.ode to a writer from paper.
my dear, after this long, how do ever being again?
you’ve refused to remember me. had you not taken notice
of the knot about your finger? your forget-me-not?
now, half of the poem is with me, the other half, somewhere else.
is it even in you, dearest? the other half?
i understand that at times, the poem evades, i do.
is the night thieving you of your dreams, child?
the ones that brought your pen to me? oh, just let them
unravel, won’t you?
am i so naïve in the matter? do i wear
it as an ill-fitting blouse? well, i’ll chalk it up to faux pas.
please, usher that poem out of you,
no need at all for an envelope, no need
for an address. it’s hand to hand with me, love.
it always has been. i’m sure if we try, it will
land in your lap from your mind tomorrow.
i’ll show for you, i promise.
i’ll reinforce your breathing.
i’ll be your proof, so you don’t forget.
now, would you scratch my back for me, darling?
right there, between the margins.
yes, thank you.
Haven’t we all, at some point, wanted to be someone, something, or someplace else? To go on an adventure of some sort or slink away into a fold in time far from the one you are currently in? Persona poems can do that that for you. They are freeing in that you can go about the path of your choice in poem that may otherwise not be practical or may carry heavy consequences.
Wanting to have a persona doesn’t have to be this deep, thankfully. It can be a casual thing, of course. Either way, its a departure from yourself and at times, it’s much needed as life can be overwhelming. I am so thankful that I have a creative outlet for those times. I hope you all have one, as well. Maybe it isn’t so much in the creative vein but more so in the way of gardening, for instance.
Since this is a writing blog, I’ll focus on persona poems:
It seems paradoxical, but writing as someone else—exploring what you don’t know—can prove an excellent method of coming to know yourself as a writer. Using a persona allows a student to temporarily shake loose her devotion to portraying her “true” self and be someone else for a while.
Persona presents a puzzle. It is predicated on artifice, yet persona is also a very intimate form of poetry. In a persona poem, a writer often speaks directly to readers and, in doing so, forges an almost interpersonal relationship with them. It whispers in their ears or grabs them by the shoulders. Read, for example, James Tate’s “The Motorcyclists,” a persona poem written from a female perspective. Though the chatty female speaker initially seems frivolous, beginning the poem with “My cuticles are a mess” and ending with “Honey, can we stop soon? / I really hate to say it but I need a lady’s room,” her apparent superficiality is intercut with surprisingly dark observations:
Do you know that I have never understood what they meant
by “grassy knoll.” It sounds so idyllic, a place to go
to dream your life away, not kill somebody. They
should have called it something like “the grudging notch.”
Moments like these encourage us to rethink our initial assumptions, and upon rereading, we notice other instances in which the speaker points out the potential for first impressions to be false. The new negligee she wears isn’t unique but “a replica / of one Kim Novak wore in some movie or other,” the sweet words of a flirting chiropractor disguise a latent creepiness, and the fixtures in the White House look gold but might be a cheaper brass approximation. Just as the pastoral connotations of the “grassy knoll” belie the national tragedy it references, nothing is quite what it seems. But then, we realize, neither is the speaker. The persona poem can accommodate all sorts of speakers and dramatic situations—what matters is that we treat our subjects as worthy of our regard. If Tate had written this poem with the sole purpose of mocking the speaker, we’d have thought a lot less of the poem and possibly less of Tate. –cited
The Venus Hottentot
Science, science, science!
Everything is beautiful
blown up beneath my glass.
Colors dazzle insect wings.
A drop of water swirls
like marble. Ordinary
crumbs become stalactites
set in perfect angles
of geometry I’d though
impossible. Few will
ever see what I see
through this microscope.
crowd my notebook pages,
and I am moving closer,
close to how these numbers
signify aspects of
will float inside a labeled
picking jar in the Musee
de l’Homme on a shelf
above Broca’s brain:
“The Venus Hottentot.”
Elegant facts await me.
Small things in this world are mine.
There is unexpected sun today
in London, and the clouds that
most days sift into this cage
where I am working have dispersed.
I am a black cutout against
a captive blue sky, pivoting
nude so the paying audience
can view my naked buttocks.
I am called “Venus Hottentot.”
I left Capetown with a promise
of revenue: half the profits
and my passage home: A boon!
Master’s brother proposed the trip;
the magistrate granted me leave.
I would return to my family
a duchess, with watered-silk
dresses and money to grow food,
rouge and powders in glass pots,
silver scissors, a lorgnette,
voile and tulle instead of flax,
cerulean blue instead
of indigo. My brother would
devour sugar studded non-
pareils, pale taffy, damask plums.
That was years ago. London’s
circuses are florid and filthy,
swarming with cabbage-smelling
citizens who stare and query,
“Is it muscle? bone? or fat?”
My neighbor to the left is
The Sapient Pig, “The Only
Scholar of His Race.” He plays
at cards, tells time and fortunes
by scraping his hooves. Behind
me is prince Kar-mi, who arches
like a rubber tree and stares back
at the crowd from under the crook
of his knee. A professional
animal trainer shouts my cues.
There are singing mice here.
“The Ball of Duchess DuBarry”:
In the engraving I lurch
toward the belles dames, mad-eyed, and
they swoon. Men in capes and pince-nez
shield them. Tassels dance at my hips.
In this newspaper lithograph
my buttocks are shown swollen
and luminous as a planet.
Monsieur Cuvier investigates
between my legs, poking, prodding,
sure of his hypothesis.
I half expect him to pull silk
scarves from inside me, paper poppies,
then a rabbit! He complains
at my scent and does not think
I comprehend, but I speak
English. I speak Dutch. I speak
a little French as well, and
languages Monsieur Cuvier
will never know have names.
Now I am bitter and now
I am sick. I eat brown bread,
drink rancid broth. I miss good sun,
miss Mother’s sadza. My stomach
is frequently queasy from mutton
chops, pale potatoes, blood sausage.
I was certain that this would be
better than farm life. I am
the family entrepreneur!
But there are hours in every day
to conjure my imaginary
daughters, in banana skirts
and ostrich-feather fans.
Since my own genitals are public
I have made other parts private.
In my silence I possess
mouth, larynx, brain, in a single
gesture. I rub my hair
with lanolin, and pose in profile
like a painted Nubian
archer, imagining gold leaf
woven through my hair, and diamonds.
Observe the wordless Odalisque.
I have no forgotten my Xhosa
clicks. My flexible tongue
and healthy mouth bewilder
this man with his rotting teeth.
If he were to let me rise up
from his table, I’d spirit
his knives and cut our his black heart,
seal it with science fluid inside
a bell jar, place it on a low
shelf in a white man’s museum
so the whole world could see
it was shriveled and hard,
geometric, deformed, unnatural.
From THE VENUS HOTTENTOT (University Press of Virginia, 1990)
Alexander was born in Harlem, New York City and grew up in Washington, D.C. She is the daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chairman Clifford Alexander, Jr. and Adele (Logan) Alexander, a teacher of African-American women’s history at George Washington University and writer. Her brother Mark C. Alexander was a senior adviser to the Barack Obama presidential campaign and a member of the president-elect’s transition team. After she was born, the family moved to Washington, D.C. She was just a toddler when her parents brought her in March 1963 to the March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King Jr.‘s famous I Have A Dream speech. Alexander recalled that “Politics was in the drinking water at my house”. She also took ballet as a child.
Alexander’s poems, short stories and critical writings have been widely published in such journals and periodicals such as: The Paris Review, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, The Village Voice, The Women’s Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Her play, Diva Studies, which was performed at the Yale School of Drama, garnered her a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship as well as an Illinois Arts Council award.
Her 2005 volume of poetry, “American Sublime” was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize of that year. Alexander is also a scholar of African-American literature and culture and recently published a collection of essays entitled The Black Interior. Alexander received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award in Poetry in 2010.