I Look, I Become: The Seams of Persona

Now seems an apt time to talk about persona. Remarkably, America has recently been talking about how we perform our selves: culturally, racially, gender-wise. How do you know you are a woman? What are the surface markers of race and culture, and how do they relate to the deep, lived experience of those things? These are questions many anthropology and gender-studies professors never thought they would see outside of their classrooms. For writers, they are also design questions: how might we enter another’s consciousness without stealing? Why do we feel moved to write in someone else’s voice?

In many intro creative writing classes, students are asked to write a ‘persona’ poem. I’ve always found this assignment interesting but troubling, because it can so easily decline into minstrelsy and stereotype. It’s seldom clear to students whether it’s an acting exercise (get to know and speak in the voice of a character, put on a mask); or a fiction writing exercise (look closely at someone and introduce them to us). Is it first-person writing or third-person writing? Are we meant to observe or inhabit, to look or become? If the former, how dare we use “I,” the mirror pronoun? And how capable are we, really, of the latter–imagining ourselves as another without caricature?

I recently had a conversation with a friend about Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, now a hazy high school memory for both of us. The novel, about a Chinese couple living in a rural village, is a type of persona writing. Buck, the white American daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, looks closely at the lives of her Chinese characters (who are perhaps her contemporaries, though the novel keeps a sense of folk ahistoricity by providing no real calendar reference). She looks so closely that she may seem to become them, but she has cut herself, and the fact of her observation, out of the frame. Gone is the nineteenth century “I,” the observer/storyteller who seems to be the sole witness as well as the reason a story might be told in the past tense. Observation collapses into enacting; looking crumbles into becoming.

Poetry sometimes suffers from a tension between these acts–we take it for granted that poems describe, that they take a long look. (“Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here,” writes Solmaz Sharif.) But we do not always take it for granted that they imagine. Perhaps due to a greater awareness of cultural identity and appropriation, along with a postmodern idea of what constitutes a self, contemporary persona poems look askance at the wholesale habitation of another’s body or voice, and so some persona becomes more like drag–a knowing costuming, a detailed masking. The more seams show, the better. I think of “Track 5: Summertime,” a poem by Jericho Brown from his first book Please. It’s subtitled “as performed by Janis Joplin,” which immediately turns the traditional, man-behind-the-curtain idea of persona on its head. The ironies only pile up as the poem goes on: a black male poet performing as a white female singer performing, by imitating a black woman’s vocal stylings, a fake black folk song written by a white Jewish man. It’s quintuple drag–or something–but it’s also an embodiment of some essential questions: when does our looking at others get too close? What does our wish to speak in the voice of another reveal about ourselves?

Of course, persona is also often a vehicle for poets to reach into the histories that matter to them and imagine, as a fiction writer would, the thoughts or spoken words of figures who have left scant written records. Tyehimba Jess’s book Leadbelly does this, as does the work of Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and countless others. (It’s no coincidence that black American poets are at the forefront of using persona to plumb forgotten or erased corners of history). Unlike Buck, Jess, in his “biography in poems” of Leadbelly, acknowledges his act of looking by titling many of his poems in the third person–“martha promise receives leadbelly, 1935,” e.g.–even when the poem’s text speaks directly in a character’s voice. The difference in the way Buck and Jess inhabit their characters may be the difference between a white woman writing Chinese lives and a black man writing a black man’s life; it may be the difference between a novel and a biography in poems. But it also seems to me that poetry, like a bare-bones theater where the puppeteers and stagehands are not hidden from the audience, has more room to explore and question the why of writing in other voices; to expose, within the poem itself, the act of looking and imagining. Persona in contemporary poetry tends toward a commedia dell’arte performance: in becoming someone else, we only partially obscure our own faces.

I’ve been thinking of all this as I work on my current project, a collection of poems that borrow from the life and work of Alan Turing. After Turing’s death, his mother Sara set out to write a biography of him. Though she was a non-mathematician, Alan often shared his work with her, and took the time to help her understand complex mathematical ideas like Einstein’s theory of relativity. Sara thought it her duty to represent Alan’s work in the short “guidebook” she was writing, which she considered to be a kind of map for future biographers. She wrote to a number of Alan’s colleagues for summaries of his mathematical papers and anecdotes about his life. Her biography of her son–long out of print and only recently re-released by Cambridge University Press–is part eulogy, part tracing of the development of Alan’s genius, part crash course in the important developments of twentieth century logic.

When I happened upon Sara Turing’s correspondence around the writing of the biography, I felt I’d found what I needed to finish my own project. I imagined a mother, faced with the unnatural task of mourning her own child, surrounded with his papers, many of them mathematical papers she did not fully understand (“I fear I am out of my depth,” she writes in one letter to Alan’s colleague and friend Norman Routledge), trying to piece together a life. I imagined Sara considering childhood drawings she’d saved, diagrams of youthful inventions and crude depictions of landscapes. My research, meant to anchor my poems in fact, gave way to unbridled imagining.

Around the same time, I came across Rhoda Kellogg’s archive of childhood “early graphic expression,” which is to say, doodles. During her career as a psychologist and nursery school teacher, Kellogg collected nearly one million drawings from children between the ages of two and eight. I wrote a poem that imagined Sara Turing looking at a collection of Alan’s childhood work, using Kellogg’s archive for reference, and gave it the title “Sara Turing’s Archive.” When it came time to submit the poem to journals, I had a moment of panic: how dare I imagine myself into the thoughts of a woman I knew very little about? I renamed it for Rhoda Kellogg; suddenly the poem became little more than observation, something that could accompany someone’s clicking through the Kellogg archives. A few weeks later, I switched the title back, and the poem became a work of historical fiction again. That version was later accepted for publication.

Mine is not to question how editors make their decisions. But I felt that by switching back to the original title, I had given the poem back its life, and also acknowledged something important: I had imagined Sara Turing, sitting by a kitchen window, scanning her son’s paper life. Fiction writers perhaps take such imagining for granted, and suspend their disbelief accordingly. But in poetry, a genre where it is often assumed that poets work the way Sharon Olds says she works–“Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you”–wholesale imagining of events, thoughts, people, and places seems to accentuate vulnerability. This vulnerability, most importantly, is to the figure–voice, body, and life–you’ve chosen to inhabit. If you listen to them, they will criticize you while you write. They’ll ask you: why are you doing this? Tell them: I have been looking at you, closely. So closely that others might not know where you end and I begin. But don’t worry, I’ll set them straight. I’ll sign my own name.

Image: Africano, Nicholas. “Flesh, Armor.” 1986. Color lithograph and screenprint on paper with handmade cast paper collage. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

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