Persona poetry has a long history in literature, but, according to one SIUE College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) professor, there has never been an anthology focusing only on the genre. She has changed this. There will be a public reading in the Morris University Center bookstore of a selection from the anthology on Thursday, February 23rd, from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Stacey Brown, assistant professor of English language and literature, said that she discovered the lack of a persona poetry anthology when she looked for resources on persona poetry for her creative writing classes.
“I was looking around for resources, and I couldn’t believe it because this mode of writing has been around since the 14th century, with Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ as the first example. [Chaucer] wrote in the voices of these various pilgrims on their way to Canterbury,” said Brown. “I think [a persona poetry anthology] was something that no one had ever thought to put together.”
Brown, with help from her co-editor Oliver de la Paz, decided to change this fact and set about creating the first anthology of strictly persona poetry entitled ‘A Face to Meet the Faces: an Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry.’
“The anthology takes its name from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ and that’s one of the most famous persona poems. Poems like that have been anthologized millions of times, but there’s never been a collection of just persona poems. These range from mythological characters to Anna Nicole Smith–it’s really fun. It’s a fun and exciting book,” said Brown.
The process began in 2009, when Brown and de la Paz sent out a call for submissions. Brown said they were soon inundated with persona poems.
“My co-editor, Oliver de la Paz, and I sent out call for submissions in Oct 2009, and we got over 3,000 poems submitted for consideration. So we knew we had tapped into something that was pretty important in the modern poetic landscape,” said Brown. “From those over 3,000 poems, we chose 204 that we felt both encapsulated the literary tradition of persona, and also its possibilities and the ways in which its practiced in contemporary poetics.”
Brown stated that a persona is a character or mask that writers use to explore different perspectives.
“Anytime a poet writes from a perspective that is different from his or her own, it’s called persona,” Brown said.
The anthology does not cover the history of persona poetry. Rather, Brown and de la Paz chose to only use contemporary poems.
“My co-editor and I made the deliberate choice not to try to represent the history of persona but to try to represent persona as it’s practiced right now by the current generation of poets,” said Brown.
The submissions that Brown and de la Paz received spanned the writing skill spectrum. Brown stated that she and de la Paz tried to read as blindly as possible because they wanted to select poems of the merit of the poem, and not necessarily the author’s name. Brown stated that for some of the published submissions, it is the first time being published for the authors. Others have a wealth of experience, including winners and nominees of major literary awards.
“For example, there is a woman named Patricia Smith. She was a finalist for the National Book Award. She’s an African American woman and her poem that we have in the anthology is called ‘Skinhead.’ She wrote it from the perspective of a white, male skinhead. And you would think that it would stereotypical or reductive or one-dimensional. But, it’s really not,” said Brown. “She really tried to inhabit that person’s identity and find reasons for that person’s anger and his sentiment. It comes across as being this amazing act of empathy.”
Brown stated the anthology is divided into thematic chapters such as fairy tales and mythologies, according to the theme and voice of the speaker. Brown and de la Paz also asked each poet to write a 50-word note explaining the persona for each poem and why that poet chose to write from that perspective. Brown stated this gives context to the reader for each poem.
The University of Akron Press published the results of their work this past January, several weeks earlier than the anticipated February 15th publication date. Brown stated the the official book release will happen in Chicago at the end of February, but they are scheduling book readings in Boston, Miami, Atlanta and other cities.
“I think that that for me is that is what is most interesting about persona is that it’s this ultimate act of empathy. It’s putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and writing from that perspective and trying to understand that person’s mind,” said Brown. “I also think it is a really useful tool for writers to get away from themselves because so many of us are tied to our own stories or married to our own material. To write from the perspective of someone else forces us out of of comfort zone and into someone else’s emotional and intellectual space. And, it’s really useful and fun and interesting.”
Filed Under: English Language & Lit