In writing workshops, teens tend toward cliché. Black roses, dripping blood, broken hearts. Poems become places to expose their young wounds in flashes of stock image. Making art is difficult in itself. Making art out of painful experience makes it harder, and reaching for an original image can hurt too much.
Persona is a useful antidote. In a persona poem, the poet takes on the voice of a first-person narrator unlike him or herself. It helps teenagers push themselves into another context, to look beyond whatever they believe they are expected to say.
Years in the high school creative writing classroom have taught me the most helpful introduction to persona for young writers is the nonhuman voice. Yes, we could all start with Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” but starting small helps students get understand a literary term in more depth.
So I narrowed their scope. In the past, I handed out pieces from a collection of oddball miniatures (which I call “the shelf of tiny items”) I’ve gathered over the years and asked the class to write in the voice of the object. In my current position at the youth facility, small objects, especially metal ones aren’t allowed in the classroom. I can’t use paperclips or staples, so a flattened penny or a fragment of beach glass is out of the question.
In the past, I asked students to write in the voice of objects in the classroom or to empty pockets on their desk. My current stripped down, glass-walled classroom, doesn’t have much to offer, pockets are empty, and all their clothes are standardized.
But we all can imagine animals, Alaskan animals, animals from afar, animals of all kinds, so this Friday while I introduced persona, I focused on animal persona poems. We started with dogs. I began by showing this video of Billy Collins approaching the dog in persona:
I followed with a packet of persona poems in the voices of amimals. It included: “Cat in an Empty Apartment” by Wislawa Szymborska, “Golden Retrievals” by Mark Doty, “Hawk Roosting,” by Ted Hughes, “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives” by Phillip Levine. I also used “The Sadness of Puppies” by Barbara Ras, available in her collection Bite Every Sorrow (it’s not available freely online). If your class is more mature than mine, and the use of “slut” in a sestina wouldn’t get you fired, do share Sandra Beasley’s brilliant “The Platypus Speaks.”
We read these aloud to each other, with me asking for volunteers and reading myself when no one was willing.
Together each class made lists of animals to choose from. Our lists were generally Alaska-heavy: owl, sea lion, eagle, wolverine, whale, musk ox, walrus, geese, arctic fox, ringed seal. But some far off animals made an appearance: monkey, giraffe, dung beetle, mongoose, alligator. And when Godzilla and Sasquatch were suggested, I added them.
Then I asked everyone to write in the voice of one of the animals from our list, and reminded them to use the first person “I.” Because modeling is critical for reluctant writers, I write with them. That way, if I need to hush someone who’s disrupting class, I can say, “Please be quiet. I need to concentrate on my writing.”
In addition, I let them choose my topic. I wound up having to write in the voices of a whale, a Sasquatch, a fox, a cow, a trained monkey, and an owl. In one class, I convinced a student who struggles to concentrate to get writing by promising to dedicate a poem in the voice of “a black bear speaking to a Godzilla” to him.
Wearing animal masks helped us find our voices, allowed us to say something we might not say in our everyday voices. One student read a poem in the voice of an eagle that he dedicated to his uncle. He told me his uncle’s grave has an eagle on it. This week I noticed that one student has a notebook that he brings to class only on poetry Friday. I haven’t seen inside it, but I suspect it’s filling up with poems.
Everyone listened to each other. Everyone concentrated. Everyone made words on the page. On a Friday in November nearing the holiday on which only a few of my students will be on pass to visit their families, that’s a good day.
For my friends teaching creative writing, this is a great exercise near the beginning of a class when you’re working to build your workshop community and break cliché. For my literature teacher friends, introduce the term persona, with some of these contemporary poems before you dive into Browning. Your students will love you for it. Please share your suggestions of favorite persona poems featuring voices of animals to use in this exercise. I want to make my list of samples for this exercise a little less canine heavy.
And here’s one more bonus persona poem for you, brought to you by the ever powerful Patricia Smith (you must read Blood Dazzler, if you haven’t yet). No, it’s not an animal poem, it’s one about a job. I also have a packet of persona poems in the voice of characters, including David Wagoner’s “The Arsonist” (not available online), and Denis Johnson’s “Talking Richard Wilson Blues, by Richard Clay Wilson,” but this week we started with animals. Start where your students need to start. You know what poems they need most.
Please comment below and share with your friends teaching poems at all levels.