Our last guest post of the 2014-15 academic year comes to us from Brent Newsom, author of the wonderful new poetry collection Love’s Labors (CavanKerry Press). I asked Brent if he’d be willing to contribute something about his book or writing process, knowing that writing about one’s own work can be awkward and challenging. Brent responded with this substantial and timely discussion of persona poetry and its relationship to empathy and hospitality, for which I’m deeply grateful. I hope you will be, too.
In her 1999 book Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Christine D. Pohl draws attention to a practice with a long history in the Christian church, but one whose theological significance and practical application had been, at the time of Pohl’s writing, largely lost. Pohl is not talking about hospitality of the Martha Stewart or Real Simple variety, in which we arrange memorable dinner parties or festive holiday gatherings for family and friends. Hospitality, as practiced by early Christians and monastics, goes beyond such ties. The hospitality Pohl describes is extended to the stranger, to the “other,” to those who are marginalized or in some way excluded from community. “This focus,” Pohl writes, “did not diminish the value of hospitality to family and friends; rather, it broadened the practice so that the close relations formed by table fellowship and conversation could be extended to the most vulnerable” (Pohl 6).
Such acts of hospitality subvert the commodification of relationships based on mutual exchange—a way of thinking that easily creeps into all our thoughts and habits, one in which other people matter more to me when they can do something for me. Pohl offers an alternative vision of human relationships:
When we offer hospitality to strangers, we welcome them into a place to which we are somehow connected—a space that has meaning and value to us. This is often our home, but it also includes church, community, nation, and various other institutions. In hospitality, the stranger is welcomed into a safe, personal, and comfortable place, a place of respect and acceptance and friendship. Even if only briefly, the stranger is included in a life-giving and life-sustaining network of relations. Such welcome involves attentive listening and a mutual sharing of lives and life stories. It requires an openness of heart, a willingness to make one’s life visible to others, and a generosity of time and resources. (Pohl 13).
Pohl’s book helped renew a conversation about this ancient practice and its contemporary relevance in Christian circles, a discussion I came to late, only in the last year or two. As a writer, I’ve considered how Pohl’s description of hospitable relationships might tie in to the imaginative life, specifically to the writing of fiction and poetry. And as I’ve pondered these things, I can’t help thinking that what Pohl describes—“attentive listening,” “openness of heart”—shares an awful lot with one of my favorite forms of poetry, the dramatic monologue or “persona poem.”
Writing a persona poem—in which the poem’s speaker is a character (whether invented or taken from history or myth or pop culture or wherever) distinctly different from the poet herself—is an act of empathetic imagination. The poet must, as best she can, don another’s consciousness, try on another’s experience, speak with another’s voice. I tried to do this a number of times in my book Love’s Labors, with poems written from the perspectives of a grandmother recently widowed; of a womanizing, alcoholic auto mechanic; of a veteran home from the war in Iraq; of a pastor’s wife who struggles with doubt. I’m not blind to the dangers of such ventriloquism, to the political sensitivities of speaking for someone else, especially from the privileged vantage point of a white man. Literary history is rife with examples of misrepresentation or appropriation of what literary critic and cultural theorist Edward Said called “the Other.” And I can’t judge how well I succeeded at avoiding such pitfalls.
The experience of writing those poems, however, felt like an imaginative version of the hospitality Pohl describes—a process of attentive listening, of opening myself to another’s world, of offering respect and dignity and friendship and acceptance. In the introduction to their anthology A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, Stacey Lynn Brown and Oliver de la Paz discuss the empathy inherent in the dramatic monologue. “Truly inhabiting the consciousness of someone else heightens our own and makes us more aware of our own predispositions, prejudices, and predilections,” they write. “And in this world of fracture and fragmentation, where ignorance and prejudice and bigotry and hatred threaten to rip apart the very fabric of our humanity, empathy remains one of the most important tools we have to help us realign ourselves with each other and rediscover what it is we have in common, what binds us together rather than what separates” (Brown and de la Paz 6).
Brown, Stacey Lynn and Oliver de la Paz, eds. A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Akron: U of Akron P, 2012. Print.
Pohl, Christine D. Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999. Print.
About the author:
A native of southwest Louisiana, Brent Newsom lives in Oklahoma with his wife and two children. His poems have appeared in journals such as The Southern Review, The Hopkins Review, PANK, Cave Wall, and Birmingham Poetry Review, as well as several anthologies. He holds an MA from Louisiana State University and a PhD from Texas Tech. He is Assistant Professor of English at Oklahoma Baptist University.