My mother kept a large wicker basket, the size of a trunk, filled with what she called dress-up clothes. There was the red accordion-pleated organza dress my mother wore to prom, a couple pairs of what we called ‘princess’ shoes, a collapsible stovepipe top hat that my father had inherited from his father, pirate eye patches, elf hats and pointy shoes, a clown suit, wig and nose, my mother’s old girl scout uniform, a straw hat from my father’s dashing youth, bedsheets with cut-out ghost eyes and a white rabbit-skin jacket. To my sisters and me, the basket of dress-up clothes was a portal into our fantasy worlds.  We’d build an imaginary pirate ship out of sawhorses and lumber in our back yard, then dress the part, re-enact Lincoln at Gettysburg, take tea with the Queen Victoria or dress as ghosts to scare our little brother. But always the costumes enhanced our fantasy play, rather than provoked it. We started with imagination and built from there.

When I decided to write persona poetry, specifically to write in the persona of Marilyn Monroe, I pulled from a dress-up basket of a different sort to enhance my writing. The genesis of assuming Monroe’s persona began as an intellectual curiosity, a desire to explore our performance culture and celebrity adulation through an examination of the most enduring icon, Marilyn. It was also the beginning of my MFA. I thought applying a project lens, in this case writing in a persona (and one unknown to me), would provide focus for my learning and writing.

I came with many questions to the work, such as: how does fame infect both the celebrated and voyeur? Can a woman be both a feminist and an icon? I didn’t want to just put on the façade of Monroe, swipe on her lipstick, blonde wig and hip swagger and call it good. I wanted to go deep into this fantasy—to get under Monroe’s skin.

To accomplish this task, I hoovered up everything Monroe. I began my research in biography, consuming various biographies and autobiographies of Monroe, of Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller. This often led me to the internet for specific searches about her life, the people she lived with and the era she lived in. I read academic papers on Marilyn, as well as scholarly writing on her influence on celebrity culture. On auction sites, I discovered love letters, photographer diaries and a vast world of the collected detritus from her life. I read fictionalized novels, plays and poems based on Marilyn and the reviews of these works. And I consumed essays written over the decades. I collected her quotes and those about her from others.

All along, as I researched, I wrote poems. My growing knowledge opened a window into her being that inspired me creatively and drove more questions. The collection of Monroe’s journals, letters, poems and notes compiled as Fragments, by Stanley Buchthal and Bernard Comment, was particularly useful. In its pages, Marilyn came to life in these most intimate documents, speaking to me it seemed in unfinished thoughts. To me, Monroe’s own fractured writing served as invitation to complete it. I found myself living in the language of and about Monroe. It was this language that led me to create a voice for her—a voice that rose out of everything I had come to know—and to write poems in that voice.

Beyond voice, I employed punctuation used by Monroe in her letters, journals and poems—the ampersand and m dash in particular. I also noted the irregularity of her sentences, some long and meandering, others truncated into just a fragment. Early on, I constructed a language and image palette that I used in both the persona poems and poems about Monroe. The imagistic language is floral, fruity and colorful, evoking a feminine, vibrant character, but also dangerous with a hint of violence. In this way, the Monroe persona took command of the language employed throughout my poems.

Once thoroughly steeped in the language of Monroe, as I had conceived it, and I had drafted nearly a hundred poems, I turned to her visual image. Much like the dress-up basket, I relied on the vast trove of Monroe photos, art and films, to enhance my personification of Monroe. To hear her voice, see her enact the Marilyn character of her own making on newsreels and watch her embody other characters in her films, served as the makeup, hair and costume on the persona I had created. With the introduction of these additional sensual sources,  I was able bring the fullness of Monroe’s persona to the process of revising my poems into their finished form and crafting a manuscript.

In the process of writing as Monroe, I not only discovered what’s beneath her beautiful visage, but in my desire to push against performance culture and stereotype, to go deep into the heart of celebrity, I encountered truths about myself and the culture we live in. And about the personas we all wear as we perform on life’s social stage or as T.S. Eliot wrote, “to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.”

Through poem revision and the process of manifesting the manuscript, it became clear that the ‘Marilyn’ I had created was in dialogue with some aspect of myself. In the end, the collection I wrote is a conversation between Monroe and a speaker, their lives and voices blurring at times. Is this a failure on my part to adhere to persona? In the entirety of the collection, that could be true, but it would be a different collection. What I did achieve was to write as close to the bone of Monroe as possible, to excavate her truth. And then to exhume my own. Just as celebrity is a mirror to our own aspirations. But to make it more than just reflective, I found it critical to connect that persona back into our world through the narrative arc of a manuscript. In doing so, I brought Monroe back down to earth, or an earthling life enlightened by the commonality of a woman’s struggles. Rather than parable, her story becomes a parallel narrative to one’s own. I found my own story in the telling of hers.

From the basket of dress-up clothes, my sisters and I costumed ourselves to enter whole worlds of imagination. We could play for hours as faeries or grand ladies or acrobats. We didn’t just inhabit a costume and a character of our own creation; we play-acted stories. To write in persona is to begin in character, then to assume costume, but in the end, to tell a story.

Heidi Seaborn is the author of the [PANK] Poetry Prize-winner An Insomniac’s Slumber Party with Marilyn Monroe (2021), the acclaimed Give a Girl Chaos (C&R Press, 2019) and the 2020 Comstock Review Chapbook Award-winning Bite Marks. Recent work have appeared in American Poetry Journal, Beloit Poetry Journal, Copper NickelThe Cortland ReviewThe Greensboro Review, The Offing, The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith, Tinderbox and elsewhere. She is executive editor of The Adroit Journal and holds an MFA in poetry from NYU.