On the best days in my classroom, students learn to read novels and primary sources, to critique news and popular culture, to write passionate essays, narratives, and poems. But I would consider myself a failure if my students didn’t also develop an empathetic heart. Teaching empathy, or “social imagination,” as Peter Johnston calls it in The Reading Teacher, encourages students to get inside the head and heart of another human being.
Poetry allows students to inhabit the lives of others, to use their imaginations to humanize the abstractions of poverty, war, racism. It can be an opportunity to create literature vivid enough for the reader—and the writer—to be moved by people and their circumstances: the unaccompanied minors riding trains and crossing deserts from Central America, the children terrorized by bomb blasts shattering the concrete walls of their homes in Gaza, the women and children sewing shirts for U.S. teenagers in Honduras and China and Vietnam, the Yakama fighting coal exports on the Columbia River. I want my students to use poetry to cross the boundaries of race, nationality, class, and gender to find their common humanity with people whose history and literature we study.
I return to the persona poem again and again as an anchor strategy in my classroom. Unlike many poems I use, there isn’t an easy trick that helps students write the poem—a repeating line and a list, an extended metaphor, a model poem providing a road map. This poem leads with heart and imagination, asking students to find that place inside themselves that connects with a moment in history, literature, life—and to imagine another’s world, to value it, to hold it sacred for a moment as a way of bearing witness. This poem demands emotional honesty, intellectual curiosity, poetic craft, and the ability to imagine stepping into someone else’s life at a moment when their life changes.
The poet Patricia Smith described the persona poem in a Torch interview:
There’s got to be some wrinkle in the life of the person you’re writing about. Something they’re angry about. There’s a texture to it. . . . A lot of times, it’s not just the job or whatever. It’s something that’s happened in their life that’s making them talk, that has them angered or sad or about to jump off of a building. You put them in a situation that is interesting.