If you like persona poems, you must go straight away to the current edition of Eye to the Telescope. The whole volume is devoted to persona poems and edited by Jeannine Hall Gailey.
Gailey gives us a great introduction to the persona poem, along with a link to a longer exploration of the form: "The definition of persona poetry is poetry that is told from the first-person perspective of a character who explicitly is not the poet; the word 'persona' is derived from the Latin for 'mask.' I like persona poetry because it allows poets to use a lot of the tools available to fiction writers; it gives poets the permission to use the imagination, to free themselves from the strictures of autobiography. Speculative poets already push the limits of imagination in their work, so this is a uniquely ambitious kind of project. I also like persona poetry because in it, you can choose to retell stories from a different perspective—often a perspective left out of the original story."
Gailey gives readers a wonderful variety of persona poems here. What a treat. You'll find poems by writers whom you likely already know, and you'll probably discover some new poets.
One of my poems appears, "The Gardener's Tale," which tells the story of the first Easter morning from the view of a gardener. It was inspired by the piece of the Easter story where Mary thinks that Jesus is the gardener, which made me think about the fact that there must have been a real gardener and made me wonder what he thought of all the commotion. Scroll all the way through the volume to get to my poem--and enjoy the poems along your way!
I've always wondered if one of the dangers of writing persona poems comes from the reader not knowing the original text to which the persona poem alludes. As I read my poem this morning, I wondered if people who knew nothing of the Easter story would still like my poem. I hope so.
Many of the poems in this volume of Eye to the Telescope allude to narratives unfamiliar to me. Will I do the research to discover the originating text? Honestly, probably not. But I still enjoyed what I read.
At least in this age of Google and other search engines, it should be easy to get more information, should a reader desire it. I'd still prefer a notes section, but I'm lazy that way.
What I'd really like is a section where poets talk about their writing process. How did they choose the approach they did? If they're writing about a minor character in a work, why that character instead of others?
I don't offer the two paragraphs above as criticism. I could come up with several valid reasons for excluding a notes section. I know that many writers and scholars would tell us that having writers explain risks having too much explanation. Plenty of people would tell us that the poems should stand on their own. And I know that having writers talk about their writing processes really takes us in a different direction.
This morning, as I was reading the poems, I got an idea for a different persona poem. What would Nellie Olsen say if she got a chance to remember Laura Ingalls Wilder and that time on the prairie as a grown up? I know that the woman who played the character on television has written a memoir, which I plan to read. But I think I'll write the poem first.
I love writing persona poetry especially if I'm ever tired or feeling like I have no ideas. When feeling that way, I'll often turn to it before I turn to any other type of poetry. I often feel like a huge part of the work is done, but my brain can still go in ways that surprise me.
I've found that my students often feel the same way. I've had great luck with teaching persona poems in classrooms of all sorts, from the poetry workshop to the Intro to Lit class to Composition classes. If Winter leaves you feeling uninspired as a teacher, see if a persona poem interlude might not recharge your classes.
And if you're in need of a boost, read through this wide-ranging variety of persona poems and let your mind play with possibilities of your own.
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