Voices of Self-Portrait Poems: Revisited

by Julie Feng

When WordPress 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 that “selfie” was the Oxford English Dictionary’s 2013 “Word of the Year”?)

Perhaps it is the desire to control one’s own image, or perhaps it is because one is the subject one knows best… but I think that the allure of a self-portrait is more about the uncertainty than the certainty. More than the simple depiction of self, creating a self-portrait is the exploration of self. It is in this ambiguity that writers and artists can open themselves up to unexpected insights (“the vulnerability, the surprise,” as Sierra Nelson puts it). From John Ashbery to Billy Collins, poets have found varied ways to find themselves. On the surface, the self-portrait poem is declarative, but I think that its true nature is inquisitive. After all, “who” is a question.

Looking inward is a necessary—and terrifying—part of poetry. Even in poems that are not autobiographical, there is an element of the self. In a self-portrait poem, writers especially lay bare their depths and breadths. For younger students, whose identities are in development, the self-portrait poem cam be a valuable journey. Many teachers use the self-portrait poem as an introduction to poetry because it is at once simple and complex. The seed is easy to plant, and the harvest is boundless. The first poems I ever wrote were acrostics of my name, a common experience among aspiring writers. Writing about yourself is an accessible premise, and it can yield so many bold, intimate, and startling words.

In a self-portrait, not only are students declaring who they are to their teachers and peers, but they are also discovering things about themselves they might not have known. In my experience, younger children are more honest and more open to possibilities, which is reflected in the poetry they produce. Children are not afraid to ask questions. As people get older, it becomes more difficult to explore and express thoughts on identity. By the time students reach their junior year of high school, they have already become full of hesitation and self-doubt when writing personal statements for college applications. If teaching creative writing is about helping your students find and keep and strengthen their voices—what better way to confront their voices with the challenge of a self-portrait poem?

Sierra’s lesson included work by George Ella Lyon and M. Scott Momaday. Some additional options for mentor texts include Evie Shockley and Dan Beachy-Quick.

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