Breaking Through: In Praise of Persona Poetry

September 19, 2022

This is a guest post by Maria McLeod.

One way to break through the parameters our personal identities impose upon us is through writing persona poetry. Of course, when a poet invokes the “I,” the vast majority of poetry readers assume the “I” is the author, a prepackaged identity. On one hand, the illusion of autobiography might make readers more interested in sticking with the poem — voyeurism piquing curiosity — but on the other hand (the one I write with), I’d rather be recognized for my skills as a writer than to be confused with the characters I create. Wouldn’t you?

Aligning the “I” with the author took root during a poetic movement that came to be known as confessionalism, which marked a shift in what was deemed acceptable in poetry, to take on subjects that seemed personal, intimate, and tied to the events of the poet’s life. But this impulse to examine a narrative for what it revealed of the writer’s autobiography (or, by extension, their psychological state) did not give equal recognition to the art of generating poetic personas. Because, of course, once we put pen to page and invoke the I, we are creating and composing a version of a self. The truth of the “I” of the poem becomes a slippery fish.

This matter of identity leads me to recall a former creative writing instructor’s refrain: content dictates form. Similarly, the identities we construct, and the voices from which we speak, are necessitated by the stories we choose to tell. “I” might wear a mini skirt or hip waders, carry a hatchet or rest a baby on my right hip. Or, like Mary Poppins, I might open my umbrella, leap from a rooftop, and fly through the night sky. In poetry, anyone is made possible.

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Maria adds: “The persona poet I admire so much is Ai, whom I had the good fortune to dine with one evening when she came to visit Pittsburgh. Here is a link to more than a few of her poems posted by the Poetry Foundation.”

Read one of Maria McLeod’s persona poems, “Ghosts of Those,” in The Penn Review.

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Maria McLeod is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Mother Want, winner of WaterSedge Chapbook Contest, judged by Kim Stafford, and Skin. Hair. Bones., published by Finishing Line Press. She’s also won the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, judged by Denise Duhamel, and the Robert J. DeMott Short Prose Prize, judged by Thisbe Nissen. Listen to Maria’s writing discussed by the editors of Painted Bride Quarterly on their Slush Pile Podcast, Episode 103, and hear McLeod read and discuss her work on Sound Poetry, Radio Tacoma, interviewed by David Gilmour. In addition to writing creatively, McLeod serves as a professor of journalism for Western Washington University.

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Maria McLeod photo by Stephen S. Howie
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