Persona Poems at Palm Beach Poetry Festival

It’s been a month since I returned from Delray and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival held there in the Old School Square, and since then I’ve barely looked at the five poems I started in Adrian Matejka’s workshop.

Matejka is not only a gifted poet, but he’s also a brilliant teacher. We started the week off by reading A. Van Jordan’s essay on ways to enter the writing process of a persona poem, and each day we wrote a different type of poem by following some of Jordan’s guidelines.

The Big Smoke, Matejka’s book-length persona poem collection, explores the life and relationships of boxing legend Jack Johnson. Matejka writes in the voices of Jack Johnson and the women in Johnson’s life, an ambitious project that took eight years of research and writing. It wound up as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a well-deserved honor.

In the workshop, he told us that the hardest poems for him to write were the ones in the voices of the women, and that he would never attempt to write in a woman’s voice again, not feeling able, artistically, to accurately portray a woman’s psyche in the first person.

Part of this discussion of whose voices to write in involved the subject of cultural appropriation. The week of the poetry festival, American Dirt launched, and with it, the controversy surrounding the white author’s choice to write in the first person about a migrant Latina woman and her struggles to cross into the US.

It was a timely example of the pitfalls of choosing to write in the voice of someone whose life is completely outside our own experiences. Maybe if author Jeanine Cummins had written in the third person, her book would have been more honest. Latinx writers felt justifiably angry that a white author would receive a six-figure advance to tell a story that wasn’t hers to tell.

All of this is to say that it’s no easy task to choose a voice to write in that’s also relevant to the times we’re living in. I tried to create the voice of the Mona Lisa, but gave her a sort of feminist mindset. I also wrote in the voice of a street tarot reader, a crystal ball, and Anne Boleyn, who was accused of applying witchcraft to seduce men who attended her in the court of Henry VIII.

The week in Delray went by in a blur and I was fairly exhausted the entire time, probably because we drove there from Atlanta in one day and didn’t arrive at our Airbnb until close to midnight. Delray is only an hour north of Miami, and has the unfortunate distinction of being close to Mar a Lago. While the festival was going on, the impeachment trial was, too. All of that was an uncomfortable tension buzzing in the background.