Thursday, January 14, 2016

Teaching Persona Poetry: Our Big Questions & First Set of Prompts

66º ~ and all the sun

This semester, I'm teaching a topics class on the persona poem, and as I mentioned in a previous post I'm approaching the semester by offering my big-picture questions about persona poetry to the class and gathering theirs as well. In a minute, I'll share that list, as we've now completed three class periods and are moving into the deeper waters of working toward answers. I'll also share the first set of writing prompts I created based on today's reading, which centered on historical personae. But first, I thought I'd share a clip from the syllabus.

**HUGE Shout-out to the students in this class, who are rocking it so far!

Instructor’s Description:

An elective for Creative Writing majors and minors, as well as MFA graduate students, this course will explore the contemporary use of persona as a poetic device. Reading largely from A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, edited by Oliver de la Paz and Stacey Lynn Brown (Akron, 2012), students will delve into the many ways poets use persona today, whether tapping historical and literary allusions, playing with popular culture references, raising political awareness, or branching into the unknown with characters created out of whole cloth. Students will read to discover how masking one’s personal identity offers new opportunities of expression and the class will discuss the risks and responsibilities of the form. Along with readings from the anthology, each student will select a poet working in persona from the last two decades and make a presentation to the class on that poets’ work.

Key to the course, students will be expected to experiment in the form itself by writing their own persona poetry for workshop. Students will draft poems from prompts and free writes, working both inside and outside of class, with instructor mentoring and peer response. At the end of the semester, the class will form their own chapbook anthology of student persona poems.

*The most successful students in this course are enthusiastic, curious, and open-minded.

Our Big Questions

Why did the poet choose persona?

How much can we know about where the poet blends with the character?

Is there any danger in the poet straying from fact, presenting misinformation or otherwise slanting the poem?

What is the poet’s responsibility to TRUTH?

What is the range of distance between the poet and the persona? How do the decisions about distance made by the poet help or hinder EMPATHY?

What is the poet’s responsibility to the persona?

Does it always have to be in 1st person?

Can you really extricate the poet from the persona?

To what degree when using persona does the poet manipulate the audience?

What can a writer do to better put themselves in their character’s shoes?

The subject can be a person or a thing…can it be an abstraction?

What benefits are there for the audience by not viewing the persona as the poet?

What benefits are there for the poet by writing in persona?

Stay in your lane: To what level is writing about other cultures / experiences appropriate?

When writing a poem, the poet might ask “is it necessary?” where the “it” could be genre, form, persona, etc.

Does it matter if we know the poet is from a different ethnicity, gender, geographic region, etc. from the persona?

What is political about the poem? Is the political view of the persona accepted or rejected by society (or some segment of society)?

How much common knowledge (or not so common) does the audience have to know in order to “get” the poem?

How much does the audience have to research to “get” the poem?

How much does the poet owe to any known historical truth about a persona or an event?


Google phrases like “old photographs” “Arkansas historical society” “old family photos” and click on “Images.” If you have a specific time period in mind, you can also search “photographs 1920s Paris” or the like and find something more specific. Pick a person in one of the images and create a poem from their point of view. Incorporate research about the place and time if necessary.

Write a dream/nightmare of an historical persona that incorporates some artifact from that time period.

Take a well-known historical event and retell the account from the point of view of a minor character/participant. How would the telling change from this person’s point of view?

Read the writing (preferably diaries and letters) of an historical figure. Tell about a minor moment in that figure’s life and incorporate some of their own language.

Research an occupation that no longer exists and write about that job from the worker’s point of view.

Write from the point of view of one of your ancestors based on family stories you’ve heard.

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