The words really took me aback. I was in the auditorium at Nashville's Hume-Fogg Magnet School, where Collins had accepted an award from the Nashville Public Library. After about an hour reading his poems, he took questions. The first was about persona.
Collins has long been my favorite living American poet, and I have taught his poetry in my high school classes. My favorite is "We Are the Dead," a meditation on a Heaven where every religion meets its apogee, and every belief confronts its eternal application.
In all of his poems, he displays a wry persona: a person who is a viewer, not a doer.
For example, another favorite Collins poem is entitled, "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes." The title alone shows Collins's enlightened irreverence--as if any self-respecting English major would dare to entertain such a thought!
The complexity of women's undergarmentsin nineteenth-century Americais not to be waved off,and I proceeded like a polar explorerthrough clips, clasps, and moorings,catches, straps, and whalebone stays,sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.Later, I wrote in a notebookit was like riding a swan into the night,but, of course, I cannot tell you everything--the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,how her hair tumbled free of its pins,how there were sudden dasheswhenever we spoke.What I can tell you isit was terribly quiet in Amherstthat Sabbath afternoon,nothing but a carriage passing the house,a fly buzzing in a windowpane.So I could plainly hear her inhalewhen I undid the very tophook-and-eye fastener of her corsetand I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,the way some readers sigh when they realizethat Hope has feathers,that Reason is a plank,that Life is a loaded gunthat looks right at you with a yellow eye.
I loved that poem before I had met Collins. I caught the many references to different Dickinson poems. After listening to him read and talk for an hour, I was even convinced that Collins is just as funny in person as he is in his poems.
And then he had to tell me--he told the whole room actually--"I wish I were my persona." The thought just blew my mind. It really got me thinking, and it has taken a month for me to get my thoughts into place for writing it down.
As a writer, I have to admit that I've often struggled with my persona. Writing has always come easy to me, but I have to admit that--other than religious essays and sermons--the other types of writing, short stories, poetry, have been hard to come by. I struggle to master the basic forms of character and plot, yet I come out with stuff that isn't memorable--or worthy of publishing.
That's not to say that I don't know anything about persona. I have a persona named "The Lover" who lives with Jenny George here in my house in Dittessee. This persona can't stop complimenting her, he speaks in a variety of foreign accents. He spontaneously breaks into a song that begins with the line, "I'm in love with a woman..." He engages charming sons in daily battles for Jenny's affections.
"The Lover" isn't me. He is a persona that I'm able to turn on when I'm turned on by my bride. When the kids aren't around, or we're talking about something important, the "real" JD engages with Jenny George. Sometimes, Jenny gets sick of "The Lover" and tells me to knock it off.
When I look at other teachers at my school, I see many who enthusiastically embrace a teaching persona. Mike, a vice principal at my school, roams the halls like a bulldog, glaring at kids who linger. "What do you think you're doing?" he will bark, or "Where are you supposed to be?"
Yet here's the thing about Mike. He's one of the most compassionate, caring administrators I have ever worked with. He genuinely loves the kids at my school, and he makes sacrifices to help them succeed. He has the "hallway" persona down pat, but he has the real Mike, also.
I'm jealous of Mike. I've never mastered the discipline game. I teach straight--as "James Dittes," and I have to put up with a lot of disrespect and silliness that a bulldog-type persona wouldn't see.
I have come close to a teaching persona--and I may just yet adopt one. Last summer, I was encouraged by a friend to set up a Twitter account to promote my magazine sales site, Mags4Kids. On a whim, I chose the Twitter handle, "Father_Ahab." One of the highlights of the semester--for my American Literature students and for me--is the week we spend reading Moby Dick and sailing with Ahab into the jaws of doom. During that week, I get to talk like a pirate (when I read Ahab's lines), I act a little crazy, and the kids really get into it. Then I move into Thoreau and Emerson and quickly shed the persona.
For a few weeks, I had so much fun thinking about Father_Ahab. He was a dad, like me, and he was obsessed with goals--again, like me. I scanned the book, looking for quotes that I could turn into Twitter posts. For example, "Toward thee I roll...Chattanooga, Tennessee," or "Call me sleepy, too many late nights reading Moby Dick!"
While I had fun with the feed, and I added a lot of followers in the first few weeks, it made no sense to my friends. One suggested that I change it to Mags4Kids, and I did. I posted a few items about kids' magazines, then I gave up. I just couldn't think of anything to write. Without a persona, I was wordless.
The more I think about this, the more I wonder if this might be the problem behind my failure to really gain traction as a writer. I need a persona. I mean, just think about the way that Samuel Clemons was able to fill the persona of Mark Twain--the hair, the suit, the sense of wit. He never said, "I wish I were my persona." Maybe that's because Clemons eventually became his.
I think of my favorite author, John Steinbeck, how he was able to embody his outrage and channel it into great literature. Children's books are full of personae: Lemony Snicket, Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, to name a few.
What I need, more than a story to tell, is a persona through whom to tell it. I have a cool pen name that I developed for a manuscript I wrote several years ago. It's Titus James. It's a cool name, a reversal of my first name and the Roman origin of my last name.
Perhaps what I've learned from Billy Collins and from the teachers around me, is that I need to invest some time to develop Titus--get to know him, write through his persona. Either that, or I need to reinvest Father Ahab the Road Warrior or some other persona that embodies and expresses all the ideas that are just ready to burst out of me!