Sometimes one of the most exciting and challenging things you can do as a writer is embody someone or something else in order to tell a story (take on a different persona). Persona poetry is one of the most experimental genres of poetry and (like most poetry) is even more impactful when performed as spoken word. Whether you decide to write from the perspective of a cat, a mailbox, or the voice of your great-great-grandfather, we've got some awesome examples to help spark inspiration! Here are some slam and performance poets who embody their character through gesture, voice, and other forms of body language and delivery.
- "Pigeon Poem" by Jamila Woods; "You know how ladies are / finicky feathers walking around / beaks in the air all offended / like they didn't strut past by burnt cantaloupe / eyes on purpose." In this captivating performance the poet speaks from the voice of a pigeon, changing both her body language and accent while in character. She begins her performance before speaking — pecking her neck towards the microphone similar to the way that pigeons do — her hands kept strictly to her side, embodying the posture of a winged animal. Her natural voice is completely different from the one she uses when in "pigeon-mode" (the pigeon man's accent lives somewhere between Boston and New York). The poet uses her pigeon persona to convey a humorous perspective on modern city life, but also one that takes a serious look at street harassment in urban cities. Through the pigeon's perspective we are also given a peek at the effects of pollution and urban growth on wildlife.
- "Scarecrow" by Thomas Hill; "They don't really need me / When there are things far more frightening being hung in these fields / Not sure if I'm here to protect the crops or the caucuses / Cuz' I can't scare these birds past the stench of lynched flesh / Wrapped in obsidian skin- now all that we know is wind." This poem personifies an inanimate object; the poet speaks from the perspective of a scarecrow who lives on the field of an American plantation. Body language and creative wording are the poet's primary tools in building his persona as a scarecrow: he walks on stage and hangs his arms in a limp "T" shape. The audience is given hints about the speaker as the poet describes his sights, using metaphors and imagery to allude to his identity. This poem is an example of how persona poetry can be used to give an interesting perspective to an important issue like slavery in the United States. When humping into writing persona poetry, it's helpful to start with the question: What would this object say if it could speak?
- "SkinHead" by Patricia Smith; "I am riding the top rung of the perfect face / My face scraped pink and brilliant / I'm your baby, America, your boy / Drunk on my own spit, I am goddam beautiful / And I was born and raised, right here." This award-winning poet's embodiment of one of the most infamous social archetypes gives a powerful and discomforting look at the psyche of white supremacy. She builds her character from the ground up: he introduces himself and speaks about how he ended up disabled and out of work. It is in this way that the poet instills humanity into a villainized perspective. The poet, a black woman and mother, personifies her greatest fear and does so in a way that manages to be both touching and disturbing. The narrative of her character allows for the audience to empathize and understand an evil while holding the climate of the country accountable for its existence. A good exercise following in the spirit of this poem would be to write about an argument that you feel strongly about, from the perspective of the opposing side.
- "Jezebel Revisits the Book of Kings" by Jeanann Verlee; "Women who survive the hate of men / Are named harlot, witch, jezebel / I still hear the dogs / In a different century / They'd have burned me." Persona poetry is super effective read in someone else's voice on paper as well as performed in person. This author's poetry consistently manages to do both of those things impressively. This performance is in the voice of Jezebel, an iconic female character in the Bible ostracized for her femininity. Jezebel has become a taboo, something to be revolted, yet the author uses her poetry as an opportunity to reimagine history and give Jezebel a fair narrative. Her retelling of these events from the perspective of a woman in love corrects the misconceptions perpetuated constantly by society. This poem is written and performed with the energy of Jezebel and is a great example of respecting the legacy and existence of the subject being personified.