14 May 2012

craft tip monday 5/14: the poetic "i"

The poetic "I": crafting the self in poetry
One of the biggest challenges in my poetry class this semester came when we started to discuss the "poetic I." Many of my students had never considered that the "I" in a poem might not be the author of the poem; neither had they thought about the various uses of the "I" in poetry outside of self-referential writing.

the "I" as other

The "I" in poetry is, in my opinion, one of the greatest gifts to writers of poetry, in that it has the potential to grant us absolute freedom in the "voice" of a poem. When you use the "I", and that "I" is not necessarily the real you, it allows you to step outside of the realm of realism so many poets sometimes get stuck in.

the liberated "I"

At the same time, the "I" in poetry can be liberating even when you are  really the speaker of the poem. That was one of the hardest things for my students to accept ... that the poetic "I" could be anything more than simply autobiographical. Yet when you really engage with your poem's "I", you open a whole new lens into yourself, and can gain invaluable insights into who you are as a poet, and as a person. Using yourself as the "I" of a poem doesn't have to mean exploring only one moment at a time. The combination of selfhoods, of various incarnations of your "I", within one poem can offer deeper insights into the person writing the poem, as well as deeper insights into the person of  the poem. In a way, the poetic "I" is its own word playground.

prompt: the "third-I"

One of the activities I gave my students to do asked them to write a poem in which they explored their selfhoods. I'm going to share the same activity with you. I call this prompt the "third-I" activity (pulled from the philosophical idea of the "third eye", or "inner eye," but in this case focusing not on the esoteric but on the ability to pull various experiences of self into a new understanding of self: two selves combined into one--the third--self); it requires a few quick preparatory actions:
  1. Write a list of your various "selves"--I, for instance, identify with the personhood of a "girl." But I am also a woman. I am a Black woman. I am Black. I am a poet. I am a Black female poet. I am a Christian. Go into as much detail as you can, but also remember to break down the various identities you write: if I write "I am a 26-year-old politically moderate cinephile," I should also have on my list "I am a twenty-something," "I am a moderate," and "I am a cinephile."
  2. Write down a list of important, defining moments in your life. For example, my list has: the day I found out my mom died, my first kiss, the day after my mom's last birthday, meeting Rosemeri, receiving Kendra's wedding invitation, hiking the Appalachian trail, getting lost on the Appalachian trail, running into the vending machine in high school ... etc.
  3. Circle the two  identities that stand out to you the most. For me, they are "Black," because my race has defined many of the major experiences of my life, and "girl" because it "calls out to me" more than the identifiers of "female" or "woman." Jot down a few of the characteristics of those identities, whether they apply to you or not: for example, for "Black" I might write cocoa flavorloud woman,  kinky hair,  afro,  galaxy eyes,  broad nose,  ghetto --- some of those words directly relate to my experience, some do not.
  4. Circle the two  defining moments that stand out to you the most. For me right now, they are "my first kiss" and "getting lost on the Appalachian trail"
Now you're ready to start poeming. Without thinking too much about it, start writing a poem about one of your defining moments through the lens of the other (so, I would write either about getting lost on the trail through the lens of my first kiss, or the kiss through the lens of getting lost). As you write, glance infrequently at the list of identifying characteristics, and begin weaving them into the narrative. You might use them directly (i.e., I might say the boy kissed my cocoa colored skin) or indirectly (i.e., maybe the boy kissed me like a child's lips to a winter's cup of cocoa). As you work, or as you revise, pay attention to where the moments intersect, and how they weave together emotionally; if a pattern stands out to you, or an interesting connection you hadn't noticed before, work on making that connection or patter speak louder in your revisions.

Here's my attempt:

Cocoa tree

I was a girl lost. I was sixteen
or twenty-five tucked deep in
the breath of trees and his burning skin.
The day warmed against my
honeypot skin, deepening
my color, ripening me to ready
to pop.

Getting lost has always been like this.
The kiss of a child’s lips to a winter’s cup
of thick melted chocolate heated with milk
and momma’s love—like the hug
of a soul to an evergreen
when the rest of the world
spins away.

Nobody knows me like those trees knew me.
Nobody knows me like his hand
on the nape of my neck or the curl
of my lip, sycamore deep and growing.
It was six months or ten years of loss and unruling.
I was a girl heavy in his mouth. I was a girl,
but I took root.

Your Turn: How do you feel about the poetic "I"? Do you use the I as self or other in your writing? How has playing with the "I" helped you to discover new connections in your life and experiences and emotions?

Feel free to share your own attempt of the "I" poem in the comments! I'd love to see how your identities and experiences blended a whirled for you.


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Check out these previous Craft Tip Monday posts on Our Lost Jungle:


  1. That is an awesome poem, Khara. Nice technique as well. I'll give this a try when my schedule calms down.


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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