Today I wanted to write a spark based on Black History Month. I quickly realized that in some ways, writing a spark to celebrate this occasion would prove difficult because the idea of celebrating one particular culture necessarily excludes others. So the question I needed to answer was this: how can one write an honest poem about Black History Month if one is not black? The answer came to me once I remembered one of my favorite poems, Skinhead, by Patrica Smith. To my joy, I found an interview in Torch in which Smith talks about writing this poem. In the interview, she speaks of the idea of “persona”:
| CFM [Cherryl Floyd-Miller]: Are there ever any scary moments when you’re doing the persona poem and you think that maybe this is you, or that persona has so much in common with you that the distinguishing line is very thin?
PS [Patricia Smith]: Well, one piece was the skinhead poem. The skinhead poem I wrote because when I was living in New England, somebody painted a swastika on Plymouth Rock. And if you’ve ever gone through New England, it’s like, you don’t mess with any of their symbols. They lost their minds. They were looking for this person. They never found the person but the group they thought was responsible was called the White Youth League. It was some Aryan Nation group or something. So I read this interview, and this guy is spewing all this hatred – blacks, Jews, gays, and whatever. I thought, at some point, we started at a common point. He moved in that direction. I moved in another direction. So, I wanted to write a poem that would bring us back to a common area. And so I wrote it, and I thought it was an exercise, and I like it – liked what came out – and I started reading it. Then people would tell me how strange it would be for them to see this skinhead voice come from this black woman, and I thought, oh, I understand that. Then, an accent, some weird accent, started working its way into the poem. I didn’t know where it came from. It’s like … I finally decided the problem with persona is, eventually, if you do it correctly, the poem will begin to tell you how it wants to sound.
So, instead of writing a spark about Black History Month, this time the spark deals with persona. Write a poem using a different persona than your own. It doesn’t have to be a person from another culture; it can be someone of the opposite sex, or even someone much older or younger than yourself. The trick is to let the poem’s character speak through you. Let the poem’s voice out into the world just to see what happens.
To help you with this, I’m including a few poems that are also what I consider great examples of Black History Month as well as poems that speak in a voice different from my own. Enjoy!
Jim Zola Voudoun Tale
Natasha Trethewey Flounder
Gwendolyn Brooks We Real Cool