Artist Frida Kahlo focused much of her art on the self portrait. As Kahlo herself said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” Her self portraits were often out of the ordinary – Kahlo herself was always an eclectic representation of femininity. But, for example, one of her more famous portraits, “The Little Deer” is of her head painted on the body of a deer riddled with arrows.
So, here is your prompt: write a poem that portrays the self. YOUR self. Borrow from Frida and make your self portrait out of the ordinary, surreal, beautiful, weird. Put flowers in your hair, or paste your head onto the body of an animal. Please share your results!
Ekphrasis is described in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art.” The first time I wrote an ekphrastic poem, Shanalee and I were prompted by our 300 level poetry teacher at the U of A. She asked the entire class to visit our college’s art gallery, which had photography on display at the time. Some people wrote a line or two about several photos that they liked, some wrote about a single picture that really spoke to them.
There are dozens of ways to interpret ekphrasis. When writing an ekphrastic poem, you can choose to acknowledge in the poem that you’re writing about a picture or piece of art. Frank O’Hara, who was a poet and an art critic, does something like this in his poem “Why I Am Not a Painter.” Or, you can choose to write wholly engulfed in the world of the art piece.
Elect a picture, sculpture, painting, or other form of art and write an ekphrastic poem about it. You can use the photograph I’ve included here if it inspires you, or pick one of your own. Please share your results!
The word “Persona” comes from the Latin word for “mask.” To write a persona poem, then, is to wear the mask of an assumed character – to become them, to use the language they would use, to channel their emotions. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” is a classic persona poem, written from the point of view of Homer’s Odysseus after he has returned home from his long voyage at sea. The speaker in the poem conveys various conflicted emotions – an appreciation for finally being home and reassuming the throne, but also an itch for adventure, and a longing for the sea. Tennyson likely utilizes the archetypal character of Odysseus as a guise to reveal his own itch for a return to youth and adventure.
Persona poetry went through a more recent revival in the 1970’s with the poet Ai’s book, Cruelty. Ai is known for writing from the point of view of characters who aren’t archetypal, but are rather underfoot and struggling. Ai writes from a more feminist standpoint (although some of her characters are male), and often touches on the gritty parts of womanhood and personhood – abortions, abuse, sex, poverty.
So, this is the prompt: write a persona poem. Pick a character – one who already exists within the realm of fiction or fairy tales, someone famous, someone that you know, or one that you develop on your own – and write from their point of view. Writing persona poetry is a great exercise for poets of all levels. For young poets who haven’t quite developed their voice, it helps you to practice writing in different voices, to keep in mind the kind of language that you’re using and determine how that language affects the poem. For more experienced writers who already have a voice and style developed, it can help you break out of your box, and give you a chance to write outside of the realm of personal experience.