First off, let’s back up a moment and cover what a persona poem is, just in case you’re not 100% clear. Persona can mean several things when we’re talking about poetry. In the most general sense, the “persona” of a poem is the voice of the poem, not necessarily the actual poet’s voice. This is your standard lit class definition. The term is used to get readers past the idea that everything written in the poem is written about the poet, because this is, of course, not always the case, even when the poem is written in first person. Unfortunately, the idea of every poem having a persona negates those poems in which the speaker of the poem is very clearly the poet, but that tends to be about trading one problem for another. In the case of Confessionalists and many other modern styles of poetry, the poet is very clearly the voice within the poem, so there is a need sometimes to make that differentiation.
In the case of the persona poem, however, we’re talking about something entirely different. This is not the persona as an ephemeral, general “voice” within the poem. It’s also not the author stepping out front and center in terms of “speaking” the poem as a personal narrative of sorts. In the persona poem, the poet adopts a specific character through which the poem is presented. The reason for adopting this persona may be that the poem coming from that voice heightens the message, ads a dramatic element to the poem, or that the persona somehow comments upon itself, among other reasons. Persona poems are sometimes referred to as “dramatic monologues,” which, while an interesting term, feels a bit stiff, and seems, in some ways, to minimize the importance of the poetic value of the piece (at least in my mind). The persona is not necessarily a person. Some poets work in the voices of animals or inanimate objects, to varying degrees of effect. Sometimes this can come off as cutesy or precious, but not all persona poetry that works in a non-human voice should be dismissed, as much of it can hold a great deal of power.
While some might argue the point, in my mind, the single greatest practitioner of the persona poem is working right here in America today. Patricia Smith came up in the slam movement during the 1990’s. While she has moved from being a “stage poet” to a “page poet,” her use of persona poetry continues to be incredibly strong—some of the best poetry going in its ability to not only convey a message, but to leave an audience completely silent.
The first poem I ever read by her was “Undertaker,” from her full-length book Close to Death, a chronicle of gang violence in Chicago. (You can read “Undertaker” at this link.) This was in my early days of teaching poetry, before I had really come to understand the power of what poetry could do, but “Undertaker” was a poem that was impossible to not realize the importance and impact of. From that very first line, “When a bullet enters the brain,” it is everything that we talk about as an element of great poetry, even though all of our words for it—unflinching, uncompromising, bold, etc.—are at the point of being clichéd now, and also fall short of being able to fully capture the spirit of a poem that is this strong. Smith uses the persona in this poem to go beyond what we can do with just a standard poem—she cannot speak from her own experience in this (though many of the poems in the book are drawn from interviews she did while working as a Chicago reporter, and some of the poems do, in fact, come from her personal perspective), and to speak as someone having a dialogue with this person would rob it of some of its immediacy. The person allows the poem to be rooted in the internal psyche of a very real speaker (even if that speaker is a mask from which the poet is speaking behind). “Undertaker” isn’t just talking about the toll of street violence—it is placing the emotional trauma that extends even beyond those immediately affected by it on display where the reader can feel it on the page.
When I attended the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival, the first reading I went to was Patricia Smith. She read in a beautiful old church, and the first poem she read (though she actually recited it from memory) was “Undertaker.” It was high school day, and I had never been in a room with so many teenagers who suddenly forgot about their cell phones and social lives and listened completely to this poem as it echoed off the walls of the chapel. While she is very clear about the fact that she is no longer a slam poet, the incredible level of drama and nuance that she brings to the readings of her poems sets Patricia Smith apart from at least 90% of the poets who are out there right now, and it is not a case of the delivery concealing a mediocre text. These poems are just as powerful on the page as they are from the stage.
Smith also works in persona forms that don’t speak from the human voice. One of her most famous books, Blood Dazzler, is a chronicle of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The poems in the book come from a range of personalities—survivors, victims, and even the baffled and dazed voice of a confused George W. Bush (read “The President Flies Over” at this link). Among the voices of these people affected by landfall is mixed the voice of Katrina herself, speaking up periodically in the midst of the ongoing text as she brings her devastation to the Gulf Coast. When Katrina introduces herself (you can read the poem at this link), she does so in elevated, poetic language, but her intent is clear: she is “hungering for wood, walls, unturned skin.” She is coming for “elders, fools, and willows.” Smith personifies Katrina as an inevitable force, born from the will for destruction, and her path toward and through New Orleans is methodical, unaffected, emotionless. She is the dark goddess coming up out of tropical waters to destroy because that is what she does. She feeds, and New Orleans and anything else in her path are simply food.
The book is deeply moving, devastating (to use another one of those critics’ clichés), and the centerpiece of it is “34,” an attempt by Smith to give a final voice to the 34 occupants of a nursing home that were abandoned by their care staff as the storm came down on them. One of the best performances of it that I can find on the web is at this link on YouTube, though it barely begins to compare to her reading of the poem with a full string quartet at Dodgefest 2012. In those performances, her reading of Blood Dazzler was mashed up with Wynton Marsalis’ At the Octoroon Balls into a truly powerful performance piece that filled an auditorium with the weight and emotion of both pieces combined into something exponentially larger than the sum of its hefty parts. “34” was the final piece of the performance, and it carried with it the weight of incomprehensible, senseless loss. (And I still hope beyond hope that someone at the festival had the forethought to record the performance professionally and will make it available at some point in the future.)
In the book, the next poem to follow “34” is Katrina’s indifferent, bordering on dismissive attitude to the prayers of the people in the home, and her wonder that in the presence of her power, none of them even understand to pray to her.
As you can see from these examples, the power of a persona poem comes not from just completing an exercise in a “different voice.” Looking at persona poetry from that base “-task-related” viewpoint is often what turns it into a precious moment rather than a powerful statement. The true power comes from choosing a voice with purpose, one that is informed and has a reason to be the voice of the poem. It is not writing a poem from your dog’s point of view simply to comment on how messy the underside of your couch is (though I suppose we shouldn’t be entirely dismissive of that). It’s about using the voice and the power of the voice that you choose in order to be able to fully deliver your intentions with the poem, and often to do so more artfully than you could from an outsider’s perspective. Think about the voice within “The President Flies Over.” A statement like this poem’s could as easily have been accomplished through a third person, “And the President flies over, thinking all he can see from here is enough,” or a slapdash statement like Kanye West’s haphazard “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” While neither of those statement have much in the way of artistry to them, they serve the basic purpose of saying what is said, but to color the statement by presenting it in his own voice allows for more nuance but also a stronger statement. “I understand that somewhere it has rained.” What more needs to be said beyond that? The persona is used artfully here. He is not self-parodic, nor does he speak in a means that would seem artificial or somehow out of character. It is a simple statement from which the reader can take the true impact of the meaning. (Though, I will say, I think her voice for GWB is a bit more eloquent than anything Mr. “Is our children learning” could actually manage.)
What can you do with persona within your poems? Start out by experimenting. What are some voices you feel that you can write in? Can you write a poem in the voice of a friend? What about writing a poem about how you think your best friend really sees you—but be brutally honest in it. Don’t project—think about how your friend truly sees you, or what s/he doesn’t see. Are there faults that s/he picks up on? Are there ways in which you know s/he sees you that you don’t like, but may have completely innocuous motives behind them? In this situation, writing in persona allows you to exercise your sense of empathy, your understanding of another person, and it also allows you to exercise your own self-awareness. Too often we take our relationships so much for granted that we lose sight of how we may actually be perceived by someone. While another person’s perception of us may not be overly important in the grand scheme of things, understanding what those perceptions are can sometimes give us a clue as to who our truly best friends are and who may actually be a detriment to us. It may also give us insight into how we behave with our friends and how we treat them. Are you the one always going to them for help who isn’t available when they need it in return? Do you have a friend in your life whom you confess everything to, even if maybe some of those things should be left unsaid? Think about these others’ visions of who you are, and attempt to write the most authentic version of them that you can, but remember, also, this is an exercise in writing, attempting to help you develop your ability to write in persona. You’re not a psychic, so don’t get horrendously upset if you don’t like what he voice in the poem says—it may just be you, though you may want to question why that’s the perception you let trickle into your poem and if it arises from a place of validity.
Persona work is something more recent in my own writing, though once I began doing it, I went in all the way. While I have a few stray persona poems out there that come from other areas, the bulk of mine are in a project called Yours, Marilyn, which is designed to be a telling of the adult life of Marilyn Monroe through a series of poems written in her voice. This was one of those “accidental” projects. I didn’t really set out with the intention of writing a book of poems about Marilyn. (Yes, we’re on a first name basis now. After over a year of writing about her, I have trouble thinking of her as “Monroe.”) But I was teaching persona poems as a unit in a poetry workshop on campus, and I have a rule in all my workshops—I never ask my students to do something that I won’t do myself. If I ask them to write sonnets, I crank out a sonnet (as much as I hate writing them). If I tell them to write about an embarrassing moment from childhood, I write about one of my own, and I share it right along with the rest of them. I think it’s important, when you’re working in a small workshop setting, to set the tone and mood of the workshop by being as much a part of the group as you expect all of your students to be as well, so I do the writing assignments right along with them, and I never fall back on pulling something from an old file somewhere and passing it off as new. (This, by the way, is also an excellent way to guarantee yourself some writing time.)
So I asked my students not only to write a persona poem, but to write it in the voice of a public figure of some sort. (One student, by the way, wrote an amazing poem from the point of view of Ted Bundy which still gives me shivers just thinking about it.) I immediately ran into the same problem I usually do when I make these plans—I hadn’t thought in advance about what I was going to write about. While this does a wonderful job of evening the playing field with my students, since I don’t know any more about what I’ll be putting on paper than they do when I walk into the room, it does amp the pressure up a bit, because I tend to feel like my poems should be at least good, since I’m leading the workshop. As usual, I gave the prompt and then twenty-five minutes to write, and immediately lost the first five minutes thinking, “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit….it’s nine in the morning and my brain is not equipped for this right now,” (there had been no coffee yet). The night before, I had watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for probably the fifth or sixth time, and as I’m sitting there, trying to concentrate, all that kept going through my head was, “A kiss on the hand might be/quite continental/but diamonds are a girl’s best friend./A kiss may be grand/but it won’t pay the rental/on your humble flat/or help you at the automat.” This was not helping any, until some voice in my brain (if you’re not a writer, you probably snicker at phrases like that; if you are a writer, then it makes complete sense) said, “But I never really liked diamonds.”
And so I thought for a brief moment about Lorelei Lee, who has made the sound decision to forget about love and marry for a bank account (though she’s got a secret little bit of desire in her heart for the nerdy and loaded Gus Esmond) and Marilyn’s own life story. She could pay her own bills, and did so perfectly well (despite being a poor money manager). She didn’t need to find a sugar daddy. She could be a sugar mommy if she wanted to. I didn’t know a ton about her biography at the time, but I did know that love had been a problem for her. So I played on some of the lines from her most famous song, used a bit of Lorelei’s fractured attempts at mannered diction, and wrote “M Explains Why,” in which Marilyn explains why she was depressed to the point of being suicidal near the end of her life. It begins with,
It’s not enough to be preferred by gentlemen,
not enough to receive continental gestures
of token emotions,
when you wake up in your bed
at four AM,
the moonlight streaming into your
humble LA flat…
And that was the first Marilyn poem. I asked my students to stay in character and go home and write another poem, and when I sat down with Marilyn in mind again, still working from what little I knew, I wrote “M and the Kennedy Boys,” where Marilyn confesses that it was really her vengeful spirit that killed JFK and RFK. It’s built a bit on the mythology of the Great Kennedy Affair, which most research shows was actually more of a footnote at the end of her life than it was an all-encompassing romance, but it was keeping her voice in my head. I wrote one more poem called “The Death of Norma Jeane,” and I figured that was pretty much all that was going to happen with it.
A few months later, I was invited to be a featured reader at the inaugural First Friday event hosted by Christie Grimes and Brian Topping, and in the process of prepping for it, I came across the poems and thought they might be good for a performance piece, so I combined them into a single work called “Triptych for Marilyn” and read then as part of the set. After my reading, while I was having a cigarette (yes, I know, bad for my health, need to quit—believe me, I’ve heard it), Brian said, “You know, I could picture that as a book.” It was just a quick comment in passing, but it was there, and it was something I started to think about, though very, very far in the back of my mind.
I don’t think I would qualify as Marilyn obsessive. I like her movies; I enjoy some of her music; and I think she was a very interesting figure, but I didn’t jump right on the idea of writing as much about her as possible. A few more pieces dribbled out over time, but nothing in bulk. Then I read Adam Braver’s book, Misfit, which is a fictionalized telling of the weekend before Marilyn’s death when she was invited by Frank Sinatra to visit the Cal Neva Lodge to get away from the drama surrounding her firing and rehiring from the film Something’s Got to Give. I have this thing when I read fictionalized accounts about real people or events where I need to find out what the true portions are, and so I started reading more. As I read more and more, my understanding of Marilyn began to change and deepen quite a bit, and I started coming back to those poems. The ending of Braver’s book was incredibly powerful—gut wrenching in many ways, without being exploitative—and in workshop the next day, I wound up writing a rather long piece called “The Death of Marilyn Monroe,” which is Marilyn on her last night. I started reading it at a few open mics, and people received it really, really well.
At the same time, I was still reading various biographies and articles, and I also picked up another novel (you’d be surprised how many novels have been written with Marilyn as the main character) which I am not going to bother naming here because it is complete trash. I don’t make those kind of judgments normally—everyone’s art carries its own merit—but this book was so distorted, so incredibly packed with outright fabrications and lies that I had trouble reading it (and still, honestly, haven’t finished it; I just couldn’t). I understand the idea of literary license and distorting truth for the sake of a dramatic or narrative arc, or to fill in gaps in the historical record with something in the way of a plausible narrative, but this book departed so far from even basic public knowledge, in favor of sensationalistic, horrifying details which bordered on character assassination that it really destroys the integrity of the book as anything other than some salacious tabloid drama. The Enquirer has more truth in it than that book does, and most of the changes seemed to be made solely for the purpose of destroying any semblance of Marilyn as a human being or a competent woman. It ignored the facts of her life—her business sense, her role in creating the persona of Marilyn, her drive and ambition that kept her in Hollywood playing walk-on and background roles until she finally got a lead, her intelligence, her efforts to exercise control over her own career and to be taken seriously as an actress—in favor of portraying her as a cheap, stupid whore fucking her way up the studio ladder and somehow succeeding despite the fact that she is so stupid it’s difficult to believe that she could work out how to get herself out of bed in the morning if the sheets were tucked in.
Maybe this makes it sound like I started writing because I was offended, and maybe, to a small extent, that’s true. But more importantly, to me, I wanted to explore Marilyn as the person that the historical/biographical record shows her to be. This is a woman who went after what she wanted and didn’t let men stand in her way. When her first husband declared that no wife of his would be a model and actress, she quickly assured him that she was no wife of his anymore. When the studios tried to pigeonhole her into playing Lorelei Lee for the rest of her life, she simply left Hollywood, went to NY, and started her own production company so she could exercise some autonomy in choosing her own roles. Despite all the press and mythologizing of the great romance with Joe DiMaggio—a marriage that actually only lasted for nine months—she is one of the rare women who walked out the door the very night that he had the nerve to hit her and never went back. She’s also the woman who Arthur Miller married because he saw her as an intellectual equal—and by many private accounts, the only thing he may have been wrong on is that she may have actually been a bit ahead of him in terms of intellect. She was a voracious reader, stood her ground against the House Un-American Activities Committee during the red scare, and confronted JFK in her first meeting with him about what she thought he had done wrong in the Bay of Pigs while a group of onlookers stood in shock. She was intelligent, passionate, out spoken, and in many ways an archetype of what the feminist movement would have embraced as a true role model in the years to come. In fact, had feminism come into full bloom a bit sooner, she might have been with us much longer, because she is, in many ways, also the archetype of a woman destroyed by a world in which a woman’s independence was not only devalued, but reviled.
This is the image of Marilyn that many people don’t see. Her reputation for “not being a good actress” (refuted not only by many of her directors and acting coaches, but by many of her performances as well), leaves people with the impression that, since she couldn’t have been “acting,” she simply had to be the ditzy bottled blonde that she played in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Seven Year Itch (ignoring, in the process, much more complex roles like Roslyn in The Misfits or Rose Loomis in Niagara). Because she was a woman who was not afraid of her sexuality in a time when that mindset was even more taboo than it is now, she is often seen as little more than sex with legs and a script, but her life story shows many more layers than that.
But I didn’t want to just write a defense of Marilyn—I could have done an essay to do that (and it seems that’s what I’m doing now). I wanted to work with Marilyn as a persona to show the story of powerful womanhood being eroded by the forces of a world that constantly batters away at it. I don’t pretend that my Marilyn is the Marilyn (unlike some authors who have tried to stake that claim). It’s my version of her, perhaps a little idealized, most likely colored by my own view of womanhood, which in itself may also be a bit idealized. I wanted to work in persona because it gives the poems immediacy, but because it also strips away the distancing effect of writing about Marilyn. To write as Marilyn, hopefully at least, catches the reader enough off guard to make them reconsider her, and also reconsider her situation and what it was to live as the most famous woman in the world in that time, when even the most famous woman in the world had so many fetters attached to her power. My Marilyn is a woman who becomes exhausted with everything in her life needing to be a fight—there comes a point where we would like to stop surviving and actually be able to live, and when you need to fight for every single thing in your life, that point does not come for you.
And here is, yet again, another way in which persona comes back to being personal (and you thought I had completely gone off on a tangent). My Marilyn is just as much colored by my own experience as it is by her life story. I don’t like playing the “I’m a survivor” card, but there are many points in my life when it has felt like I had to fight like crazy just to attain what other people seemed to be able to walk into. I grew up poor on a farm. My mother died when I was sixteen and my father, not the most stable man to begin with, promptly went full-blown, lock-him-up insane shortly after that. I moved out on my own when I was 17 years old. I went to a very expensive college (on scholarship) where the campus culture was not the same economic environment I grew up in. In fact, just getting the financial aid completed to get into the school was a battle in and of itself. When I couldn’t get my father’s income information for the federal applications because he refused to provide it to me, the director of financial aid at the college revoked my early admission status and told me I should consider going somewhere “more appropriate” for people like me. As a gay man, I have frequently had to fight to be seen as a valid human being by other people, based on a single aspect of my life which has no effect on them whatsoever.
So yeah, sometimes I get tired. Gee, wonder why I related to Marilyn?
Maybe I am being overly generous in my assessment of my own work, though public readings of the poems from the manuscript have gone over incredibly well, and so far each individual poem I have submitted to a journal has been accepted (in fact, several of the poems I discussed in this entry will begin making their way into the world soon via Weave, cahoodaloodaling, Storm Cellar, Ragazine, and a few other publications), but the power behind a persona poem comes from what is said in it and also what it reveals about the author. In many ways, though you are not writing as “yourself” when you write in persona, you are still the person behind the mask, or “The Man Behind the Curtain.” It is, ultimately, your self that comes out through the lines, even if it is in a different voice. You can work with persona to construct incredibly powerful poems that connect with an audience, but that connection is with you as well.
Recently, one of my best friends, who I’m not going to mention by name because I’m not sure if she wants to go fully public with her project yet, started a book of persona poems around the Salem Witch Trials. She shared a few of the poems with me last night over the phone, and they are brilliant. In many ways, it will work in all the best places that persona work should—it will be revelatory, full of empathy for the personae, and recasting and redirecting what we think we know about that time period, but also what we know about ourselves. It’s not going to be an easy project. Writing about real events and people isn’t simple. There was a moment in the midst of writing Yours, Marilyn when I remember thinking, “I thought I started writing poetry so I could avoid research?” but I may have put almost as much research into that book as some people put into dissertations. (Hey, if the book never sells, at least I can always teach a class on her at some point, since I’m sure universities are chomping at the bit to have entire courses on the biography of Marilyn Monroe.)
I’m also toying with the idea of starting another persona project myself. I watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah the other night (meh—nice effects, though a few looked a bit low budget or else quickly rendered and unfinished, not great story telling; I was sadly disappointed, and I love everything of his up to this point, but it feels like he was slumming), and as many projects start, there was a little voice that piped up in my head that was Noah telling me about what it felt like after the whole thing was over. He wasn’t a happy man by then, I think. Perhaps “disillusioned” would be a good word for him. That poem is still formulating somewhere in my head, but there’s a few more going along with it. Considering that my knowledge of the Bible is cursory at best, this is going to be another research project, but if it becomes something I care about even half as much as I wound up caring about Yours, Marilyn, which truly became a passion project for me, and remains so even now that it is more or less (I think) done, then it will be a pleasure to work on.
As for your own work, take some time to begin exploring what you can accomplish through an alternate voice. What masks can you put on and speak through, and how do those voices sound? Are they genuine? Do they reveal something about what you’re writing on that you couldn’t do in your own voice or a detached voice? What does writing in that alternate perspective do for you in terms of your own understanding? Does it allow you to talk about things you don’t feel comfortable talking about from your own perspective, but maybe feel able to get closer to when you wear the guise of someone else? Does it let you tell stories that were told to you in new ways that make them fresher and more accessible? Can you tell the stories of your grandparents or great grandparents, perhaps by exploring their old letters and diaries? Can you get a sense of what they truly felt and what they would have to say if they could tell their own stories now?
All of those options and many more can come to you through writing in persona. It can be more than just an exercise; it can be perception altering as well.
Note for Poetic Development:
If you haven’t read Patricia Smith—go read her. He books are a master class in poetry to begin with, but she is, as I said, the foremost practitioner of persona poetry that I can find, and every word leaves me hanging. You should read everything of hers that you can get, but I’ll provide links to Amazon to purchase the two books that I mentioned in this blog.
Click here to purchase Close to Death from Amazon.
Click here to purchase Blood Dazzler from Amazon.