I’ve recently returned from the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association‘s summer writers’ conference 2015. This was the PNWA’s 60th anniversary, so they had quite a large turnout. As usual, the classes were taught by some phenomenal people. This class, “Look Here!” Voice and Persona in Poetry, taught by a resident poet of Seattle named Carolyne Wright, really dug at my soul as a writer and inspired me to delve into the souls of the characters I write about.
I’m sharing my class notes here, in the hope that I can pass that inspiration on to other writers who follow this blog:
In poetry we often think that the “speaker” of a poem is somehow greater than, less than, or equal to the poet. But Wright finds a poem can have a persona of its own.
In Greek, the “persona” referred to the mask worn by the actors in a theater production. The audience could identify the characters from mythology based on this mask and its features. Connect this image with the poem. Think of the poem as the mask. It hides the poet, showing us the face of someone else in all his or her emotional glory.
So when we read a poem, we need to remember that the voice in a poem isn’t always the voice of the poet.
Poems can do what plays do, without actually using dialogue. In poems we have what’s called dramatic monologues. It’s not the same thing as dialogue. Monologue is just one individual’s internal thoughts and ideas being expressed. Dialogue is between two individuals. But monologue helps us explore the inner life of a character.
We, as readers, want to understand, but often are baffled by, what makes other people tick. A writer has the gift to be able to do this exploring through the creation of a poem.
When you read a poem, ask yourself this: if you were reading that poem as part of a play, what would you infer about the character who is saying it?
Wright directed our class to read “Look Here” by Pamela Alexander, and afterwards, we discussed that poem:
In a poem, there are no stage directions, and often no specific information about the setting. But you can imagine these things.
After reading a poem like “Look Here,” we could, as an exercise, write a new poem in the voice of the “she-bear” or the POV of the male to whom the poem is directed.
In poetry, repetition is a strategy for building power in the “speaker” within the poem. Pamela Alexander uses repetition effectively this way.
Next, our class read “Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller.
Here’s a woman poet, writing in the voice of a French impressionist painter who had cataracts, and whose paintings reflect his fuzzy vision. Imagine this poem being written by a novelist who wants to “inhabit” the body of Claude Monet and offer up his reasoning for not having an operation to “correct” his vision.
In doing so, Mueller explores Claude Monet’s understanding of life and the value of life as a blind person.
Next our class read “Mary Poppins II: That’s Ms. Poppins to You” by Allison Joseph.
The voice of Ms. Poppins sounds African American, not British. It’s very obvious, that in the voice of this character, this woman is no Julie Andrews. This nanny points out class differences in this poem. She also demands respect that she’s not getting.
We can always write a reply to the poems or the stories we read. Pay attention to minor characters. What might they say in a poem?
As our class came to a close, we read poems that were replies to each other. They were:
- “Black Stone on a White Stone” by Cesar Vallejo
- “Variations on a Text by Vallejo” by Donald Justice
- “Variations on a Text by Vallejo and Justice” by Carolyne Wright
In conclusion, our teacher, poet Carolyne Wright, offered suggestions to those of us in the audience who consider ourselves more story-writers than poets:
Poetry and prose really blend into one another. For a certain kind of emphasis, for a certain rhetorical effect, you can blend your poetry into the prose you write as a novelist.
In retrospect, now that I’m home and thinking back on the class I took with Carolyne Wright, I realize that I’ve been using poetry to help me create my prose for some time now. In fact, some of the scenes for which I receive the most positive feedback from my beta readers, are those for which I have written poems to help me shape their descriptive elements.