Writing Persona Poems

Coming from the Greek word for mask, persona poems, also known as dramatic monologues, draw freely in their craft and technique from the genres of playwriting, fiction, and poetry, making them, to my mind, a hybrid-genre form rich with exciting cross-genre possibilities.

Paradoxically, the dramatic monologue, or persona poem, emerges from a tricky welding together of the completely disparate elements of artifice and authenticity. Constructing a first-person character/persona who speaks from the page and engages the readers’ imagination in such a way that disbelief is willingly suspended is, in many respects, a tour-de-force of creative artifice. It relies upon creating a compelling and nuanced character that seemingly speaks naturally and “authentically” from a believable scene/setting/narrative circumstance—all of which are artificial illusions created by and through language and voice. Yet when these elements successfully come together, the dramatic monologue is a powerfully resonant form—one that uncannily captures the interior psychological landscape of a character/speaker.

In many respects, the dramatic monologist dons the linguistic and psychological mask of their speaker much in the way that a skilled actor prepares for an acting role: Think about Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot, being wheel-barrowed about the set throughout the duration of filming, refusing to use any of his limbs other than his left foot. Or think of Canadian actress Tatiana Maslany, in BBC’s Orphan Black chameleon-ing her way through the multiple, diversely distinct characters of the “clone club”—occasionally even engaging in virtuoso acting stunts in which she believably plays one clone impersonating/pretending to be another clone.

The dramatic monologue relies upon the fiction writer’s keen sense of characterization, as well as the dramaturge’s flair for framing narrative tension—creating a dramatic moment that not only reveals the nature of the character/speaker, but also provides the narrative scaffolding around which the character speaks, and which may even prompt the character to speak.

The dramatic monologue is an intimate form. It reveals the interior life of the character, as held in tension with the exterior, public mask. Thus, it is a layering of masks. The writer donning the mask of the speaker of the dramatic monologue, who—as all people do—wears one or more public masks. There is an element of voyeurism in reading/hearing a dramatic monologue—the sense of eavesdropping or spying upon the speaker/character, or secretly reading someone’s personal e-mail. It is a private expression, paradoxically made manifest within the public sphere of the page and/or stage. Strangely, dramatic monologues sometimes become profoundly confessional poems for poets who, behind the protective scrim of the mask, may find themselves revealing something excruciatingly personal about themselves.

Like the novelist, or the method actor, the dramatic monologist must learn everything there is to know about their speaker/character, even though only 10%, at most, will likely appear within the frame of the poem. Speaking from this deep reservoir of details, however, allows the dramatic monologist to understand their speaker/character, and to easily and naturally pull from these details on an as-needed basis, as well as understand the psychological underpinnings about what makes the speaker/character perceive, act, respond, obsess, fear, dream, and desire in the way that they do. The dramatic monologue is a poetic form that frequently benefits from intense research. In my experience of writing dramatic monologues, when I’ve researched and processed enough information and details about my speakers/characters, I find that their voices simply start coming to me, one by one—like tapping into a wi-fi signal.

The craft elements of voice and tone are crucial to creating the linguistic and psychological mask of a dramatic monologue. Voice involves the diction of a particular speaker/character: their word choice, vocabulary, dialect (the special idiom of a specific locality or class), slang, colloquialisms, etc. Tone, however, is the revelation of a speaker/character’s attitude and/or emotional climate, which is fluid, and can shift during the course of a monologue. Tone is subtle, and draws upon the fiction writer’s toolkit of narrative reliability and dialogic subtext. Tone is the magic by which speaker/characters might unconsciously reveal something significant about themselves to the audience—not through the actual words of what they are saying, but how they say it (or don’t say it) through the tonal undercurrents.

For me, the monologue has been a particularly powerful form that I’ve found useful for poems of social activism: poems which privilege the recuperation of potentially silenced voices in lieu of linguistic dexterity or poetic image-making. Drawing upon my Japanese heritage, I’ve written monologues in the fictional voices of Japanese-American internees relocated to Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming during World War II, a Hiroshima Maiden, and fictional survivors of Fukushima, for example. But there is, I feel, an ethics to dramatic monologue writing, too, much as there is an ethics to documentary photography, and I believe the dramatic monologist needs to be particularly careful not to engage in inappropriate (even if well-meaning) acts of cultural appropriation and/or ventriloquism of marginalized voices. How does one know if a story is one’s to tell? I don’t have easy answers for this, even with respect to my own work. I do know that respectful engagement is key, along with scrupulous research, as well as listening for a very long time before allowing your characters to enter the page/stage and begin speaking.

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