Prompt: Persona Poems

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The Rundown

  • This lesson utilizes work from Hanif Abdurraqib, Fatima Ashgar, and Patricia Smith.

  • Due to its language content, this lesson plan is most appropriate for mature high school students and older.

  • Learning outcomes include

  • Common Core: This lesson plan satisfies: CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5 (ADD MORE)

 

Before launching into a workshop with young writers, it’s worth taking a few minutes to have a conversation about how to discuss a piece of work.

When critiquing a piece of work, the young writer often says something like, “I feel like you are really angry in this poem” or, worse yet, “I don’t agree with what you’re saying here”—based solely on what is being narrated in the piece. This conflation of the writer and the speaker is a classic rookie mistake that’s best to break your students of early.

Because of the medium, fiction writers are often spared this (after all, the very genre implies something made up), but poets, especially poets who write in the first person, are hounded by the assumption their personal voice and the voice(s) in their poems are the same. Poets are so often conflated with the speakers in their poems that I’ve seen even the most seasoned poets issue disclaimers before reading their work to an audience: no, I don’t harbor homicidal tendencies; no I’m not a peeping tom; no, I don’t do drugs, etc etc etc.

The speaker of the poem does not necessarily equal the writer. Of course, often times, writers are in fact speaking autobiographically, but even so, when we discuss work, we don’t assume.

There are few poems that in their performance more accurately convey the fact that the speaker of the poem is NOT NECESSARILY the poet than Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead.”

Chilling in its deft exploration of the psyche of what, to many, is a real-life boogeyman, “Skinhead” takes the idea of walking in another’s shoes and runs with it.

In light of the horrifying Unite the Right rally that happened in Charlottesville in 2017, Dora Malech (a former professor of mine) revisited this old classic; she wrote a truly informative review of this poem in The Kenyon Review.

To quote Malech, “Smith’s poem is powerful on the page, but its embodied force is even more powerful.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patricia Smith is a poet, teacher, and performance artist. She is the author of Incendiary Art (Northwestern University Press, 2017), winner of the 2018 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the 2017 Los Angeles Times Book Award in poetry; Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah (Coffee House Press, 2012), winner of the 2013 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, given for the most outstanding book of poetry published in the United States each year; Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press, 2008), which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award; Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press, 2006), a 2005 National Poetry Series selection; Close to Death (Zoland Books, 1993); Big Towns, Big Talk (Zoland Books, 1992), which won the Carl Sandburg Literary Award; and Life According to Motown (Tía Chucha Press, 1991).

Smith is a four-time individual champion of the National Poetry Slam, a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, and her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, and Best American Mystery Stories. She has written and performed two one-woman plays, one of which was produced by Derek Walcott’s Trinidad Theater Workshop. She received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017.

Smith is a Cave Canem faculty member, teaches in the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College, and is a professor of creative writing at the City University of New York/College of Staten Island. She lives in Howell, New Jersey.

You can read her extended biography on the Academy of American Poets website.


Discussion Questions:

  1. Who is the speaker of the poem? Is it the poet?

  2. What details does the writer employ to make the persona feel alive?

  3. What strikes you as particularly interesting about the voice in the piece?

  4. How does the performance of the poem help or hinder its message?


Persona, like many writing techniques, reaches back before written word. Actors have assumed identities of various characters since the invention of theater. Method Acting, famously used by actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis and are famous for taking the persona to the extreme, becoming the person they are playing as much as possible in their real lives.

Now that your class is fully understands persona, let’s move into some fantastic contemporary examples that break the mold.

 

Example 1: historical or famous people

Hanif Abdurraquib | “Washington Bullets”

This poem isn’t readily available online, so here’s a transcript for you to use in your classroom.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who is the speaker of the poem? Is it the poet?

  2. What details does the writer employ to make the persona feel alive?

  3. What strikes you as particularly interesting about the voice in the piece?

  4. How does the performance of the poem help or hinder its message?

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Hanif Abdurraqib is a poet, essayist, and cultural critic from Columbus, Ohio. His poetry has been published in Muzzle, Vinyl, PEN American, and various other journals. His essays and music criticism have been published in The FADER, PitchforkThe New Yorker, and The New York Times. His first full length poetry collection, The Crown Ain't Worth Much, was released in June 2016 from Button Poetry. It was named a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Book Prize, and was nominated for a Hurston-Wright Legacy Award. His first collection of essays, They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us, was released in winter 2017 by Two Dollar Radio and was named a book of the year by Buzzfeed, Esquire, NPR, Oprah Magazine, Paste, CBC, The Los Angeles Review, Pitchfork, and The Chicago Tribune, among others. He is a Callaloo Creative Writing Fellow, an interviewer at Union Station Magazine, and a poetry editor at Muzzle  Magazine He is a member of the poetry collective Echo Hotel with poet/essayist Eve Ewing. 

His next books are Go Ahead In The Rain, a biography of A Tribe Called Quest due out in 2019 by University of Texas Press, and They Don't Dance No' Mo', due out in 2020 by Random House.

I got to see Hanif Abdurraqib read at Iowa City’s Mission Creek Festival right before They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us blew up. My only regret that year was not getting a copy of his book from the Two Dollar Radio booth and getting it signed, because I probably won’t ever get the opportunity again.


Example 2: Object

Fatimah Asghar | “Pluto Shits on the Universe”

Big as a celestial body or as small as a paper clip, there are many objects in the universe that you can put a voice to. Fatimah Asghar’s viral poem goes to show that in the right hands, any voice can be applied to any object with great success.

You can read this poem on the Poetry Foundation website.


Discussion Questions

  1. Who is the speaker of the poem? Is it the poet?

  2. What details does the writer employ to make the persona feel alive?

  3. What strikes you as particularly interesting about the voice in the piece?

  4. How does the performance of the poem help or hinder its message?


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Fatimah Asghar is a nationally touring poet, screenwriter, educator and performer.  Her work has appeared in many journals, including  POETRY Magazine, Gulf Coast, BuzzFeed Reader, The Margins, The Offing, Academy of American Poets and many others.  Her work has been featured on new outlets like PBS, NPR, Time, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, and others. In 2011 she created a spoken word poetry group in Bosnia and Herzegovina called REFLEKS while on a Fulbright studying theater in post-genocidal countries. She is a member of the Dark Noise Collective and a Kundiman Fellow. Her chapbook After came out on Yes Yes Books fall 2015. She is the writer and co-creator of Brown Girls, an Emmy-Nominated web series that highlights friendships between women of color. In 2017 she was awarded the Ruth Lily and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and was featured on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. Her debut book of poems, If They Come For Us, was released One World/ Random House, August 2018.

If you’re not following Fatimah’s work, you’re doing it wrong. Check out her website.


The Prompt:

  1. Either on your own or together as a class, make a series of lists of the following: historical figures, celebrities (the more controversial, the better), celestial bodies, villains (real or imagined), places (you’ve visited, will never visit, wish to visit), inanimate objects (everyday and extraordinary).

  2. Of the many potentials you’ve assembled, choose one.

  3. Your task is to write from the perspective of that person, place, or thing. If your poem is int the first person, you must indicate who is speaking in the title. If your poem is in the third person (like Hanif Abdurraquib’s), you must introduce the persona early in the poem.


Some things to keep in mind:

  • If you’ve chosen a villain, remember, like the skinhead of Patricia Smith’s poem, the villain is never the villain of their own story. Why they truly are the way they are isn’t as important as the story the villain tells themselves to rationalize their behavior. What will you find there, if you dig deep?

  • Consider tone. Will you be serious or sarcastic? Devastating or ecstatic? Like Fatima Ashgar, feel free to experiment with a tone that seems somewhat inappropriate for your subject matter and see what happens.

  • Invent some facts about your person of choice. In a poem, whether or not Michelle Obama actually likes punk music doesn’t matter; what matters is your ability to say she does with authority.

 

Did you try this prompt in your classroom? Have other fabulous and atypical persona poems to share?

Tell us about it in the comments below.


About the Author

Skylar Alexander is a writer, teacher, and graphic designer living in Iowa City Iowa. She is the assistant director of the Young Emerging Writers Program at the Midwest Writing Center in Rock Island, Illinois. She curates a blog for writers and teachers of writers, Niblets. Her writing has appeared in Smokelong Quartely, Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, and Light Industrial Safety, Hobart, Poetry City, USA, PromptPress, Mantra, and elsewhere. Her first collection is forthcoming from Forklift Books.

 

Hello! I’m Skylar.

I’m a writer, graphic designer, and teacher living in Iowa City, Iowa. Like you, I struggle to keep my writing practice going while juggling many responsibilities. I use    Sit. Write.    to share writing prompts, craft advice, and creativity hacks to help get you creating again.    Teaching? I also share lesson plans for all ages    Need a designer?    Get in touch   .    Learn more about me here.

I’m a writer, graphic designer, and teacher living in Iowa City, Iowa. Like you, I struggle to keep my writing practice going while juggling many responsibilities. I use Sit. Write. to share writing prompts, craft advice, and creativity hacks to help get you creating again.

Teaching? I also share lesson plans for all ages

Need a designer? Get in touch.

Learn more about me here.


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