By Kirry Kaufer

Many writers are daunted by poetry. I used to be one of these writers, too. I used to think poems had to be vulnerable and confessional. However, poetry is different from nonfiction. In a poem, writers can dramatize their memories while remaining true to the authenticity of their experiences. As the poet Billy Collins once said: A poem is a memory that never happened.

Memory shapes who we are. Memory is a multitude of stories which show where we come from and how we approach our current lives. It is more fleeting, but less flexible, than imagination. Each time we reflect on a memory, it changes. We reinterpret them, retell them, and reshape our past experiences to resemble our present more effectively. In writing, a poem should allow for a memory to be recast, reimagined, or to be told in fragments. We can be as vulnerable as we choose if we play with memory as we do in fiction. Memory is an introspective art. It is a tool that explores the human experience, and makes tangibility out of the ephemeral.

In poetry, writers sometimes explore their memories by recasting themselves as a “persona.” Persona poetry is a style of poems in which the writer speaks through an assumed voice to mask their truths. The assumed voice can belong to a character, a historical figure, or another person the writer knows. Using this identity, they relive memory through a new lens. Here is a writing prompt to help you get started, inspired by the writing exercises from Christopher Castellani.

The Prompt:

Make a list of four “firsts” in your life. Then skip to “thirds,” “sixths,” or “lasts,” in order to jump around through memories. Examples may include:

  1. The first time you failed a test
  2. The first time you got a pet
  3. The first time you snuck out from home
  4. The first time you attended a concert
  1. The third time you went on vacation
  2. The last time you hung out with a friend before the friendship ended
  3. The last time you apologized to someone
  4. The last day of your second year in high school

Let the moments marinate in your mind for a few days before writing them down. Try to remember all the details of the memories and recast the identities of all the people. Use a variety of these moments in your poem. Scatter the memories across different lines. See if the finished poem retains its truth, while also being a memory that never happened.

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