As poets, we generally want to write and to make our art from our authentic self, from the inner space we perceive to be a unified center. We speak of finding our “voice,” a single authority that represents the true version of us.
Even a brief look at our own personal mythology, however, reveals that we see the world from many points of view, and on a daily level we can present ourselves quite differently according to who’s in the same room with us. This presents some exciting possibilities for our writing, if we’re willing to give ourselves – each of our selves – some room to speak.
Think of the differences in how you communicate to a parent and to a coworker, or to a spouse. Think of how you speak to your in-laws, your best friend, your dog. Not only do our manners and mannerisms change, but our body language, our vocabulary, our tone of voice differ depending on who we’re interacting with. (For example, when I’m on the phone with my grandmother my posture is straighter, I pace, I laugh more, I enunciate clearly and I’m careful to never slip and use the f-word. I pretend I am a “better,” gentler and kinder person than I am. I act like a “good granddaughter” these days.)
Psychology calls these different roles we assume “personae,” plural of “persona,” which comes from an old word for an actor’s mask. Basically, they are the roles and personalities that you allow other people to see — they help us filter ourselves according to what’s socially and psychologically important and acceptable from one encounter to the next. (When I get off the phone being nice for my grandmother, I then have a somewhat authoritarian training session with my dog. When my husband comes home, I immediately become a shrew, complaining to this nice man about trying to write a poetry prompt through a bad headache.)
Sometimes a persona can hinder us, especially if we don’t evolve it or shed it when it’s outgrown – think of an adult woman who never grows up out from under the tyranny of an overbearing mother, or from being a “daddy’s girl.” Alternately, when we are forced into a new role in our lives that we aren’t comfortable with, we may put on personae as stereotypes – such as someone promoted into a new role as a manager over others, who emulates all the best and worst behaviors of other “boss” types that may or may not be useful to her.
Think of the masks you wear. Maybe like me, you’ve recently worn the masks of student and teacher, daughter-in-law, sister and stepsister, wife, coworker, boss, voter, dog trainer, poet, scientist, good granddaughter (or bad granddaughter). Keep in mind that your personae may have subtle or profound differences, and many will contradict each other. Consider your current spiritual persona, your erotic persona. Your public faces and your more private ones. Perhaps you are outwardly religious, but inside there is a doubter.
Next, think of some more masks that you once wore but don’t any more. Perhaps you’re no longer someone’s daughter or husband; perhaps you’ve retired out of a career. Maybe you were once athletic, or Catholic, or a violinist. Maybe you’ve shed a bad habit or an addiction.
Now think of masks that you’ve never worn, whether or not you’re ever likely to: widow, servant, coal miner, empress, mixed martial artist, sculptor. Consider masks of the opposite gender: daughter if you’re a male, son if you’re female.
The meeting of personalities is like the contact of chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. – Carl Jung
The persona poem is an established form and a rightfully popular prompt, one I’ve seen many times on poem-a-day sites. Today’s exercise is a little different than those you may have worked with before.
Rather than the traditional “don someone else’s mask and write a poem from someone else’s point of view” approach, write today’s poem in three parts, working with your own masks.
Try one of the following formats or invent your own combination – I’m a big fan of the triptych and we’ll come back to this form at least once more before April is done.
* Write about the past, present and future of a single persona – how has it evolved through time? how would you like to see it change?
* Put three personae at odds with each other into the same poetic “room” and let them argue it out – we are not always in agreement with ourselves.
* Try writing about how three people see you in the same role, but differently – for example, three views into a “career” persona.
* Mix real and imaginary personae – such as who you are, who you might have been and who you are in your dreams.
* Consider changing the mask you wear for a particular person in your life – what could happen poetically if you were suddenly someone’s caretaker, seducer, confidante or financial advisor?
* If you’re unsatisfied with any of the masks you’re living, can you rewrite them? or bid them farewell?
Surprise yourself. Explore your own feelings and relationships to your various personae, and their relations to each other.