21 May 2012

craft tip monday 5/21: crafting the poetic character-"i"

The poetic "I": exploring the world through persona poems
Last week, we looked at the use of "I" as the self in poetry; that is, using the "I" to investigate our own selves, our histories, our experiences, and who we really are. This week, I want to shift
the focus to the development of a “character-I” … that is, the “I” as other, or the “I” as a persona in poetry. 

the other “I"

A persona in poetry is essentially crafting a character for the “I” of a poem. If we were talking theatrically, a persona is literally a character played by an actor; the actor adopts the persona of a play’s character, and makes that character his or her own. In poetry, when we write persona poetry, we’re basically
doing the same thing: choosing a character, and speaking through that character’s unique voice. As discussed last week, a persona in poetry allows us to step outside of the real---outside of who we really are---to examine the world through a different perspective. When we write persona poems, we are not writing about another person; we are writing as a different person.

deep into your “I”

Persona poetry may be as close to fiction as some poets ever want to get. Personally, I love fiction--less than, but a close second to, poetry. One of my favorite activities, when I’m working on a novel or a story idea is to get as deep into a character as I can. I’ll use character interviews, mocked-up resumes, report cards, and other personal records to really get to know the characters I’m creating. This past National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), I wrote a series of interviews between two characters, and my head was spinning by the time it was finished because to do so I had to literally switch between two very unique voices!

But when it comes to writing persona poetry, we’re doing much of the same work. To write a persona poem means switching off our own voices, and switching on a voice we’ve created---one that we get to know as we let the poem unfold.

persona-picker prompt

To give a persona poem a try, think of an experience, time period, or lifestyle you would like to explore. For example, I have recently been exploring the experiences of Black Americans from the dawn of slavery to the modern day---this led to poems like the Negro League Baseball poem, “Don’t look back.” Think about what it would be like to live during that particular time, or have that particular experience, or live that particular lifestyle. Do a little research, and begin to develop a character. Get into your character’s head---think about his age, the particular way she walks, the accent or dialect that informs his or her speech patterns, etc. Try to “think” (or even live) as this character for at least an hour … then write your character’s experience on the page in a poem.

Here’s my example (folks who did Robert Lee Brewer’s April PAD Challenge may remember this from Day 29):

Sweet honey chile

Oh chile, the things that could emerge from my folds
could eat you whole. You sittin’ there between my knees
wantin’ warmth like a dip in the womb,
wantin’ back up in me, back up in my bones.

You don’t know the dreams I got for you.
Dreams that’ll chew you up—spit you out—
make our blood as foreign as French soil.

Oh chile—my momma warned me, said
one day I’d be wantin’ to swallow you
back up like a tomb, keep you tucked
here in my knees where both us want you to be. 

Me sittin’ here knowin’
you gotta be free—knowin’ my thigh
gotta make room for some other soul.

Your Turn: Do you ever use a persona in your poems? What moments or experiences have you explored through a created persona in your writing? How has playing with personas in poetry (or fiction) helped you to discover new connections between your life, experiences, and emotions and the rest of the world?

Feel free to share your own attempt of a persona poem in the comments!


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


  1. I've tried personna poems once or twice without much success. Wind up, not in another personna, but writing what (I) expect "someone like that" to be like. Writing myself into a stereotype. Oddly, that happens less in third person.

  2. That's really interesting, Barbara. I have an overly vivid imagination, so I tend to get extremely "wrapped up" in new characters. So once I imagine the person, I almost become the person. But I wonder what a persona poem would look like for you, then, if you wrote as the persona examining yourself--might be a fun experiment! :)


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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