We recently talked to Emily Rose Cole. She just released her new chapbook composed of persona poems, Love & a Loaded Gun, from Minerva Rising Press. One of the poems from the book, "Persephone Returns," was first published in The Pinch 37.1 (as "Self-Portrait of Persephone Returning").
Keep reading for Emily's fascinating discussion of persona poems, the publishing process, and her own personal connection to Judy Garland.
This book is made up entirely of persona poems. Why did you choose this form?
Working in persona was the key to “finding my voice” in poetry. Ironically, my voice is clearest when spoken from the mouths of other people, and as soon as I learned to lean into that tendency, the whole world opened up. I love persona because it allows me to reflect on my own trials and tribulations from the perspective of another person. A question I used to ask myself in choosing a persona was “how is this other person like me” but more recently I’ve inverted that question to “how am I like them?” Empathy is the most important tool for my writing, and I’ve found no more effective way to explore the connections between myself and other people than to inhabit someone else’s voice.
All the voices in the collection are female-identifying people, and writing these poems challenged me (and, I hope, my readers) to re-think women’s roles in the familiar narratives that most people know. Often, even the most famous women are passive agents in their own stories: Leda is raped, Persephone is kidnapped, Rapunzel is rescued, and on and on. I wanted this collection to re-center these women’s agency and give them a chance to reclaim their narratives, and that meant letting them speak in their own, proud voices.
What was the process like in publishing a chapbook?
I didn’t originally set out to write an all-female collection, I just happen to find women’s stories compelling and, in the larger context of literature, such stories are woefully underrepresented. Because persona poems generally seek to show us sides of characters who are often misunderstood, female voices from myth and popular culture were a natural fit for the form. So I wrote poem after poem and, after a few years, I discovered that there were enough female-centered poems to make up a chapbook. I actually defended a version of the manuscript as part of the thesis for my MFA at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and got a lot of helpful feedback on it from my peers and advisors there.
After I had about 20 pages of poems (20 pages in MS word, that is! The little tiny chapbook 32 pages), I did some research about chapbook presses and curated a list of contests to send to. After many rejections (and one finalist nod!), I was thrilled to win Minerva Rising’s chapbook contest 2016. They did such a beautiful job with the book!
My long-term goal is to repurpose many of the poems that appear in the chapbook into a full-length persona manuscript (one which will include both men’s and women’s voices), but that goal is still far on the horizon. The potential full-length manuscript is more a side project right now.
“Persephone Returns” functions as both a self-portrait and a persona poem. What do you see as the difference between the two? How do you choose when to use which form?
“Persephone Returns” was actually written as a self-portrait (in The Pinch, the poem appears under the title “Self-Portrait as Persephone Returning,” which was its original title). The line between persona and self-portrait is thin, but important. The poet Lisa Russ Spaar has a great essay called “Thoughts on Poetic Self-Portraiture” in which she informs us that self- portrait poems as a “self-conscious literary entity” weren’t really popularized until after 1975, when John Ashbery published Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, after which their popularity exploded. But artists have been invoking self-portrait for centuries, and poets are no exception, even if we don’t often admit it as openly as sculptors and painters.
There is almost always an element of self-portrait in poems, especially poems in the lyric mode, and that’s why I think both persona an self-portrait poems are so crucial: to write a persona poem is to consciously inform your audience that you are about to don a mask (fittingly, the word “persona” itself is derived from the Latin for “mask”), but when you write a self-portrait poem, you only partially invoke the persona. The poet holds the mask in her hand but chooses to keep it lifted partway off her face, telling the reader explicitly “I see myself in this person.”
For me, persona and self-portrait are both useful tools for exploring someone else’s perspective, but self-portrait poems are investigations of the self first, and the persona second, whereas persona poems are investigations of the persona first and the self second.
Speaking of that connection between persona and self-portrait, is there a historical or pop culture figure from these poems that you connect to the most? Why?
Oh, that’s such a hard question! I connect to all the women in this book on one level or another, though some of their poetic voices were louder than others. But I think the truest answer is that I relate to Judy Garland the most. I am also a singer, and I was drawn to her since I was a child. In my mind, Judy Garland is also inexorably connected to Dorothy Gale and The Wizard of Oz (as the poem’s references show), but the Judy Garland poem was actually far easier for me to write than its counterpart in Dorothy’s voice.
Singing has always been a very important part of my life (and my poetry, for that matter!) and I have always been fascinated by the ways that singers use their voices to assert their power. Though, historically, her story is ultimately a tragic one, it was important to me to present a narrative in which she could reclaim some of the power I always found so magical about her. That’s why the central image of this poem, the bluebird, functions as a way for Judy to find her voice, despite the initial, unasked-for trauma of having the bird sewn into her throat. In a way, that poem is a statement of purpose for the book.
What are you currently working on writing-wise?
So many things! I’m one of those writers that likes to have a lot of work simmering at once, and I sort of flit from project to project like a distractible hummingbird. I just finished the manuscript for my first poetry collection, which includes self-portrait versions of several of the poems from Love & a Loaded Gun. That narrative arc of that collection focuses on my relationship with my mother before, during, and after a long illness.
My most current project is an investigation of the landscape of northwestern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and its devastation due to hydraulic fracturing. Concurrent to that project, though, I’m still working on more persona poems (most recently a crown of sonnets in the voice of the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz) and one day I hope to have enough work to fill a whole full-length collection of persona work.