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.

who is speaking?

This post is a continuation of a post I wrote at Read Write Poem about persona poems. Go see!

In many poems, the narrative voice is in the first person singular. I’ve heard writers complain about how they’re tired of writing about themselves, how they don’t want to be self-obsessed, and I’ve also heard readers complain about how so and so is forever writing about herself, is a narcissist with no sense of the world outside.

But are we always writing about ourselves when we use the pronoun I ? As noted in the Poet.org article entitled “Poetic Technique: Dramatic Monologue”, TS Eliot created characters in his poems who spoke about certain ideas and situations the poet wanted to investigate or draw out. In “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock,” no one would mistake the narrator of Prufrock as the poet himself. In this poem, Eliot is taking on the persona of the modern man, breathing life into him through the character of J. Alfred Prufrock.

When discussing or commenting on the work of others, it’s important to ask, “who is the narrator?” Just because the author is female doesn’t mean the narrator is. One of the privileges of being a poet or an artist or an actor is that we use our imaginations. We explore what it might be like to live under certain conditions. We might be able to find a historic character to investigate, someone who actually lived who exemplifies an idea or an image we want to understand. Or we invent.

And it might be wise to remember that even when we think we’re being honest with ourselves about writing the brutal truth, we still might be harboring certain illusions about ourselves that transfer onto the page. I’ve caught myself holding back when I write for any number of reasons What ends up in the poem is my invented self, the woman I want to be, but maybe not the person I am. We continuously create the persona we admire. Narcissism is a deep, shiny pool, and we all love to gaze into it.

How many of you have had readers confuse the narrator in the poem with you? Have you ever had someone assume you were writing about, say, your own failed marriage, when in fact you were merely exploring what could be, or what might have been?

What about personas in your poems? Have you breathed life into a literary figure from the past, a historic personage, or even a character you made up?

To read more about the idea of persona poems, please visit my column at read write poem, “get the lead out, it’s noting really.”