About Persona Poems
Persona poems are poems that are written in a voice other than that of the author, where the author pretends to be someone else. The first one I wrote was in response to a poetry writing exercise. The next one that I recall writing ended up in “Lifelines.” Since then, I’ve created two imaginary poets as part of the science fiction novels I’m writing, and written at least 30 poems by each of them.
Writing a persona poems involves getting inside the head of the narrator (or in my case, the supposed author of the poems). It’s kind of like acting a part in a play, except that the writer is creating their own dialogue.
A Well-known Persona Poem
Here is a persona poem by Gwendolyn Brooks, one of my favorite poets.The young girl’s voice, her longing, and her desire to be bad come through so clearly.
Notice the pattern of two unrhymed lines followed by two lines with end rhymes, and how in the final stanza both pairs of lines rhyme.
a song in the front yard
By Gwendolyn Brooks
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.
Creating a poet — or two
In the course of writing my science fiction series, Novels of Aleyne, One thing that surprised me in creating the two poets and writing in their voices was the ease with which I slipped inside their heads. The first poet I created, Raketh Namar, namesake of the main character in my novel Relocated was supposed to live and write 5,000 years before the action in the novel and was the author of one of the most sacred texts of my aliens, the Aleynis. I don’t usually write prayers or write about spiritual subjects, yet I found myself writing them without difficulty. Later, I created another poet, Constance Trusdatter, a very political poet who lives and writes about 100 years before the action of Broken Bonds, the second book in the series. I don’t usually write much about politics, yet a good number of Constance’s poems are strongly worded poems about this very subject.
I am a way-back science fiction fan, but until November, 2010, I had never
written a science fiction story. The
This is the cover for my poetry collection, Sand in the desert. I wrote the poems to go long with Relocated, which I wrote for 2010 National Novel Writing Month, or NaNo.
Around September or October of 2010 I decided I would simply go for it and write a science fiction novel for NaNo. I started with the world-building: the planet, the aliens, the Terran Federation, the aliens’ society, values, arts, politics (or lack thereof). I’d been mulling over several things for years: a society based on personal responsibility, and one where the “normal” relationships contained multiple partners and included same-sex relationships. I continued happily outlining the society and the people. I noted down about a page about the plot, including the main character, his father, and a couple of others. I decided to write a YA/MG sci fi novel.
To make the plot work, I needed my aliens to be distinctive but close to human in appearance. I gave them wider hands and feet, no body hair, and heads that were more oval than ours. I also needed them to have skin color that could be found here on earth, yet still be distinctive, so for this and a number of other reasons, one of them being that I was damned sick of the good guys always being white, I made my aliens, my main character, and his father Black.
I also wanted to participate in Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides November Chapbook challenge, so I conceived of a poet to tie the two together. One of my alien characters is a scholar, and my main character ends up studying the poems of my imaginary poet. Raketh Namar, the author of the poems, exists in the universe of the novel some five thousand years before the action of the book on planet Aleyne. Raketh Namar, the poet, was the author of one of the most sacred texts of my aliens, the Aleynis. I don’t usually write prayers or write about spiritual subjects, yet I found myself writing them without difficulty. Raketh Frey, the main character in the novel, studies these poems during the course of the action. Eight of the poems, noted in the acknowledgments, appear in the book.
In the universe of the novel, this collection of poems was translated into English Common Speech by two of the other characters in the novel, Ardaval Namar and Gavin Frey, the father of my main character, Raketh Frey. Aleynis do not translate their sacred texts, and this translation is therefore unusual.
Having written the poems, I wanted to put together the collection and publish it, but having dilly-dallied for some time, I decided to self-publish. The cover, designed by Karen Cioffi, and Michele Graf edited the collection, including some valuable suggestions about the order of the poems.
Here is one of the poems:
Ode to My Father
When I was very small child
he was as tall
as the stars.
When I was boy-high
he had shrunk
to the height of a large tree
When I became a man,
he shrank to the size
of a fist.
When I became a father,
he rose again.
His head touched the sky.
Now he is gone.
I take my small son
and point heavenward.
“There is your grandfather.”
Here’s an exercise that you might want to try:
Left as an Exercise for the Reader
Read up on a famous figure (living or dead) (or use someone you know) whose personality is completely different from your own. Write a poem from that person’s perspective about an important event or series of events that shaped who he or she was.