Thursday, September 24, 2009

Persona Poetry Class

The last time I posted I hadn't yet had my first persona poetry class with Camille Dungy. Four weeks later I've now had the class three times (it's on Mondays so no class on Labor Day) and wanted to share with everyone what the experience has been like so far.

In a word: amazing!

In more words: challenging, thought-provoking, paradigm-shifting, and at times teeth-gnashingly difficult...

Ok, enough with the adjectives, let's get to the concrete details.

In Professor Dungy's persona class we read approximately one poetry book per week (between holidays and furlough days we miss four class and for some of the 'hard' books we get an extra week). Each week when we have a book due, in addition to coming to class ready to discuss the books, we bring a persona poem written in response to the book and a one page single spaced essay on what techniques of the poet we just read we utilized in our response poem.

I love the homework format. I'm learning so much more about poetry techniques from this class than I've learned from literature classes in the past because as much as I love discussing the themes of a work or its tone and metaphors, in lit classes you often don't get down to the nitty gritty of how a poet is making you react the way you do to their work. To do the homework in this class, not only do you have to think about what the poet's doing and how they're doing it, but you have to do it yourself and then put into words what you just did. I really feel like I'm communing with the poets I'm reading, getting at their writing processes, and constructing hypotheses on why they've made the choices they've made. I've never felt this close to a poet whose work I'd just met a week before. It's uncanny how much craft information I'm internalizing and I feel like it's already having a tangible effect on my ability to view the choices I make in my own work more objectively.

Here's our reading list for the semester:

The Wild Iris by Louise Gluck
What Was Lost by Herbert Morris
Cooling Board by Mitchell Douglass
Winners Have Yet to Be Announced by Ed Pavlic
Zong by NourbeSe Philip
Dance, Dance Revolution by Cathy Park Hong
Master Letters by Lucie Brock-Broido
MacNolia by Van Jordan

The hard part about each week's assignment is figuring out how to respond to the poet without trying to imitate them. To be honest on the first book, Wild Iris I wasn't sure how else to respond. Some part of me needed to write a poem that Louise Gluck could have written, and when I got the poem back Camille said I'd done a really good job of writing a Gluck poem. Then we read Herbert Morris who writes epic poems with a level of historical knowledge I don't possess and can't pretend to. I confessed to Camille that I'd been unable to imitate the poet and she told me it was not required, that she just wanted us to think about the poet's techniques and let some aspect of their writing be a jumping off point for our own experimentation. For Cooling Board I want to write a poem in my own voice with a twist rather than a poem that doesn't quite manage to be a Mitchell Douglass poem. I guess it's hard because I get so perfectionistic about the assignments and tell myself that sounding less like the author is lazy in some way, too easy. But I think I'll actually get more out of the class (not that I'm not already getting a lot out of it) if I can take off my literary figure kabuki masks. It's kind of ironic that I think of it in that way since the word persona was apparently derived from the Greek word for mask.


  1. Keely - This is very similar to how we are approaching poetry workshop. I also love the format of responding to a book both in prose and in a poem. It sounds like a great class!

  2. Ooooh, you get to do a lot of reading which is great. I love how this class is set up. I think I've written some of my best work from trying to feed off of what another poet was doing so it would be great to get exposure to so many different poets and to be pushed to do that. Cheers to SFSU/Camille Dungy for that class!

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Was unclear, so lemme try this over:

    What a pleasant surprise. Mitch is a fellow Affrilachian poet, and that collection is awesome. Actually a few of us write persona poems. If you find yourself drawn to that sort of aesthetic, you really ought to check out Frank X. Walker's York poems (When Winter Come is his newest).

  5. That is a fantastic idea :) I wrote a poem after Elizabeth Bishop at the request of one of my MFA professors and I love that poem even though, after revision, you would never know it was after Bishop.

    MacNolia is AMAZING! btw and I also found Dance Dance Revolution fascinating. I studied with Cathy Park in my last MFA semester :)

  6. Emily,
    What books had your workshop been responding to?

    I love Camille Dungy's teaching style. I will likely look for her name on the class schedule next semester and see if I can't get another class with her.

    Honestly I didn't know I was reading an Affrilachian poet before you said something. I hadn't heard of the aesthetic before. Found your group's website: and was reading some of the other poets, really amazing work. Your poem, The Tree was really beautiful. Will definitely check out more of Affrilachian poets in the future.

    I've read some other stuff by Van Jordon, so really looking for to MacNolia. Haven't read Cathy Park yet, but it's a great title for a book. :-)

  7. Kelly - we're focusing on chapbooks, so we're reading a LOT of them. So far I've read chapbooks by Jeffrey Harrison, Kathleen Aguero, Elizabeth Alexander & Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon (this is a super cool collaborative chapbook called "Poems in Conversation"), Elisa Garza, Aaron Smith, Stanley Kunitz, Tony Hoagland, Martha Collins, and Miriam Goodman. Some big names and some not-so-big names.

  8. Oops, sorry, Keely. I typoed your name. I'm sorry!

  9. Emily - Cool, didn't realize the class you were reading chapbooks in and the class you were writing response poems for were the same class. Thanks for sharing. I've only heard of Stanley Kunz. Will have to look up some of the other names.


Related Posts with Thumbnails