alike. These are powerful examples— they experiment with pronoun usage, explore shifts in individual versus collective identity, and voice societal flaws.
Mentors and mentees created their own persona poems by reflecting upon a person and putting themselves into that character’s shoes. For example, one of the pre-poem exercises was to participate in an interview as your chosen character rather than as yourself. Writing poetry through a lens other than your own presents several questions: Are you honoring the views of your character? Is this poem meant to speak for many people? What do you do if you disagree with your character?
Writing persona poetry can be challenging because of questions such as the above. However, rather than stressing out, just take a deep breath and write. At its core, persona poetry forces poets to better identify themselves in order to take on another’s perspective. After all, how do you become someone else without defining who you are, in addition to who they are? While poets construct poems from the view of their chosen characters, the resulting poetry is their own. Whether through use of vocabulary, syntax, or punctuation, poets shape others’ voices into wholly unique works of art. Therefore, persona poetry says as much about the poet as it does her subject. The way that personas are presented on paper provides great insight into poets’ sense of self.
If you are a poet, you know what you’re doing. Simply find an idea or a person or even a thing that is important to you, put pencil to paper or fingers to keys, and let your imagination fly.
A Mentor’s Perspective: Iris Cushing
Being on the planning committee for the Persona Poetry workshop was a unique opportunity to witness the transformation from idea to live experience. As a writer, I am often awed by the difference between what I want to create and what I actually end up creating. A big part of my practice is letting go of strict expectations and letting authentic expression come through. Planning and participating in this workshop was a lot like that: the other committee members and I came up with a detailed plan for the workshop, knowing that the actual event might not go exactly as planned–but that there would be no “wrong way” for the workshop to go.
Persona poetry is something that is, well, personal to me. Many of the poems that have influenced me the most involve the singular voice of a character in a particular situation, time period, coming from a specific subject position (examples include Norman Dubie’s The Illustrations and Bernadette Mayer’s The Helens of Troy, New York). Persona poetry has given me insight into how other people really think and feel, in a way that is different from day-to-day relationships with others. So when it came time to get together with the other committee members and put the workshop together, I felt that the stakes were high for me. I wanted to contribute as best as possible to the sharing of this form that has such transformative power in my life.
Luckily (and not surprisingly!) the workshop planning process was thrilling. The diversity of literary, pedagogic and creative writing backgrounds among the members of the planning committee was amazing: from a playwrights to poets to prose writers, everyone had totally necessary and brilliant ideas to bring to the table, and it was easy to harmonize our ideas into a cohesive flow. I was especially grateful for members of the committee with experience teaching high school and college, for they had wonderful instincts for what types of activities would engage writers and how each activity would build from previous ones. We ended up deciding to begin the workshop by giving writers a wide range of options to choose from in terms of who their persona poem could be based on. From there, we planned the focus to become steadily narrower, until each writer would arrive at a particular character to give life and voice to.
When the day of the workshop came, I was delighted by the whole group’s enthusiasm and focus on the curricular activities we had planned. Our craft talk author, Vanessa Jimenez Gabb, did an incredible job getting into the nitty-gritty of persona poetry writing. A highlight of the workshop for me–and something totally unexpected–was when Vanessa led the whole group in a collaborative, unscripted reading of Margaret Atwood’s poem “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing.” There was a palpable charge in the air as the poem unfolded. Together, we created something greater than ourselves, something that wasn’t there before, through just the right balance of planning and spontaneity.