Embodying the Hurricane

Teaching persona poems inspired by Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler.

When I first read Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith as a community college student, it blew open for me what was possible in poetry. In this collection, Smith tells the story of Hurricane Katrina through multiple personified perspectives, making the objects of disaster into interesting and compelling characters who tell us their story. Before this class, I was under the impression that while poetry could be enjoyable to write, I wasn’t supposed to have too much fun. Maybe this was from growing up in a Classical education model, but I only thought in one writing mode and perspective (my own). But in reading Blood Dazzler with all the unique perspectives and voices, I remember thinking: you can do this in poetry?

While Blood Dazzler deals with serious material, Smith uses voice and persona modes as acts of literary play. The book includes a range of personification and persona poems, giving voices to everything from the Superdome to Hurricane Katrina herself. Smith wants all of New Orleans to contribute to this story and allows herself to imagine: if these objects could talk, what would they say about this disaster?

Poets can use this technique of persona poems, poems from the perspective and voice of someone outside of themselves, in conjunction with personification, to tell stories from objects’ perspectives. It can be a great way to open up possibilities and imagination for emerging writing students. I was inspired by Patricia Smith when I wrote Drowning in the Floating World, a collection of poems about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan. Here, I wrote poems from the perspective of abandoned dolls, a Town Hall, ghosts, the ocean, the Fukushima powerplant, and more. I say this to show the possibilities of what can be personified and share these ideas with my students to give them inspiration of what they might want to personify for their own prompt poem.

Plenty of poems from Blood Dazzler can be used for this lesson on personification, but I particularly recommend focusing on “Katrina” (31), “Siblings” (75), and “What Betsy Has to Say” (I tend to play this last clip of Smith reading her poem for my students; it begins at 50 seconds). In these three poems, Patricia Smith uses personified voices to translate this experience of disaster that’s so hard to comprehend in human terms. In “What Betsy Has to Say,” Hurricane Betsy tells Hurricane Katrina her ideology behind being a storm, explaining, “I only killed what got in my way,” while condemning Katrina for having “no nuance.” Even a disaster like Betsy expresses boundaries on how much destruction is acceptable, saying:

The idea was not
to stomp it flat, ‘trina,
all you had to do was kiss the land, 
brush your thunderous lips against it
and leave it stuttering, scared barren
at your very notion. [. . .]

[. . .]

I thought I taught you better, girl. 
I showed you the right way to romance that city,
how to break its heart
and leave it pining for more of your slap.

So if this was your way of erasing me, 
turning me from rough lesson to raindrop,
you did it ugly, chile. Yeah, I truly enjoyed 

being God for that minute. But unlike you, 
rash gal, I left some of my signature standing.
[. . .]

—from “What Betsy Has to Say” by Patricia Smith

This idea of a hurricane having some system of ethics and ideology not only requires us as readers to look at reality with a fresh perspective, but through contrast demands that we meditate on just how horrific Hurricane Katrina’s devastation was. While this idea could be stated from an abstract, nonfiction perspective, the immediate, sharp human voice of personification—for example, the litany of personified figures in “Siblings”—makes us viscerally feel this information at a whole new level. Disasters so often come and go from our consciousness with each changing news cycle, but by giving them voice and personality, Smith demands that we not look away or forget.

Giving Betsy and Katrina voices makes us feel their power and terror as hurricanes. The power of personification personas are that they makes us look for the human in the inhuman, rethinking situations with empathy that we might otherwise filter with black and white thinking. They are a great opportunity for integrating SEL in the classroom not just through discussion but actively exploring these perspectives in writing prompts. I particularly love to point out voice in these poems and how, as writers, we can have fun with perspectives and personality through the voices we give our objects. For the personification prompt, I ask my students to write from the perspective of a personified object. I encourage my students to be creative about what they embody and to have fun with this assignment. We discuss how our writing can reflect the object’s world and worldview. For more advanced poetry classes, we explore how form and poetic techniques might fit that object’s perspective. For example, a ruler might be rigid and thus very formal in its poetic technique. A dog might be more colloquial and employ onomatopoeia. Maybe a journal speaks in iambic pentameter. Or what if a toilet spoke in iambic pentameter? What if your cat spoke in ghazals? Or a dumpster speaking about losing the love of its life (last week’s trash) in a sonnet? I encourage them to let themselves ask these questions and see what happens. As Patricia Smith uses personification to talk about a difficult subject that’s important to her, I encourage my students to consider how they might use an object to explore a meaningful topic to them. Below is an example of such a poem from one of my former students.

Thoughts of a Key
By Bra’Dazia Ward

Right, Left, Right, Left, Right, STOP, Open. plunk.
That’s life as a key.

Always the thing to get misplaced when people enter their home and the thing you look for in the morning when you’re ready to flee.
But nevertheless, life as a key is nice to a degree.
Get put down; you never know what happens to me.

Always left in the fridge or in the dryer.
One time I was even left in the sink and took a nice little shower. 


Now, behind the couch, oh well, at least I can’t be—
Now the family dog has arisen and has embarked on his journey to find me.

Honestly, this is life as a key.
I never know where my resting place will be.

And even though my day is full of adventure and glee,
I’ll never know if the next day I might not be seen.

Photo by Michał Mancewicz on Unsplash.

Meg Eden Kuyatt

Meg Eden Kuyatt teaches creative writing at Anne Arundel Community College and writing centers. She is the author of the 2021 Towson Prize for Literature winning poetry collection Drowning in the Floating World (Press 53, 2020) and children’s novels, most recently Good Different, a JLG Gold Standard selection (Scholastic, 2023). Find her online at megedenbooks.com.