Saturday, November 04, 2006


At the UW reading, someone from the audience asked me about the characters in poems. I don't feel I gave him a suitable answer to his query. For the life of me, I don't remember the exactly what his question was, but I do remember that it had to do with that juncture in the writing process when you know you need to stop. It blossomed into the "why poetry and why not short story" question.

Here's the thing about character in my poems . . . I never try to resolve their crisis. It would be a difficult thing to do, especially in a single poem. Also, I never feel it's my aim to attempt to resolve a character's crisis at any moment of the poem. Rather, I'm more interested in the context of the crisis and what that context implies about the world of the character.

The other thing about characters in my poems, if there's a 1st person narrator, that narrator is rarely the focus of the poem. Often, the 1st person narrator is describing someone else. I think this is mostly because I don't trust my characters to do an honest job of describing themselves.

Finally, I don't think I have the patience to sustain a scene as a writer, nor do I have the patience to meet the demands of the revision process in fiction. I'd spend far too much time editing one sentence. I use character in poems because 1) I like masks, 2) taking on another POV allows me to toy with perspective 3) both of those things allow me to lie far more than my Catholic guilt would normally allow.


jeannine said...

I'm with you - characters give you a lot of freedom to talk about things in more imaginitive ways. Whenever I talk about "persona poetry" with high school and college kids, they're always, "Oh, you can DO that?"

barbara jane said...

good answers, ollie. thanks for these. persona is sometimes hard to explain, esp. when students-readers-community are generally accustomed to more autobiographical work (or quasi-autobiographical work; i think of bulosan again and the contention that america is in the heart is NOT exactly his life story), which i think, for example, the fil am community gravitates strongly towards. this is something i have been struggling with much as i think about fil am community; re: what you say about masks, which is what persona can be said to be, is there a general distrust (among fil am's or other "ethnic" or "marginalized" communities) for masks, or a general sentiment of the mask's "dishonesty"?

also, re: not resolving characters' crises, i think this is a more "honest" or "sincere" position one can take as a writer/poet, for reasons of difficulty you mention.

Oliver de la Paz said...

My students react strongly when I tell them that America is in the Heart is really a collage of narratives rather than one singular narrative. They immediately say that Bulosan's dishonest with his audience when they receive this information. And I understand why they think that way, especially if they've invested 327 pages of their time with a "character." The thing is, it was necessary for Bulosan to become a figure-head for the labor movement, and so he constructed the persona of Carlos Bulosan to further the cause (students also complain about how didactic the text is). Now, what if Bulosan declared that the story was loosely based on his life, but renamed the character? Would we have the same issues of integrity/honesty?

Are masks dishonest to a reader? I'll tell you what--I didn't become a writer to be honest, though I do have a profound interest in the truth. It's a strategy that some of the best satirists take on: be funny, if you've got something political to say, say it through another character.

And why a mask in poetry? Why not put yourself into the poems? Well, I'll be the first to tell you that any "I" that I put into my poems is a mask. A mask is a pair of tongs you use to get to the thing in the flames.