The Self-Portrait Poem

by Sierra Nelson

“I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best.” – Frida Kahlo

A time-honored creative writing assignment and artist’s endeavor, the self-portrait is both readily accessible (a rich and varied subject in which you are already an expert) and infinitely challenging (How do you begin? How do you learn to “see” yourself to express what’s actually there? How do you express this in a fresh way? Are you willing to be open to what you find in the process – the details, the vulnerability, the surprise?).

I have had the wonderful opportunity of teaching through WITS’s pilot program at the Seattle Children’s Hospital this past winter – working one-on-one with patients primarily in palliative care to help them make poems and other creative writing. In this unique setting, teaching means tailoring the lesson to suit each student’s interests, abilities, and the improvisation of the moment. I never know with whom I’ll be working on a given day – it could be a kindergartner, it could be a 20-year-old young adult – it could be someone I’ve worked with before, or more likely than not, a day of new beginnings.

When meeting a new student, unless another topic or project immediately presents itself, I often turn to the self-portrait as a place to start. In my (increasingly heavy) bag of potential writing prompts and poems, I keep a packet of self-portrait poems at the ready – different approaches in form and tone, hoping one of them might resonate with this particular writer.

Included in the packet, I have George Ella Lyon’s classic plain-spoken, free-verse poems “Where I’m From” and “Self-Portrait” – from the former, borrowing the power of the list to create a portrait through accrued details and observations of home – from the latter, the liberating use of the 3rd person to create an interesting distance between the writing self and the observed self, and the honesty with which the writing self details the contradictions and even trouble-making of that observed “she.”  (“running away from home on the traintracks,/ painting the doorknobs/ red. // I would really rather not tell / you / about her…”)  Plus the poem’s ending, where the writer invites you to “ask seven stones why/ the creek ran dry, their / voices might remind you of hers” – invites aspiring writers to include questions, and their even more surprising answers, in their own piece.

I also include the Billy Collins poem “Instructions to the Artist” for its sly humor and innovatively playful, visual approach. (“I wish my head to appear perfectly round / and since the canvas should be of epic dimensions, / please trace the circle with a dinner plate / rather than a button or a dime.”)  And I bring “The Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee” by M. Scott Momaday for its startling and vivid imagery from the natural world, its strength of detail, and its fearless use of metaphor. (“I am the glitter of the crust of the snow / I am the long track of the moon in a lake / I am a flame of four colors…”) And I bring a prompt from You Are Entering Your Life: An Anthology of the Patient Voice Project (with example poem by Dan Rowray, “Self-Portrait as Don Quixote”) – “Imagine yourself in a photograph or picture of a landscape.” I like the way the prompt and poem encourage the writer to expand the portrait’s field of vision, introduce the possibility of self-portrait through persona and landscape, and unfold a portrait through action as well as detail. (And then what happens?)

Having a new student write a self-portrait poem has the added benefit of allowing me to get to know him or her more quickly. An initially very shy and quiet student quickly revealed her sense of humor once she decided to model her self-portrait after Collins:

Start with the head.

Make it as funny as you can.

Make my hair look like strings –

and please, no glasses on me!

Make sure my eyes are brown

and cross-eyed.

. . . . . . . . . . .

In the background

make some horses eating,

and put two gerbils on my shoulders

(one brown and one white).

Another student got her creative spark by looking at lines in Momaday’s poem and telling me, “Well, if I was writing that poem, I would say…” Yes – what would you say? And she amazed herself with the poem that emerged that she didn’t think she could write. Sometimes I interviewed, took notes, and then we shaped a self-portrait from those details. A list of favorite things became a list poem of metaphors – you are what you love:

I am Chihuahuas and all puppies.

I am horses running.

I am blue, black, red, pink, yellow

and also gray.

I am summer

and a visit to Chuck-E-Cheese.

Some self-portraits emerge from other observations. This writer creates such a clear sense of who she is and how she approaches life simply through what she notices and finds beauty in (excerpts from her poem “Beautiful Things”):

My beautiful sister

The beautiful rain

. . . . . . . . . .

How beautiful stars are


. . . . . . . . . .

How beautiful pink is

How beautiful meat is

My beautiful Wii Rockband

How beautiful to hug someone when you’re feeling sad

. . . . . . . . . .

My beautiful nurses

My beautiful life

. . . . . . . . . .

How beautiful the body is

My beautiful grandparents

. . . . . . . . . .

How beautiful the ocean is

How beautiful creativity is

How beautiful to be able to write

Teaching at the Children’s Hospital has been a reminder to me of how important the expression of self in words can be, especially when the given time is both difficult and precious. I think of one student working on her self-portrait, doctors and nurses buzzing around her, drawing blood, checking her body and her machines – while I watched her face maintain its quiet focus on the next word she would write, the next line, what she wanted to say and how she would say it. The act of writing her self-portrait was both an expression of the self and a welcome relief to the self in its current circumstances.

Another student bravely included in her self-portrait fears about her treatment and the unknowns of her future, her worries about her family, details of living in the hospital – yet when she finished the poem she said out loud, “Look at me, I’m smiling!” Seeing her write a poem for the first time – surprising herself, and the pleasure she derived from the act of expression – allowed me to witness and confirm what I know for myself to be true about writing. In her self-portrait, she wrote: “I feel like I am a rare flower in a garden filled with stunning flowers.”  Learning to observe and share some part of ourselves, we improve our collective ability to appreciate the stunning garden of which we are an integral part.


2 Responses to “The Self-Portrait Poem”

  1. namita (nammu) Says:

    writting poems is great talent and it more good for reader to learn something after reading poems . poem eithier ficticous or based on reality gives us something to learn . i am a great fan of all those poets who have reveloutionary ideas and want a right change in society. Apoet is just like a cloud who makes a voilant souind to make the world awake and they the preserver for the new one destroyer for the older one this means that poet writes poem for revolutins . what do you all think guys ?

  2. […] released their 2013 Annual Report, we learned that our most-viewed post of the entire year was Sierra Nelson’s 2010 post on self-portrait poems. Clearly, people continue to be fascinated by the idea of self-portraiture. (Was it a coincidence […]

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