Thursday, May 12, 2016

Laura Shovan: Writing Persona Poems

Students from The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary
Jacket art © 2016 by Abigail Halpin

              Laura Shovan is back, as promised.

In last week's spotlight interview, Laura revealed the DMC challenge for May is to write a persona poem. While she gave some hints about how to write such a poem, we thought it might be helpful to examine the process in more detail. So today Laura wears not only her verse novelist hat, but also her TLD contributor hat, to share her insights and experience as a poet in the schools.

Laura Shovan's previous posts on Today's Little Ditty include:

Today we'll discover how Laura shares the process of writing persona poems with elementary students and whether she applied the same process in writing her novel-in-verse:

Thank you for inviting me back to Today’s Little Ditty, Michelle. Our DMC Challenge combines elements of ekphrastic poetry—we’re using a visual image of a person as a writing prompt—and one of my favorite forms, the persona poem. You can find a definition of the form HERE. While a portrait poem describes a person, a persona poem is spoken in the voice of that person.

My love of persona poems began in college, when I studied Dramatic Writing. Instead of writing plays, I found myself focusing on monologues. Monologues combine voice (diction, word choice), point of view (the thread of the speaker’s thought process through the piece), and a moment of change or realization. After college, I continued to write these monologues in the form of persona poems.

I enjoy working with students on persona poems for several reasons. The form is great for teaching first person point of view. For some children and teens, it's a stretch to imagine what another person might be thinking about or feeling. Writing a poem is a safe way to wonder about someone else's personality and experiences, and therefore build compassion.

Writing a persona poem does require a lot of imagination, so I like to give students structure as they draft.

Mummy Case of Lady Teshat

Click HERE for more info
and to zoom in on the image.
1. Someone to look at.

The backbone of this writing prompt is simple. I pass around postcards or photographs clipped from newspapers and magazines. Sometimes we have fine art portraits provided by the school's art teacher. Students choose one portrait or card to focus on. Having a concrete visual in front of them provides tangible details to record in the poem.

2. Start with what's real.

I put one image on the screen or board for the group to discuss. The sarcophagus called Mummy Case of Lady Teshat is a favorite.

In looking at the image, I split our discussion into two parts. First, we list the facts – the things we can actually see. There is no guessing allowed. We might point out that the sarcophagus is highly decorated, that there is jewelry on her hair, that the coffin is made of wood. Do we know what's inside? No – we put that kind of imagining aside until we have all our facts written down.

3. Imagine what's not seen.

Once we've exhausted the details of the image, we explore what we think. Now we let our imaginations run wild. Who is the person in the painting or photograph? Where is he going and why? How is he feeling? What might happen next?

When it's time to write, the students who need organization make a t-chart. On one side, they'll write "I see" and list all of the things they observe in the image they chose. The other side of the chart is space for "I imagine."

And that brings me to another type of learning that happens with persona poems. Because we are talking about what we see (the facts) and then imagining what is unseen (what happens next, or the person's feelings), this exercise models the process of writing poetry. Poets take concrete observations and present them in a way that creates emotional impact or some kind of revelation. That's exactly what we do in a persona poem.
Malaika N. was a fifth grader at Swansfield Elementary who used Lady Teshat as her inspiration. Take a look at Malaika’s response to the sarcophagus.

Mummy of Lady Teshat
     by Malaika N.

Mummified lady.
The casket resembles her.
Triangles and designs are all over.
She has dark hair and big eyes.
Inside, she screams to come out.
The gathering anger of 10,000 years
with a powerful kick will set her free.
Now she roams free.
She also roams unseen.
Now she is as weak as a baby bird.
She crumples to the ground.
Her dust finds it way back.
She is forever trapped in what she calls
the box of the afterlife.

The early lines of the poem reflect the “facts” of the image. When the poet allows her imagination to roam, the result is powerful.

Michelle asked me how I used this process to develop the characters in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY. While I didn’t write in response to an image, I did rely on the “Facts” versus “I imagine” structure.

Brianna Holmes
When I came up with the character of Brianna Holmes, I only knew one thing about her: Her family was homeless. A neighbor of mine works with our local school system, providing support to homeless families. [Stay tuned for a forthcoming interview with her neighbor at Laura's blog.]  Because Emerson Elementary is modeled on schools in my area, it was important to include a homeless character.

The “fact” I knew was that motels are a form of temporary housing for homeless families. What I imagined was that a homeless fifth grade girl would want to visit at each of her classmates’ houses, because doing so would help her plan what her own home might be like. With this combination of fact and imagination, I wrote the list poem, “Where They Live.”

       Copyright 2016 Laura Shovan, used by permission of the author.

From there, I continued to imagine how being homeless might affect Brianna’s point of view. I took the stanza in “Where They Live” where Brianna observes her classmates’ closet full of clothes, and imagined that Brianna had a passion for fashion. But because I knew (Fact) her family was struggling, I imagined that Brianna would have to get creative. That is how this character became adept at sewing, embellishing, and making over her clothes. The quality of resourcefulness came to define Brianna’s personality, more so than her homelessness. In fact, the first time we meet Brianna in the book, we learn about her creativity with clothes, not that she is homeless.

    Copyright 2016 Laura Shovan, used by permission of the author.

I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s DMC persona poems. I hope you have fun inhabiting someone else’s voice while you’re writing.

Thank you, Laura, for challenging us to stretch ourselves!

Laura Shovan is former editor for Little Patuxent Review and editor of two poetry anthologies. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt and Stone, won the inaugural Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura works with children as a poet-in-the-schools. The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, her debut novel-in-verse for children, was released last month by Wendy Lamb Books/Random House.

Visit her at Laura

This week we featured poems by
Diane Mayr and Angelique Pacheco.
If you'd like to try your hand at writing a persona poem...

Send it to TodaysLittleDitty (at) gmail (dot) com or use the contact form in the sidebar to the right. Some poems may be published on the blog as daily ditties, but all of them will appear in a wrap-up celebration on Friday, May 27, 2016.

You're welcome to send me the photograph, painting, or other image that inspired your poem as long as I can properly attribute the artist/photographer. Feel free to use your own photographs, works of art in the public domain, or works that fall under a "creative commons" license, but make sure to send me the link for proper copyright attribution.

One lucky participant will win a personalized copy of Laura Shovan's fantastic new verse novel for middle grade readers, THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY.

Thank you to Violet Nesdoly for hosting this week's Poetry Friday roundup.


  1. Thank you for sharing this process, Laura - I can see it has great impact on the students who are learning!

  2. I love using photo prompts. It's liberating not to have to come up with an original idea for a poem! I'm glad to hear it works well with your student poets, Laura.

  3. I agree that having a picture of a person is inspiring, and I've collected older pictures through the years for students to use if they chose. It was always fun to see what they imagined, added to what they saw. I thought Brianna's poem was one of the saddest in your book, but also the sweetest because of the end, Laura. I had a student that had been homeless months before he entered our school, (a private school with many wealthy families). It wasn't easy start, but he did well, knew much about life that so many of the others did not. Thanks for your ideas about writing persona poems!

  4. Thanks so much for this post. I would love to watch Laura interact with students as she guides them while they write. I know I would learn a lot! I can see from this post and her post-List Poem Workshop, how her clear explanations and process help students explore their creativity.

  5. I love "she is weak as a baby bird." Gret job, Malaika! Thanks for these tips, Laura.

  6. LOVE Brianna's voice--it feels so authentic and real.

    Thanks for the wonderful tips, Laura :)

  7. More goodness from the Michelle and Laura dynamic duo! Thank you both! =)

  8. Laura makes it look so easy--and fun! Thanks for these great tips on writing, and for your monthly challenges and hosting interesting guests that give us such useful how-to advice, Michelle.

  9. Thank you for your feedback, everyone. I'm glad that Michelle gave me the opportunity to share one of my favorite poetry workshops.

  10. Thanks for such a detailed description of writing persona poems. The imagination of the inner life is the key to the magic. Brianna is one of my favorite characters because of her resourcefulness and resiliency.

  11. I think this would be good practice for any novelist, prose or poetry. When I'm writing, I imagine I'm the character. I try to suss out all the layers of emotion I'd have, rather than leaving myself confined to one.

    I have a question for Laura. If I want to use a painting to inspire me, and it has more than one person, can I write a persona poem with more than one person -- say different voices in different stanzas. Or is it verboten?

    I might have to do it anyway. But it would add a layer of naughty pleasure if it were breaking a rule. ;-)

    Thanks for taking the time to lay this all out.

    1. Hi, Brenda. Go for it! You might want to play around with the formatting -- even if that's just for yourself. Perhaps indent one voice to separate it from the other. The persona poem doesn't have traditional rules such as a standard meter or rhyme scheme. So, poet's rules!

    2. I tried it, and it was quite fun. Rather too long, though. Michelle excerpted it for posting purposes. Thanks for introducing me to this new form.

  12. I love the student poem and the "School Clothes" one. So fun to see your process of taking it from concrete and observed to unseen and imagined. Thanks, you guys!

  13. I so love this peek into your process, Laura - so layered and thoughtful.

  14. Feeling validated. This is the exact same process I modeled for the 1st and 2nd grade classes I visited recently (we were writing from a photo, not specifically a persona).

    Also -- filing the link to this post to use when we talk about complex characters. I'll be able to introduce that idea at the beginning of the year next year, since this book will be my first read aloud!

    1. Thanks, Mary Lee! I think this "facts" and "imagination" structure is helpful for younger writers in particular. Glad to hear you are using it too.

  15. A nourishing workshopt-thru-TLD-attendance, Michelle & Laura. Appreciations.

    Malaika K. (a poet's name if I ever heard one) had me with
    "Inside, she screams to come out."
    If I read this poem without the student identification, I would have attributed it to an adult. Brava!

    I like how you've enriched the reader's understanding of what life can be like for a child in Brianna's situation & made her a complete character.
    At the risk of writing too much here I love all the characters in THE LAST FIFTH GRADE OF EMERSON ELEMENTARY.

  16. Laura, your post is a treasure for those of us who love to teach youngsters poetry. Thanks for sharing your process. Love the T-frame approach. Malaika is an accomplished port! Lived her persona of Lady Teshat.

  17. Though I loved all the post and Malaika's poem (amazing ending!), my favorite part was learning about the character development of Brianna. Rich post. Thanks, Laura, and thanks, Michelle, for opening your blog to her. Sorry I'm late to the commenting - incredibly busy week!