Finding Your Voice: Creating a Persona

Billy Collins

Lesson time 8:12 min

Learn how to develop a distinctive persona for yourself, solving most issues around writing poetry.

Billy Collins
Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry
In his first-ever online class, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins teaches you how to find joy, humor, and humanity in reading and writing poetry.
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[MUSIC PLAYING] BILLY COLLINS: Most issues about craft and how to write the poem are solved once you have a persona. Because the way you write, how you write, the style you write in, these are just the mannerisms of your persona. It's kind of mysterious talking about how do you invent this character, this persona. But I think the persona is a character. Let's say, Dickens, or Thackeray, or Balzac, and any novelist of large proportions, they leave the earth having invented dozens, scores, hundreds of characters. If you're a poet you just have to invent one character, and then you're done. All done, for life. And that's your persona. But to make it less mysterious, the persona is really a voice that is yours. It could be the result of reading. But you still feel very comfortable with it. And you feel that you own that. An illustration would be Seamus Heaney has a famous signature poem called "Digging," which appeared in this first book. And Heaney said at one point that when he finished writing the poem "Digging," he read it back. And he realized that no one else could have written it but him. That means he discovered his persona. That's another way to put it. When you read something back that it just has your mark on it. The ingredients are too mysterious to corral. But no one else could have written that but you. You won't know that unless you have done a lot of reading. So you better read a lot. Because you think no one else sounds like that but you. But maybe there's someone that you haven't read sounds exactly like that. So the more you read, that's another way to say that without reading you'll never find a persona. You'll never have the surety that this voice is just yours and yours alone. [MUSIC PLAYING] I would say generally, most of us are a little too nice in our poetry. I think when we write poems we put a lot of ourself in the closet. And we put on our better self, more sensitive, more in tune with emotions. And I would suggest that it's a good idea to get that salt out of the closet and let that person, let her or him into your poem. And let some of the raggediness of your life, even if you're a sarcastic person. I know this from teaching that you'll find some wiseguy poet. And he writes these love poems with roses and trellises. And he's just a wise alec in class. Get some that wise alec stuff into your poems. We're talking about modeling your work after other poets. But you all have, every person has a voice, and a temperament, and a tonal range, and a way of sounding, and a sense of humor or a lack of humor. Some people are more sober and ambitious. And other people are wackier and looser. That's your personality. You can't spell that without persona. So you can draw from other poets, of course, but you don't want to get lost. It often starts with imitation. But that is the way you get these poets inside yourself. But ideally, you come out with a voice that you feel very comfortable w...

Let imagination lead the way

Known for his wit and wisdom, former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins is one of America’s most beloved contemporary poets. In his MasterClass, Billy teaches you to appreciate the emotional pull of poetry. Learn his approach to exploring subjects, incorporating humor, and finding your voice. Discover the profound in the everyday, and let poetry lead you to the unexpected.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

As a 90 year-old, I found this class very interesting. It encouraged me to write some poems.

I learned so much, and I took copious notes. I'll relisten to this one many times.

Billy Collins is funny and accessible and knows what he's talking about. I trust him.

This has been my favorite Master Class so far, because it focuses most directly on my personal creative aspirations. He is a great teacher.


Corinne M.

My favorite thought: Your page is lit by all the other writers you have studied...I would add...writers you have opened yourself up to hearing as they speak to you inside your creativity...

Victoria H.

I have been thinking alot of this lesson and have come to understand it, on a much deeper level. This is one of the writing lessons I was missing. I understand now how I so effortlessly wrote some of my work, selected for print publication. What I have decided to do is write a few pages about my persona and even looking up some pictures online that I think can be her and even drawing an artistic version of her. I plan to even look at art from her time and surround myself with things she would and write places, I know she would and learn the things that would stop her progress, so I can avoid them. Thank you very much for this lesson.

Victoria H.

My persona She has just a tad bit of serious humor in her poetry she is more sober but classy from the 1920 with a dash of the 90s in my personality. someone who has come from old money, and almost snobby. She is a gossiper in her work, someone you would talk to over having a drink, not with food. She can suddenly say the earnest most brutally honest things. She doesn't mind sharing one flaw of hers but only as a lesson in life. She likes to figure people out, she's nosey, spends some free time in my garden pruning and trimming it and also browsing old fashion store especially those with antiques and books. She likes to go to galleries that have classical and impressionist and contemporary art, and she likes a variety of flowers in her kitchen She likes to improve recipes, and profile people, even complete strangers, and she likes to keep track of time. She would rather read articles than watch or listen to the news. This is what I came up with so far. I will be writing up a short book about my persona so I can keep track of it and get better into character before I write.

Kaerla F.

..."your page is always lit by the candles of the Past". "You're never alone when you write."

Victoria H.

I am prefer to write poetry from imagination, use a bit of a photographs or art for inspiration or at least learning 90% of something as I am writing it. I prefer to only write memory poems about loved ones that I have lost. My work is always better doing it this way.

Victoria H.

I have read alot, and there are 4 poems I wrote that I know for sure there is nothing like I have ever read, and two teachers said they are distinctive. I have a cool sort of easy going classy eloquent voice, relaxed way of speaking. You have really opened my eyes and ear to my own voice. Now I am ready to look at some of my poems and compare them to the ones that i know for sure is more of my persona


I enjoyed the commentary about persona but would like have wanted more depth on the subject. Again I find some of the lessons too short.


Dear Masterclass help desk: Please can u configure that when we r watching lessons in a row, the speed and the captions mantain from one lesson to the next one? It's anoying having to set them again every next lesson, specially when u watch this while spinnig or jumpin the rope. Thnx!

A fellow student

The idea that we're "never alone" when we write is intriguing -- that we're always accompanied by the writers we've encountered and studied. This is helpful for students to understand, that our own voice is developed through a chorus of other voices.

John S.

"The persona is a character." Collins reminds us that as poets our voice is really not who we are, but who we are playing at the moment. I think this is a good lesson for us to know as writers and as readers of poetry.