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Identity/-ies in Poetry and Art

We’re all adding brushstrokes to a much larger mural than any one of us can hold

Poems and Photos by Kathleen McCoy, Painting by John Hampshire, SUNY Adirondack
October 23, 2019

How might poets and painters explore and reinterpret the complexities of identity/-ies? These days, not only are borders in flux, but the often-fraught term “identity” is nearly always complicated by multiplicity and intersectionality. We define ourselves partly by inheritance and partly by choice, often while standing at those often foggy bog-borders of ethnicity, geography, gender, religion, or any of a number of other foci of identification. We need the arts to help us navigate our way toward and across the borders of our lives in hopes of approaching self-understanding and, eventually, mutual understanding. Audre Lorde said it best at Harvard in 1982: “I learned that if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” At the very least, the arts help us ask the questions and meet the people we need to encounter to discover where and to what extent we can really see at all.

These boglands of identity are deep and sometimes treacherous. I would never want to idolize, demonize, patronize, tokenize, or any other -ize anyone. At the same time, we can’t pretend our differences wholly define us any more than we can pretend they don’t exist. Ultimately, I want to see and to bear witness to how I see, just as I want to hear and read and watch how others see. In crafting art, in interpreting and reinterpreting selves and worlds, we’re all adding brushstrokes to a much larger mural than any one of us can hold.

Yesterday artist John Hampshire painted live on stage while I read poems-in-process on the theme of identity/-ies (here is the video link). He started with one portrait and plans in coming days or weeks to add more until he has created a canvas montage on identities. During our presentation I explored my roots in America and Ireland, sharing some of my travels and interests in indigenous Americans, the ancient Irish, and the bog bodies of Ireland that Eamonn “Ned” Kelly has studied and interpreted for the Kingship and Sacrifice exhibit at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Seamus Heaney portraits kept appearing over my shoulder in Ireland, and Medbh McGuckian, Leontia Flynn, and Scott Cairns were my travel-muses.

Whoever you have been, whoever you are, whoever you’re becoming, I’d like to offer a friendly challenge to write an identity poem of your own, or paint a portrait. Or both. As Joy Harjo writes, “We pray that it will be done / In beauty. / In beauty.”

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Irish and ‘Other’

The arts validate those who question and help close the chasms between us.

The Old Mill Ruin at Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat, Eyeries, County Cork

Last year I had a student who struggled with conflicting feelings about belonging and otherness in college. I could write that sentence about any semester, any class I’ve taught, particularly any writing class. Since each of us humans comprises a nexus of cultural, genetic, and chosen identities, I’ve shared students’ ambivalence about identity, despite the pallor of my complexion. As a result, I’ve been exploring how poetry in particular and the arts in general help us to confront our self-conceptions, choose our identity/-ies, and empower ourselves as writers and citizens. Theories abound; studies are few but extant. But the arts vivify the questions. The arts validate those who question and help close the chasms between us.

In the first eight months of 2019 I used sabbatical time to ponder issues of identity and poetry as I wrote, read, and presented at conferences in Ireland, Northern Ireland, my native southern Ohio, and Santa Fe, and worked with local high school students who were new to poetry.

Questions about relativity in identity and language, in the sciences and poetry, in art and teaching swirl. My mind now braids themes of identity in teaching, in poetry, in art, and in ethnicity.

On October 23rd at 12:40, I will be joined by the legendary artist John Hampshire in the Visual Arts Gallery of Dearlove Hall at SUNY Adirondack. I will discuss my sabbatical and read poems while John paints in-the-moment. If you come, you may find a bit of yourself in the words or on the canvas.

Six Writers at a Pub

Women of Mass Dissemination: Marilyn McCabe, Mary Sanders Shartle, Kathleen McCoy, Elaine Handley, Nancy White, and Lale Davidson

What could be more fun than a glass of beer or wine and a six-writer, one-hour reading of original poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and collaborations? If you’re at a loss, note that the six award-winning writers Women of Mass Dissemination will read from their collaborative and individual poetry, fiction, and nonfiction at The Parting Glass on Saturday, April 27, 4:00 p.m., at 40-42 Lake Avenue in Saratoga Springs.

Nancy White is president of Word Works Books in Washington D.C. and author of Sun, Moon, Salt (Washington Prize winner), Detour, and Ask Again Later. Marilyn McCabe is the Washington Prize-winning author of Perpetual Motion and Glass Factory. Mary Sanders Shartle penned the multiple-award-winning novel The Truth and Legend of Lily Martindale. Elaine Handley is the author of Letters to My Migraine and Securing the Perimeter and collaborated with Mary Sanders Shartle and Marilyn McCabe on chapbooks Notes from the Fire Tower, Glacial Erratica, Winterberry Pine, and the full-length book Tear of the Clouds. Lale Davidson is the author of the award-winning chapbook Strange Appetites and columnist for The Times Union. Kathleen McCoy is the author of chapbooks Night-blooming Cereus and other poems and More Water Than Words and full-length books Green and Burning (finalist in Book Excellence Awards) and Ringing the Changes, forthcoming in June.

We’ve been supporting each other as a writing group for over a dozen years. Come share the cheer with a “Cheers!”

McCoy reads from new poetry title, “Ringing the Changes” on March 24

Thanks to the Adirondack Center for Writing for their support of writers in the Adirondack region. Here is their article on my forthcoming publication.

Kathleen McCoy will read from her upcoming book Ringing the Changes (Finishing Line Press) on Sunday, March 24, 4:00-5:30, at First Baptist Church of Glens Falls, 100 Maple Street, Glens Falls, NY 12801. Poetry reading and food are free. Preorders are $19.99 plus shipping and will be shipped on June 7th. Here’s what reviewers David Graham and Frannie Lindsay had to say about the book:

Kathleen McCoy’sRinging the Changesis a multifaceted and generous-hearted exploration of mystery in its many forms. With a splendid variety of subject and poetic form, with mature and seasoned command of her craft, she speaks the fullest truths of her engagements with matters of spirit, dream, and art. The foundation is deeply Christian yet open to other faiths. In poems that are musically engaging, honest about doubt and failure, spiky, and complex, she beautifully manages to speak what almost cannot be spoken.

–David…

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Ringing the Changes

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Update on forthcoming title Ringing the Changes: Preorder ship date has been moved to June 7th if you get your preorder in by April 12th.

I’m deeply grateful to Finishing Line Press for publishing my second full-length collection, a decade in the making. I’m also humbled by the generous reviews of Ringing the Changes from poets David Graham and Frannie Lindsay. Here’s a brief taste, the poem “Grace”:

That recurring dream
where you pour yourself
a paper cup of arsenic

thinking it is water but
pause to question
before drinking and

watch the cup
melt before
your eyes can blink. — Kathleen McCoy, Ringing the Changes (publication date May 3, 2019)

Preorders are available at /http://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/ringing-the-changes-by-kathleen-mccoy/. #poetry #poetrycommunity

Planning the Writing Year

I’m starting my writing year with ideals.

I’ve decided my strategy for accomplishing my multiple goals will rely upon my old three-legged stool: the sacred space-time of writing, the support of my family and writing group, and a newly revised set of ideals.

If thinking about your writing goals for the new year evokes feelings as distinct as squirreliness and torpor, if you approach new work with excitement and review old work with a tinge of disappointment or self-doubt, if thrill and dread are vying for your heart, this post is for you.

As I begin a deeply appreciated and long awaited sabbatical, I find myself swinging from ice-glazed branches, happily surveying the fresh white of land and soul and blank pages. I write, read, clean, catch up with friends virtual and real. I contemplate creating a schedule with its challenges and threats of internal resistance. I dread the planned mini-separations from the beloved spouse to do my research and writing. I also look forward to them. I sigh and reach for a chunk of dark chocolate.

I’ve decided my strategy for accomplishing my multiple goals will rely upon my old three-legged stool: the sacred space-time of writing, the support of my family and writing group, and a newly revised set of ideals. Not just goals, but ideals.

To create an ideals chart to guide your life this year without tearing out too much of your own hair, grab a pen and a fresh journal page, sheet of paper, or make a chart or spreadsheet. Create a column for each main area of your life (I have five categories: Mental, Spiritual, Physical, Poetic, and Homey.) Then write a word or phrase to guide your activities in that area of your life. Some words may cross categories: for me, cultivating “love” and “patience” applies in every area, from dealing with demands on my time to my own relationship with the literary world. I can challenge myself and support deeper thoughts, new approaches, new psychic and literal material for writing when supported by a rededication to my own ideals.

Doing this relatively quick but meaningful reflective activity saves me a lot of angst. Emphasis on ideals keeps my focus on being more than on doing. My own drive and life will provide activities and goals. It’s through ideals that I can look forward to taking the inevitable rejections and challenges of the year along with the quandaries and joys in stride. It’s all progress. As Maggie Smith reminds us daily on Twitter, keep moving–to which I add, be still and centered, my soul.

Puzzles & Playthings

303cc52b-fb54-4574-ab41-61905af2c14b.jpegAt a recent retreat with my intrepid writers’ group, I was advised that my prime directive in writing for the remainder of the year would be to “Play.” (This was uttered by the beloved poet to whom I’d given identical advice a few years ago when she was the one stressing over a precipitous deadline, so I had to admit the advice fit me this time.)

How do I “play,” I’ve been wondering, when preparing a poetry book on a publisher’s deadline (which for me involves completely rethinking and swapping as well as rearranging and rewriting) while toying with a full-length play and committing to several other significant and true-to-my-purpose initiatives in the next couple of months?

And did I mention there’s one month of summer left in which to reacquaint myself with my mercifully independent-yet-loving family and rewrite my courses? (Sorry, stressing again.)

If my quandary resonates with you, look at your cat. Or dog. Or horse. I can’t speak for birds or reptiles, but most any domesticated mammal will do, including  kids (the kind that bleat or the kind that throw fits with pudding fingers; I’m not picky here). If you have none of the above, entertain or visit one for a few minutes.

It’s not a big commitment to witness another sentient being’s hilarious commitment to playing. No material proves inadequate. Anything is ripe to be pounced, bounced, ruffled, tousled, nibbled, crunched, mulched, munched, spat out, sat upon, twirled, scribbled, scrambled, or served. As luck would have it, this was precisely what I needed to do with my poems—taste them with and without epigraphs, with deeper embodiment here and more stripping-away there, with a new point of view in this case and tighter or looser form in that case. And, of course, with the kind of rearrangement play that involves scooting actual sheets of paper all around the floor, though it’s a more involved and engaging game than 52 Pick-up. The enticement is irresistible.

The world is, after all, a playground. Or so Zack the Cat says.