To come full circle, I have been thinking about the uses of Persona poems. Persona poems are an invitation to speak in the voice of an imagined other, like acting, you enter the character, but it is the YOU the poet/actor who enters, and takes on or adds the persona. It is a possession of sorts.
The persona was the mask worn by an actor in Greek drama. The actor is the god, and conscribed by the story, but through the ask may reveal a deeper view. Masquerades carnivals employ a similar masking—a place where one can be free to be one’s self – without the use of the “I.”
The use of the term “persona” (as distinct from “author”) stresses that the speaker is part of the fictional creation, invented for the author’s particular purposes in a given literary work.(1)
I think that teaching the persona poem to emerging fiction writers, as well as to poets, would do service to both in developing “character” – that is, a character in a story, as well as our own “character”, as it gives us an exercise in empathy and analysis – it offers an opportunity to enter the “other.”
In my first book, A Bell Buried Deep, (Story Line Press), the original framework was the biblical story of Sarah and Hagar, brought through American slavery as Sara and Harriet, following the framework of the slave native by Harriet Jacobs; and in the Coda, I place the two women in the mythic present in Coney Island, NY, as Sadie and Hattie. Using a “frame” that is, an already-told /or known story, gave me license, paradoxically enough, to enter more deeply into the characters, my imaging of them. I think the “frame” also gives the writer a chance to contradict or deepen the stories that everyone thinks they know. Telling the story from a different slant. Upending people’s assumptions. And, our own.
It is a practice too of compassion, empathy, imaginative impulse.
Another reason a writer might choose to use a mask, or persona, in her poetry is the issue of power and politics. A writer might choose to use a persona for the subversive remaking of narratives.
To end, I would like to list a number of persona poetry books that I think are outstanding, just off the cuff (there are SO many more) and in no particular order:
Patricia Smith’s, Blood Dazzler, Coffee House Press. In the voice of Hurricane Katrina.
Cornelius Eady, Brutal Imagination, Putnam. Narrated by the Black kidnapper invented by Susan Smith to cover up the killing of her two small sons.
Anna Rabinowtiz, The Wanton Sublime, Tupelo Press. Narrative of the Annunciation.
A Van Jordan, Macnolia, Norton. In the voices of MacNolia Cox and John Montiere.
C.D. Wright, One Big Self, Copper Canyon Press. Voices of prisoners in Louisiana Prisons.
Veronica Golos, A Bell Buried Deep, StoryLine Press, to be reissued by Tupelo Press. Biblical story of Sarah and Hagar.
Thylias Moss, Slave Moth, Persea Books. In the voice of an enslaved Black woman.
Lucille Clifton, The Book of Light, Copper Canyon Press. Variety of mythical and biblical voices.
Cleopatra Mathis, What To Tip The Boatman?, Sheep Meadow Press. Demeter and Persephone.
Gregory Orr, Orpheus & Eurydice, A Lyric Sequence, Copper Canyon Press.
Pascale Petit, What the Water Gave Me. Poems After Frida Kahlo. Seren Press.
Penelope Scanbly Schott, A is for Anne. Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Common-wealth, A Narrative Poem. Turning Point Press.
Louise Gluck, The Wild Iris, The Ecco Press. Flowers speak in Eden.
(1) and (2): Jeannine Hall Gailey: Why We Wear Masks: http://www.poemeleon.org/gailey-why-we-wear-masks-essay/