What Sparks Poetry

The Poems of Others

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems.

In the series The Poems of Others, we’ve invited poets to pay homage to a poem that first sparked poetry in them—a poem they read that gave them permission to write poetry or the idea that they might write it—a poem that led them down the path to becoming a poet.

Dustin Pearson on Jillian Weise’s “Beautiful Freak Show”

I was first introduced to Jillian Weise’s poetry and contemporary poetry in general via her first volume, The Amputee’s Guide to Sex. She gave a reading in which she read a few poems and an excerpt from her then forthcoming novel, The Colony. I remember listening and being surprised by my thinking, my mildly confrontational back and forth with myself: 

Me: What is she doing? 

Also Me: Isn’t it obvious? She started off this thing by saying, “I’m going to read a few poems from my collection.” Let’s not make it more complicated than that because you don’t have anyone to talk to about this, not even me. 

Me: Yeah, but…


Reading “Beautiful Freak Show” reminds me of that hesitant but curious earlier version of myself that was looking to find his medium and his mode within that medium. By the end of my conversation and the reading, I was excited I’d found a lead on both. 


Me: …she’s not just reading poems, there’s a way what she’s reading is more dramatic than that. I mean, beyond the drama she brings through the way she reads. She’s not merely reciting a poem, it’s like she’s playing a character. The poem is the character. She’s acting—earnestly—but still acting. 


I lacked the vocabulary back then to explain to myself what I was perceiving, what I think I recognize now as a persona. This persona was drawn from the same identity as the author. I told myself the scenario was either a speculative one or one based in the realm of actual experience or emotion that the persona wields to different ends, ends that fall outside the realm of autobiography to illuminate an insight autobiography couldn’t offer and without resorting to cultural appropriation like so many persona poems. This particular use of persona is a great invention of the art that emerges from identity. 

“Beautiful Freak Show” introduced me to a speaker that was, like me, marginalized, but differently so. This speaker was disabled, a woman, an amputee who seemed painfully familiar with, exhausted by, and, in a complicated way, resigned to the place the world had reserved for her. In the poem, the speaker finds herself in a situation where she’s being exploited. Her resolve in the face of such a circumstance is resilient, defiant, strong, and all of those things as a result of something I felt was immensely sad. I guess it’s fine to liken that resolve to a callous formed from incredible violence, but one that made the speaker second-nature-capable of incredible feats.

Up until encountering Jillian’s poetry, I’d more or less repressed or compartmentalized the emotions I felt as a result of my marginalization and always ultimately unsuccessful assimilation, both for fear of how dangerous I thought it was to indulge those emotions and out of societally formed habit. I found a way to misplace, overlook, or normalize horrible things, even if I always survived them. I hadn’t discovered how poetry could provide a venue for traveling down those dark and scary roads, for showing the brutality of those roads to people who had been down them themselves, those who would never go down those roads, and those who would pretend they didn’t pave those roads for people like the speaker or deny they existed at all. 

It wasn’t that traveling down dark and scary roads was something that was necessarily appealing to me, but not acknowledging them made me complicit in a kind of personal and communal stasis, which meant I wasn’t growing, wasn’t maximizing my ability to think or advocate for myself. The fact that Jillian’s particular brand of poetry could lead to such wholesome entertainment and growth was fascinating. I wanted to challenge myself to produce my own. That was nine years ago. 

Writing Prompt

Think of a scene that could appear in your life, one that is plausible but one that people who aren’t you wouldn’t necessarily think of or believe. Create a persona to inhabit that scene, one that looks and sounds like you, but one that’s fundamentally different—perhaps meaner, more assertive, or brave. What does that persona do that you’d never do? What does that persona say that you’d never allow yourself to say? What does that persona enable in yourself? 

— Dustin Pearson

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Dustin Pearson

Dustin Pearson is the author of Millennial Roost (C&R Press, 2018) and A Family Is a House (C&R Press, 2019). He is a McKnight Doctoral Fellow in Creative Writing at Florida State University. The recipient of fellowships from Cave Canem, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, and The Anderson Center at Tower View, Pearson has served as the editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review and a Director of the Clemson Literary Festival. He won the Academy of American Poets Katharine C. Turner Prize and John Mackay Graduate Award and holds an MFA from Arizona State University. His work appears in Blackbird, Vinyl Poetry, Bennington Review, TriQuarterly[PANK]Fjords Review, and elsewhere.