AWP 2014—“Another Voice in My Mouth: Persona in Poetry and Prose”

March 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

chinook_salmonA guest blog post by Renée E. D’Aoust

Panelists: Holly M. Wendt, Kathryn Henion, Claire Hero, Deborah Poe, Virginia Shank

In the best introduction I heard at AWP this year, moderator Holly Wendt suggested this panel would think about ways in which “work that puts significant distance between the speaker and the writer” can assist in “reimagin[ing], challeng[ing], and expand[ing] the writer’s or narrator’s persona.” These five writer-teachers think about persona across gender, historical time, and/or language. Practical exercises “to write those other voices well” provide transfer points between the classroom and the writer’s own work.

Why think about persona? Because creating persona helps a writer “get out of her own head space,” according to Virginia Shank. Shank affirms “authenticity comes from specific details” and stresses the effort to get past the student impulse to resist art (or artifice) by insisting, “But that’s what happened!” Teaching students to build a persona between themselves and readers is helpful to get away from that imperative insistence on “what happened.” One can “write as a pop culture figure” or in the “persona of a cartoon character” (for example, Elmer Fudd’s brother) as a concrete (and fun) way to think about language and voice. The suggestion is to “write in another voice, so when you return to your own voice, you will recognize it.”

Kathryn Henion discussed “persona as it relates to multiple narratives with different points of view.” Persona can help move a writer, or student, “outside her comfort zone… to consider, understand, and convey multiple viewpoints.” Henion focuses on the psychology of character through the use of a “rotating third person with a limited point of view.”

Deborah Poe has a beautiful example of “empathy as a feeling into” character. Persona used in this manner weaves compassion through narrative, a sense that persona as “mask/character/role” can help a writer “empathize or feel into this character.” Poe suggests that the creation of persona, or character, can bridge gaps—between the writer and the creation of text, between the reader and the artifact of text. Poe conceives of “empathy as a simultaneous gesture of proximity and distance,” and this compassionate writing can help “move beyond binaries and ethically rendered characters.”

Holly Wendt presented on a character’s grammar and how the issue can undermine rather than support the creative mode when used too freely. (In other words: Establish the way a character talks early on, but don’t use those contractions or apostrophes throughout. Establish the sound early on and then avoid distracting spelling of a character’s language.) Used judiciously, to establish character, the upside of a character’s grammar is that it provides clues to where the character disconnects. Annie Dillard: “One language does not code for another. We must change the way we think.” Wendt thinks of persona as an “exploration into the space between the reader and the writer—a space where persona can be created…. Persona can give the writer objectivity of and from the self.”

For Claire Hero, the second person “you” opens “a relationship between writer and self… that establishes an awareness of audience because of the artificial nature of ‘you’”. According to Hero, “all personas help ask and answer the question: ‘Where does the person fit in the larger world.’” The use of the present tense, and “you,” is useful in creative nonfiction as a means “to explore rather than to emote.” In this construction, the “you” can “privilege exploration over emotion.”

On this panel, we find a “reaching toward empathy,” as Deborah Poe terms it, and “a moment that is lost upon the lyric ‘I’”. Through persona, we explore a “weighted melancholy without risking melancholy.” The writer-teachers provided a handout with excellent examples and exercises for further inquiry. Each provided examples from their own published works and works in progress.

I hope VIDA will take note of the five powerhouse intellects and writers on this panel!

Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press), a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year in memoir. At AWP 2014, she presented on two panels: “Switching Genres Midstream: Finding the Right Match” and “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative.” For more information, please visit:

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