Gregory Currie, a professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, recently argued in the New York Times that we ought not to claim that literature improves us as people, because there is no “compelling evidence that suggests that people are morally or socially better for reading Tolstoy” or other great books.
Actually, there is such evidence. Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories…
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.
The beginning of the Shameless Word-Artist Society is comparable to the beginning of the solar system: a few poets drifting along in the dark of poetic space crossed paths and began gravitating together, around the large, phosphorescent mass that is poetry.
The president of SWAS, Shanalee Smith, founded our group while studying creative writing at the U of A in 2010. She quickly invited as many fellow poets, writers, and dreamers as she could squeeze an e-mail address out of, and the group began meeting on a weekly basis at various cafes and grassy hills on campus.
Since that time, the amount of group members we have has fluctuated: people have moved, graduated, taken up other hobbies. But we still meet weekly to workshop each other’s poetry and fiction in a communion of coffee, tea, and strong language.
The other Shameless Word Artists: Nichole, Aurora, and Amy
And our long-distance artists: Dorian, Bobby, and Kevin